It’s Time for Photographers to Go Indie

by valrac4_a3kqdy

I was reading a recent article in a Halifax newspaper in which the reporter was interviewing Séan McCann and introducing his latest solo record Help Your Self.  What particularly caught my attention was the troubadour’s comment that “the state of the music industry today” was the impetus behind his going solo.

Is it time for artists to take stronger control of their own destiny?

Is it time for artists to take stronger control of their own destinies?

So who is Séan McCann and why does his going indie warrant media coverage? McCann is from Newfoundland and Labrador and was a founding member of the phenomenally successful Newfoundland folk-rock band Great Big Sea. Known affectionately as GBS here on the east coast, Great Big Sea has been nominated for several Juno Awards, including Group of the Year in 1998, 2005, 2009 and 2011. It was a surprise, given the band’s success and wild popularity, that McCann would decide to leave the group at the end of their 20th anniversary tour in December 2013.

As I thought about McCann’s comment regarding the state of the music industry, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the music and photography industries. The bottom line is that visual and performing artists are typically self-employed but have relied on various agents and managers to guide their careers. The success of the artist is in large part due to the success of the supporting staff. However, at the end of the day, everyone’s success is in the hands of the consumer.

In the last decade, there has been a perfect wave that has created a terrific undertow that is redefining the boundaries for all artists. Digital technology made creating the art form more efficient, online delivery created a much more effective vehicle to reach the audience, and web-based media provided promotional activities with a broader reach. Because of all these advances in technology, it was inevitable the pool of talent and product would swell to unheard of proportions. As a result, there is a supply far greater than the demand.

When the supply exceeds the demand, it becomes a consumer’s playground. We can now purchase a product online at a lesser cost than by visiting a large retail outlet. Yes, there are risks with online purchasing, but generally it is more economical. Unfortunately, the traditional agents, managers and artists, for the most part, didn’t react quickly or decisively enough to curb the flood tide that was eroding their profit margins.

Allow me to give you some quick ballpark numbers for the distribution of funds relative to a photo book. Typically the breakdown is as follows: Retail store – 50%, Publisher – 42%, and Creators – 8%. In other words, for a photo book that costs $35 in a store, the photographer would realize a gross income of $2.80 per book. Considering the typical print run is now 3000 units, the maximum the photographer would see is $8400. From this amount, our energetic photographer would have to pay all the associated costs in producing the material, as well as contribute to the local economy by way of tax contributions. So the reality is that the creator has very little opportunity to develop any wealth based on receiving such a low percentage.

Ironically, when I started in the photography industry some 25 years ago, the average rate for a photographer’s royalty on books was 12%. As production costs increased, publishers had to recover those costs. They could increase the retail price or lower the author’s royalty; they opted for the later. Throughout the 1990s, an author’s royalty was 10% of the retail price, but it was lowered again around 2002 to the current 8% value. By comparison, retail cost has only marginally been creeping upward.

With the above revenue splits in mind, it was only a matter of time before large online retail stores took a huge bite out of traditional retail operations. These online outlets could sell a book with a much lower overhead cost, which means they could make the book available at a significantly lower cost than the storefront in your community. Generally, the consumer will gravitate to the best value for their buying dollar, and this has been the case with online stores.  However, for the author/photographer, the net result was an even further eroded income level because their 8% was now calculated from a lower retail price.

As I reread the newspaper article, I couldn’t help but think I knew what Mr. McCann was suggesting. Under the traditional model of creating and distributing our artwork, everyone seems to be making more money than the artist who created the work. As the artist’s income erodes, he or she is forced to create work that is more commercially viable (and perhaps less artistically rewarding). As a consequence, the artist’s hand is forced. If an artist wants to create art that matters, he or she has to eliminate the traditional model to pocket a higher percentage of the sales price.

Fortunately, there has never been a better time. All the digital pressures that eroded the capacity to support a career are also the same technologies that can rejuvenate a career.

There has never been a better time to go indie.

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