Ride That Wave

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since I was looking over my unwritten blogs and wondering how to end the year. Yet here we are again at another December’s end, wondering about how to succinctly sum up what we saw, and see, happening in the art licensing biz. And, by some weird coincidence, Blogger tells me this is post Number 100. Huh. There are sooo many things one could talk about, but I think it comes down to this:
It feels better out there.
No statistics or hard facts here, just a vibe that continues to be more positive. Clients are happier, ideas are being discussed and implemented, and contracts are coming in regularly. This is not to say that art licensing is “back”, because what it was will never come back. The one thing we know for sure is that it will continue to evolve, and that art licensing will not be the same in the future as it was in the past. This does not necessarily rate as a good or bad thing, it just… is… and it’s a waste of time to try and render judgment. Properties, participants, methodology, trends, terms, markets and marketing, products – any and all aspects of the business are fair game for disruption. The good news is that also means they all can present significant opportunities for forward thinkers. Kind of fun, actually.
Unfortunately this improved vibe is matched up against another observable but less attractive trend. Art for licensing is becoming a commodity, and commodity markets are governed by price. It’s easy to see it happening – everyone is now aware of the decline in advances and erosion of royalties over the last few years. Technology and internet access have brought millions of people into the creative arena, and by no stretch are all of them gifted or even talented. Yes, some definitely are, but there are just so many more now. “It’s very cluttered out there” as one of our clients said.
Of course all of that is old news. What is less obvious, but I believe just as real, is an insidious devaluation of the artist’s contribution in the licensed product business.
The relationship between business and art has always been complex: you can deliver quality work (actually you have to) but you cannot force someone to see the true value of the designer’s contribution, particularly if they can get by with lesser quality art. The sheer weight of all the available design is pushing down average overall quality, and perhaps more importantly, pushing down the perception of value held by some of the customers. This creeping devaluation will continue to impact all of us because your clients cannot be bombarded by a constant torrent of available art without it affecting, consciously or not, how they perceive it. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it, no more than King Canute could turn the tides back into the sea. Your feet are going to get wet.
Since we are unlikely to change the mindset of the market, then perhaps the only real option is to change how we approach it.
The art licensing market has always had a full spectrum of customers ranging from those driven to bargain for the cheapest price on up to those who want all their products to be a collaboration that accurately reflects the artist’s vision.  Common sense tells you that the vast majority of them are going to be somewhere around the middle of that spectrum, maybe leaning one way or the other, with fewer out at the extremes.
(You always see the questions in the forums: “What do manufacturers think about…?” Well, they hold lots of different opinions, because they are all different.) A typical art licensor would make a decent living by landing a mixture of smaller, price-driven jobs along with the less common (but more satisfying) named collections and collaborative projects. Now the small jobs have gotten even smaller and are being spread among thousands of artists worldwide, and the higher-end bigger collections are fewer and farther apart, so your typical art licensor has experienced a dramatic shift in opportunity.
But there’s the key – it’s a shift, not the end, of opportunity.
What’s the Big Idea?
My dear mother used to ask that (loudly and often…) as she tried to rein in her 4 rambunctious boys. It didn’t work so well for her, but it may have a better application in our business. The traditional advice has been that if you are in a business that only competes on price, get out of that business. It still makes sense.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should get out of licensing, although it will for some, but instead try to rise above competing for the everyday and the average. Set yourself apart and join the Big Idea business.
This is not a journey for the faint of heart. Plodding along the same old path to the same old place with the same old stuff is not an option. Big Ideas are elusive, and you need to ask questions to find them. The Six Honest Serving Men will be your constant companions. Big ideas are often hidden among groups of small ideas, so you need to dig, try and discard often –  the likelihood of constructing a “one in a million” concept increases very quickly as you approach the creation of a million ideas. Make some mistakes. If it’s been done, don’t just try to do it better, try to do it differently. The reaction you are shooting for is “why didn’t I think of that?” instead of “oh look another nice…”. Who knows where that Big Idea may lead you, both in licensing and beyond? There is opportunity here for those bold enough to see it, brave enough to expose their Big Ideas to the world, smart enough to seek feedback then listen and adjust, and tenacious enough to get launched.
These are the people who will always be in demand, the ones everybody else calls “lucky”.
“It’s like a wave – resist and you’ll be knocked over, but dive headfirst into it and you’ll come out the other side. This is a new and different world, and the challenge is not just to cope with it but to thrive.”
–from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
I wish everybody a Happy and Prosperous New Year. 
Now go get ‘em.

Lasso that Niche, Pardner

Well, we did it again. Out of all the cities where I could have spent the last 5 days, you know the last one I would chose… yup, Las Vegas. But that’s where we were. Actually, if ya gotta go, Cowboy Christmas is a great time to be in Vegas. Cowboys and rodeo stars are everywhere and the whole town goes Western with an added Christmas touch. We got to spend some (hilarious) time with our friends in the Cowboy Cartoonists International and also some of our current clients while we prowled the shows for new ones.
Cowboy Christmas is a part of Rodeo Week in Las Vegas. (It’s actually 10 days). The National Rodeo finals and the associated events are a big production, bringing approximately 50 thousand people and 50 million dollars to the city, and there are five, count ‘em, five different merchandise expos during this time. The Las Vegas Convention Center, The Mandalay Bay Convention Center, The Sands Convention Center and the MGM Convention Center host the four largest gift fairs – more than a thousand exhibitors altogether – and we covered all of them. Along with, according to organizers, over 100,000 of our closest friends.
Even given all that activity, I would not recommend that the average artist attend looking for business unless you know what you are getting into – the dreaded Niche Market.
NICHE (adj.) 1. A distinct segment of the market having specific appeal: A niche market.
Niche markets are highly specialized market segments with a narrow demographic focus. Ethnic, Fantasy, Regional, Religion, Lifestyle and all its subsets, individual Sports, categories of Music (think Heavy Metal) are all examples, and there are of course many, many more. Tricky territory unless you know your subject and the participants well, therefore many artists and manufacturers avoid these segments like the plague. It is important to note however, that some of these markets can be huge, as shown in the cowboy/western example above. Niche participants tend to be loyal customers, so even when there appears to be ample opportunity be aware that it can be tough to displace the established players, and for that reason alone manufacturers are often hesitant to try anything (or sometimes anyone) new.
Most individual niche markets change slowly if at all. The characteristics that define the niche also become the parameters within which you need to work. You are unlikely to blaze a trail with innovative new design, however there is always room for quality design that recognizably fits into the category. These types of markets can evolve, however – the “rock n roll cowgirl bling” look is but one example – but it doesn’t happen overnight.  Many times in these “lifestyle” markets the participants see the niche as part of their identity, so tread lightly with change because anything too far outside of the “rules” will be actively ignored.
Jody Bergsma, Guy Harvey, The Hautmans, Terry Redlin, Wyland – just a few of the recognizable names who have done very well in niche markets. Why not think about adding yours?