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This article reprinted from John T. Unger's Art Heroes. The original article can be found online:
© 2010, John T Unger
Hugh MacLeod is an artist who first made his name with "cartoons drawn on the back of business cards". Although originally resistant to the idea of selling his art, Hugh found that his ideas and his engagement with his audience have created a strong market for his work. He now makes his living mostly drawing "Cube Grenades" for clients and publishing fine art prints via the internet. Hugh started blogging at gapingvoid.com in 2001. He started off just publishing his cartoons, but as time wore on he started blogging about his other main interest, marketing. In 2005 he scored his first major blog marketing success with EnglishCut.com, a blog he started with Savile Row tailor, Thomas Mahon. It tripled Thomas' sales within six months.
His recent book Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity was a best seller on Amazon and the Wall Street Journal.
Since 2006 Hugh has been constantly engaged as a public speaker, giving talks about Web 2.0 and the ramifications it has on business.
Learn More about Hugh MacLeod
- Visit gapingvoid.com
- Follow Hugh on Twitter or Facebook
- Sign up to "Hugh's Daily Frickin' Cartoon" Newsletter.
- Visit Gapingvoid Gallery Fine art from $50-$12,000, originals and prints.
- Commission a "Cube Grenade" drawing here.
- Order Ignore Everybody on Amazon
- View the 2,000 or so cartoons in the gapingvoid archive
This episode is available as a Kindle Ebook at Amazon
Art Heroes Review No.2: Why Art Success Can Suck [Kindle Edition]
Show Highlights: Excerpts From the Conversation
The Bubble wrap effect— artists need to match expectations set by Amazon
John: So I told everybody on Twitter that probably the topic today that we want to cover was "How it Sucks to Succeed" because of the perils of success. That's what we were talking about earlier on the phone.
Hugh: Yeah, I'm finding it out the hard way. I call it the "bubble wrap effect." The bubble wrap effect is where you're like a poor, starving artist, you sell like one painting a year or whatever, you just have to go down to the post office and buy the bubble wrap. All of the sudden you're doing prints, like what I'm doing, and it's going around the world. Then you have to worry about logistics. So where are you going to buy the bubble wrap from?
John: Exactly. Like with the fire bowls, they go freight. Selling one, that's a thing. Selling hundreds of them, that's another thing. You have to build relationships.
Hugh: Exactly. Because the online crowd are used to Amazon, they have hundreds of billions of dollars in the bank, and they can spend all the money on logistics that they want. But someone like you in Northern Michigan, you have a little shop and a cutting tool and your word. You are as beholden to the same expectations as Amazon is. But John T. Unger doesn't have some logistics guys making $800,000 a year.
John: That's right. [laughs]
Hugh: People are used to the Amazon service, and you've got to work with that. You can't go, "Well, I'm just an artist from Northern Michigan." You've got to work with that. And here in West Texas, I've got the same thing. I sell a buttload of prints. And they want the magic moment. They want the stuff to arrive on time, and they open it and it's flawless and they hang it on their wall. And they take a picture of it and put it up on whatever it's called, Twitpic.com, or whatever. They want all that.
Your real customers are those who respect the value of your work
Hugh: The thing about selling stuff cheap is all of a sudden you become cheap.
John: …I have customers who come to me, and they're like, "Can you cut me a deal?" Generally speaking anymore, I say no. I'll do a payment plan, but I won't do a deal, because A) I'm going to sell it anyway to somebody who's willing to pay full price, but B) more importantly, the people who want a deal are usually more labor intensive. They're the ones that complain or that once you make that one concession…
Hugh: It also is like, if I give you a deal, I'm disrespecting people who paid full price.
John: Absolutely, because 99% of the people that buy from you pay full price, and are happy with that. And then somebody else gets a deal, and they're like, "Oh, what about me?" That 99% that actually paid full price is your real market. Those are your customers.
Honor is creating long term value
John: One of the things you did that I think is brilliant, right, is in the sidebar on your blog you've got a little stock ticker thing that shows the price the prints debuted at and the price they're commanding now. And it's just a little stock ticker that says, "Look the price is going up." And it's so subtle, right, and so hard to argue with. And it's like, Oh my god, I'd better get one right now while I can still afford it.
Hugh: I don't want to just leave it at that, because there's also a sense of love for the community where it says, "Hey, I'm selling this stuff, but I'm selling this stuff in the presumption that it will move up in price. Not as a investment for you, but because it's honorable. It might move up over time."
Hugh: So I was saying that wasn't like, "Hello, potential customer, here's an investment opportunity for you." It's more of an honor thing. "You good people spend the time and trouble buying my stuff, I want to give you an indication, emotional or whatever, that you didn't waste your money." OK? It's like if you buy my print and sell it on open market, you can probably get more for it. That's not about economics, that's about honor. I always try to sell my prints at a lower price than people can sell them if they want to resell them. I want to sell my prints for less than they're going to sell them for later. Because it's like how lame would it be if you sell a print to somebody for $100, or a $125, in my case, and then they can't, whatever, they lost their job or whatever, and then decide they have to cut back and have to sell it, and can only get $30 bucks for it.
To me it's much more interesting if they can buy it from me for $125 and then hold onto it for five years and then sell it for $750. That's good. That's win/win. Not just in economics or investments, that's honor. I gave you something for less than it was worth because I wanted to, I could.
Without art, an apocalypse…
Hugh: My thing is like, my best customers are pretty famous and pretty rich. I could namedrop them, but I'm not going to do that. But at the same time, I'll give a drawing to a waitress here in West Texas and say, "look, hang onto that, OK? And if times get really tough, go on eBay and you'll be able to pay your rent for a couple months."
It's weird because I don't have any trouble with that, art as currency. And people who have trouble with that, I actually despise, because what artists make is valuable, don't you think?
John: Well it is, and it's funny because one of the little tag lines that got massively retweeted on Twitter that I sent recently was, "Everybody tells you you'll never make a living as an artist, and the minute you do, they tell you that you've sold out."
Hugh: If art didn't exist, the human race would fucking die within a generation, OK? I won't say every artist matters but it's like, oh god! I mean the Bible. When you try to be nice to somebody some bums come along and nail you to a tree, OK? It's like, Oh, wow, why don't you have a real job? It's like well, real jobs suck and they don't pay very much, OK?
Take yourself seriously
John: OK, I got a question for you from Twitter. Giesla Hoelscher asks, "What do you think was the tipping point that changed your career and made you a recognized artist?"
Hugh: I decided to start taking myself seriously.
John: Yeah, that's pretty much what my guess would have been. The day when you actually put a price on stuff and made it available. And said OK you've been able to look at it on the web for free, but now you can hang it on your wall.
Hugh: Every artist has to make that point. Every artist who wants to be successful, or even be prosperous, or even make a living, you need to say, "Look, my shit has value, and if you don't believe that, then I don't need you in my space."
John: Well, if you don't believe it as an artist, nobody else is going to believe it.
Intermediaries don't matter
Hugh: My most important thing is the intermediaries don't matter. The gallery people, the art critics, the journalists don't matter. What matters is people who dig your stuff. Who are intelligent and enlightened and want to give you money. Worry about them. Don't worry about intermediaries. Don't worry about the journalists, or the gallerists. Just worry about, OK, who's fucking cool, who can afford my art, who wants to give me money? And just work on them. Or just, don't even work on them. Just say, those are the people, the people...
John: Worry about the people that support you. Which is both financial and there's a lot of people who talk about you and probably haven't bought your stuff but have probably helped you sell stuff, right?
Hugh: Sure, sure. Yeah. I mean, real allies. There are so many people out there who are just waiting for that person to come along and go, "Sign this piece of paper, boy. We'll make you a star." Actually, those people aren't going to help you. The people that are really going to help you are the ones who really put their cojones into supporting your art.
John: Well, a good metaphor, right, is you've got the tour promoter for a rock band who's like, "I'll book you all the great gigs, " or whatever. But then if you're Iggy Pop and you leap off the stage into the crowd, it's actually the crowd that holds you up and keeps you from smacking your head.
Hugh: Well yeah, the crowd actually cares about you.
John: Right, because they paid their money and got into the show or they snuck in the back door, or whatever. But they did whatever they had to do to come to the show because they love what you do.