If you follow any of the social groups organized around art licensing for very long you will notice a pattern that emerges: new artists regularly log on full of hope and excitement, ready to chronicle the launch of their career in this newly discovered field of art licensing. Questions are asked and answered, loads of information assimilated, art is sent out and some attend or exhibit at a show or two. Occasionally there is an announcement of a first license but often not, and eventually after a frustrating year or two of banging on the doors the majority fade away.
Licensing your art is hard.
It takes a while to reach this conclusion, but once you finally get there it’s a shorter leap to another one that can give clarity to your endeavors: financially successful licensed artists are the exception, not the rule. And by definition, most people cannot be the exception. You are likely to look back at your path into licensing and think “this has been a huge amount of work to get to this point and it’s not getting any easier, I still have to do all the same things to succeed.” And there you will have it, that reality juncture where you need to decide if you want to keep doing these “same things” for years to come - because that is how the business works - or, do you decide that you have fought the brave fight but it’s time to bid adieu and ride off in search of greener pastures? Problem is - both decisions are valid.
Art licensing today is an industry in search of a workable model. The scramble is on - agents and artists who used to make their money by licensing art are now finding ways to collect from (mostly newbie) artists in ways that run the gamut from coaching to holding contests. Some agencies are accumulating artists, hoping that more people earning less money can make up for the reduced sku counts and short market runs. Branding agencies are taking on artists and art agencies are promoting brands, and both are consulting for manufacturers who are buying art worldwide and licensing art only when they have to. It’s a wild time in the biz.
You Are Not Going to Make It in Art Licensing.
Does that make you angry? The world has always told you to follow your passion, and you’ve decided licensing your art is your passion and now some bald-headed jerk is telling you it won’t work?
First, passion is overrated. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say its relation to your career is widely misunderstood. Ours was the first generation to believe that what you enjoy doing was the most important factor in choosing a career. “Do what you love and the money will follow” seems like great advice - right up until you have to go get a job so you can eat. Cal Newton, in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You (yes, the Steve Martin quote) talks about the difference between the “craftsman mindset”, where you focus on what value you bring to your job, and the “passion mindset” where you focus on what your job does for you. It’s interesting to note that those craftsmen types are much happier, more successful, and eventually, as they build valuable skills, actually end up being more passionate about their careers. According to their research, the real passion comes AFTER you have put in the hard work to become excellent at doing something valuable, not before. It’s also important to note that most new businesses fail, not due to a lack of passion but instead a lack of customers. Reality is mostly unimpressed by how passionate you are.
The point is: It’s a mistake to think passion can substitute for competence.
Over ninety-eight percent of the books submitted to publishers are rejected. Three out of four Broadway productions never make a profit and close. Ninety-seven percent of patents filed never make enough money to cover the cost of filing. You know all those creators were passionate about their projects. We have no way to know how many millions (seriously, millions) of designs are created around the world for licensing but it’s a safe bet that the submission rejection rate is similar to the above. There are thousands of artists in this country alone, millions worldwide, all looking for someone to give them a break. And what does it take to get that break in art licensing? Try these:
You have to BE somebody, as in star power or have a well established platform; or
You have to be BETTER than everybody else; or
You have to be DIFFERENT than everybody else.
Artists trying to break into licensing tend to work on learning more, and hopefully some on getting better, but I think mostly they need to work on being different. A friend said a while back when discussing a business setback “I’m not a look-back kind of guy”, and for me that sums up how to approach monetizing our work. Licensed product is a thriving, dynamic industry driven by millions of customers paying out billions of dollars for items they want to own, so there is no shortage of opportunity for innovative design. There are plenty of people in art licensing who are still fighting a rear-guard action, trying to squeeze the last nickel out of how this used to work. You can try that too, but of course remember it no longer works for them. Or you can look forward and get excited about what will be. Study how start-ups work, learn about marketing in a digital age, read books on innovation, sign up for smart business newsletters and apply that information to your career, follow and read Seth Godin, James Altucher, David Aaker, Steve Blank, Danielle LaPorte, Stephen Key and a hundred others who can feed your mind and fire your soul. Tune out the elegiac laments and flood the market with your ideas, get them in front of people, test and measure, and when they don’t work move on to new ones. When they DO work move quickly to place them across the market, try various iterations and refreshes until they don’t work anymore – for surely that day will come – then be ready to move forward with a fresh idea. Become a dynamo and give off sparks.
Go back and read that headline again. Does it still make you angry?
Good. What are you going to do about it?