It’s a cliche for artists and creatives to say ‘I love my work so much I’d do it for free’ – but unfortunately there are people out there prepared to take us at our word.
Just ask Howard Tate. In 1966 he was an aspiring soul singer working as a bricklayer. One day he got home from the building site to find a Cadillac parked at his front door. In the car was Bill Fox, one of the partners in the record company he had recently signed for. Fox told Tate he had to get in the car and fly to Detroit immediately. There wasn’t even time to shower.
So [Bill] ran his hand in his pocket and gave me ten $100 bills, a thousand dollars. He says, “Buy somethin’ to wear out there. Your record’s number one, you’re playin’ the Twenty Grand with Marvin Gaye.” So they whizzed me to the airport, I got on the plane, dirty as a pig, they must’ve thought I was nuts or somethin’, but that’s just how quick it happened… But this the only business you can be poor as a Georgia turkey today and make a record, go to sleep and wake up a multi-millionaire. That’s how quick it can happen.
Howard Tate interview with Gadfly Online.
That was the first of a string of hit singles for Tate. His songs were acclaimed by critics and fans alike, and were covered by Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. He looked to be set for life. There was just one problem …
Well, the only problem I had with Atlantic and with Verve back then was getting’ paid. We did fine with everything, but then when it came time to get paid, you could never get paid. So that was the problem I had. And that disgusted me at the time … and I just said, the heck with it. You know, if they’re not gonna pay me, then I just won’t record.
Gadfly Online interview.
So Tate turned his back on the music industry and went to work as an insurance salesman in order to make ends meet. As far as the public were concerned, he simply vanished. Away from the spotlight, his life descended into tragedy, with the death of his daughter, breakup of his marriage, homelessness and drug addiction. In 1994 he felt a calling to the Ministry had dedicated himself to God and to helping the homeless, eventually setting up a chain of shelters to care for them.
Tate may have been gone but he wasn’t completely forgotten. Most people assumed he had died, but in the late 1990s New Jersey disc jockey Phil Casden launched a campaign to find the missing soul legend. As a result, Tate was spotted in a supermarket in 2001. The discovery caused a sensation. The man at the centre of the mystery was both surprised and touched to discover that people still cared about his music.
“It was a shock to hear” that people thought he was dead, he said. “I’m glad I’m not.”
Miraculously, Tate’s voice had come through the ordeal intact, as he had been singing in church for years. In 2001 he started playing gigs again and in 2003 he released Rediscovered, his first album in over 30 years, to critical acclaim.
Tate’s story has a happy ending, but a middle that you wouldn’t wish on anyone. In the words of a song he recorded (ironically) before the years of obscurity, ‘I Learned It All the Hard Way’.
None of this is new of course. In the 17th century John Milton notoriously received just £10 for the copyright of Paradise Lost, and condemned the publishing profession as ‘old patentees and monopolizers in the trade of bookselling’. Howard Tate pointed out he was far from unique among soul artists in not being paid for his work. And the long list of rock stars who have sued their record company over disputed earnings and copyright includes Metallica, the Allman Brothers, Dr Dre, Poison and The Smashing Pumpkins.
So why are creative types so frequently left feeling exploited when it comes to business? And is there anything we can do about it?
Art for Art’s Sake
As we’ve seen before in this series, intrinsic motivation is key to understanding creative people. We commit ourselves to creative work because we love it. So much that we’d do it for free. Which is fine if you don’t depend on your creativity for a living. But if you do, this can put you at a serious disadvantage, especially when dealing with professional negotiators. One of the cardinal rules of negotiation is not to appear too eager to close the deal – if the other party knows how much you have invested in your work, they can use this as a powerful bargaining lever, to pressure you into accepting less than you’re worth.
Lack of Interest in Business
This one comes under the heading of the ‘blindingly obvious’ but it’s worth considering the implications. A creative type with no interest in business will have neither the knowledge to make good decisions nor the skills to act on them effectively. I can recall plenty of occasions when friends or clients have told me they are pleased to be have landed a commission but have no idea whether they are being ripped off or paid the market rate. This affects not just individual commissions and contracts, but the way you approach your entire career.
Working for Hire
Many creatives think of their career purely in terms of ‘getting work’, such as a part in a production, a commission from a client or a job from an employer. There’s nothing wrong with this up to a point – most of us have to serve our time working for others in order to acquire skills and experience, as well as contacts in the industry. But if ‘getting work’ is the extent of your career plan, then you are likely to hit a ceiling in terms of the opportunities available to you, the extent of your reputation and your earning power. All of this can be changed if you focus on building your brand, reputation, intellectual property assets, and a profitable business – but that requires a significant change of mindset for most creative people.
The Scramble for a Foot on the Ladder
Because creative work is so sexy and glamorous, lots of people want to do it. The competition is fierce. And market forces dictate that when buyers (managers, agents, editors, producers and other gatekeepers) have an abundance of choice (plenty of aspiring creatives) then the price goes down.
At the beginning of their career, many creatives are desperate for opportunities. They can’t wait to get a foot on the ladder, and they know there are hundreds of other young hopefuls scrambling for the same opportunity. In many creative industries, there is a tradition of new entrants working for little or no money in order to gain experience and skills. These are the apprentices, runners, interns and understudies who make the tea, mix the dyes, work the bellows, do the photocopying and order the taxis. This is probably inevitable, and there’s arguably nothing wrong with expecting people to pay their dues and learn their trade through hard work and dedication.
Problems start when there are so many applicants and so few opportunities that some people are prepared to do almost anything to get a foot in the door – and some gatekeepers have no scruples about demanding it. Some of the darkest corners of the creative economy have been rife with emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Even when things don’t go that far, there are plenty of cases where people have given their time and labour in return for promises that never materialise.
In many cases it’s obvious that creatives and artists could have benefited from solid business advice. But where should they go? Do they need a manager? An agent? A lawyer? An accountant? How can they tell whether the people they meet are either competent or trustworthy? Sadly the people in greatest need of good advice are often the ones with the least idea where to find it.
A Pact with the Devil?
For many creative people, the Holy Grail is getting ‘signed’ by a record company, publishing house, film studio or the equivalent. It’s the gateway to fame, fortune, fast cars and vast mansions. So it’s tempting to sign the first thing you’re offered – after all, isn’t this your big chance?
But a few years later, the small print can come back to haunt you – you may be a household name, but your income falls way short of public perceptions and your own expectations. Clauses in the contract commit you to projects for which you no longer have any enthusiasm. The Holy Grail starts to feel like a pact with the devil.
That was evidently how it felt for Metallica in 1994, when they sued their record company:
“To this day,” said Lars Ulrich, the band’s drummer, “we’re still operating under the same contract we had with those guys in 1984, and getting the same royalty rate.”
Signing a book deal was the best day of Jack‘s life. Sitting in a restaurant with his publisher over lunch, he felt he’d ‘arrived’. But did he get proper advice before putting pen to paper? I hardly like to ask him.
None of this stuff is rocket science. For anyone with the skill, intelligence, discipline and capacity for hard work required to master an art, business skills shouldn’t be all that hard to learn.
The trouble is, many of us are so preoccupied with our creative dreams that we don’t spot the danger until it’s too late. Like Howard Tate, we have to learn it all the hard way.
Over to You
Can you recognise these challenges in your own career?
Are there any others you would add to the list?
If you’ve overcome any of them, how did you do it?
For more experienced readers – what’s the one piece of advice you wish you’d been given when you started your career?
Special thanks to Paul McGuinness for the Howard Tate story.
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.