Why is undercharging a bad idea?

I’ve been wanting to write this for a while, but I’ve stopped myself from doing so because this debate can bring up a lot of negative feelings. Not only that, but I’m going to use myself as an example of what NOT to do, and that’s pretty embarrassing. I feel this message is worth putting out there if someone else can learn from my mistakes. There is probably much more to say on this topic than I’ve written here, these are just the thoughts I’ve gathered for now. I hope this can be useful to some folks, and provoke thought on the topic.

So the big question is… Why is undercharging a bad idea?

Undercutting your peers & devaluing art
I acknowledge that art is not like other products, in that each artist has something unique to offer. But I see skilled artists selling their work for pennies when people of similar skill are trying to make a living off of their work. The effect this has on the market is to devalue art of that level, essentially making it harder for career folk to make a living off of their trade. Your art being a hobby is not an excuse for undercutting your peers.

We all may be competing against each other, but we’re also all in this together as artists. Your fellow artists are the best allies you can come by. It’s in your best interest not to piss off your potential allies, to be perfectly blunt. That does not mean bending over backwards for them, nor does it mean charging inappropriately for your work just for their sake. But don’t charge slave wages just to get business, you’re devaluing the work we ALL do by giving in to this trend.

Digging your own grave
Whether you plan to or not, your art may become a crucial source of income for you someday. Maybe it started out as a hobby, but you found yourself really needing the extra income. Or maybe you lost your other job and you have to support yourself off your art for a while. Or maybe you planned to make it your full time career all along. When you undercharge for your work, you are forced to take on more work to pay your bills. There really is only a finite amount of time you can spend on art, even if you’re working from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, every day of the week. You get overwhelmed with an amount of work that is impossible to keep up with, and you end up disappointing tons of people and burning out.

This is EXACTLY the mistake I made. I started out with ultra low prices in order to get business. I always told myself I would raise my prices gradually so as not to shock my potential client base and drive away business. What ended up happening was I took on a TON of work thinking I could just work super hard for a month to catch up, and despite working super hard I never caught up. Now I have a long list of clients who I owe, the dreaded “eternal commission queue!” The best I can do is be communicative, own up to my mistake, and try my best to make it right and be fair to everyone on that queue.

Once I started charging a livable wage for my work, found myself with enough free time to REALLY dig into the “old art” list of people who bought my work at the lower rates and have been waiting. I’ve finished more off the “old list” in the last 6 months than I did in the last 2 years combined. I am STILL battling this, though I’ve made so much more progress than I ever have before. This is a sort of a niche issue with private online commissions. Commercial clients don’t go for this shit, you’ll straight up get fired and blacklisted. Do this and fail to be communicative with your clients and you get blacklisted in this niche community too! I consider myself extremely fortunate to have as many patient clients as I have. Not a one of them should have to put up with this long of a wait, yet the vast majority of them do. I am eternally grateful to these people for their willingness to put up with the wait.

Attracting the wrong kind of attention
If you peddle your work as cheap, you and your art are more likely to be treated like they are cheap. The sort of treatment low prices can invite is terrible for one’s self esteem. You are more likely to be pushed around by people who think they can get more out of you. Not to mention you are establishing yourself as an artist who works for practically nothing, so that’s the client base you are going to build! Not that people willing to pay a decent fee for art will never commission you. But when you’re ready to raise your prices you’re cutting out ALL those people only willing to pay small fees as clients. It’s a one step forward two steps back kind of thing, if that makes sense.

But I can’t charge a livable wage for my art, I’m not good enough yet
This isn’t going to be a very popular opinion, and it certainly can’t apply as a blanket statement to EVERY inexperienced artist, but I think the following is something to consider. If your skills are not up to par, or you don’t have enough of an audience to take commissions yet, then just DON’T. You’re inviting a huge mess when you under charge. Some of this online lecture from Noah Bradley sums it up very nicely - http://www.theartoffreelancing.com/ (skip to 23:33 for this topic, but give the rest a listen if you can)

What to do instead!
Work hard on your skills, post it everywhere, and hobnob with other artists. You’ll make a ton of good contacts and friends, you’ll keep getting better and faster, and you’ll be building your audience all the while. When it comes time to open for commissions, you can charge a decent fee, and take the commission world by storm. Your art will be badass and seen as worth it, you’ll probably be good at finishing work quickly, you’ll have a large audience, and you’ll have artist buddies to cheer you on and maybe help you get some business.

Compete with your fellow artists by being an innovator in the art world instead of undercutting. Become an artist whose work can’t be ignored, and make friends with your competitors instead of enemies. Your work should speak for itself! Nothing bad can come of making artists friends and working hard to become a good artist.

Keep your day job! Don’t bet all your chips on being able to make a living off your art when you first start (another thing I wish I had done). It’s not shameful to have an extra source of income, it’s savvy. And when you’re working, follow a guide similar to this one to stay on track. I continue to look for jobs that will pay me as well or better than the wage I’m currently charging for my art. At the moment the better paying job IS my art, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to something better.

I think there is a fair amount of luck involved in becoming successful artist, though I hate to admit it. If you’re finding limited success despite your efforts, don’t give up your art. If you remember why you became an artists and keep having fun with your work, you can’t loose regardless of the financial outcome.

[edit] Follow-up! http://tmblr.co/Zfs0hxM_1cIy

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