During the 2014 SURTEX show, I participated in one of the conference sessions titled AGENT OR NOT?

Here is the description from the class:

So you love creating terrific art & design, but not too keen on identifying and prospecting clients to buy or license your work, or dealing with clients on a day-to-day basis?  It’s a unique individual who can do it all, which is why agents (and agencies) exist to handle the business side of things. Come learn what an agent can do for you, how the relationship works, including how they get paid, and how to select the right agent for yourself.  You’ll hear first-hand experiences from all perspectives – a successful agent, along with one of their artists, as well as a successful artist who does it all by herself. Then decide for yourself how to approach the future of your business.

It was a panel discussion with Penny Sikalis – the SURTEX show manager, Gary Levine – an agent and owner of Roaring Brook Art, Sarah Linkey – an artist represented by Gary, and myself – the artist who does both the art and the marketing.

Agent or Not? Surtex conference panel

It was really interesting.  I believe there were about 80 artists in attendance and towards the beginning Penny asked for a show of hands – how many artists want an agent?  An overwhelming amount of hands went up – I’d say about 90% of the crowd.  I had expected there to be more undecided artists in the audience…

If you were in the audience I promised to share two things with you:

One thing that I mentioned in the class is that if you do decide to go it alone, it’s good to bring in outside help from time to time.  I recently hired a marketing expert to look over my art website and give me feedback and suggestions about what could be better.  Since I’ve been doing it for over 10 years it was great to get a fresh perspective – from someone who really knows what works – on my site.

I promised to share her info – her name is Michelle McCullough.  You can find her at SpeakMichelle.com – and click on Strategist.  As luck would have it, she will be our guest on the September Ask Call sharing her fabulous tips for time management.

Second – I mentioned the database software I had created that is available for artists – the Art Licensing Manager software.  You can learn more at www.ArtLicensingInfo.com/database.html – be sure to get the trial version to play with before you go all in and buy it.  It is sold and managed through the developer at Camp Software but I do get a commission for sales. (Thank you in advance – trust me, you don’t want to pay someone to create this from scratch – ouchie!)

Gary and Sarah are a great example of an agent – artist relationship that WORKS – and from what I could gather, works really, really well!  So much so that at one point I was ready to turn my chair over to someone else and sign up with Gary!  I have heard about many examples of agent – artist relationships that go from great to horrible and everything in between.  It reinforces my belief that this sort of relationship is very much like marriage – most go in with good intentions and everyone gets different results.  To get good results – communication is key and both parties being invested in the relationship is a must.

When the agent – artist relationship is working, both sides feel like they have the better end of the bargain.

Art Licensing Agent relationshipThe artist is happily creating and the agent is finding deals for the art and everyone is making a living.  The agent does the relationship building, the marketing, the trade shows, the phone calls, the contract negotiations… they keep their eye on royalties and keep the books.  The artist continues creating, studying the market place and paying attention to what sells and what they can offer to the market that is unique and will be embraced by consumers.  (And when I say “embraced” I don’t just mean pinned on Pinterest, photographed and put on Instagram, liked on Facebook or +1 on Google+  – I mean they will OPEN THEIR WALLETS AND BUY IT.

Then there are many artists like myself – those who decide they want to both build & steer the ship and do it all on their own.  This works when you consistently work both sides of the equation.

To succeed in art licensing without an agent requires a certain skill set many artists don’t ever wish to develop.  (and that’s ok – that is why their art agents!)

  • You have to do it all – create the art, keep your eye on the market and decide what to create next from the very long list of ideas most artists have in their heads.
  • You also have to consistently market your business – nourish the relationships you have with manufacturers and retailers and build new ones.
  • Keep your finger on the pulse of who is reviewing what and when so your art arrives at the right time and not the week after the decision has been made.
  • You decide if and when you are ready to exhibit at a trade show and then you pay all the associated bills that come with it.  You do the prep, the marketing, man the booth and hopefully become overwhelmed with follow up.

Basically – an artist who successfully represents themselves becomes good at juggling all the pieces of the business and doesn’t focus on one to the detriment of the other.  If all you do is create, you will run out of licensing deals.  If all you do is market, you will run out of art that is “new and fresh”. (This business is all about “what do you have that’s new?”)

Choosing to work with or without an agent is not a one time decision.

While it can feel very overwhelming trying to decide which way to go – remember that it isn’t FOREVER.   That doesn’t mean you go into it thinking it will only last “until you get established” though either.

I believe an artist should enter a relationship with an agent like they would enter into a marriage – take it seriously and hope that it will last forever because it works so well!

review all of your art licensing contractsIf it doesn’t work, you can end the contract but the relationship usually doesn’t end when you decide to part ways.  Think of it like a divorce with kids involved – you will be ‘connected’ for a while and still paying even after the split.  Even if the split is somehow ugly and neither of you can stand each other… (trust me, it happens!)  Here is why – the agent has been marketing your work and making companies aware of your art for the time they have been your agent.  That’s relationship collateral that they have built up… it doesn’t just automatically revert to you.  This is also where your initial contract is SO IMPORTANT – before you sign, make sure you fully understand what happens if you split.

Some contracts will say you can’t approach a company AT ALL about any art – old or new – for a certain length of time. (Often 2-5 years)  Some contracts will say that any deals signed as a result of a presentation pre-split will have a royalty split the same as if it was signed during the agent-artist relationship.

Basically – you don’t just say you want to leave and never have to hear from or pay the agent again.  Here’s a song that sums it up:

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If you are undecided about which is best for you – AGENT OR NOT? – I don’t have a magic ball to tell  you yes or no and if yes, who… but I do have a personal assessment that might shed some light on it for you.

CLICK HERE to download the questionnaire and answer the questions honestly – not how you think you should feel but how you honestly feel.  (There is no right or wrong and you don’t have to turn it in or share it with the group!)  When you are done there is a link on the questionnaire to help you interpret your results.

If you look at the tabs on this blog there is one that says “Find an Agent” – there are over 30 art licensing agents who have requested to be included (the requested part is important – it means they are always in search of new talent!) – it’s a great place to start in your search for an agent if that is the way you decide to go.

Whatever you decide – I wish you much success!

– Tara Reed

P.S.  Because a contract with an agent will have a big and long-term effect on your business (hopefully for the better!) I always recommend artists have them reviewed by an attorney or someone with a lot of experience before signing it.  (Maria Brophy is great for any kind of contract reviews!)  We also have co-authored an ebook – How to Understand Art Licensing Contracts if you are ready for that knowledge. 🙂