These Times They Are A Changin’
Come gather ’round people, Wherever you roam. Let’s just call ‘time out’ for a moment can we?
With the rise of microstock and millions of images flooding the system and increased competition amongst photographers it’s never been more difficult to make a living from photography.
Of course, if you are a photographer you already know this. After all, the average microstock photographer can only expect to earn around $4,000 per year. That’s just over $10 a day, or maybe just enough to buy a sandwich and a coffee. The modern human needs much more than that to survive in this world unless maybe you live in a remote part of Combodia or The Cook Islands (in which case I salute you).
Today, photographers need to have their irons in lots of different fires. The world has changed and the modern photographer now has to develop into an entrepreneur or face possible extinction.
Back in the Day
Back in the day a relatively small number of good quality photographers could earn a nice living from photography because there was less competition, incomparable distribution, higher entry costs and an arguably stronger market for more expensive content like Rights-Managed (RM).
The harsh reality facing today’s pro photographer is that a lot of buyers who are paying for images continue to seek simpler, more flexible licensing terms (AKA: Royalty Free or RF) and as a result the more expensive RM pricing model is no longer a dominant or growing segment of the market.
This is in part because (a) the demand for RF is increasing (b) the sheer volume of RF images that are flooding the system is increasing (c) the pricing for RF images is in a downward spiral and (d) the quality of RF images is improving over time.
There now exists a vast global army of active photographers willing to sacrifice higher margins for the lure of high volume transactions on the lower quality end of their back catalog. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out where things might be heading.
So the question for the modern, innovative, entrepreneurial photographer becomes:
- Where can I license my high quality image catalog without agreeing to offensive commission structures and ‘giving away the farm?’
- How do I connect and network directly with paying clients to generate assignment work that might compliment the sales of the low priced stock work I sell?
- How do I generate a sustainable income from my photography business?
Spotify and the music industry as an analogy for Photographers
If we take a look at other adjacent industries there are trends, learnings and analogies comparable to the photo industry. The shifting sands and connective tissue of platforms and marketplaces underpin the income streams for many creatives in other forms of art. Let’s take streaming music services like Spotify and musicians for example.
Way back when, a small number of musicians and artists could expect to earn good money from their musical talents. Vinyl records, then CD’s, concerts and gigs were quickly superseded by peer-to-peer sites like Napster and suddenly the world felt like it was going to cave in. Then Steve Jobs arrived with iTunes and managed to convince the industry it needed to ‘lean in’ to the new world and prepare for change.
Steve was right. According to a recent report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, revenue from music sales have more than halved in the last 10 years from over $20b to less than $10b. In January 2013 Northwestern University Law professor Peter DiCola released the results of a fascinating survey that found (broadly) that Royalty checks on music licensing accounted for between 12% and 22% for musicians. The Atlantic wrote that roughly 1 percent of musicians earn about $330,000 a year, median earners $49,500 and the bottom group under $4,500. For many a photographer some of these numbers might sound familiar.
With iTunes, artists found a secure platform where they could actually get paid per download and things started to look better. Then Spotify came along with an ‘all you can eat’ subscription model. Consumers flocked (if we relate Spotify’s ‘all you can eat’ subscription model to the photo industry one could argue that “all you can eat” subscription photo libraries have become the Spotify of the photo world). Listeners quickly started to abandon iTunes for a more simple, flexible and cheaper alternative to consuming music.
Today musicians are left to work out what next. Thom Yorke famously called Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse” and Taylor Swift clearly isn’t too happy with it either. Many artists – musicians and photographers – strongly believe that all you can eat subscription services don’t appropriately value their art. But hair pulling and foot stamping doesn’t pay the bills.
So where next for the photo industry?
“The arse fell out in 2008”
In a conversation with one of our photographers this week he said (verbatim) “the arse fell out of the market in 2008”. John is not the only one to point to that year as a turning point.
In this particular chat, John felt there were a number of factors contributing to this atomic slowdown including:
- The global financial crisis
- The rapid emergence of micro-stock
- Increase competition amongst a duopoly of stock libraries to slash prices as a way of increasing transaction volume
- Buyers demanding easier licensing and the flood of RF images into the system
- Increasing quality in RF images making them more usable for buyers
- The increasing use of smartphone photography and brands leveraging this content to build campaigns
ROI and Monetization of Idle Assets
Musicians have quickly realized that sales of music downloads aren’t enough in this new world and they are adapting by generating multiple streams of income including radio, ads, films, TV, endorsements and live gigs. And photographers need to find alternatives too.
Today Photographers can either:
a) hand their images over to a stock library – possibly earn a little or at best peanuts
b) build their business by licensing their images for good money, get well paid assignment work and develop their network by connecting with actively searching buyers that have good money to spend and who are dissatisfied with the status quo.
The problem is that the big libraries are not selling the majority of photographers work images for good money (and even if they did the photographer would get only a tiny slice of it), they don’t offer paid assignment work and they don’t want the buyer and the photographer to interact. It is in their best interest to keep the photographer and the buyers apart.
What are we doing about it?
The process of ‘repping’ oneself to photo buyers is expensive and time consuming. And the fact is that sales is typically not a core skill set of a photographer. Buyers don’t have time to meet hundreds of photographers one-on-one and review their portfolios. And we know that committing work to the big libraries is not going to pay the bills.
Our obsession is to continue to build a place that professional and the next generation of pro photographers call home. A place where the return exceeds the investment.
To do this we have launched a range of tools that provide talented photographers a place where they can control and license their work for it’s fair market value, keep the lions share of sales (or 100% of it for some members), promote themselves directly to buyers and make connections to build a pipeline of assignment work opportunities and profitable business relationships.
The Boiling Frog Phenomenon
The boiling frog story is a widespread anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
My fear is that this is happening to an overwhelming number of talented photographers who know no better.
The challenge for photographers is this: DO NOT be the boiling frog. Being slowly cooked by an unsustainable industry is not a good outcome. It is time to act. Take control of your business and adapt to the new world. It is here already.