These days all of us know how hard we have to work to make the same amount… or maybe somewhat less money than we made just a few years ago. Well that’s what recessions do. But in any case we have more money invested in show fees, product cost, gas, vehicles maintenance, hotels, food… the list goes on and on. When we think of being “ripped off” we normally think about someone copying the work I do… or stealing some other idea I have that is a unique approach to something. Neither art nor craft shows have a reputation for attracting thieves, but with a tough economy, creativity shows itself in more ways than you may have imagined.
Whenever times get tighter it seems to also bring out more people who are looking to shortcut all the hard work and just help themselves to the fruits of your labor. You can apply a lot of names to all these people but the reality is that a thief is still a thief regardless of what other “politically correct” name you’d like to apply to them. Someone who is trying to take your money without providing any benefit to you. In some cases it’s a voluntary action on your part based on a perceived benefit you’ll be receiving that is in reality not there… in other cases it’s an involuntary action where someone just helps themselves to your resources. It’s impossible to do business without ever becoming the victim to one of these people but realizing what’s happening and puts you in a position to protect yourself as much as possible.
Let me help myself to your cash…
The most obvious kind of thievery that comes to mind is the situation where someone just plain steals all your cash at the end of the day while you weren’t watching. Because most of us are not criminals, we don’t think like them and so we may become the victim of a “double team” sort of hit. While one of the thieves expresses interest in our work and draws our attention away from the receipts the other partner sneaks around behind your back and cleans you out. I’ve actually had this happen to me before and because I was so interested in taking care of the customer in front of me I almost lost everything I’d worked for all day. Luckily the exhibitor beside me saw what was going on and without incident just stepped right in beside my cash box. It’s important we take some of the same precautions stores take. 1. Never let your cash box get too full. Especially if the show is busy and you’ve accumulated quite a bit of cash throughout the day, take the time to periodically stash it away somewhere safe and out of site. 2. Be aware of your surroundings and the people around you. 3. Try to get a sense of the customer… is there something strange about their interest in your work? Does that person really seem like your type of buyer? Are they being extremely curious and distracting especially at the end of the day?
Now I’m not suggesting that you miss a sale at the end of the day… but be aware. If things don’t seem to be adding up… they probably don’t!
Snatch and grab…
Stealing your case or your work is obviously result of a thief at work and it’s extremely blatant. I’ve heard of more that one exhibitor who has walked away from his van or truck for a short time only to come back and find everything missing! While this probably won’t happen with something like pottery or a large sculpture… it can certainly happen when your work is smaller in size and easily transportable like jewelry. Of course if the work is small enough it’s worth protecting even when you are paying attention. Just as shop-lifting can be a problem for regular retail locations it can potentially be a problem for you as well. When you’ve left your work in a van or truck while at a hotel or under a couple of tarps in your canopy of course even the big stuff isn’t safe. I met one exhibitor who used to keep a video camera rolling all day long watching over his jewelry. He also put up a sign that indicated video surveillance was underway. It worked too. He told me that over the years he’d caught several shoplifters in the act… on tape and had prosecuted them successfully. Never underestimate the extent to which some people will go to steal from you. I’ve often thought that if they put as much effort into creating some work as they do in stealing it they might actually be quite successful.
The promoter who forgot to promote…
There are of course lots of ways to be ripped off. Not all of them are as clear as the people who just walk off with our cash. How about the promoter… who forgot to promote the show? If you’ve been in the business for any length of time I’m sure you’ve come across this already. The advertise in all the publications and online sites to attract good exhibitors. You see them at events handing out flyers and personally inviting you to their events. There is promise of sponsors and prize money… lots of advertising and even the possibility of an endorsement by a local charity. You’ve paid your money, traveled to the event, set up at 6am and then… nothing! No one knows a thing about the show, there isn’t even a sign on the street. And although there are 100 other exhibitors, you could shoot a shotgun down the walkways between the booths and you wouldn’t have to worry about hitting anything! I’ve seen it happen… in fact, I’ve been the victim. It may not be as obvious as the guy sneaking into your cash box while you weren’t looking… but the result is the same.
The way around this is to always do some checking on your own when dealing with a new or unknown show sponsor. Whether it’s a for profit or non-profit organization call some of the sponsors, call the city to make sure they’ve actually pulled a permit for the event. Ask what kind of financial backing they have and then check it out. Do they have an established relationship with a bank or with the local post office. Do they have references of other events they’ve promoted or other business ventures you can check? Don’t take these things for granted. They are asking you to pay money for them to provide a service for you. You deserve to know if there is a reasonable chance of receiving what you’re paying for.
The sponsor who’s advertising budget is $0.00
Although many non-profit organizations produce nice shows… sometimes they can actually be the worst! They rely on public service announcements for advertising or maybe a few cheap posters in some local stores… and the attitude that you are “donating” your booth fee to their organization can result in disaster! When I’ve asked them what kind of advertising budget they have for the show I can’t tell you how many of them respond by telling me “Oh, we don’t pay for advertising!” The reality is that they will probably get some AM radio station to do a spot at 3:00am or maybe the local Pennysaver will run a one paragraph announcement the week before the show… but advertising that gets results costs money. Customers only know what they see and hear and the ads have to be on par with the other events that are competing for attention or they’ll get lost. A newspaper, TV station or radio station that is not getting paid isn’t going to put much effort into the ad and if they can sell the space rather than donate it they’ll do it every time. You won’t be hearing that freebee ad in drive time or anywhere near the 6:00 news. And don’t look for the one paragraph newspaper promo anywhere in the first thirty pages! Unless you want to be a non-profit too… and donate to their cause… just keep on looking! You have a right to ask questions of these people and if they don’t give you good answers or they don’t want to answer your questions then move on. Any company who has a good event to offer will be open and forthright with you. If they are non-profit then it’s their obligation to disclose this kind of information.
The check that came with a rubber ball…
Personally, I always drop each check on the ground as I take it. That way I can see if it will bounce right away and save myself a lot of grief. Well unfortunately this system isn’t always reliable and you don’t find out if the check will be returned until your work is long gone and weeks have passed. To add insult to injury, the bank charges you $10.00 because someone else either made a mistake or purposefully wrote a bad check. I will say that in a fair number of cases the person writing the check didn’t actually intend to rip you off, but whatever the intention that is the end result!
Most of the time you aren’t the only one who got a bad check from this individual and because they don’t usually perceive you as a priority like the would a company like Wal-Mart or a credit card and so forth, you effectively get put on the bottom of the list. Banks are to blame here too because they charge so many fees to the person making the mistake that it’s almost impossible to catch up unless you have bundles of cash just sitting by at the ready. They also make sure they are the very first to get paid by helping themselves to whatever would happen to come through the account. Well I generally don’t like banks anyway so I could go on and on about their practices and BS fees… but the end result is that they really produce no product and cause those of us who do to suffer at their hands. You’ve spent hours creating that work the customer just walked off with and then bounced the check. Some minimum wage employee in a bank took 1 second to push a computer key… or worse yet, the system is just pre-programmed to issue a debit to your account and they make more money than you do. The customer gets so buried in the resultant fees that they won’t be paying you for months… most likely never! Sure there are legal steps you can take… and you’re welcome to try. But it’s very time consuming and unless you’re talking about a fair amount of money it’s generally isn’t worth the time.
The world is my creative resource…
Haven’t you heard the word? Art is free! Well I’m betting you don’t think so… but it’s surprising the number of people who do think that. They use copies of your work in publications, to decorate their office walls, in advertising. Realtors of restaurants use music to set a mood. Students and Universities use it to further education. From drawings… to paintings… to music… people in just about all walks of life constantly just take what they want and use it in any way they please!
I always thought that it was ironic that if you were to copy someone’s research or the verbiage of some written document and use it in your own findings or paper without providing the proper credit… that’s plagiarism. But if you use a picture or a drawing to illustrate your point in that same paper without any credits given… then that’s OK. If you use someone’s music in a Power Point presentation without acknowledging them in any way… that’s acceptable. Even our legislators who set the rules for these things have made some allowances and exceptions for this kind of use! Clearly both visual and performing artists don’t have enough clout in the legislature! It’s just as wrong for someone to use another’s artistic work to further their own personal agenda as it would be for you to walk into Home Depot and take home a new table saw without paying for it… just because it would help you in your career. Try that sometime and see what happens! When we create the artwork, the craft or the piece of music it requires a tremendous amount of skill, training, time and money to produce a final product that is usable. Chances are Home Depot didn’t put a fraction of the effort into that table saw that an artist did into a painting… or a musician did into a piece of music. Yet the perception of stealing the table saw is far different from stealing the picture or the music.
I don’t know how much we can do to change what is so readily accepted. But we can be careful how our work is used and who has access to it. Especially when you’re working with something that can easily be copied or integrated into some other project… it’s worthwhile creating a receipt you have the customer signs that sets forth the terms of their purchase. Unless you specifically want to give them the right to reproduce the work, you may want to reserve that right for yourself or set terms where there is a pre-defined royalty to be paid to you. I’m not an attorney… but it’s no doubt worthwhile to pay one a bit of money to advise you on how to set this up. The problem with many of us as artists and craftsmen is that we notoriously don’t protect ourselves the way other businesses would and that’s why we consistently wind up on the short end of the stick.
Buy one… Produce Millions…
This is a bit like the “The world is my resource.” It can however effect all of us. Long before you saw the copper decorative sprinklers at Wal-Mart & Sam’s Club, they we good sellers at the shows for a few people who decided to make them. For years sales went along just great until someone at the Big Box Retailer decided they were just perfect for the store and decided to have them made by the thousands in China. The next thing you know they are for sale at some dirt cheap price and our friends who had formerly made there here were just about out of business!
That same thing happens all the time. We come up with the idea… we do the test marketing and then the idea is stolen and mass merchandised. If you think this doesn’t happen then you haven’t been watching! The bad thing here is that even if you could prove the idea and design were actually yours, these retailers have so much money you’d never get your day in court. And if you did happen to be lucky enough to have your case heard, these guys could keep you tied up in litigation for years. It’s plain and simple a matter of big business stomps little guy!
If you really come up with an extremely novel idea or a really nice selling piece, make sure you take all the legal steps to register your ideas. Justice doesn’t always come out on your side, but at least you’ve got a fighting chance!
The Gallery That Disappears…
A “snatch & grab” scenario is obvious. This one’s not so apparent… that is until it happens but the results are the same. Someone other that you winds up with your work. Some galleries have a stellar reputation and have been representing artist for years. They honestly market your work and do it on a reasonable commission. Artists and craftsmen alike often brag about how their work is exhibited in galleries throughout the country or a specific region. But unless you actually take the time to check on the people who offer to market your work and make sure they are indeed upstanding people you could wind up having nothing but bragging rights for all your effort. I’ve heard numerous stories of galleries that sold work and didn’t bother to tell the artist or craftsman… or galleries that just locked the door in the middle of the night and took off with the work only to sell it somewhere else you’ll never know. Galleries that have had “mysterious” losses or shop lifters and of course you’re stuck holding the bag. Pieces of work that have been loaned out to potential buyers and have never returned. The list goes on and on and the variation is endless. It seems that the criminal mind and the methods to defraud you are the most creative part of the whole venture! The end result is you get caught holding the bag (or actually nothing in most cases).
This isn’t to say there are never good galleries because of course there are. But you should do your research and don’t just jump at the chance to display your work just because the opportunity is offered. You’re about to trust someone with thousands of dollars of your merchandise and it’s up to them to prove credibility. Also, have a legal professional review the contracts to make certain you’re protected in the event of a loss. Certainly the gallery would like to put the responsibility on you… and they may even tell you “that’s how it’s done.” But it’s only “done” that way because they want it to be. If things don’t look right, just pass on the offer. It’s better to do that than just lose your work and investment to someone who is untrustworthy or unethical.
Many business people look at artists and craftsmen as “easy marks” and “naive” suckers who will think with their emotion rather than their good common sense. Because we’re so emotionally close to our work many times we do indeed think more with our hearts and much less with our heads. The only way to totally eliminate risk is to do nothing… of course that’s not too profitable. The minute we decide to open the doors of our business and to sell our work we also open ourselves up to the possibility someone will take advantage of us. No matter how many precautions we take there is no way to absolutely avoid being ripped off occasionally. By it’s very nature all business involves some risk and just because we’re in the arts doesn’t mean we will be immune… in fact if anything we are targeted more ofter! What we can do however is be prudent and thoughtful about the way we conduct our business ventures and eliminate at least the most obvious ways to lose money. Keep a sharp eye out for opportunity at all times… but always try to approach any business deal with a bit of common sense and enough caution to keep you out of trouble and still in business next year too!