The fourth edition of Career Myths, a WeTransfer series, asks the question: is it possible to sell out on your own terms? We take a look at what selling out means in today’s creative landscape and how that differs from renting out.
Examples from the Past
The article points to the success of painter Salvador Dalí, whose estate ended up being worth $87 million by the time he died. His name is synonymous with surrealist painting, yet many considered him a complete sell-out for his work on projects ranging from designing the Chupa Chups lollipop brand logo to appearing in commercials for all sorts of household products.
Other examples include hard rock bands like Metallica who changed their sound for mainstream consumption and any number of celebrities that were once popular but took on any number of projects to bring in more money as their fame dried up.
Things Have Changed
Today, the distance between brands and creatives (and the public) has never been smaller such that more and more people are working together. Companies are looking to broaden their image and creatives are trying to expand the portfolio, meaning the chances of these two sides interacting are higher than ever. And in the process, the ability to create our own future has become as easy as the idea of “staying true to the cause” has become murky.
Refinery 29 calls it “Generation Sell-Out” because of how we’re encouraged to monetize our hobbies and turn side hustles into businesses. Whether it’s out of genuine desire to “do what we love” as a career or an obligation borne out of economic hardship,
If we were to frame the above examples today, we’d actually see some parallels between rockstar artists and us influencers-in-waiting: we need money at different points in our lives and assuming we’ve committed to non-traditional career paths, how else do we make bank? The only real difference is the amounts needed to support our respective lifestyles and how much we can get.
Renting Versus Selling Out
When we traditionally think of “selling out” in the negative sense, we see it as compromising on some sort of moral high ground, maybe the one embodied by the themes of our work, for a chunk of cash. Before, we viewed it as giving up on some sort of greater cause, succumbing to the demands of something lesser or even directly opposed to us. What we once thought of as “sticking it to The Man” only to be working for him later.
Yet today, we might be quicker to judge each other for the products we buy or the type of media we consume over the big company we just landed a contract with. Why is that? There seems to be a tacit agreement that comes with the “hustle culture” that acknowledges everyone’s need to make money, and that renting out their services allows them to pay rent or debt or prepare for the next move.
So what are your terms?
The WePresent article cites the practical example of French illustrator Matthieu Bessudo, better known as Mcbess (aka Matthieu Bessudo). For him, commercial work is simply a fact of his career and his calendar, but he does this work within a few parameters:
- Maintains personal style: He does not compromise on his trademark monochrome style.
- Chooses clients: he only works for brands he likes or for products he actually uses.
- Exposure optional: He doesn’t post commercial work on social media unless contractually bound to do so.
Despite being established in his career, McBess treats commercial work as a reality he doesn’t necessarily plan to escape from or eliminate because it allows him the room to create work he’s truly passionate about: “I’m not that interested in working for clients, but I have to do it because I have rent to pay. I have to support myself.”
If you’re in this game for the long term, it does help to be pragmatic and readjust your parameters depending on what phase you’re in or plan to be in.
We know that no two creatives or careers are the same. That said, we think it’s important to identify our parameters and our red zone, lest they pop-up when we least expect. The trick is knowing when you’re just renting out and when you might be really selling out.
On Renting out: We view renting out as offering services, skills, and talents for hire for a specific time frame. That said, we might run into conflicts that relate to the valuation of those things (for more on this, check out our Money Moves series).
- Identify the work you’re fine with: Unless you’re able to get paid for one skill (say, just shooting photos without having to edit or retouch), you might consider picking up other skills you’re okay to learn and develop to stay hired and competitive.
- Do the calculus: Regardless of whether you’re just starting out or not, ask yourself if this job or relationship will provide meaningful compensation in terms of money, satisfaction, practical experience, “exposure,” portfolio or network?
- Plan Ahead: If you need to rent your services either more often than you’d like or doing work you’d prefer not to, then you will have to plan ahead so you can use the money you gain to build towards the next phase instead of getting stuck on the hustle treadmill.
On Selling Out: We treat selling out as a compromise, whether it uses our talents or not, that conflicts with our core being or dignity (think being paid to act like your most despised person for the day).
- Where do you stand: What are your strong preferences and what are your deep-seated beliefs? Do you actually equate working for Client A with selling your soul, or is that client just currently taking a lot of flak from the media or your peers?
- Consider Two Styles: Sometimes, the nature of client work can mean you end up working in a style that’s distinct from your own personal style as an artist. Make sure you don’t neglect the latter and be extra protective of it.
- “Sell out now, go clean later”: If you really need to sell out to pay the bills, will it be worth it? How often are you going to need to do this? Again, plan to get out of this phase as soon as you’re able and especially before you have a strong following.
To conclude things, there’s one particular thing to be aware of, and it certainly doesn’t make the idea of monetizing hobbies any easier: Realize that when money is on the line, the rules of engagement change. Taken from experiences around us, playing a sport or taking photos for money can fundamentally alter your relationship with what was once a source of joy. Once we start to think transactionally, the dynamic changes and there’s almost always unwanted pressure that gets added on. So consider it perfectly fine to do something you’re decent at purely for your own therapy and enjoyment — not another skill to add to the “package.”
Whether you have to rent out or sell out to survive and make it to a better place, this is not an invitation to do anything morally wrong, no question there. But by recognizing that the “high ground” of the starving artist is romantic but outdated and unhealthy, you can start finding ways to build toward a healthy and sustainable creative career.