Do what you love.
Depending on who you talk to, this is either the best or worst advice for creative professionals. Doing what you love leads to authentic, original work. Nothing’s wrong with that. Except for the scorn of business experts, who will correctly say in some fancy way that success relies on figuring who your customer is, and what they want, and giving that to them.
Creatives who end up selling their work usually hit on something that is both beloved in their own eyes and hits a customer need. A sweet spot that’s easier for some to find than others. But still, eventually, most will find themselves somewhere inside this dilemma– what people want to pay for isn’t what they want to make. Or they used to want to make it, and now they don’t.
Art and commerce have an uneasy relationship, its rockiness best explored in The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Personally I have spent a career considering this situation, in the writing realm and now in jewelry, as I pound the words “fuck this shit” into metal for various bodily adornments.
I made the first iteration of this line for myself, and then people wanted it. Then I got tired of making it — and I fell in love and was so so so happy and it was springtime — so I took a break from making and selling Fuck This Shit. But people kept asking me for it, and luckily (?) life kept fucking with me in various shitty ways, so I renewed the making. And expanded the line in various ways, as customer demand, well, demanded.
One day I won’t want to make them anymore again, and what then? I’m thinking about that.
I’ve also made things for myself that haven’t connected with customers. I mean, at all. For example, I really am excited by upcycling, and Mr. Alison loves craft beer. So one day I figured out how to make earrings from the wire caps that hold in the corks on fancy beer bottles. (These are called cages.) I love these earrings, they’re in my regular rotation. I’m wearing them right now, actually. I made some others feeling very convinced that they would sell, you can see a few of them in the photo above. And what happened was….pfffft. Crickets.
Another example, slightly less of a failure but not exactly a success were my vintage NY glass necklaces, also pictured above.
These, I will confess, were more calculated on my part, although I started with pure motivations. I gathered the vintage glass because I loved it, and in fact this glass collection is what led me to take my first jewelry classes, because I wanted to wear it and I didn’t know how to do that.
But when I made a bunch of these necklaces this past summer, I was primarily thinking that people would want to buy them. I do think they’re beautiful. I did make one for myself. And a few have sold, but it can’t be considered a commercial success.
So what to make of all this? Here are my provisional theories:
- There are no guarantees in this world. you make things and you don’t really know how they’ll be received. I don’t care how many degrees you have or established you are. There’s no formula, like percentage of pure inspiration = so many goodies, whether that’s dollars, awards, universal love.
- The market doesn’t care if the maker continues to be authentically inspired, and neither does the bank account. Demand exists long after the creater is finished with the thing. It took me some doing to kill off my business writing career once I lost my mojo for it in 2007, and it would have been harder if the economy hadn’t tanked at the same time the media business transformed. Fundamentally it’s hard to turn down money when you need it.
- The more experienced you are, the more you can get away with pandering to the market. After a couple of decades of work, I can write a story I don’t give an itty bitty shit about and it will sell and be read and no one will suffer but me, when I’m writing it. I’ve done it enough to know how to fake it. In jewelry I can’t pull this off, and I know it.
- We are all humans so what moves one person will move others. Makers don’t stand apart from the rest of humanity. If you make something you really adore, others will too. If something isn’t connecting, you just haven’t found the market yet. This could be because your market is literally three other people on the entire planet, so when you wail no one likes my work! for all practical purposes, you’re right. Your audience is a rounding error to zero. But probably more than three people will also like what you’re doing. Because seriously — how much of a special freak do you really think you are?