Negotiating as an Artist (Revisited)

by T. Perry Bowers

My dad was an entrepreneur. He built his concrete recycling business while I was growing up. I watched him buy his first rock crusher and I watched him sell the whole thing twenty years later. He was good at what he did. Everyone in the road business knew him and mostly respected him. He was a bit rough around the edges. He would come home with black eyes and bruises once in a while, but in the construction world, that’s just par for the course.

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I would call him an early adopter. He was the first one I knew to have an answering machine and then a cell phone. Before cell phones, he actually could receive phone calls on his CB radio.

He invented things too. When you are recycling concrete, you have to remove the rebar. It was a common practice to hang a magnet over the conveyer belt. The magnet would pull the metal out of the concrete and throw it in a separate pile. My dad invented a magnet stand that doubled as a trailer. He was always trying to be more efficient.

Part of being efficient is being a good negotiator. you can save thousands of dollars with just a few words in a negotiation. Even better, you can save yourself some time.

My dad helped me when I first got serious about business. When I leased my first commercial space, he helped me negotiate the deal. When I had to extract myself from a partnership, he was there to encourage me to do it.

Sadly, his mind is not what it used to be, so we can’t reminisce much about the past any more. But when he was sharp, he was good.

When I first started out, I didn’t understand how to negotiate. I didn’t really know that it was possible. When my first commercial landlord first gave me my first commercial contract, I told my dad that I had it. He told me to come over and we would go through it.

I thought he just wanted to read it so that we both understood it. Nope. He started crossing things out and adding things. The most shocking thing was that he crossed the monthly rent amount out and put in a number I thought was impossible!

He told me to give back the decimated contract to my future landlord and tell him that’s what we wanted. I sheepishly went over to the landlord’s office and gave it to him. I told him to let me know his thoughts.

I felt strange. It was like a deep-down feeling of unworthiness. I thought we had lost the deal. The landlord was going to laugh me out of business.

The next day, the landlord called me and told me he had a few minor changes, but in general, it was fine.

We were in business. I was shocked.

Now, what does this have to with with being an artist? I guess not much except for the fact that I consider myself an artist. I hang around a lot of artists. My wife is an artist. My children are artists. I know artists.

One thing I know about artists is that we often live in a fantasy world where everyone loves each other. We think that everyone around us has the intention to be fair and good. We tend to put off hard conversations. We think everything will turn out ok, someday.

I have learned that hoping that everything will turn out ok is a dangerous way to think. Everything good that has happened in my businesses (and art) has been because I have created it or negotiated it.

Everything that I have put off and hoped would turn out ok, has turned out badly.

I’ve been contemplating how my past has given me the ability to negotiate. I think it was all those years sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s truck, listening to him talk to contractors. I heard and witnessed thousands of business conversations. Sometimes he would even tell me about the deals and ask my opinion.

I started to actually have an opinion about his business. I could weigh in and he would take my thoughts into consideration. He didn’t have anyone else in the car or the office. It was just me. I’m not saying I had any significant impact on his business, but I’m saying that I was able to form opinions and look into the future.

I’ve been thinking about negotiation like sculpting. When two people are trying to come to an agreement, the end result is going to be a finished sculpture. The two (or more) parties start to carve things away or add things. If anyone tries to take too much away the sculpture will fall apart. It’s the same when you add too much. The sculpture starts to sag and tip over.

If each party carves away gently, the piece of art (the business deal) can turn out rather beautiful.

But, sometimes, you know a negotiation isn’t even possible. You don’t even consider things that are way out of your price bracket. You have a general idea for a budget and you explore in that area. (If you needed a backup guitar for your live shows, you wouldn’t be looking for a ’59 Les Paul).

Once you find the thing that you are looking for, go for it. Maybe it’s a lease on a warehouse space. Maybe it’s a deal with a venue for a residency gig. Maybe it’s a new set of drums.

Whatever it is, there is no harm in trying to make a good deal for you.

The better the deal is for you, the harder you’re going to work to make it happen. The more potential upside there is for you, the longer you’re going to stick with it. Some deals, like leases or booking deals are long term. It’s an ongoing relationship. The more perks for both sides the better.

If it’s a gig, ask the venue if they can supply a meal for the band. Maybe they can do fifteen percent of the till instead of ten. If you’re renting a warehouse space to paint in, maybe the landlord will pay your water bill. If it’s a set of drums, maybe the shop will throw in a few pairs of sticks?

I’m not saying that every deal has to be nickeled and dimed. Sometimes a good deal is just a good deal and some things aren’t negotiable. But if there is an opportunity for both parties to walk away even happier, at least try to get there.

Two things I have found to be true in any good negotiation.

1. Both parties feel like they are getting value.

2. Both parties feel like they suffered a small bite in the ass.

Don’t think you’re going to walk away from negotiations without having to leave some skin on the field. You still need to pay for the product. Nothing is free. In business, you have to be willing to take a risk in order to gain.

I think I learned this subconsciously. All those years in the truck with my dad taught me that transacting business is always a little scary. I could sense when he was nervous.

Being an artist is scary. Going on up on stage can be scary. It’s what makes it worthwhile. Conquering fear is the most satisfying thing we can do as humans.

I look at life on earth as a school. We are here to learn and grow. We are here to push the envelope of human consciousness. Negotiating with other humans is part of that.

Hopefully we can be ethical in our negotiations, too. We want to stay in the game. We want the people with whom we do business to come back for more.

We want artists we work with to feel like they are satisfied, not only with the artistry, but the business practices. We can be shrewd, but fair. If we can provide value and at that same time take a risk, our business and art will thrive.

The sculpture will stand. The better we get at negotiating business and life, the more beautiful that sculpture will appear.

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