The Price of Art (in Singapore)

Many articles have been written about working for exposure or working for low pay. Despite all these articles and the comments from other professional peers, the situation stays the same and is unlikely to change. That said, you would expect that at the very least, the professional artist will continue to advise their younger peers to value their own work.

That was proven wrong to me last week. And it was a most unfortunately disappointing incident.

Being in this illustration industry in Singapore meant that one is always under constant fire over our choice of pricing. However, it irks me so much more when it comes from someone you consider an insider.

So in response, this long arse article with nary an image. Because it is a message worth repeating. Especially to those bright-eyed, impressionable artists wanting to get into our industry.

Context: On 19 Jun 2016, I attended a mini-gathering-session within the local comic artists. It is a regular occurrence but this time was the first time I attended. What attracted me? There was a talk by a comic artist I knew regarding TCG artworks and given that that is one illustration field I wanted CDS to get into, I figured that I should attend to learn more. Plus it stated in the write-up that there might be opportunities. So with the allure of sales, I made my way into the session.

Thus, imagine my sinking heart when the speaker started talking. There was a couple of giveaways as the talk proceeded though most of my frustration came when I managed to chat with the comic artist myself later on. To quickly summarize the talk, the artist spoke about how he became involved in distributing for a TCG and then with a partner, developed one of his own.

“This is a card game that is developed in Singapore; that will go international, given the amount of interest we have generated. But it is sad that despite it being a Singapore product, the only Singaporeans involved are the two of us.” I paraphrase what I recall.

“Do you know that for the same price of engaging a Singaporean artist,” he continued (with my paraphrasing), “I can get so many more artists from around the region. From Indonesia, from Thailand, from Malaysia.”

He went on saying that he wanted to have more Singaporeans involved and to engage Singaporeans to do some of the card art. It will be great exposure, he said, as the card game will be going international. We can do it either via royalties, licensing or straight-forward commission.

Later on, I managed to catch him by himself to chat about it. Since, well, I do want to know how much they are offering for the commissions.

“How much do you charge?” he asked as he puffed.

“Most of our clients are overseas so our fees tend to be in USD,” I responded, deflecting the question with a non-answer like how the Republicans do not answer about Trump.

“400 USD?” he asked (not a bad estimate), “You know that nowadays Marvel and DC are outsourcing their works to outside USA? For that same price, I can get multiple artworks from artists from Indonesia or Thailand?” He then went on regarding how Singaporean artists price themselves too high, how they are a small company with limited capital and such.

“So if you cannot afford Singapore prices, what are you offering the interested Singaporean artists?” I asked.

“Profit-sharing and exposure,” he replied.

“Just be ethical about it,” is all I can muster as a reply. This is obviously not something CDS will take up and it will be a waste of time pursuing this.

“It is an ethical offer,” he said.

Two hours later as I was downing the third cup of the gin-coke cocktail with other drinking friends, I was mentally fuming over the conversation. How can he, especially as a comic artist himself, be trying to rip off other artists with ‘exposure’ and expanding the exposure/fame myth? I should write about this. In fact, quite a bit of this article is written that night but saved within the drafts.

One week later, the conversation came back to mind. I did have quite a bit of time to juggle the idea in my head. The original essay would have been a lot more biased and angry in nature. Now that I have been juggling with an appropriate response for a couple of days, I think my opinion has somewhat mellowed. What a sign of age.

He, the comic artist, wasn’t absolutely incorrect.

There are two issues to be addressed within his ‘pitch’ to other amateur artists. Exposure and ‘Singapore’s high fees’.

The problems with ‘exposure’ has been regularly addressed by others and there will always be a sucker anyway. Don’t be that sucker.

Our stance is that exposure is worth nuts (pun intended). The most you get out of it is that everyone knowing that you worked for nuts. It is also a vicious cycle that encourages others to exploit the ‘exposure’ fetish (pun still intended) amongst newbie illustrators fresh out of college.

I’ll just leave some humorous exposed comics by Oatmeal and Explosm here.

Let’s talk about Singapore pricing instead.

The comic artist’s statements are true to the fact that our prices here in Singapore is higher than our regional competitors.

Singapore is an expensive place to live in. There is no denying the reality in which Singaporean artists operate in. Sure, we might not be USA (or any developed country) but if you are to compare the cost and standard of living here to our regional neighbors, then we might as well be there.

So it is with this disadvantage in mind, that our local artistic talents must survive and ply our trades. Becoming a professional illustrator in Singapore is a tough call that is mainly fueled by passion. The service that you provide is severely underappreciated. Society in general, thinks that you should go be a teacher or something more ‘productive’. The industry itself is very very competitive, given that you are competing with busloads of amateurs or overseas artists who charge so much lower.

It is a really really challenging work that requires one not just to be artistically skilled but financially calculative. You can be the best artist in the world but without basic financial skills, you are just going to burn yourself out within a year. Because you won’t make enough to call it a career.

Sounds tough but it can be done. There are a number of Singaporean artists who were able to do decently. To those who survive (and there are those in Singapore who do really well), kudos to you. You are a beacon of hope to the rest and a constant encouragement to us to keep fighting. This article is targeted to newbies. To the aspiring, wide-eyed student wanting to make a splash here.

The last time I gave a talk on professional art, I asked a member of the audience how much they would charge for a set of visual novel sprites.

Something like a set of expressions like these

‘60 SGD’ came the reply.

“And how long do you need to do this?”

‘2 weeks’

One. 2 weeks is way too long for a set of sprites (unless you are juggling multiple projects like us).

Two. If you take two weeks to earn 60 SGD, you are better off working as an intern rather than doing art professionally.

You see, just because someone in Indonesia can afford to work at that rate, doesn’t mean you should do the same. Unless you move to Batam to work, that is not a sustainable amount to work for and live on.

Artists in Singapore cannot and should never try to compete with our regional competitors on price point. That will never work in the long run if you cultivate your loyal clientele who’s into your low price point. Sooner or later, you will burn out. And THAT spells the end of your freelance art career.

But if not pricing, how can Singaporean artists compete at all?

The answer: BE BETTER

Us here in CDS, we pride ourselves with quality of work. Sure, there are plenty of artists better than us. But our promise to our clients is that in exchange for our prices, you get yourselves damn good stuff.

We charge way more than any of our regional competitors or any of the amateur rivals. But because of our promise to deliver damn good artwork, we are worth it. We are not cheap or even affordable but our fees are reasonable for the quality of work that we can deliver.

Most of the time, we achieve it.

If not in quality of work, then in service. Produce work that justifies the amount that you charge. You have to be good to survive in this industry and you need to always be better.

Never, ever let them tell you that you are not worth it. (and if you have that little voice at the back of your mind doubting yourself, like we all have, then you have to keep getting better and make yourself worth it)

How do we deal with clients who insist on negotiating on prices?

We don’t. I confess to have lost so many interesting potential clients because of disagreement on pricing. However, I think that the clients that have enough faith and trust in us to go ahead with our pricing, it all worked out well for us all.

We do not give out ‘free’ art either. That’s quite inaccurate actually. We never do any work for free IF you ask for it. The moment we sense even a wee bit suggestion of a hint that the client is asking for something for free from us, we will ask for a budget or submit a quotation.

We gave this to Hobby Frontier for commercial use for free

Yes, we do draw and gift art to others before. Note: gift. It is a gift out of our goodwill or fun. It is NEVER ever an expectation or an obligation from us to them. We think that that way, the client is more likely to ‘treasure’ what we did for them.

The same can apply to the newbie. When you gift something, it should have some inherent, intangible value in it (such as the possibility of an extended contract). The moment it is asked for, like those call-sign requests that cosplayers keep getting, then you should just charge for it!

Returning to the original topic starter of the pitch made by the artist for this TCG. He is not wrong. It is sad that for a Singapore developed game, there are no one else from Singapore involved. However that is a choice that they have made based on the business reality here.

If they really want work with Singaporean artists, they should be prepared to pay the price for our worth. Promising exposure won’t cut it. If they cannot afford it but still insist on trying to undercut Singapore pricing, then they are just continuing the vicious cycle of underpaid starving artists in Singapore.

2nd July 2016 edit: Sonny Liew, in a different conversation, mentioned something pertinent to this topic.

If a company is genuinely sincere regarding cultivating local talents, then they should be willing to bear the necessary cost. Otherwise, they are just been hypocritical.

And to those artists who attended that talk last week and were interested in doing artworks for that card game, make sure you negotiate a proper deal for yourself. Think of the amount of hours you need to spend on this and charge a value that is worth it. Just because the fair is named (humorously) ‘Starving’ doesn’t mean you must be so starving desperate for scraps.

Finally! To reward you for surviving all the way of this article with hardly any images, a video of a hamster.

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