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. Here’s a question about just that:

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 (sorry, Mom!)

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, the question writer 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.

It is also very likely that performers are interested in photography of their events for rather different reasons than the question writer or the general public would be interested. When people take photos of presentations I do, I want the photos to make me look good and to show exactly what I’m doing in a way that will help sell the presentation to another, future buyer. Shots that a professional would discard due to an undesirable shadow are sometimes exactly the ones I want; the ones with perfect composition and lighting often just don’t show anything that is useful to me.

What I’m saying is that if someone photographs my presentation, I’d rather have a moderately-talented person snap 200 images than an extremely talented person take 8 perfect photos. It’s like when you’re shopping on Etsy or eBay – the artsy photos often don’t show you the merchandise as well as the less professional (but dead-on) ones.

So, in terms of making money from circus troupes themselves – well, obviously that’s not working. It’s not even as though there is some other, more famous or experienced circus-troupe photographer out there who is making a good living doing circus photography. There’s no endgame here.

I don’t mean to bum anyone out – I mean to offer alternatives!

But in order to open new paths, you have to close yourself off to old ones. You have to make space. You have to stop painfully pursuing people who never wanted to be your clients. It sucks, it hurts, and it makes you feel unappreciated for the efforts you’ve made so far. Losing a business model – like losing a dream or a relationship – is worth a little grieving period.

The best you can hope for from the circus troupes themselves is probably to try to become an honorary member, and thus get paid a “fair share” (in quotes – it should be pretty obvious what I think about this manner of “motivating” people). Perhaps you could become the official documentarian of some troupe, and receive whatever cut is doled out to the members.

Even this seems … unlikely.

You will need a new business model.

You can rarely charge directly for coolness; you must practice coolness arbitrage.

Even among the highly successful, it is often the case that prestigious gigs don’t pay well. Vogue covers don’t pay. Performers at the Grammys get union scale (and access to swag). These gigs are loss leaders. That is:

1) It is very hard to make money being cool around other cool people.

2) It is very easy to make money being cool around uncool people.

3) In order to do this, you have to build up your reserves of coolness at a financial loss.

4) You must then meet less cool people and exchange your coolness for money.

Here, I’m defining “coolness” as whatever quality some people, somewhere, think is cool. I’m not passing artistic judgment. Said another way:

“Coolness arbitrage” is absorbing hipness from people who have hipness but no money, and then selling this hipness to people who have money but no hipness.

This is a time-honored business model. Here is James Brown shilling for Japanese noodles. I know an event planner who booked Justin Bieber for a bat mitzvah for only the cost of a middle-class home. There are club owners in the Middle East who consider flying a Kardashian to Dubai a reasonable publicity expense. Hell, even Beyonce was once willing to perform for Gaddafi for $2 million.

It is totally possible to do this in a not-too-cheesy manner, without dancing for dictators. I know someone who runs a burlesque troupe that puts on awesome events in bars (for sweaty $10 bills), which allows the troupe to do PG-rated, much less awesome shows for corporations (for thousands). I don’t consider this selling out; a burlesque performer whose corporate gigs allow her to afford health care is going to be much less likely to burn out, and this is likely to redound to the artistic merit of the shows that still take place in bars. It’s a healthy interdependence of income streams. (See Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business.)

To successfully practice coolness arbitrage, you must find customers who are totally unlike you, and treat them with respect.

Keep in mind that your customers who pay you in part due to your massive hipness need not necessarily be soulless corporations or wealthy douchebags; they can be totally excellent people who make fantastic contributions to the world, but work as CPAs, are required to wear neckties, have a couple of kids and thus don’t get out much, etc. These people are not necessarily bad.

(If you hate all rich people, you will certainly sabotage your own finances at every turn. Find a wealthily-awesome role model. I mean, do you hate Mindy Kaling? Pretty sure she’s rich now, and rightly so. See Bullish: How to Make Money as an Artsy-Artist Commie Pinko Weirdo, Part I and Part II).

Recently outside the Chelsea Market, I paid $30 for this t-shirt, sold by a woman being hassled by the police for her apparently illegal table. My companion agreed that the t-shirt was cool, but commented that $30 was a lot. I was delighted to pay it. (It’s a typewriter! It says “Tap that!” Come on!)

The thing about making cool hipster t-shirts is that cool hipsters like them but resent having to pay real money – because, after all, if they felt like it, and they sort of do, they could start their own screenprinting line and maybe they will and now they’re a little pissed off that you’re doing it and they certainly don’t want to give you $30. You are too much like them but you’re actually doing something and they resent you for it.

In Bullish: Doing Business With Friends (And Still Having Friends, and a Business), I wrote about way back when I did standup, and trying to get friends and other comedians to attend my standup shows:

After years of pestering friends into attending standup shows, I started lessening the “separation of church and state” and mentioning to contacts from my other businesses that I did standup. Most of my business contacts didn’t know any other comedians, so they thought this was pretty cool. One of them – Mr. Banker Guy – immediately hired me to do a birthday party for $400. I realized that, instead of making my friends pay $15 cover fees to comedy clubs (where I didn’t even get any of the money!), I should’ve been asking my friends if they knew any other people like Banker Guy.

 

In sum: Sell things to people who are looking to buy! End of story. You do not have the power to create a new market. If you were Apple, you could convince people they needed some type of crazy new tablet, because you would have millions of dollars for marketing and a huge existing customer base. But even Apple can’t really sell iPads to destitute people.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

Headshots for actors? Actors are, of course, notoriously poor. Instead: take free headshots of the most famous people you can so that your portfolio is amazing. Email major bands asking if the lead singer would like to be photographed, etc. (Plenty of people would be much more flattered by this offer coming from a circus photographer than from “just” a headshot photographer.) Once your portfolio contains famous people, start selling headshots to businesspeople. (Why is no one doing this? If I hired a headshot photographer, I’d kind of worry that I was being compared to models and actresses and that the photographer didn’t really want to be photographing me. So if someone advertised exactly what I needed, I’d feel all welcomed and invited and would come equipped with cash.) Specializing in making people look powerful, welcoming, and smart is probably a pretty good sideline. Likely more lucrative than making actresses look pretty.

One photographer I know started doing portraits of celebrities – first starting with pretty accessible people, like authors (if you type for a living, it’s sometimes surprising when someone really wants to see your actual face!), and ultimately getting some more mainstream celebs. Soon, he gets a call from a family in the suburbs of New York – “How much to photograph our children?” No one wants to go to the ‘burbs, so he quoted the first number that popped into his head. I think it might have been $3,000. “Great,” they said. Arbitrage at work.

If people out there are really into circus photography, but have no special connection to circuses or other impetus to hire you, maybe you could expand your business – maybe you could start an agency that supplied circus performers for weddings and corporate events, which you would then photograph. Of course, there are laws associated with acting as an agent – but there are also perfectly legal arrangements in which you work with existing agencies, or in which you simply have the client pay the performers directly without your taking a cut, and you build a “makin’ it happen” charge into your photography fees.

Whatever you decide to try, the question should always be, “Who, exactly, are the people who have money and are ready to spend it on this?”

If you are hipper than all hell and wondering when the money starts rolling in, I hope this column has put you on your way to some profitable arbitrage.

originally published on The Grindstone