The One Fatal Pricing Error

Derek is an MBA in entrepreneurship, painter, and bassist for Onward We March, a local progressive metal band. He teaches business skills to artists and writes weekly music business advice for his blog Derek Thinks Music. Got a business question about your art? Shoot him an email at

It’s no secret that every artist wants to be able to make a living of their art.

Yet it’s also no secret that many developing artists are reluctant to raise prices, especially since the idea of fan backlash like this can be terrifying for an artist to even imagine.

Let’s talk about Price-o-phobia.

Price-o-phobia a highly prevalent, ambition-killing fear of raising prices that prevents people from getting paid what they are actually worth. Artists are highly succeptable since, unlike a hot dog stand at a state fair, there’s no easy guideline for what the generally acceptable price would be for their work.

The first step is figuring out the underlying causes of our Price-o-phobia.

There’s a tangle of roots often feeding this fear:

-“I only spent X on materials, there’s no way I would charge someone more than 2X!”

-“If I raise prices, I might not sell every piece. It’s safer to keep prices low so I’ll move pieces.”

-“It’s not that great. I can’t charge that much.”

-“It’s vulgar to raise prices for my work. I couldn’t do that to my fans!”

-‘What if my fans rebel and I lose everything I’ve worked for?”

These are quite common fears among artists and musicians alike. Some fears are productive, like being afraid to jump off a thirty story building into a pit of rusty spikes. Other fears, like being afraid to eat food, are clearly counter productive. Price-o-phobia falls into the latter category.

Let’s unpack some of these fears.

“I only spent X on materials, there’s no way I would charge someone more than 2X!”

   Materials aren’t the only consideration. Your time and musical talent have value that is just as real as the materials involved. Lawyers and doctors charge for their time and effort because what they do requires special skills that not many possess. As an artist, you should be no different.

“If I raise prices, I might not sell every piece. It’s safer to keep prices low so I’ll move pieces.”

Everybody loves a deal. Sure, I’d love Kobe ribeye steak for $5 too, but prices like that would cause the restaurant to go out of business in months if not weeks. Now nobody gets steaks anymore. Not. Cool.

“It’s not that great. I can’t charge that much.”

   a) Sometimes modesty is a virture. Sometimes modesty is a vice. If you’re regularly selling pieces, chances are you might be too modest to support yourself.

b) If it’s actually not that great, stop reading right now and go practice.

“It’s vulgar to raise prices for my work. My fans are my friends!”

Your fans want more art than they want a deal. If that’s not true, they’re not fans. (Remember, I’m assuming you’ve got an extraordinary product. If you don’t have that, then you should be practicing instead of reading this.)

‘What if my fans rebel and I lose everything I’ve worked for?”

Let’s dig deep into this one.

In December 2010, Jack White caught flak from fans for selling his limited edition vinyl on eBay. As the prices rose to eventually reach $510, fans became outraged at this price saying it was “exploitation”.

At what price is it exploitive for a fan to pay for a work of art?

Or better yet, how do we know the true value of art?

Jack White explains:

“We sell a Wanda Jackson split record for 10 bucks, the eBay flipper turns around and sells it for 300,” he explained. “If 300 is what it’s worth, then why doesn’t Third Man Records sell it for 300? If we sell them for more, the artist gets more, the flipper gets nothing. We’re not in the business of making flippers a living. We’re in the business of giving fans what they want.”

Is this exploitation?

Let’s put it another way: If someone loves your art so much they’re willing to give you $500 for it, should you let them?

If you actually care about becoming a self-sufficent artist, the answer is clear.

The songs we associate with our first drive in our first car (Groove Armada – Superstylin’) or an amazing road trip with friends (Snoop Dogg – Ain’t Nuthin but A G Thang), they’re the memories that define our lives. Music is a link to our history and our identity.

Creating music is creating love for our fans.

It’s your duty to allow your fans to return the favor.

Fans want to support you! If your lucky, some of your fans may have connections that help you book better clubs or tour with bigger bands. Fanastic! Most fans, however, are normal people who just dig your art. Buying art is the one way anyone can help support their favorite artist. When we buy from our favorite artist, we actively say “I love your vision so much that the world is a better place because of your creations. Let me help you on your quest!”

Some fans will complain when you raise prices and that’s perfectly ok. You shouldn’t always listen to your fans. In fact, fans that care only about price aren’t really fans at all.(Provided you’re not raising the price waaaaay outside of traditional market value, such as raising prices on a t shirt from $10 to $80. That’s a little silly.)

As of May 2012, Jack White’s new solo album Blunderbuss hit number on on the Billboard 200. The man makes great art, is it any surprise fans still love his work?

The one fatal pricing error is pricing yourself too low to continue making art.

In order to be a full-time artist, your prices must be high enough to support yourself comfortably. Anything less is unsustainable in the long term. Even if you’re moving a million paintings, if you’re not capable of keeping the electricity bills paid there’s a good chance you’ll eventually burn out on art altogether. Ramen every night should be a choice, not the choice.

The only way to get paid what people truly feel your art is worth is to start out high and negotiate price down. If you do price too high, you can always adjust downwards as needed. But fans will never say “Hey, I really liked your show last night. Here’s an extra forty bucks because it was worth that.” No, they walk away thinking “Wow, what a deal!”

Think about all your sales for last year. What if you had charged as little as 5% more? For an artist, this is an easy task since you set the prices, but you’d have to be really lucky at a traditional job to get a raise of 5% in today’s market.

In either case, you won’t get a raise if you don’t ask.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make brilliant art. Getting paid what you’re worth is vital to this mission.

One Response to “The One Fatal Pricing Error”

  1. True, true, true, true, and sooooo true! And if I may add…

    As artists and musicians, we naturally want to help each other however we can. This often leads to requests for free or bartered services, performances or art (which I used to be all about all the time). Word gets around, and suddenly strangers are asking for the same deal.

    If a friend owns a fashion store, and you ask him to help you out with a free outfit for a charity gig, is he going to give it to you for free? Probably not, nor should he. Now, if you offer him equal value in return (PR mention + tickets to the event, etc), then that’s possibly a win-win situation. Think of yourself as that fashion store owner. You can’t afford to ‘rob your own store’ for friends… you can’t afford to have a permanent ‘sale event’… and when you DO want to work a deal, it has to be a win-win situation that doesn’t eat into your bottom line.

    I now do exactly what Derek suggests, and the following has enabled me to focus on what I WANT to do… AND has enabled me help others even more.

    PRICING: I price my art based on materials + time + artistic talent/skill. I price my photoshoots based on every single factor which either costs me time or money (gas, equipment, time spent consulting, scouting, commuting, shooting, editing, etc.). The bonus is that this allows me to pick and choose the opportunities that really excite me.

    BARTERING: I barter my art and photographic services ONLY for things I need or want (REALLY want)… dental, hair salon, auto repair, web design, admin support, etc.

    CHARITABLE DONATIONS: I limit my donations to organizations who 1) are causes I am very passionate about AND 2) recognize art as a valuable commodity, and split 50/50 of the sale of an art piece with the artist. (Hey, they pay for caterring, advertising, bartenders, equipment rentals, etc…. right?)

    Find a compensation model that works best for you. Honor the talented gift you have been given… by refusing to devalue its true worth.

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