You Are Not Going to Make It in Art Licensing

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?
11 replies
  1. Deb Grogan
    Deb Grogan says:

    Shame on you JM, it’s no wonder that comment came from you, being a NON-artist and all….EVERY artist is fed by their passion for what they do, its what makes their art, fabulous! I am sure you have seen many art its who are passionate about their work and well, for lack of a better term, it stinks…..but to tell an artist that passion has nothing to do with it is like telling them paint and paper doesn’t either….I have had projects I have been ASKED to do that my heart just wasn’t into, I turned them down. An artist needs to be passionate about what they do, if not, it shows in the work they turn out…..we have all been there, stuck on that one thing we just don’t feel.It’s part of our make-up, like breathing.

    Havingsaid that, passion alone will not get you where you want to go, you have to believe in yourself, and talent isn’t always it either. I’ve seen some collections out there that well, surprised me and I thought, what the heck was that art director thinking? But there was something about it, something that struck a cord with the. Maybe it was the passion, the backstory behind the creation of it and so on.

    Passion still plays a very big part and so does believing in what you are doing…..You are the salesman, its yur job to sell the art of your company artist, sell their vision…..if you don’t have passion for what you do, or believe in what you do, I can’t imagine you getting very many contracts… all kind of works together in a big dynamic ballet of sorts. Passion, belief, talent, ingenuity, technical ability, an eye for color, thinking outside the box but not too far, the ability to sell themselves, which not everyone can do, step in agent….who needs what? PASSION for what they are selling! Do you take on clients who you don’t believe in?????

    • Jim Marcotte
      Jim Marcotte says:

      You are right, I don’t lay claim to the title of Artist – but I’ll take that of craftsman. My tools and materials may be different than yours: wood and metal, marble and ceramic, pen and paper, guitar and lyric; I also know when my skills are not appropriate for product. My illustrations are not licensed but much of my writing is, there are product lines based on my concepts and always something creative in the works. I may not fit your particular vision of an artist but since you do not know me perhaps we should meet sometime before you tell me what I am or am not.

    • Deb Grogan
      Deb Grogan says:

      I’ll be in Atlanta from Thursday until Sunday, you name the time and place Jim 🙂 lol Well, since you were writing about licensed artists I was thinking in that same vein. The other skills you say you have, in my opinion, all fall under the moniker of artist….are you or are you not also passionate about what you do? The smell of fresh cut pine is one of my favorites, the feel of perfectly sand wood under your fingertips….the perfect note on a guitar and the soft sounds it makes when it is strummed….the feel of a nice writing paper and the perfect pen….you know, the one that writes beautifully and your penmanship is perfect when you use it….all those things I described, they are the description of passion, passion for what you do or how it feels to do it…..THATS where I am coming from. Artist s have passion, we could not do our jobs without it, it is a key element to what we do, I did not say it was the only thing…..coupled with the other skills I described in my post it is just one of many things, but it is the gas in the car, without it you go no where…..I just dislike the fact that you tell these new artist and some of us oldies too, that passion has nothing to do with it, yes this is a business but for an artist we can not exist without it……they, we all need to have a reality check but please don’t try to ask them to forget about or kill the one thing that we need to survive in this biz….I also equate passion for a positive attitude, this whole post was so negative…..throw the reality out there, don’t sugar coat it, but gosh do you really have to try and kill the spirit of those trying to make it in this biz? If I had listened to any one like you when I started out, I would never have found myself, never tried, never fought to figure out where I belonged in this crazy career. But I had something that I needed, passion, you could even call it hope….I stuck with it and I make a living at it. I understand that not everyone is going to make it no matter how much hope or passion they have, but I would venture to say that since you do not know every single artist out there that maybe you should meet all of them before you tell them what they are or are not 🙂 So, when do you want to meet?

    • Jim Marcotte
      Jim Marcotte says:

      Deb, I do appreciate your comments. I think you are being way too literal in your reading of this post. The title is a literary device called a hyperbole (def: an obvious and intentional exaggeration used to evoke strong feelings or create an impression which is not meant to be taken literally) – of course some artists are going to do well in the biz. The point I intend about passion is that it alone is not enough, I quote from the post: “The point is: It’s a mistake to think passion can substitute for competence”. And yes as you mentioned, we see an inordinate amount of truly awful work submitted. I am normally not one to tell people how to interpret what I write, but nowhere in there do I “tell these new artists and some of us oldies too, that passion has nothing to do with it” as you say, so I must object to that statement. In fact, I would venture it states quite the opposite, if you go back and read the last paragraph I hope that you can see that message.

    • Deb Grogan
      Deb Grogan says:

      Well Jim, your blog you can write what you want, I still see it as being negative but thats my perception, my reality lol 🙂 I read it very differently, and yes, I know what Hyperbole means you didn’t need to dumb it down for me, gee thanks…..Anyway, where are we meeting? Coffee? 🙂

  2. Deb Grogan
    Deb Grogan says:

    Oh and by the way……I’m not a STAR, I’m not that DIFFERENT, and I certainly don’t think I am BETTER than everyone else…..what do I have? A passion for what I do and the rest of the skills I mentioned. What is a finacially successful career to one person may be more than what a mother person needs or expects…..I do okay for myself, for what I NEED….so in my eyes, I am successful enough right now……

  3. Leslei Moak Murray
    Leslei Moak Murray says:

    Very few know this business better than Jim. One of my favorite sentences from this blog: “Reality is mostly unimpressed by how passionate you are.”

    and of course: “It’s a mistake to think passion can substitute for competence.”

    He doesn’t say passion is a bad thing, just that it doesn’t make up for lack of talent or skill.

  4. andreaatdesign
    andreaatdesign says:

    I completely get where you are coming from Jim. Passion is not enough to make a business or career profitable. In the age of “Modern (digital) Marketing” and how the internet has made it easier for people to buy and sell almost anything online…there is still work (or craft) to be done. I see this same trend when people are starting a new business and need visual branding.

    It’s NOT enough to be passionate. There is a fine line between something you love to do as a hobby and a career doing something that a piece of you would die if you didn’t do it no matter how hard it can be.

    Thanks for keeping is real.

  5. Renee L. Gauvin
    Renee L. Gauvin says:

    YUP Everyone wants a break. As a past gallery curator, there was a constant stream of artists wanting to hang, show and sell in our successful little gallery. Sadly, half-assed presentations and passion about their own art did not get them in, though my heart went out to many of them. With a line of eager artists behind them, I could carefully choose the artwork that I thought would draw people in and that would sell. SELL. My goal was to sell, because I didn’t really have the luxury to become a museum. It is what you said Jim- I wanted the excellent and the different in order to get people excited. I loved to feature new young artists, if I thought that they had that spark. But honestly, I wasn’t doing any favors. I couldn’t. Take the word passion and let it become commitment to what you believe in and energy to follow it through, then let ‘passion’ reign! But passion as, ‘wishing upon a star’ and belief that your art is so good that you are “entitled” will not work. Jim, I love your posts so far. Thank you for taking the time to write them. They are gifts to people who want to get into this field.


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