How Creatives Are Surviving the Downturn

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The economy has been bad to many, but for the creative segment of the workforce – musicians, artists, writers, photographers and magicians, for example – the economic downturn has been brutal.

Many creatives are self-employed freelance or contract workers, taking gigs as they come along. This means their work, as well as their paychecks, can be sporadic.

Living such an unpredictable financial life in the best of times is challenging. However, when the economy takes such a sudden dip, crippling such a wide range of industries, living the life of a full time creative is even more daunting.

Mainstreet.com spoke with a few people in the creative fields to find out how creative they’ve had to become to maintain their livelihoods.

No Laughing Matter

Buck Jones has been making his living as a freelance humorist illustrator for the past 25 years. Before the economic downturn in 2008, Jones worked from his Des Moines, Iowa home creating illustrations for some of the country’s top consumer magazines and book publishers.

“I worked on children’s books, educational books, humor and did some ad agency work,” Jones says. “When the big crash happened, it all dried up in a hurry.”

Jones said his business shrank by 40%. His wife is also a freelance graphic artist, and Jones realized he would have to replace his work fast or give up his business and find other work.

Jones had done illustrations for Dog and Cat Fancy magazines, which led him to jobs with their book publishing arm, BowTie Press. “I illustrated over 20 books for them, which established a name for me in the pet market,” says Jones. “When everyone started cutting back, I did some research and realized that the pet market was still a very strong market. It seemed like a natural fit for me to expand into that market.”

In November 2009, Jones launched Pet Cartoon Gifts, a division of his business that sells humorous cartoons of pets and their owners.

“It’s been real good for me,” says Jones. “It’s gotten a lot of attention and favorable response.”

The only problem, Jones says, has been one of pay. His pet cartoon packages range from $69-$119, and two years ago when he was working for corporate clients and publishing giants, he estimates he would have made $500 for the same amount of work.

“I have to get quite a few orders to make it pay,” said Jones. “But I’m pleased with how it is going so far and the number of repeat customers I have.”

He said the pet cartoon business has kept him afloat and helped make up for some of the 40% of his business that was lost in the recession.

Jones is also trying to rebuild the side of his business that works with publishers both in the U.S. and abroad. He said American publishers are confident that the industry will rebound soon, and he’s begun to expand into foreign markets such as South Korea to cast a wider net. “I’m also putting my work into a gallery and just trying to find more venues and get my name out there,” says Jones.

The Magic Niche

Mitch Williams, a magician from Canton, Ill., had been performing and creating custom magic shows for corporate events like conferences, meetings and banquets for years when the economy took a dive.
“Two thirds of my business was corporate events,” says Williams.

Five years ago, the most popular dates during the holiday months would be booked by April, he says. But this year, some of those prime dates are still wide open.

“I had to shift my marketing to other markets such as private and community events,” said Williams. “My income did drop a bit, but some of that was a learning curve on where to put the marketing efforts.”

Williams' efforts paid off: He was able to replace much of the corporate business he lost, but like Jones, the new focus pays less per gig. In fact, Williams estimates that private and community events pay 25% less than corporate jobs. “If it was a custom program, it could have paid three times as much,” Williams says.

Williams has also put more emphasis on public relations and marketing, doing special events and getting the press to attend shows during National Magic Month in October. He has seen a renewed interest from corporations for bookings next year. Still, business is about where it was in 2009.

Hitting a Low Note

In 2008, Michael Pinto was a freelance jazz musician with 10 years' experience playing around the world, working in upscale jazz venues and recital halls.

He even had an album of original music he wrote, called "Prologue".

But “since the economy crashed, it’s been really hard to get booked,” says Pinto, who lives in Glen Ridge, N.J. “You really have to be a big name, when before, more venues were willing to take a chance.”

Pinto decided to combine his musical talents with his other passion, science fiction. “I recorded an album with all science fiction-themed music,” he says. “Now I’m hoping to get gigs at conventions, movie premieres and things like that.”

The album, “Little Green Men,” features themes from different recognizable science fiction movies and was just released this month. Pinto his trying to use his connections to sell the album through science fiction websites, blogs and in the music and comic industries, although Pinto says it’s too early to tell if this new niche will be successful. “I’ve found that certain audiences in the jazz world do recognize the themes and are responsive,” said Pinto. “But as for the science fiction audience, it’s hard to say.”

Pinto said it’s all about developing a more focused niche, finding a unique group of listeners who respond to the music.

Creative Advice for Creatives

Michelle Ward, the owner of When I Grow Up, a consulting firm, coaches more than 90 creative clients. Here's her advice on how to deal with the economy.

  • Make sure you offer a variety of services and pricing. If you just have original prints for hundreds of dollars, make sure you also offer post cards, journals and a few other mid-priced items.
  • Go outside of your neighborhood to reach a broader audience. Instead of local festivals, fairs and shows, seek out regional and statewide venues. Work the Internet for an even broader audience.
  • Figure out your “signature”, or what makes you original and unique and then key in on that target audience.
  • Use social media. Try different sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and find out what works for you. “Don’t let it overwhelm you, if you only have 15 minutes a day to do it, that’s two hours a week,” says Ward.
  • Renaissance types have different passions. If you have a variety of talents, you don’t have to pick either/or, said Ward. “It’s not unfocused, but just means you are a person who loves doing different things,” said Ward. “Hit different people from different angles.”

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