Maria Brophy

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art licensing / business of art

Should you License your Creations or Produce them Yourself

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It’s every artist’s dream to have an admirer open their pocket-books and fund a business based on their art.

It rarely happens, and when it does, you must be aware of what you agree to…

Artist Danielle wrote me:  “There is a lady that is willing to invest a great (to me) amount of money to help me start my own brand of home products to take to Market in Atlanta.  Is starting my own line better than art licensing?”

“And can I do both licensing and create my own line?”

First, to answer the easy part of Danielle’s question , “can I do both licensing and create my own line” – yes you can.  The two can work very well together.

Marine Artist Wyland has been doing it successfully for years – he sells prints and original paintings and sculptures and at the same time has licensed products on the marketplace.

Now for my lengthy answer to the first part of your question:

SHOULD I LICENSE MY ART TO MANUFACTURERS OR PRODUCE MY PRODUCTS MYSELF?

This is a question I hear often.  And to tip my hand a little bit here, anytime I run into an artist who tells me they are starting their own t-shirt line, I cringe.  Read on and you’ll see why.

My answer to Danielle is based on my assumption that when you say “start my own line” you mean that you will be producing, manufacturing and selling your own product line to retailers.

I’m going to break down the answer into three options that I think you have:

  • Partnership of business based on your artwork
  • Start up of a business based on your artwork
  • Licensing your artwork to other businesses

Before you read my answers, please keep in mind I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and if I seem a little bias, it’s because I am.  Read Our Biggest Mistake Ever as an Artist and you’ll understand what I mean.

So keep in mind, the end decision that you make should be based on what you WANT, not what I think based on my own experiences.  This is just some food for thought:

PARTNERSHIP

If your partner (investor) plans to run the entire business and have you just create the art, then you’ve won the artist lottery!

My advice would be to have iron-clad contracts in place, ensuring that you retain ownership to the copyrights of all the artwork and a schedule of how you will be paid.  Get yourself an attorney for this.

Go into great detail with the partner and determine who is in charge of future investments of money needed.  Because trust me, the first few years of starting a manufacturing business more money will go out than will come in.  You have to be prepared for that.

HOWEVER, if the investor is just giving you money but wants you to run the operation, here are things to consider with STARTING UP A (MANUFACTURING) BUSINESS:

With your own business, you will be in charge of the running of the operation, not just the art.

FIRST you have to ask yourself, Do I want to be a manufacturer?

Because essentially, when you create a line of clothing or goods based on your art or a brand, you are going into the manufacturing business.

Your customers will be retailers, who buy from you and then resell the goods to the end consumer.

NEXT, you need to understand what being a manufacturer will mean to you as an artist.

Suddenly, you have a job that has you wearing a lot of hats, and creating art falls to the bottom somehow.

Some of your new job duties as manufacturer will be:

Salesman:  You are in charge of sales to retailers.  It can take years to build up a sturdy list of retailers that will order from you.

Shipping and Receiving:  Secure a warehouse and employees and ensure that daily shipments go out on time.

Accounts Receivable:  You will spend hours on the phone collecting receivables.

Risk Taker:  If your products don’t sell, you lose everything, and maybe more.

Quality Control:  Designing, preparing and finding the best prices for your products will be crucial.  You fly to China or where-ever your products will be produced and make sure they are being made to your standards.  You will spend countless hours on this one.

Creativity:  Your artwork will become second fiddle, unless you have enough capital to hire people to do all of the above for you.

WAIT A MINUTE!  WHAT IF THIS IS WHAT AN ARTIST REALLY WANTS?

Okay, I realize I put a very negative spin on this, but I’ve been through it.  When Drew and I sold to retailers before licensing, it was the most difficult years of our business lives together.

However, don’t let me crush your dream.  There are some artists who actually make manufacturing their own products work.  Like Shepard Fairey and Mossimo, however, I don’t know how hands-on they are or if they have a slew of employees that do the mundane for them.

The artists that I know personally who attempted and failed, failed for one reason:

Artists want to paint, create and make things.  When it was required to do everything BUT create, they threw in the towel. It wasn’t who they were.

That being said, it is absolutely possiblE that you will have success, if this is what you want to do.   And if you do, I would recommend that you make up a detailed, formal business plan, and in doing so, you will be able to better make a decision for yourself.

OR, you can instead look to LICENSING YOUR ART

Licensing is a dream because, unlike manufacturing it yourself, your products are being produced by, sold by and paid for by someone else.

This means that if the product doesn’t sell, you lose nothing but time.  There is very little risk involved on your part.

If you hook up with a solid company, you benefit from their long list of retailers who already buy from them.  Some of our licensees have 2,000 retailers they sell to, and they just plug our products into their sales channels.  It would take us twenty years to get that many retailers to buy from us directly!

Typically you get an advance of royalties up front, so if the product bombs, you still got paid something.

If the sales of your products are successful, the licensee will renew and you can reap the benefits year after year.

The best part in my opinion is that there’s no money OUT of your pocket (it goes IN), it’s without risk and without having to sell retailers on your ideas.

I’m not saying that licensing is easy, because it’s a lot work, too.  You have to create the artwork, sell the ideas to the licensee, and then handle all the contracts and everything that comes after.

But licensing allows artists to do what they do best:  create art.

Let someone else do the dirty work of sales and manufacturing.

In the end, do what feels good to you.  Always know what you’re getting yourself into.

And let me know if you have any other questions on this topic – ask in the comments below.

Here’s to our success!  Maria xxoo

*Image Credit:  Art by Hazel Dooney

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PS:  To gain an understanding of Art Licensing Contracts, what to charge, how to protect yourself in a deal, and so much more:  Check out my e-Book, co-written with artist Tara Reed, called How to Understand Art Licensing Contracts.

This eBook will save you years of experience, time & money.  It will prevent you from getting into bad deals and show you what’s reasonable to ask for.  You’ll feel more confident going into each deal with this reference by your side.  It’s truly a must-have reference for all artists who are licensing their art!

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21 Comments Should you License your Creations or Produce them Yourself

  1. Danielle

    Thank you for your wisdom and sharing your opinion on this subject. Its just so scary not to know if I would ever have an opportunity like this again or if I really can have the successful licensing career I would love to.

    I will keep in touch as to what I decide and what happens.

    Oh, and I kind of giggle as the image you chose to put on the top to represent me was an image I put on my facebook as a “work in progress” and does not at all look like the final piece- ha..
    the final is on my website http://www.danielleduer.com

    Thanks Maria.

    Reply
    1. danielle

      Do you think that all the difficult years making and selling your own product to stores all over the place played a major part in getting Drew’s name everywhere, making it easier for potential licensors to want to work with him?

      Reply
      1. Maria Brophy

        Re: Selling own product in stores / did it play a part in getting Drew’s name out there….Yes, it did in many ways. So in that sense, I don’t regret it at all. However, there are easier ways (and cheaper) to get a name out there, and in hindsight, I see that now.

  2. aileen

    One good thing about manufacturing is that it can help you build your fan base. If an artist is interested in manufacturing, I would recommend starting out small buy producing a pack of greeting cards. Folks can buy them AND you can also send them out to your mailing list!

    On a larger scale, manufacturing is very expensive. I did a little bit of manufacturing but I’m not expanding. I’d rather spend that money on education and art supplies to make more art. Intellectual property (art) is WAY more valuable than a trinket.

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Aileen, i agree, you can do it on a small scale and that would be manageable.

      However, if an investor is putting money into you, they are doing it expecting a large return. And to get them that, you have to go big and sell in volume. And that’s where the difficulty lies.

      If you are just producing a small, easy to manage volume for your own enjoyment and to get your art out there, than I say go for it!

      Reply
  3. Katie Kenney

    Maria! Thank you so much for sharing. I’ve been researching the prospect of licensing for a couple of years now, all while trying to build up my portfolio. I’ve recently redesigned my site and linked to an online store. Getting decent response locally but, outside of my own backyard, (obviously) no one knows who Katie Kenney is (least of all why they should buy my art).

    Lately, and the more I glean from experts like you and Tara Reed, I’m thinking that licensing is truly the key to keep me where I REALLY want to be….behind my camera and on my computer creating. As you mentioned, I believe in another post, art is so personal, it’s hard to “willingly” make yourself available for rejection…at least for me it is. Also hard to know if you really “have what it takes” for licensing, but I guess there’s no way to know but to dive in and try, huh?

    I’m about to read your other post, “Our Biggest Mistake Ever…” as you have me even MORE curious. :0)

    Thanks again for the insight!

    ~ Katie Kenney

    Reply
  4. christine adolph

    I totally agree with you on this, licensing is the way to go. I’ll be listening to your ASK call tonight while I finish in my studio (across the street from yours:-). Can’t wait to meet you guys, i’ll walk over and say hello soon.

    Christine

    Reply
  5. Esther Longmore

    Thanks for an insightful article Maria! Ever since I learned about art licensing I knew it was for me. I’m still in the early stages of preparing my collections, but it’s always nice to be reminded of realities like that.

    Now can I ask some semi-related (and semi-not) advice? I recently started a new job in production art for a company that prints t-shirts. At some point there may be a chance to sell some of my designs to them. But I’m torn. It would be a great opportunity for me to be “published”; they would pay fairly well, and it may even open doors for a promotion. But then I loose all rights to my design(s). And my true passion lies with art licensing. I’m a little sentimental about my work and not entirely comfortable with losing my rights to anything. Do you think I would be foolish if I were to turn an opportunity like that down? Any suggestions?

    Reply
    1. Glenda Williams

      Esther, I can say from personal experience that signing away the rights to your designs can be something you’ll come to regret. I entered an art competition last year sponsored by a big-name corporation that you would recognize. There were huge cash prizes offered, and the winning entries would go on tour, be featured in marketing campaigns, and get national exposure. The catch was that each artist had to transfer ownership and ALL rights for their original design to the company sponsoring the competition. For the winners, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing considering they would still be credited for the artwork and receive a lot of media attention. My artwork was not selected, but since I’d signed away my rights, that meant I did not get my artwork back and could not even display photos of it. The company retained the right to use my entry in any way it saw fit (even the right to throw it away, I’m guessing). I’m out the expense of the materials, the time I spent creating it, and the loss of income from not being able to sell it myself. One important thing I’ve learned from this experience is that my time is too valuable to give away my ideas for nothing.

      Reply
    2. Maria Brophy

      Esther, I am glad you asked your question – should you allow your company to use your designs but lose rights to them?

      How about this: You don’t have to lose your rights to your designs. Ask them to sign a document stating that you retain ownership to your artwork, but they are allowed to use your designs for a specific period of time (say 2 years). You’ll need them to sign it, because as an employee, they own copyright to anything you create on company time or for the company. I’m willing to bet that there’s a good chance they will agree. Just tell them that it’s important to you, as an artist, to retain your copyrights. Never hurts to try!

      Reply
  6. Kathleen

    Hi Maria,
    Been reading your blog for a while now. Just wanted to tell you thanks for the inspiration. Working my way to marrying my graphics experience and interior design experience in textile design. Product design is close behind. It is a learning process, however, with many ways to approach a sale. Like the above comments, licensing would be a great way to go. Thanks again,
    Kathleen

    Reply
  7. Shannon

    Thanks for the great articles and insight into licensing. I’m starting to consider this avenue and your info is helping me to set up my plan. Great of you to share.

    Reply
  8. vera akpan

    Hi Maria!
    am into manufacturing as i make handmade bags and crafty stuff. my slight challenge now is that since they are handmade i cant make tonnes and get them ready on time for my clients beco i dont have staff (i do them myself). the question here is…how do i bring people in to work for me and make sure that they dont run off with my ideas. where do i draw the line in terms of wat i let out to them . l do really need to increase my production, but it might be at the expense of my ideas been stolen and carted away.

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Dear Vera, thanks for the comment. Here’s my opinion on your situation:

      You have a couple choices

      1-Hire people (can be a hassle and expensive) I wouldn’t worry about people stealing ideas. Think of how far ahead you are and how long it took you to get where you are!

      2- You could raise your prices and produce less – make your bags a specialty high-priced item. Keep it special.

      Reply
    2. Liane Pinel

      This may be too little too late but this comment is for Vera Akpan. When it comes to hiring people to do the work on a design piece that you have created you can have them sign a Non-disclosure contract which simply states that what you show them and what they do for you is never spoken of or taken outside of the workplace. This protects you against the people hired taking your ideas to another manufacturer. If they do, you have the legal right to sue them for damages. A special purse design or a creative peice of jewellery that you want to have produced is the perfect place to integrate this. They sign a non-disclosure BEFORE you hire them or show them you new idea.
      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  9. Sugarluxe

    Hi Maria! It’s been so LONG since we’ve had a chance to chat! I hope your new year is off to a GREAT start.

    Part of the reason I have long absences away from social media is due to this very dilemma.

    As you know, I’ve been manufacturing for awhile now – 6 years on Feb 14th to be exact. I sell to boutiques and major retailers and to fine art galleries and online. I also license my work, I’m signed to a publisher and I rarely sleep.

    It has taken a toll on me and it’s come at a cost. However, the flip side is, making and designing unique products in-house DID help me to expand recognition for my actual artwork.

    I’m pretty certain my ability to engineer and produce products (which is another form of art to me because I love working with my hands) has given me an edge and to this day we still make everything in the studio (and I have my hands in it ALL).

    Creating and selling my art is my business and I’ve sacrificed everything to try to make it a successful endeavor.

    The reason I think it’s worked for me is because I intentionally stayed away from items like T-Shirts and greeting cards. I license that stuff now through big manufacturers…but initially, for my own line – I knew I had to create something different and unique to stand out in an over-saturated marketplace. I’ve had many copycat attempts…even by a big well-known label…but because I’m small – I’m nimble and work hard to stay steps ahead.

    My success in boutiques helped me to land my big retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond and Z Gallerie. I only sell canvases to those stores. Yes, it’s home decor and lower priced, but that exposure got me into galleries with my orignals. Getting into galleries helped me to land one of the top fine art publishers who then reproduce my work for all kinds of other products that I don’t have the time or desire to make locally.

    I have a number of revenue streams and that is what helps to fund my dream. It’s a killer amount of work. There are days that are dreadful and I wonder if it’s all worth it.

    But all in all…I built a brand with next to nothing. No money, after being laid off, with no connections, no help, no assistant, no retail experience and no formal training in art.

    What I have is a huge amount of drive, determination, passion and an insane amount of workaholism.

    I’ve paid the price emotionally, physically and financially. But with great sacrifice comes great rewards.

    You can manufacture, you can license, you can sell retail, wholesale, and meanwhile, increase the value of your originals. Luck has little, if anything, to do with it. It’s very very hard work. But it is possible!

    However, just because you CAN do it all…doesn’t mean you WANT to do it all. And that’s the realization I’m coming to as I approach my 6 year Sugarluxe Anniversary. Truth is…I could definitely use a nap…

    Hope this doesn’t sound preachy…it’s just this is exactly my life and I get questions about this every day ~ Hope my experience helps add to the dialogue! Cheers to you…

    Reply
  10. Yulanda Arnold

    The information is very helpful. Art licensing is the way I like to go. Could you please give me a list of art licensing agencies. Thank you for your time and hope hear from you soon.

    Reply
  11. Cyndi

    Maria – I have been ALL OVER your site! I will be doing a blog write up and link back to you because your advice and wisdom is *awesome*. I’ll let you know when I publish. You and Drew are inspirational and I’m on the road to creating my art for a LIVING. 🙂

    Reply
  12. Alex

    Hi Maria,
    Thank you for this article, it has given me a few things to think of. My situation is that I have a design protection for UK and Europe (pending other countries, Australia, Canada I have also applied…) at the moment for a creative food storage product. I am now looking to license the design rights to the manufacturers , who can then make the product and put it into retail stores. Do you have any sample proposals that I can send the manufacturer and offer them my design rights ?
    It would be good if I can find a way to let them know about the product without actually approaching them but make them come to me ) but that’s another matter to think on.
    Would Appreciate the feedback.

    Regards,
    Alex

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Hi Alex, thanks for the question!

      I do not have a sample proposal for you. I recommend you create a simple, one page proposal that shows the features and benefits, and what it can do for THEM to have this.

      And, as far as “let them know about the project without actually approaching them” – why would you not want to share your enthusiasm? That’s what sells more than any email or piece of paper – a person’s passion for the idea and product. You will get better results from personal interaction and sharing your passion with the decision makers.

      Reply
  13. AK Westerman

    Thank you for the great information Maria! I always enjoy reading your blog, and I love Drew’s work. I was wondering if you could offer a suggestion…I have licensed my work a few times to individual companies or for one or two products, but I really want to submit my work to a licensing company and reach a greater audience. My problem is that my work is very unconventional fantasy and surrealism, and while not horror or macabre, it is a bit on the darker side (you can view my work here: http://www.akorganicabstracts.com). I know there is a niche for such work, but every time I research companies, their categories and artists are all very traditional, and I know my work won’t fit. Is there a place you can recommend an artist with my unique niche look for opportunities in licensing?

    Reply

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