I’ve been thinking about the old adage “spend money to make money.” Searching that phrase with quotes returns over three million search results on Google, and searching without quotes returns over 650 million. I couldn’t find the origin of the phrase; apparently, it is so clear and so ubiquitous that the origin is moot.
I’m an artist and educator who explores gender and sexuality through solo performance pieces and educational workshops. I tour to colleges, universities and theater festivals, and share work focusing around my transgender identity.
As an artist—and, I suspect, for freelancers in general—spending money on non-essentials is a difficult concept to get behind. When you’re struggling to make rent, or trying to pay a tangible fee like a festival entrance cost, putting money into an abstract project—new video footage, hiring administrative help, paying membership dues—is hard to justify. Why should you put money toward something that might help you out in the future when you can put money toward something that you need to do now. I imagine it’s more simple to justify “spending money to make money” at a big business: We need to build this factory so we can produce shiny new cars, we need to invest in design costs so we can make a fancy new phone.
Nevertheless, I’ve made a few decisions over the past year to spend money in the hopes of making more money in the future. A few of these investments have paid off, a few may yet pay off and a few may never do so.
Hiring Help and Support
As an artist, I’m used to asking people for help: making donations, hanging posters or distribute postcards, filming a show, driving me to the airport. I’m less used to paying people for help. I began working with Alice Feldt at Time Gift Artists. We met when attending a Creative Capital artist professional development event and got to talking about her business. From her webpage:
Time Gift Artist Assistance is for the busy contemporary artist. There is so much to keep up with on the business side of the art world that it becomes hard to find time to make work. Time Gift comes at this problem at two angles:
Production - Researching materials, source material, file management, file output.
Representation - Finding exhibition opportunities, putting together proposals, maintaining social media blasts, updating contact lists.
Time Gift's services are available virtually, which gives the artist time to work. All file transfers happen through Dropbox and all payments are through Paypal. The client may FaceTime-chat with the assistant, keeping the relationship simple and personal. I hired Alice to help me build a list of colleges and universities to contact. She built this list of colleges and universities with some sort of LGBT offering, whether a single course or an entire department. Alice then went school by school and cataloged the school’s theater department, gender or women’s studies, student diversity, student activities, LGBT groups and Hillel. She compiled a list of about 7,000 email addresses of students, staff and professors across at least 150 schools. I keep adding new schools to the list, and Alice keeps working away. As of May 2013, I have spent a little over $1,000 building this list. It continues to grow.
Some of the email addresses bounce back as "undelivered." The vast majority of the emails I send vanish into the ether; I will never know if someone actually received them. As a ballpark estimate, I get a response rate of five percent. Almost always, it’s along the lines of “Thanks, but this isn’t my department,” “you should talk to so-and-so,” or, simply, “Not interested.” Maybe half of that five percent seem even slightly interested, and so far only six of those have turned into gigs (Bucknell University, Smith College, University of New Hampshire, Simmons College, Michigan State University, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges).
Six gigs out of 7,000 emails (a return of less than one-tenth of one percent) seems frustrating. However, I’ve made enough to pay for Alice’s services, even if I never get another gig from that list. Since I have additional gigs lined up for the 2013-2014 school year, the list has become more than worth it. Building this list with Alice has also allowed me to figure out what kind of outreach to schools and universities is worth my time: I get a much better response emailing students than professors. I suspect students are more willing to respond to someone contacting them out of the blue, whereas most of the gigs I’ve gotten from professors have come after meeting them in person. Moving forward, I’m having Alice focus specifically on campus LGBT groups. I’ll potentially lose out on some contacts, but based on my experience so far, it’s worth it to narrow my focus.
To put all this another way: do what you do best, hire someone to do the rest. I can build these lists on my own, but Alice has made my life so much easier by doing it for me. In particular, Alice was working while I was touring fringe festivals last summer. I was able to come back to Chicago in the fall and immediately begin contacting schools without feeling guilty over not having kept up with my administrative work.
FINAL VERDICT: Find someone you trust, and hire them right now! (If you do hire Alice, help me out by telling her I sent you her way.)
While touring over the summer, Seth Lepore talked me into attending Arts Midwest, one of five yearly regional arts conferences around the United States. These conferences bring together artists, agents and booking venues (theaters, schools, etc.) for networking events, job fairs and educational workshops. Similar conferences are put on by the Western Arts Alliance, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, the Performing Arts Exchange and the college-focused APCA and NACA.
These conferences cost big money when you’re a solo artist. Simply attending is usually a few hundred bucks. If you’re attending and hoping to get bookings you most likely need a booth and promotional materials (add $300-$600) and a performance showcase ($400-$5,000, depending on booth size and performance frequency). Then there’s travel, hotel, food and going out to drink and network. I spent about $1,000 at Arts Midwest, and easily could have spent more had I done multiple showcases, stayed at the conference hotel and gotten better promotional material. Some of the larger groups easily spent $10,000 on their booth alone.
Figuring out whether a conference is “worth it” is a bit tougher than deciding if someone should help build your mailing list. A lot of the people I met at Arts Midwest said that they wanted to see an artist a few years in a row to be reassured that the artist was in it for the long haul before they would consider hiring her. Likewise, there were some venues that would never hire me: No matter how supportive of the LGBT community they are, I’m not going to be the right fit for a 2,500-seat theater in rural Oklahoma. So while I haven’t gotten any gigs from Arts Midwest yet, it’s entirely possible someone I met there will contact me in the future. I made a few specific contacts that—should they come through—would make the conference more than worth it. It’s also valuable to see what else is out there, meet artist presenters and other artists, and feel like you’re part of a wider community.
For all that, I’m not sure I’ll return to Arts Midwest. I’m not sure what I have to offer is right for most of the organizations that attend, or that my resume is long enough (yet) for someone to take a risk on a trans performance artist. I am more seriously considering APCA or NACA, as they are exclusively for the campus activity boards at colleges and universities. (I’ve heard most of those student boards are looking for easy sells. Things like bands or comedy acts that can fill a theater and make the student government look good. I am having solid luck contacting LGBT groups directly.)
Each conference is different. They draw from different parts of the country, have different atmospheres and cost different amounts. I’ve heard that Arts Midwest is a great first conference: it’s not huge but not tiny, it’s not cheap but it’s not crazy expensive, and everyone is super-nice.
FINAL VERDICT: Maybe? I’m glad I went to Arts Midwest, as it gave me a context for how these conferences operate. I want to return and attend at least one every year, but don’t think I will be able to afford to do so for another few years. As of spring 2013 I’m waiting to hear back about a few grants. If those come through, I’ll be able to afford Artist Midwest. If not, I’m going to give it a pass.
One of the workshops I went to at Arts Midwest was about Facebook advertising. Facebook allows for highly targeted advertising in a way that just about nothing else can. It’s also as cheap as you want it to be. You can set a cap on how much your campaign will spend. When I was working with Sean Dorsey at Links Hall last year, I decided to splurge on a Facebook ad campaign. I posted ads linking to Sean’s Facebook event, trying a few different wordings to see what worked. You can have all the versions of an ad pull from the same pool of money to control expenses. After tweaking the language a few times, I committed $25 total and let the ads loose. Here’s what I ended up with:
You can click to see the specifics, but here’s the overview:
- The ad cost $25 total to run;
- 62,000 people saw the ad;
- 46 people clicked on it (a rate of 0.074%, which the Internet says is pretty good);
- Of those 26 people, 14 actually clicked "Attending" on the event page;
- The second wording of the ad worked much better than the first.
With this experiment it is impossible to know how many of those 14 “attending” actually came to Links Hall, but, had this been a ticketed event, getting only three additional people there would have paid for the ad. That seems promising enough to try again in the future. Since Facebook allows specific targeting of people who have "Liked" things like transgender, queer, gender identity, genderqueer and so on, you’re able to get in front of people who—hopefully!—will give a shit about what you’re promoting.
VERDICT: I wasn’t blown away by advertising on Facebook, but the response was positive and the cost low enough that I plan to try it again.
High-Quality Work Samples
The video on my website is ... fine. It’s mostly things I shot from a tripod at the back of a theater—a combination of raw footage from shows and bits of promo pieces. I feel very proud of the material, but the video and audio quality is nothing to write home about. When I was first starting as a solo artist, I thought using okay-but-not-outstanding footage was an acceptable compromise. There is always more to do, always more places to spend money.
With a little more experience under my belt and my sights set on more—and more lucrative—gigs, I took the plunge and hired a videographer to put together a high-quality, professional looking promotional reel.
VERDICT: This is one of those expenses that’s just the cost of doing business. As artists, we need head-shots, promotional reels, audio samplers, excerpts of our writing, visual selections or all of the above. I realize that it’s unlikely (although not impossible) that someone is going to say, “Wow! I wasn’t going to hire you, but then I saw your video and changed my mind!” At the same time, I definitely have had people contact me and say they were more excited about my work after watching the my video. By using higher-quality video, I’ll present a more professional face to the world, which can only help me as an artist.
In this mindset, here are some things I plan to spend money on:
● Website updates. Both my blog and my artist site are run on WordPress using free themes. I’m fine with that (and like both themes), but my artist site needs some work. I purchased a fundraising plugin to launch a (successful!) effort to get to New York; I am now using it to raise money for my gender reassignment surgery. I may use IndieGoGo and/or Kickstarter for future artistic projects, but I think a do-it-yourself solution for surgery fundraising makes sense. More importantly, I think my own modifications to the free theme I’m using at rebeccakling.com are reaching the end of their utility. I’m researching web designers for a ground-up redesign of my site. When (and how) to spend money on a website depends on your comfort level with technology. I’m enough of a geek that I was fine tweaking it. If that doesn’t suit you, spend money on a site design and you’ll have an investment that can last for years.
● Promotional Material. One of the things that I learned at Arts Midwest was the many ways an artist can promote herself. I had brought a large foamcore poster to display. Though it worked well, it had way too much text and was a bitch to travel with. My solution was to get a collapsible, more professional-looking poster display. I also plan to invest in a tri-fold flyer about my educational workshops and performances—a simple and easy "leave-behind" for anyone interested in hiring me.
● Easier Traveling. I bought a portable phone charger after having to search for someone with a power outlet in the convention hall at Arts Midwest. This device also makes flying easier. I don’t have to worry as much if I’m going to be out for a long day.
What about you?
Our culture encourages us to think of art as this magical land where money doesn’t matter. Pretending money isn’t important only hurts us as artists. You should be doing something you love, but you should also be compensated fairly for it. Not talking about how we’re spending money only makes it more difficult to learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of others.
If you’re seriously pursuing a career in the arts, you are going to have to put your money where your mouth is. That doesn’t mean taking foolish risks or spending money on things you can live without. It does mean that you should invest in yourself to make your working life easier and to make your image to the world as awesome as possible. Only you can answer where, exactly, those places are, but I hope this article is a good overview of possibilities you should be considering.
Rebecca Kling is a transgender artist and educator who explores gender and identity through solo pieces and educational workshops. Her multidisciplinary performances incorporate conversational storytelling, personal narrative, humor, movement and video projection. Kling takes the position that sharing accessible queer narrative with a wide audience is a form of activism, and that understanding combats bigotry. She has appeared in nine states and at over a dozen festivals, and her unique style and background as an educator have drawn her praise from the Chicago Tribune, Time Out Chicago, NUVO Indianapolis, the Coyote Chronicle and elsewhere. She was recently featured on the inaugural "Trans 100," a list of one hundred activists, educators, theorists and other trans people working to push for trans visibility and trans rights.
Photography with Heart