John T. Unger is one of the few — an artist who makes a living from his work, without the traditional gallery system.
He also didn’t win a fat grant, or find a rich benefactor. Instead, over years of disciplined work, he found a way to create art that satisfied him creatively while also finding a home with happy buyers. And he’s creatively used the web as a way to find more of those buyers, and get his work into more homes and businesses.
John hasn’t done a podcast interview in quite some time, preferring to spend his time on his work (both the creative and business sides), so I’m really pleased he was willing to join us for this one.
One word of warning: We conducted this interview by phone, so the sound quality is workable but not studio-quality.
In this 29-minute episode, John and I talked about:
- How to deal with the problem that the world doesn’t “need” your art
- The ever-evolving nature of John’s business
- The benefits of seeing the business side of art as your “day job”
- The eternal question for artists of selling out vs. making a living
- When and why to actively seek out boredom
- The advice he gives to younger artists and musicians who are just starting out
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. ~ Gustave Flaubert
The Show Notes
- John T. Unger’s studio site
- Art Heroes Radio, John’s podcast archives about the business of art
- The artist Charles Culver
- Books by Austin Kleon, including Steal Like an Artist
- You can follow John on twitter @johntunger
Business and Marketing for Artists and Creative Workers, Part One
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Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone, and these are The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I am a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.
I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.
Today, I am awfully pleased to be talking with John T. Unger about marketing for more creative outputs because I get a lot of questions from musicians, novelists, painters, cartoonists, about, “This is all fine for dentists and graphic designers, but I don’t see how it applies to me.”
I am chuffed to have you. John, welcome.
John T. Unger: Thank you, Sonia. I’m glad to be here.
Sonia Simone: I want to kick off, for people who don’t know you yet, if you could tell people what you do because you’re not only an artist, but you’re working in a medium that’s not watercolors or it’s not something that people are so familiar with.
John T. Unger: Right. I’m a sculptor primarily, but 10 years ago, on the 30th of May, I came up with the Great Bowl O’ Fire, which is a flame-designed firebowl or fire pit. The stock language here would be, “Sculptural Firebowls handmade by artist John T. Unger are luxury fire features valued for exceptional beauty, craftsmanship, and design.” They’re made from recycled steel.
That really changed my art career trajectory quite a bit. I made the first one. I thought it was a one-off. I thought it was a cool idea. I put it on the Internet. It got picked up on Boing Boing and a bunch of other sites. Now, 10 years later, I’ve shipped almost 1,700 of them to all 50 states and 16 or 17 other countries. I’ve lost track. I may have to go back and get a proper number on that.
How to Deal With the Problem That the World Doesn’t ‘Need’ Your Art
John T. Unger: They really took off. Part of the reason is because they’re really well-made and they’re really beautiful. Part of the reason is because they’re not just sculpture, but they’re also functional. They serve a purpose. The way that I’ve marketed them is a little different than you would fine art.
Sonia Simone: Yeah. To use Godin’s much over-used adjective, they are ‘remarkable.’ People say, “Oh, that’s cool.” It’s kind of art, and it’s kind of function. It’s all of them together.
John T. Unger: Yeah. One of our biggest challenges was, of course, we immediately had a bunch of knockoffs. We’ve spent incredible time and energy and money stopping that, not because we’re worried about losing sales, per se, as much as because customer service is a huge part of what we do.
People who do knockoffs are less concerned with that. They’re often a little more fly-by-night — looking to make a quick buck, not looking to make a global reputation that’s going to stand the test of time. Were it a credible copy, it could be mistaken for my work. If somebody had a bad experience, they would think that they had it with me. That’s why we have a really good copyright lawyer on speed dial.
Sonia Simone: Not really nice, but useful.
John T. Unger: Yeah, we quite like him as well. He’s fun to hang out with and a pleasure to do business with, and very effective. That’s one of those things, though. Part of what has enabled me to make a living in the arts is that I have something that’s very unique and that we keep it that way. Using the Internet and all of that gives us a global platform. I can talk about different segments of that because there’s some interesting stuff.
What can I say? We have a great product, and we really have taken so much time to write clear content for the site, get a good design for the site, and work with other people to improve that. That makes a big difference.
Sonia Simone: Yeah, I agree. Let’s dive into a little nitty-gritty. I’ll kick off with a point I touched on earlier. When you’re in a creative space, people don’t ‘need’ what you have. They don’t need a painting. They don’t need a piece of music. They don’t actually need a pair of $1,200 shoes, either. This is what I think of as the ‘desire sliver’ of the marketing world. Some people sell orthodontia or personal training, and then some people sell things that create desire because they exist. Nobody knew they wanted an iPhone until they saw an iPhone.
John T. Unger: Right.
Sonia Simone: It wasn’t about what it did.
John T. Unger: Although everybody always wanted a tricorder and was just waiting for the iPhone to come.
Sonia Simone: That’s true.
John T. Unger: They wanted it. It just wasn’t there.
Sonia Simone: Yeah. That’s what the artist in a way, an artist with an eye to the audience. Some people are really creating for expression and to find their own search for meaning, and that’s awesome. But we’re talking about people who are looking for an audience, who would like to own your art, and pay you money for it — creating that desire is a big part of it.
The Benefits of Seeing the Business Side of Art as Your ‘Day Job’
John T. Unger: Part of why I got into making art is because, when I was less successful financially, I loved art. I wanted to own art. I couldn’t afford the kind of stuff I wanted, so I made my own versions of that. The more of it I made, the more it piled up, and the more I got good at it. I was working in design until the big dot-com crash, and at that point, I was like, “Instead of learning to do something else sensible, I’m going to do the art thing because that’s what I want to do, and I’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
I know people who went to art school, and they miss it because they don’t have deadlines. What I did was made my deadline “the bills are paid by the end of the month, and I’m doing it with art.” That was my deadline. The other thing I figured out was, prior to that, I was working 30 or 40 hours a week in an office and then another 40 hours a week making art. I was sleeping four hours a night.
If I took those eight hours where I would have had a job and spent all of that time learning and implementing the business and marketing needed to sell the art, I was better off. Really, who wants a day job? In a way, or at least in your audience, I suspect, there are not a lot of people who want a day job.
Sonia Simone: Probably not. They ran away a long time ago.
John T. Unger: Yeah, the thing is, the firebowls effectively became my day job. Then I make other art that I care about or do other projects that I care about in the off hours. I just did this commission that was a 10-foot tall by 16-foot flag, an American flag made out of Budweiser caps. It was a beautiful object.
Sonia Simone: It was a really cool object, yeah.
John T. Unger: It was very cool. That took about four months of my time. The next project I want to do is a bunch of mosaics of 16th-century anatomy drawings in marble because marble happens to come in the same colors as the inside of people. You know? The exact same color palette, which is what makes it work. It’s interesting to me.
Sonia Simone: Interesting.
John T. Unger: But probably not highly marketable.
Sonia Simone: Maybe, right.
John T. Unger: But then again, that show with the plastinated people does really well in museums.
Sonia Simone: That’s right.
The Eternal Question for Artists of Selling Out vs. Making a Living
John T. Unger: Maybe it could be a touring exhibit. I don’t know yet. It’s just something I want to do for me, and the Firebowls. That’s one of the things I would say to artists if they want to make a living in art is it helps if you have something that you can make somewhat useful or that you find a niche that you know you can either reproduce or produce on a schedule to pay the bills. Then do the stuff that might be more experimental in your off hours.
Some people would call that selling out, but then again, when I started, everybody’s like, “Oh, you will never make a living as an artist.” Then when I did, they were like, “Oh, you sold out.” What it really boils down to is I don’t need to make either of those groups of people happy. If they’re not my customers, and even if they might be friends, it’s like, “Hey, that’s your take.” In the meantime, here I am making art for a living, which is what I wanted to do.
When and Why to Actively Seek Out Boredom
John T. Unger: One of the best pieces of advice that I can give to artists, and they’re not necessarily going to like it, is there’s this great Flaubert quote — I can’t remember it — something to the effect of, “Be boring in your life so you can be violent and original in your work.” I should have pulled it up beforehand to quote it properly. But the thing is, I’m not just making art. I’m running a global business. That can take up a lot of your time and get really overwhelming unless you come up with systems for it and get really organized.
The best way to explain it is, shipping these things was very expensive and very difficult in the beginning. They’re 200 pounds. You can’t use FedEx or UPS. You’ve got to use freight, so solving that problem, finding a good partner that gets your stuff where it needs to go reliably and on time affordably solved a huge problem. We’ve changed companies a few times over the years for different reasons. Once I’ve got that problem solved, I don’t have to think about it until there’s a problem. I can keep doing that, that way.
Building a website, one of the most important things I want to say to artists about a website is that a lot of the time I see artists’ websites where the navigation is really funky or unclear. It’s very cute or it’s very you, but it’s not very easy to navigate. I used to do my own design on all my websites. I did all my own code. I don’t anymore. I hire designers.
I hire people who write better code than I do because they can get it done faster. They can get it done better. They can make it easier for people to use. Their job is staying up on new trends on the web. I used to do that, but I don’t have to do that if I pay somebody. It’s expensive, but you don’t have to do it every year. Get it done. Get it really good. Like I said to you earlier, I’m thinking about redoing mine, but the last time I did was 2010 or something. It’s time to make it mobile responsive.
Sonia Simone: Yes, John. Yes it is.
John T. Unger: Because stuff changes.
Sonia Simone: The thing is, getting a designer, it’s a cost, for sure, but there’s a cost associated to somebody leaving your website because they have no idea how to navigate the interpretive dance of your navigation.
John T. Unger: Yeah.
Sonia Simone: That’s not the place for your originality, actually. Web navigation is a place to be really boring and predictable.
John T. Unger: It just really is. It goes back to that quote. Some stuff, get it really basic, get it really clean, and then show your creativity in the places where people want it. There’s a couple of things that are interesting that I’m going to tell you that are counter-intuitive.
The Ever-Evolving Nature of John’s Business
John T. Unger: Early on, back when I started this, back when there were 500 blogs in the world or something, I got a huge surge of traffic for something that I had done — like your basic viral thing, right? It wasn’t the thing I made a living on, and the people who came in to see it weren’t the sort of customers for the stuff that I do for a living. They were just curious. You know what I mean?
Sonia Simone: Yes.
John T. Unger: They came, and they looked, and they left. Out of 100,000 visitors, which was huge back then, nobody left a comment. Nobody bought anything. They all came and looked and left. That’s gratifying, but it doesn’t do anything for my business, right?
Sonia Simone: Right.
John T. Unger: When we promote this flag, I think we’re going to get kind of the same thing. We’re going to get a huge amount of traffic from people who are curious, but who are probably not necessarily our customer base. Even still, that’s worth something, but it doesn’t help your bottom line. Here’s the funny thing. We’re running a six-figure business, and on an average day, I get 100 unique visitors to my website — which is not very many.
Sonia Simone: No, it isn’t. I use you all the time as an example — you don’t need a massive email list if you have the right people on the list.
John T. Unger: Yeah, and what’s interesting is, a few years back, we had a sales rep, and we had somewhere over 100 different online stores reselling our work. It became a full-time job for her to make sure that the sales copy was accurate, the things had the right name on them, the price was correct, etc.
After a few years, I looked, and I was like, “Wow, out of those 100 stores, there are only about six that sell more than one a year, and most of them don’t sell any,” whereas I was selling 250 off of my little site that had no graphic. So we cut it down to the top six. Then a year ago, we cut it down to two. The only places I sell my work now are Frontgate and One Kings Lane.
Sonia Simone: Oh, cool. OK.
John T. Unger: Both of those are great places. They have a great reputation. They have a huge list of customers who go back to them that are not customers I have.
Sonia Simone: Right, right.
John T. Unger: They did a really nice volume for us last year, but in order to sell through those places, I’ve got to give them 50 percent of the retail and then take my expenses out of it, out of my half. We’re considering whether or not that is still a good idea for us.
Sonia Simone: Right.
John T. Unger: We could be exclusive to just us. We would lose some sales, but we’d be getting a full retail price on all of them, and I wouldn’t be losing customers to their sale days. That’s something I have got to give some thought to, but it goes hand-in-hand with selling on Etsy, for example, which a lot of artists do.
With Etsy, you’ve got massive people going to Etsy every day to shop, just millions of people. You’re being exposed to a huge group of people, but you’re also in competition with every other artist on the site. I’ve been selling on Etsy since I think the year they launched, but I typically get three to six sales, again, compared to a couple of hundred on my site. Would I stop selling on Etsy? No, because there’s no reason to stop. I might as well get those six sales.
Sonia Simone: Right.
John T. Unger: It hammers home the point I want to make to artists, that selling in a crowded marketplace is not necessarily your best — it’s easier than having your own site, but I would never be able to actually make a living doing just that.
Sonia Simone: I think that I know the answer to this, but do you consider yourself a marketer? Is that part of your self-definition?
John T. Unger: Yeah, because it’s so much of what we do. Right now I’m to the point where, one of these days, we’re going to write a house style guide so that when we hire other writers or something, we don’t have to keep correcting them. There’s a very specific way I communicate to the world.
Sonia Simone: Right. Yes there is, John. Yes there is.
John T. Unger: Casual, yet articulate. I learned lots from Seth and from Brian Clark, especially about writing back when Copyblogger was a new site. God, the best writing advice I ever got, in a lot of ways, came from Brian, year one.
Yes, we are marketers, but am I at a point now where I consider farming that out in different ways? Yes. If I want to put a press release out, I’ll get somebody who does that, has the lists, and has the PR accounts. I want to rebrand this studio as being part of the Hudson Valley art scene, because we moved here about a year and a half ago, and somebody with a lot of local media contacts would be a good person to go to for that.
Sonia Simone: Right.
John T. Unger: I’ll write the stuff, or else I’ll hire somebody to write it and then I’ll rewrite it 10 times.
Sonia Simone: Right. Sometimes it takes more time to have somebody else do the draft.
John T. Unger: I like having somebody do the draft for the structure, and then I’ll go in and put it in my language. That’s what works for me because I’m a better editor in some ways than writer. Anyway, yeah, definitely, marketing’s a huge part of what we do, and the business end of it, too. I was one of the first artists who was really selling on the web before Etsy came along, back when it was considered really crass to have any commercial aspect to a blog or a website.
Sonia Simone: Yes. Heresy, right? Blogs were supposed to be pure, about what you had for breakfast. They weren’t supposed to be like that.
John T. Unger: Yeah, yeah. I feel like I pioneered a lot of this stuff. Definitely, there are people making way more money doing it than me, but that’s OK because we’re doing fine.
Sonia Simone: Yeah. I’d love it if you want to talk a little bit about some of the specific things that work well for you in finding buyers for your work. You’ve already kind of let us know, for you, it’s not a big numbers game. It’s not lots of website hits. It’s not a big email list. It’s a very focused email list. Do you want to talk about some of the tactics, if you will, that you have found effective, that maybe other people might be able to try out?
The Advice John Gives to Younger Artists and Musicians Who Are Just Starting Out
John T. Unger: OK. One of the most important things is good photography, really good photos of your work. That can either be professional photos shot on a white background or it could be your work and aesthetic. To me, the firebowls make more sense to see in a garden setting.
Sonia Simone: Right.
John T. Unger: Really good photography, really good sales copy. When I say that, I’m talking about something a little different because I trained as a poet. I was a poet for 15 years before I did anything else, and even performed on stage alone, so I was great at being a poet. You just couldn’t get paid at all. Fortunately, a poet can live out of a backpack, but you only want to do that in your 20s.
It was fun in my 20s. It was great.
Anyway, for me, the sales copy needs to be somewhat poetic. It needs to tell a story. It needs to do more than say, “Oh, this is a thing you can use.” It needs to give people a reason to care about it and think about it as an object that’s going to last hundreds of years, and be part of their family, and probably become part of their family traditions.
So great photography, great writing, obviously, great design for your website and your newsletter. Again, typically, you probably want to work with a professional to tell them what you want, but take their advice and utilize their skills.
Using different markets — we do have One Kings Lane, we do have Frontgate, and we do have Etsy. A big one for us this year has been Houzz, which is a site all about home renovations and has a huge base of people who are specifically thinking about nothing but working on their house. That’s a great market for the firebowls.
It’s the first time we’ve ever actually spent money on advertising. I didn’t feel like I could compete with Home Depot for the keywords I need on Google AdWords. There’s no way. It’s just ridiculous, but on Houzz, it’s weird because their ads are all regional. They don’t do a national advertising plan, so you pick a couple areas where you think you’re going to do well. A week after we put up advertising on the site, we had sold enough to cover a year’s worth of advertising.
Sonia Simone: Nice.
John T. Unger: We feel like that’s working out for us. Video is a really great way to promote a lot of different kinds of art. Taking a page from Austin Kleon, talking about your process and how you do things, about what you do, and the why — that whole Show Your Work! thing is basically brilliant. It’s a cheap book. If you haven’t read it, go buy it. It’s good. It’s great.
For us, instead of advertising, we focused on press, too. If The New York Times writes about you, which it’s done twice for me, that says so much more than a paid ad. That’s somebody saying, “Oh, this person is noteworthy.”
Sonia Simone: Yeah. Going back to that Austin Kleon point because I have seen this. I’ve done a little bit of work helping art galleries with marketing the work that’s shown there. One of the things that I notice great art salespeople do is they tell the story of the piece because you give somebody that dinner-table bragging rights, right?
So there’s a piece of glass, a painting, or whatever it is, or even an MP3 that’s playing on a stereo, and they can say, “Oh, this is this guy I discovered, and he does this amazing process. He uses 28 different colors of glass that he gets from Venice, or this guy was Leonard Cohen’s valet” — whatever it is that’s in the story, the buyer has a bragging story to tell about how cool he is for buying this thing.
John T. Unger: One of my favorite pieces of art was done by an artist local to the area that we grew up in. He was a family friend. I never knew him because he died the year I was born, but Charles Culver. I had this portrait of a crow that was a portrait of my dad’s pet crow, Peter, who my bedtime story was about how Peter would fly across the street, grab the neighbors’ clothespins, take them on the roof, the neighbor would come out and shake his fist, and Peter would stand on the roof and say, “Go to hell. Go to hell.” That story explains so much of how I became who I am, frankly.
Sonia Simone: It does. I think that this crow is your spirit animal. I think it’s very possible.
John T. Unger: Yeah. It was one of the few things that I really wanted when my grandmother passed because she had it, and I got it. Before we left Michigan, I went to Charles Culver’s son and bought a bunch more of his work, but when people come into the house, that picture is in the dining room. The whole room is Charles Culver with a couple of other people. I tell that story — in a little more depth than we have time for here — and that makes the piece so much more meaningful.
Sonia Simone: Yeah.
John T. Unger: There’s different levels you appreciate art on. Some of it’s just visual. A lot of my collection is African and Haitian work, and I love the religious symbolism of all the things that are incorporated into the work. I love the way it looks. I love the story of where it came from, what purpose it may have served, because most of them have served some religious purpose.
On all those levels, art affects people. When you want to sell art to people, giving them that story about the piece or the artist or the materials — a good example, the Great Bowl O’ Fire, the firebowl I make with the flame design, that was the first design. It’s a fire pit with flame designs cut with a torch that burns at the heat of the surface of the sun. It’s made from a recycled propane tank. You take the container for flammable gas, you cut flames designed into it with a torch so that you can have a fire in it. It’s like fire all the way down. You know?
Sonia Simone: Yeah.
John T. Unger: It’s all these different levels. One of the things I like to say about my work is that the meaning is encoded in the materials, which is something I learned from African art, where something becomes part of a piece because of what it symbolizes. On some levels, what I do as a visual artist draws so much from being a poet.
Sonia Simone: Yeah, yeah.
John T. Unger: When I stop telling about the world through words, I wanted to talk about different stuff, and it was better suited to visual art.
Sonia Simone: Yeah. I think that’s really interesting and valuable. Most successful creative people are storytellers. We tell stories in different ways. We tell different kinds of stories, but there is that big story piece of the brain that is always hungry.
Maybe more so now that we are in a Home Depot world, that we are in a world of mass story, mass production, that there is a longing. I think that is a big part of what artists do sell, is a longing for a recording artists that’s not auto-tuned and a sculpture that’s made by somebody’s hands.
John T. Unger: Yeah, again, people are like, “I could go buy a fire pit at Home Depot for $100.” I’m like, “You absolutely can.”
Sonia Simone: So any one of you who might have had the chance to have a drink with John at some point in your life or to sit down next to him for a meal, will know that he is not into the whole brevity thing.
We went rather long on this interview, and I didn’t want to cut chunks of it out. I really thought all of it was valuable, so we’re going to continue this interview in next week’s podcast. We’ll just break it up into parts for you to keep them to a manageable size.
These have been The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. They are brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.
Thanks so much. Take care.