On Being Creative and Making a Living

Inside: I’m a bad creative community member; Creating for free; Fame and fortune; Why I don’t want to do weddings; InstaRant

I am the world’s worst businessman. Did I break a social contract the other day?

jazzTruth: Minimum Wage

Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

And yet another! Wow. This sounds horrible.


I read two three articles by professional creatives — musicians, artists, writers — this morning. Two different perspectives on the same phenomenon, more or less.

Musicians aren’t making a living wage and are expected to carry the burden of not only performing, but publicizing, bringing in an audience, and creating a buzzworthy event. Many perform for “the door”, a percentage of the cover fee. To add insult to injury, many people who go to venues with music are expecting the music to be background music. In other words, they want to talk with their friends, hang out, and use their smartphones to their heart’s content. Might as well just go to a place with a DJ. Or a Pandora account.

Writers and artists are asked to contribute works for free in exchange for exposure or retweets. The comments on that NY Times article are great. I mean, it’s full of writers so … quality.

Photographers definitely face the same issue from what I’ve been reading.


Creativity has been democratized. That makes it harder to make a living being creative, though, because everyone thinks they’re a writer, musician, photographer, whatever. In a way, they’re right. There is a huge difference — and this is coming from someone who has been semi-professional-hobbying for years — between hobbyists (even serious hobbyists) and professionals. Still, that democratization diminishes the value of said creative product.

In the articles, the authors point out that people will ask a writer or photographer for free work, but would never think of asking someone to give them a haircut or beverage for free just because. It’s a fair point. There is a little difference. And people do ask businesses for free goods for charity all the time. Or to be sponsors even though the tangible benefits aren’t really quantifiable. Public image, exposure to the community, community interaction?

I guess it is different asking an established and highly profitable business for free services as opposed to a starving artist.


These articles struck me because I did exactly what they’re saying you shouldn’t do. I did a photo gig for a local organization. (This is NOT the kayak tour, by the way. ) No pay but social media promotion. I also signed a waiver/contract stating that the normal “I won’t sue if I get physically injured or maimed” and “I can’t make money off the photographs”. I think about it in two ways:

1. According to the articles this is a prime example of what not to do. Basically, I spent my own money to print out the waiver at Kinko’s, spent gas money to get there and back, took photos for two and a half hours, then spent another hour plus sifting through and editing the photos, and then created a space on my (non-free) photo site, turned off the ability to buy them (since I can’t financially profit from them), and made them downloadable. For exposure.

That’s not a good deal, really. I wonder if pro photographers see my name on something like that and hate me for selling out.

2. It was fun! It’s something I wanted to do and it’s challenging and the people are cool and down to earth. I got to try different ideas, different lenses, different angles of attack, different cameras. Well, I didn’t really hang out. In fact, it was one of the three things I’ve been looking forward to all week.

Not something I can justify doing regularly but you know. When it suits me.


I never expected to be rich or famous. It would be nice. I could do without the fame part. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to make a living off of music, writing or photography.

There’s a danger, though. As soon as you rely on creative output for survival-related money things get … tangled. The thing you’re passionate about becomes a job and a love-hate relationship.

Many of my good friends are professional musicians. Getting them to play music or to jam just for the fun of it was often a non-starter. Someone would throw a party with all of these great musicians — instruments everywhere — and no one would want to play. It’s totally understandable and yet it’s sad at the same time. The thing they loved to do and dreamed of doing professionally is not fun to do and feels like a chore.

I was never at pro level in my aspects, but I remember when I really needed the money from gigs and I drove all over the Bay Area, braving rush hour traffic through San Francisco, to Oakland, to Santa Cruz, San Jose and wherever else to play. In a way it was fun, but it was also stressful. My poor dog spent a lot of time alone while I was trying to make some scratch on the side or network.

I remember when I moved back East — back home with my parents and sisters — and was gigging and scouting out jam sessions and all that biz. If you know me musically you know that I kind of hate jam sessions. They’re a fine tradition and a good service to the musical community, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t like being there even as a spectator.

I was thankful for those gigs, for sure, but they were pragmatic and not necessarily artistically fulfilling or satisfying.

As more of my family and friends see my photos they’ll ask me about photoshooots. People ask about weddings and family portraits a lot.


I outright refuse weddings. There are too many moving parts, too many once in a lifetime moments, and the clients aren’t necessarily pleasant to be around. It’s a stressful day for everyone, especially when there’s an idea of “Everything has to be perfect! Or else”. I’ll leave that to those daring enough to take them on.

Also, I was at a wedding recently as a guest and was put off by so many people taking pictures with their smartphones. I was watching one woman taking pics and videos and then going online and sharing them via Facebook and Instagrams, texting and private messaging and commenting the whole time. It was crazy. Meanwhile, the professional photographer was trying to angle around people with their phones in the air, in the aisle, etc. Nuts.

I’ve never seen anything like it but I guess that’s kind of our culture now. Or part of it.

Later, I saw a photo someone uploaded and it was blurry and grainy. Typical indoor smartphone pic. The bride was in the frame, though. Someone replied, “Beautiful shot!”

I was like, “Whaaa??”

Because it was a horrible picture of a beautiful moment.


I do like taking photos of people but mainly candid shots. Or I like to take photos of people while they’re doing something they’re passionate about or that is interesting to them. I don’t care if it’s throwing an axe or knitting. Really.

DSC02937 DSC02882

I have bad memories of family portraits.

No one should ever be forced to smile. Very few can smile convincingly on command (except for service industry people). If you’re taking photos and you have to bully someone into smiling you should just stop. Because the picture is going to suck. Now, if you can cause them to smile naturally by engaging them like a human being — that’s cool. That also takes time, though.

I DO like taking family and group portraits when everyone is into it. Or when it’s a family or group of fun people, which I’ve been lucky to have been around recently. Hopefully that’s not as rare as I think it is.


I still don’t get Instagram. It doesn’t help that installing iOS 7 killed the rear camera on my iPhone. So I have to download a photo I’ve uploaded somewhere else and then put it on Instagram and the location of the photo gets lost along the way. But my tech issues aside, there are so many bad photos on there.

And those filters. Slapping mood on a bad photograph doesn’t make it a good photograph. I’m all for everyone being a photographer but damn. Come on.

I keep coming across blurry ass photos with Old West color applied and then see all the comments: “Great photo!”, “Great shot!”

Like the wedding photo of the bride I mentioned above. A bad photo of a beautiful moment is still a bad photo. Granted, that doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful and special to the person who took it. But wow.

If I could create a new rule it would be that filters can only be applied to “good” photos. It’s subjective but there would have to be good composition, interesting subject, clarity or intentional blurring. If the photo is going be unclear, blurry and grainy — like too many casual shots are — then something interesting or a special moment has to be captured. (I think that in a few years smartphone cameras are going to improve their quality drastically and really give photographers a run for their money. But don’t believe the hype. We’re not there yet.)

Having said that, there are a few people who make me want to use Instagram more. I look forward to their posts. One friend, I like to look at the map of her photos. Zoom into an area and the placemarkers expand out and it feels like a journey to explore. It’s more like photo journalism.

Another takes pics just about every morning. It’s like a ritual and it’s artful, colorful, with a sense of interest (foreground, background, interesting placement, framing of the subject) and reflective abstraction. Apply filters to those photos and that’s where mood and atmosphere come from. That’s when a filter makes a photo feel immersive or emotional.

There are some kickass smartphone photographers out there.

Another friend is funny and has a sharp eye for life’s visual quirks.

And some friends are just capturing their good times. Sometimes their photos are great and other times … meh.


Of course, despite my opinions it does my heart good to see so many people sharing their thoughts and experiences with each other. Express yourself. Create something. Try to get better at the act of creating so you can get as close as possible to enacting your vision or capturing the moment.

Show the world your best in-the-mirror selfie but in a way that is either new to the world or unique to you. Do a duck face with an actual live duck or something. I dunno. Whatever you’re going to do, do it well.

One day we wont all be smartphone photographers. We’ll all be great photographers.

And as scary as it is, the only way to stand out and make a living will be through ideas and concepts that speak to lots of people. (And then people will find a way to cynically manipulate the public and make their stuff go viral and create fame and recognition but hey … welcome to it.)

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