• Fri, Aug 12 2011

Bullish: How To Make Money From Being Hip As All Fucking Hell

When I was a kid, I assumed that everyone on television was rich. Because showing off your dancing beagle on whatever program was the ‘80s equivalent to The Ellen DeGeneres Show obviously represents both a huge financial windfall as well as a sustainable business model.

We now live in an era in which it is painfully clear that fame does not equal money. Ashley Hebert made $30,000 for The Bachelorette (a tiny fraction of what she’ll soon be making as a dentist). All the other Real Housewives are jealous that Bethenny Frankel actually had a business plan all along, and a product (Skinnygirl Margarita) that other human beings would actually like to purchase for their own pleasure and consumption. I was in a pilot for a TV show on a major network and was to be paid a few thousand dollars per season if it took off – the idea being that, obviously, being a logic expert who helps people figure out how to steal cake would help me to advertise similar services in real life.

I’ve written before about how being attractive is helpful, but does not translate into money as readily as a person might think. Being awesome (or hip, cool, popular, famous, etc.) also does not just convert itself into money the way one might assume.

I received a question recently from a reader I’ll call “Madeleine Albright.” (Go here for questions from “Daria” and “Lisa Simpson.”) Madeleine is doing awesome work – and surrounded by starving artists.

Hi, Jen. I have a career dilemma, and as an avid fan of Bullish, I hope that maybe you can help me.

I’m 24, and a photographer. I moved to LA about two years ago to shoot circuses. My parents have been fully supportive of my life decisions despite the fact that, while there are many ways to make a good living as a photographer, photographing tiny circus troupes with no budget isn’t really one of them.

In my time in LA, I’ve met several photographers who share my particular niche, and upon getting to know them better I’ve come to realize that many of them are still living paycheck to paycheck, despite being extremely well-established, talented and good with their money. It frightens me. Is this my future?

When I first moved here, I often worked for trade. I’ve gotten thousands of dollars worth of circus classes and private lessons in everything from tightwire to playing the drums. It was pretty neat to expand my horizons, but once I finally got to the point where people knew me and knew my work was good, I started asking for money. I considered my fees wildly low; I’d ask for $100 to shoot a dance show, for example, when one of the more established photographers I know would charge $350 for such a job. Headshots for $75. Anything to help pay the rent.

And people wouldn’t pay it. Not only that, my asking for any kind of money, from anyone, turned into me being banished from their world. People would stop returning my calls and emails just because I was asking what I considered an exceptionally fair price for something that I went to college for and worked hard on. Often if I did get a reply it was along the lines of “Oh my rabbi’s nephew just bought a camera and he’ll shoot my wedding for free”, and suddenly I’d be out the $500 that was going to pay my rent that month.

Oh, starving artists working for starving artists! I once told my mom that I didn’t believe in her Avon business, because she was only selling products to other housewives who didn’t have any money either and who would later expect a quid pro quo when they had Tupperware or naughty-lingerie parties that she would then be obligated to attend and patronize, thus wiping out the month’s $30 profit. My mom was not interested in hearing this from a twelve-year-old.

So, let’s dive in – and let’s talk about how you can actually make money from being awesome, because a lot of awesome people in this world are totally fucking broke, and other awesome people are doing really well, and it’s obviously not all about the art.

You can’t make money from people who don’t believe in capitalism at all.

I know a wee bit about circus troupes. They tend to function under a sort of “all for one and one for all” ethic (hey, I saw Freaks).

Maybe this is artistically beneficial and creates a sense of camaraderie. I don’t know. But, financially, an everyone-in-this-troupe-is-equal ethic is great for beginners, an impediment to those trying to get ahead, and absolutely demoralizing for mature performers wondering how they’re ever going to live without a roommate.

I have heard many a tale of woe from, for instance, the dancer who choreographs (and dances in) a performance for twelve dancers, and ends up getting paid the same as the guy they found on the street and recruited because he was strong enough to lift four people at the same time for thirty seconds somewhere towards the end. We’re all in this together! By which we mean that, the harder you work, the less per hour you will actually end up making in the end! Yay incentives!

Obviously, Madeline is not, herself, in a circus troupe. But color me unsurprised that circus troupes refuse to pay for photography. They often barely pay people who dangle from cables by their teeth.

Furthermore, shitty photographers will happily photograph circus shows for free, and broke people always accept a shitty free thing over a higher-quality alternative that costs even a very small amount of money. It’s a knee-jerk reflex I well remember from back when I used to instinctively buy the very smallest, cheapest package of everything (8 trash bags! Fun-size Miracle Whip!), even though I knew those were the worst deals. (See Bullish Life: How to Be Broke Without Going Crazy and Bullish: Think More Productively About Money.)

People who have been broke for a long time don’t know anything besides crisis mode. Your arguments cannot win against a person’s deep-seated fear. People who don’t have health insurance are simply not good prospects for professional photographers.

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