© Alessandra Colombo
As mentioned in our first article about Surtex 2013, this particular trade show was a great experience that has given us more direct insights into the art licensing world. So we want to share here some thoughts that might be helpful to newbies that are thinking about joining the ranks.
Art licensing to us isn't just something you learn how to do with time and experience, but rather a constant evolving of creativity and relationships. It can shape and evolve in so many ways, as you progress in it. There is no set way into licensing as many veterans have already said. You can do it through trade shows, online contacts and social media, networking, by being a manufacturer yourself first and then switching sides, you can do it through an agency or solo, and so on.
This industry brings lots of joy to your life when you score a good design that ends up in a profitable contract, as it gives you a rare yet odd sense of accomplishment when you see your art on a product. It's absolutely thrilling!
But it also puts an unkind pressure on your everyday life that builds up over the months, as you go through some wild-ride ups and downs. Sometimes it feels like you lost a major battle, although most of the times it feels like so much fun, too. It's crazy-competitive. It's also really exhausting. It's undoubtedly risky and requires some financial investment upfront. It takes years to build up a both portfolio of art AND contacts, even if you get licenses early on. There are no set rules, only the ones established by yourself and your clients in a confidential agreement, which are put in place to regulate the licensing deal. It's a business based on trust. The licensing community, inclusive of both artists and manufacturers, is one of the most friendly and inspiring bunch of good hearted people I have known in the design industry.
Art licensing should not be viewed as a race against other artists. Many have pioneered the field so well that they know how to keep their licensing deals going for many years and make a good living at it. We can all learn from them, but as they will tell you, they are not experts either.
In short, licensing is a very subjective, entrepreneurial adventure, whether you do it solo or with an agent. If you like to keep doing it despite the tough times, a few serious emotional melt-downs and many sizable mistakes, then you will feel you have reached the top of the world. It's only then that you realize, it's not the top...! It is challenging, unpredictable, and seemingly capricious.
From our point of view, the path into art licensing and the experience and opportunity of a trade show like Surtex can take hundreds of different routes. That is part of what makes this whole field so exciting and dynamic...and difficult to understand! If you like changes and a flexible lifestyle, art licensing is a perfect job for you! From what we've learned so far, though, here are a set of rough guidelines that we've tried to capture for ourselves and which we'll certainly continue to refine the more we learn about this field. We are no experts; remember, we are just learning through this multi-faceted journey and we speak out of our personal experience so far. I am sure we will refine our tales as we move on and get more and more familiar with it all.
The steps below are not in any particular sequence and although we tried to make it somewhat a flow, remember that it's a very fluid, dynamic flow.
Roughly, a Route into Art Licensing
- Do a preliminary research of this industry by reading basic art licensing books, trade magazines, forum threads and by walking a show or two. Define for yourself what art licensing literally means, what it is all about, and then honestly set a purpose for yourself: why are you doing art licensing? Hopefully money is not your answer because it might not work out, even if you work really hard.
- Build your own brand based on a true story that is representative of you and your core values. This might include your brand name and logo.
- Create beautiful artwork for commercial use, starting from the product and working backwards. Create your own unique look - don't copy or model off of others, be your own self. It will not only create goodwill within the artist community, it will be noticed by manufacturers and that will increase the reputation of your own brand. Commit yourself to creating quality work and high integrity. Have fun with it!
- With your unique and stunning art tell stories that can be commercially used. Product development is your password! You want to get really good at that - licensing is a land of opportunities and if your art is product-ready through developed product concepts the opportunities to score a contract are higher, providing that your art matches the company's needs and style, and your timing is right. So it takes years to accomplish, because you will need to build up your portfolio, fix it, tweak it and make it better and better and then do more of it!
- Design a suitable presentation for your art that also promotes your brand and tells your message. This might include your portfolio, website, blog, social media profiles and interactions, press releases, tear-sheets, trade shows, promotion pieces, etc. Maintain a consistent look while you tweak it over and over as you learn more about licensing.
- Professionally connect to art licensing groups, forums and trade publications; learn more about the many facets of the business and continue to expand your knowledge as you balance your creative work and your business efforts. It's best to not ask for proprietary information from your fellow artists or take some "elements that you like" from their work. Figure out your own interpretation and creative path and look out for free tips. They are published about everywhere, so read up on them. Not just once but many times. The same information will become more clear as you get more experience under your belt.
- Research out and decide what categories of products and manufacturers you want to license with; by matching your art to their product's styles you have better chances to get a license. We advise to not shoot broadly or just sign up with a rep without understanding what you're doing. By being professional in anything you do and by recognizing that you have to be in it for the long-term you will help your business through the tough times.
- Brand yourself and your business through effective but sensible marketing. Beware of spamming others and instead provide relevant and value-added contributions to forums. When you help others to grow, they will help you back. This implies that social media and forums is about participation, not just lurking. You have to get involved, and just reading threads doesn't count!
- Ask for legal advice or read up about legal matters, don't just enter a contract without understanding what you're signing. Make sure you know what you want out of an agreement. It's your art and you want to set the rules.
- Represented or not, make sure you understand what is being done with your art and licensing contracts. Ask questions, be pro-active and learn the business for yourself. You never know what will happen next. Be willing to experience anything and be ready for any and all future circumstances.
- If you decide to exhibit solo at a trade show like Surtex (there are other licensing shows to also consider), plan a low-cost design to keep down the overall expenses but keep a high quality presentation that reflects your story and style. Make as many pre-show appointments as you can, by emails or phone calls; if you can't confirm the clients before your show don't worry too much, they might stop by anyway or if they see art they can use for their products.
- While in the midst of the show, don't forget to smile and try to enjoy the experience and be present in the moment; you never know what the next encounter will bring or how significant it might become. A show is like the land of opportunities, you just need to look out for them and then ethically seize the best ones for you.
- After it's all over and you've finally torn down your booth, enjoy a great hard-won show!
- But don't stop now, immediately follow-up on any commitments or opportunities that presented themselves during the show. You want to build relationships and work with companies that like your art and that you like. It's better to have no contracts than bad contracts that tie up your art and time.
- Hopefully sign lots of good, profitable contracts! Again, makes sure you know what you're signing and if you don't, look for legal advice.
- And throughout the above steps, work really hard and don't stop! Keep your eye on the horizon and the long-term view of your goal.
- Remember that until you sign a contract and your design sells on products you won't get paid ...
- If a design fails to sell or it doesn't work out, find out what went wrong, review the situation, learn from it and try your best again.
- Creating a partnership with your clients makes this a fun and creative adventure.
- Relationships, relationships, relationships...
"Everything good that comes to you is a direct result of your taking responsibility mixed in with a healthy smattering of actually doing." by Alex Mather, Red Lemon Club
So here's to an even better year!
So here's to an even better year!