RESPECT YOUR COLLECTORS Part 3: Don’t Knock Yourself Off!

Don’t knock yourself off…
Setting the bar too low may bang the wrong heads.

This article was originally published on the on the Five Art Views blog January 6, 2011.)

The series continues: Exploring the dark side of expanding our income streams from our art…

I knew someone who made cast bronze items, museum quality stuff. His prices reflected that. He was quite the businessman, too. I always appreciated his insights and comments.

When the economy started to falter, he decided on a new course of action.

Artists find knock-offs of their original work for sale at discount big box stores. Why let the knock-off companies profit from our hard work? And why bother struggling to sell the four- and five-figure pieces when you could make a killing selling a jillion pieces for $20?

He wouldn’t wait to be knocked off; he’d simply beat the copycats to the punch.

His plan: a) find a quality casting company in China to mass produce his products; b) create a jillion knock-offs of his own product; c) sell them to those same big box stores, taking a profit of a dollar or two on each piece; d) get out. Oh, and e) retire a multi-millionaire.

It was a big and brash idea. But it sounded like it could work. What could possibly go wrong?

Another friend in the industry told me exactly what could go wrong. The idea was not new–he’d worked with artisans who’d gone that route. He said they’d had the same idea–get in, making a bundle, get out. But like most ‘get rich quick’ plans, it’s just not that easy.

He told me of low-quality finished work that doesn’t match the enticingly well-made manufacturer’s samples; of orders lagging behind schedule, or shipments held up in customs, creating missed deadlines–all resulting in the big-box stores cancelling their orders. Overseas manufacturers demanding more money halfway through the production, knowing they have you over a barrel.

Worse, some artists had their own knock-offs, knocked off by the overseas manufacturer before their ‘original’ knock-offs even hit the market.

The horror stories were endless. Even the people who had some success, still lost. “It’s gambling with your business, and like gambling, it’s addictive. ‘Just one more order, and I’m out’. Except some big box stores will suck you in with a big first order. You think it really could be that easy. You try again. Then, when you’re fully committed to a second order, they’ll negotiate a lower price, knowing you have everything to lose if the order falls through. It’s a losing battle, trying to undercut those markets, both here and overseas”, my friend said. “Anything—and everything—can go wrong. Then you’re left with no money, no orders, and a boatload of crappy product.”

And that’s not the worst of it.

Wait…what’s worse than losing your shirt?
Losing your credibility. Losing your reputation.

And losing the respect of your collectors.

I can attest to the “respect of your collectors” part. Because, as a collector, that’s happened to me.

There was a mixed media artist whose work I LOVED. I can’t afford her more spectacular pieces, but I spent a couple hundred dollars for a small piece. I was proud to own even a small piece of her work. And I wanted to support her art.

I watched her reputation grow. Her work was published. Then she published a book on her techniques; she taught workshops, produced videos. She began to sell her components online.

A few months ago, I walked into a big-box craft store. My jaw dropped when I found a line of cheap, mass-produced versions of her unique components on display. My first thought was that she’d been knocked off.

Then I checked the packaging. Her name was featured prominently. She’d knocked herself off. She’d developed an entire line for the low-end market.

And now everyone can make something that looks just like hers.

Worse, I found the same components used in my piece. Even worse, the items were marked down for clearance.

I respect this person’s right to decide her own course of business. She may have financial needs I can’t imagine. Perhaps she’s discontinuing this style of work, and simply wants to wring out the last drops of income she can from it. Ultimately, she has the right to do anything she wants. Part of me wishes her every success—she’s worked hard and she deserves it.

But here’s how it felt to the ‘collector’ me: I felt cheated.

If a minor collector like me feels that way, I can’t imagine how her major collectors feel, those who invested thousands of dollars in her original work.

Me? I’ve turned down opportunities and suggestions to “eliminate my production time” and “create a less detailed, less expensive product”, allowing me to sell to a larger market. When money gets tight, those suggestions are tempting.

But in the end, I always say no. I’ve thought carefully about where that would take me. I just don’t want to go there.

I don’t care if only a few hundred or a couple thousand people in the world ever own an original ‘Luann Udell’. As a friend said years ago, “Just because there’s a demand for your work, doesn’t mean you have to paper the world with your art.” (I’m not sure you can ‘paper’ the world with fiber art, but I got what she meant.) Even if there is rising demand for your work, you don’t have to respond by mass-producing it. Even if people say they ‘can’t afford it’, I don’t have to respond by creating cheaper versions of it.

If it were only about the money, then perhaps the path would be easier, straighter, and more clear. And money is important, no doubt about that. But for me, it never has been ‘just about the money’.

And so perhaps the decisions are harder, the path to success is longer, and there are more turns to negotiate. But that’s the path I’ve chosen to walk in my life.