James Brown Is My Craft Business Mentor

James Brown Is My Craft Business Mentor

Published on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.
James Brown

James Brown in concert at Fort Mason in 2006. Photo courtesy of SonomaPicMan via Flickr.

"From the Studio" is a new blog series featuring artists discussing the business side of craft, life as a craft artist, the ins and outs of craft shows, and more. Kicking things off is longtime ACC show artist Keith Lewis.

The back window of the car rolled down and there he was, the Godfather of Soul himself, Mr. James Brown.

It was Seoul, South Korea, in the summer of 1968, the year I turned 12 and had coincidentally just started in crafts (cutting gemstones) as a hobby. I lived right next to the field house where James Brown had just finished his concert, and on his way to the airport, he stopped to talk to us kids. His handler tried to rush him off and James Brown said, "Hang on, man. I'm talkin’ to my people!” I got his autograph on a scrap of paper; along with that came a role model for effort and commitment.

That night, James Brown told the audience of GI’s: "I'm gonna give you enough soul to last you ‘til you get home." His commitment to hard work and perfection of his music can teach us a lot about how we approach the business side of our craft. As a business model, much of what we hear about these days is Apple. It is fantastically creative and profitable, and who wouldn't want to emulate that? My premise is that crafts is not really a "for profit" business, and in some ways we would do better to look to James Brown than to Steve Jobs.

As ACC implements its plan to help improve the opportunities for the crafts community, one factor they will highlight is to help educate us to better business practices. Sounds like it's time to fire up the spreadsheet and develop a break-even analysis, a cash flow projection, even a budget for advertising with benchmarks to find the most effective campaign. All are valid things to do. Is that how you plan your business? James Brown's approach it seems to me was less governed by a spreadsheet than it was by turning up the dial to 11 on what he loved to do. He proclaimed in his classic cut The Payback: "I don't know karate, but I know KA-RAZY!"

Ok, I'm not talking about his run-ins with the law here; I'm referring to making an all-out effort in something intensely important in your life, not by traditional academic steps but by what works because you believe in it. Still, we need to understand there are some realities on the business side of what we do, and we can make that work for us.

Why look at your studio as a nonprofit? For starters, if profit was your motive, you've probably noticed you're in the wrong business. A break-even analysis will show you that if you sell 10 pieces in a week for $1 more than they cost you to make in terms of getting paid for your time and the materials that went into making the piece, and your fixed expenses (like rent, phone and insurance) for that week were $10, you have just broken even, and will start to get profit with each additional sale that week. How tidy.

Except craft is not tidy. First, you must be juried into the show. Then, the weather has to be favorable, the competition must be in balance, you have to have the right mix for your audience, there is the retail/wholesale schizophrenia, and so on. So many factors affect your 10x10 bit of reality, which you cannot control. It doesn't make sense to me to look at your business model in terms of traditional time and materials. Nonprofits rely on their contributors to stay alive, and that is how I look at my studio. Except, my contributors are the pieces I make.

Within the range of work I make are collections with something different to contribute. The first quarter of the year I am always short of time and money, so I may try to build stock of something that isn't as labor intensive. In the summer, when I'm short on money and time and stock, I may favor making more of what I think will go first at the show. In the winter, when I'm short on money, but may have some time, I try to make stock of more expensive work that doesn't have as high of a materials cost. Thank goodness I'm not a restaurant - my work won't spoil! This specific approach may have no bearing on how you work in your studio, but I’m certain we all can benefit from looking at how our studios function.

It goes without saying that the reason to make your work is because of creativity, not finance. Still, you have to pay your bills, and being conscious of your particular situation will help you make better decisions. Is your studio providing what you need to live the life you want, and someday, (gasp) retire? There is truth to the adage that one doesn't plan to fail, but fails to plan.

The point is, consider what your work can contribute to your business. If you make a piece figuring that you need $25 per hour, but still have it some months later, you've missed some opportunities. This is probably not how you care to think of your work, but perhaps we should save our aversions to commercialism for Sam's Club. I know your studio is not on Earth primarily to make money. I'm suggesting you step back and look at how the different types of your work can best contribute to your overall financial picture. It's not your creativity but your resources that are limited.

This is just one simple concept, and it's not even that ka-razy. Ironically, James Brown's last concert was in 2006 in the Fort Mason meadow about a week after the ACC craft show there. He and his crew would do 330 or so one-night shows a year; we just have to do a few (too many) craft shows, so let's appreciate what a good bag we have and - as James Brown would say - "get on the good foot!"

What is a not-so-obvious approach to the business side of your craft that has worked for you?

Keith Lewis has created and run several craft businesses in the last 30-plus years, as well as a game manufacturing venture involving more than 100 employees and contractors in three countries. His jewelry is carried by craft galleries and museum stores across the country, including the Smithsonian Museum Shops, but he is most gratified to be in the collection of each craft-event participant who has chosen his work over the years.

Read more posts in our From the Studio series.