Nashville creatives are working for less — or even free — but doing what they love

Friday, May 24, 2013 at 12:54am
Clockwise from top left: Brent Coleman, Mizzie Logan, Will Morgan Holland, Rachel Briggs (Michael W. Bunch/SouthComm; Mizzie Logan photo courtesy Ronald Beene)

In March, the Metro Nashville Arts Commission released an “Arts and Culture” background report projecting that the population of region will jump 75 percent by the year 2040, reaching approximately 3.6 million people. According to the report, this bigger, better Nashville of the future could be “a city known throughout the world not only for its musical prowess, but also for its unbridled celebration of diversity, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The report, prepared by Jennifer Cole, executive director of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, and Craige Hoover, principal of Cultural Arts Solutions, says that to fulfill this potential, Nashville must adhere to “creative placemaking,” an arts and culture development strategy that shapes both the physical and the social character of a region through the arts, spurring positive economic development.

A key component of creative placemaking is attracting and retaining creative talent to strengthen the infrastructure of the creative community — essentially, ensuring there are viable job opportunities available. Our job market is undeniably robust: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that in 2012, Nashville experienced the some of the strongest job growth in the country. Last year, CNN placed Nashville at No. 3 on a list of “Cities Where Startups Are Thriving.”

These facts and figures reveal what we already knew: the favorable job market, coupled with a generally lower cost of living than many major metropolitan areas, is attracting a lot of people — and businesses — to Nashville, many in the creative sector. According to Janet Miller, chief economic officer for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, this influx of creatives is essential to the cultural and economic evolution of Nashville.

“To me, the fact that this city has become a magnet for creative people from all over the world, and that the city embraces them, is the most amazing thing about this town,” Miller said. “And that this town is really
being built by people who weren’t born and raised here, and it’s added such new energy and creativity and an interesting edge to the city.”

But as industry continues to grow here, is the city offering sustainable careers for the creatives who are so essential to the spirit that makes Nashville unique? If you don’t work in a “creative” industry — such as music, photography or visual art — you might not be aware of some of the issues that affect it. In fields in which the product is subjective, the creators often find themselves working at reduced rates, holding down multiple jobs to pay bills, or doing pro bono work to enrich their portfolio. Artistic development is a great thing, but it doesn’t keep the lights on.

“While I don’t think this problem is completely unique to creatives, I do think that they are more susceptible to it because creative work can be harder to value,” said Casey Summar, executive director of the Arts and Business Council of Greater Nashville. “Many artists I know are reluctant to value their own time highly enough, in part because they enjoy their creative practice. Just because you love your job doesn’t mean it doesn’t still need to support you.”

Summar said she always tells artists that they owe it to their work to appropriately value it and insist on the recognition and pay they deserve. “For example, a painter who agrees to discount their work frequently may find it difficult to exhibit in the more prominent galleries that represent artists selling a higher price point,” she explained.

But if value is at the heart of the issue, creatives need to value their own work first, as Summar stressed.

“I’m trying to learn that even if the world doesn’t value my talent, my talent has a value, and I need to be the first person to define that, or no one else will,” said Mizzie Logan, a Nashville-based freelance hair and makeup artist. “It’s a work in progress. I still find it hard to justify my rate when someone asks me outright.”

The Arts and Culture report is just one indicator that there’s a gap when it comes to creatives being fairly compensated and valued for their work.

We talked to five working creative types, each representing different trades, to get a snapshot of the current creative climate in Nashville. We learned that each of them consistently works for free or at a reduced rate in order to be involved in projects that offer strong artistic payoff or opportunities for more work. We also learned that there is always someone out there who is willing to do the job for less, but that often comes at a price of quality, which devalues everyone’s work.


Benjamin A. Harper

35, assistant manager, coffee shop; songwriter/producer/performer, Magnolia Sons

Harper’s gig as a musician is a full-time job, between writing, rehearsing and performing with his band Magnolia Sons and doing production work on the side. Additionally, Harper works approximately 35 to 40 hours a week at a major, national chain of coffee shops, a job he says is “very flexible,” allowing him to take time off when needed for his musical pursuits. He also has access to health insurance through his day job.

Harper, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Music Business from MTSU, makes in the upper $30,000 range annually, and says roughly 70 percent of this comes from the major coffee chain which shall remain nameless. He currently lives in East Nashville with roommates.

Harper has been playing in bands for years, and he’s always had an affinity for arranging music. This year, he’s working on writing and production for two side projects, which he finds incredibly artistically rewarding, if not yet financially rewarding.

“I’ve been doing it for next to nothing since it’s my first outing as a producer,” Harper explained. “I like to say that I’m starting an audio portfolio. … I’m definitely doing this to get a foot in the door of the production world, to get out, but the artistic payoff is great, too. I love hearing someone’s idea develop into a fully arranged song.”

Harper says that if he turns work down, it’s usually because he doesn’t have time.

“It’s hard to say ‘no’ to something if it’s something that inspires me,” he admitted.

That being said, Harper has to focus on his own music, too, which is always a heavy time and resource investment on the front end — it takes time for bands to build up a following before they can reap the financial benefits.

“I put a lot of time into Magnolia Sons,” he said. “Making a band work and trying to make something of yourself is always pro bono work.”

Ultimately, Harper strives to be able to live comfortably, doing what he loves to do without having to waste energy in a job that leaves him tired and unfulfilled. He believes he can achieve that while living in Nashville. He said he’s open to many paths that could lead to music becoming his sole source of income, but he still strives to be able to write and perform for a living.

“I think the trouble with a lot of us creative types is that we are either so set on one creative avenue that that’s the only path we’re willing to take,” he said,” Or there are so many avenues you’d love to go down that you end up looping the roundabout instead of choosing a path.”


Mizzie Logan

30, freelance hair and makeup artist

There’s a running joke in the creative community that the term “freelance” heavily emphasizes the word “free.” Mizzie Logan is no stranger to working for free. As a freelance hair and makeup artist, she’s often asked to work on shoots pro bono, especially on test shoots.

“A lot of times, there is no pay or very little, but I do it because I always learn something, and I usually meet someone that will be a good contact,” Logan explained. “I agree to jobs because the final images will be good for my portfolio, or the job could lead to a paying job later. … It’s always in the hope that it will lead to other work. I love my job, and I try to as many artistically satisfying jobs as I can, but at the end of the day, I need to pay my bills.”

However, even with consistent work booked by her agency, Macs/AMAX —which takes a percentage from both her and the client — she still only pulls in about $20,000 a year and counts on her spouse’s income to make household ends meet. The couple live in East Nashville with their young daughter, and both travel to London frequently for work, where Logan, a former employee of makeup behemoth M.A.C., launched her career years ago by working with established artists.

Logan said time permitting, she “pretty much says yes” to any job, and if she does have to turn down a job, there’s usually someone else willing to do it for free. She said to make her job sustainable, she’ll need to get her cosmetology license so she can expand her skill set to include haircutting and coloring. She also notes that landing a regular gig with a celebrity client would ease the financial strain and provide more consistent work, as her current schedule varies drastically from week to week — some weeks she works 60 hours, others less than 10.

In addition to securing a cosmetology license to achieve more consistent paying work as a hair and makeup artist in the fashion and entertainment industries, Logan has aspirations to be a television personality focusing on fashion and beauty for the everyday woman. These dreams, however, might not be achievable in present-day Nashville.

“I’m pretty sure I need to move to a bigger city to really make these dreams a reality,” she admitted. “I love Nashville, but the kind of work I want to be involved in doesn’t happen here often enough for me to make a viable income from it.”


Brent Coleman

31, yoga teacher

Although Brent Coleman holds a master’s degree in classical guitar, it was an extracurricular education — specifically, the 200 hours of training required to be a registered yoga instructor — that led to his current career path.

As a full-time yoga teacher (until recently, he also worked for ProCare, a floor care company) Coleman teaches private sessions and classes in studios around Nashville, including Steadfast and True Yoga and Hot Yoga Plus. Last year, his income was in the $40,000 range, but he says he makes “way less” since  he began teaching yoga full time. But for him, time is more valuable than money.

“I have more time to prepare and practice,” he said. “Every day involves yoga study of some kind — self-practice, online courses, traveling to New York to study with my favorite teachers, and reading, of course.”

Coleman, who currently has two roommates but is planning to move in with his girlfriend, offers free private lessons to students. He hopes this will lead to more exposure and paying jobs.

“In my field, offering a free private to someone who really needs it is actually more rewarding than accepting payment,” he said. “Knowing that you helped a person find insight and relief makes what I do worth doing.”

And if you thought Nashville had a surplus of guitar players, Coleman said the local market for yoga teachers is becoming increasingly crowded, which means there’s always someone out there willing to do the job for less.

“Studios are popping up all over. … There are 4-5 studios in our area doing yearly teacher trainings, creating over 100 new teachers each year in Nashville,” he explained. “So there is always someone willing to get their foot into any door.”

But Coleman is more focused on inspiring yoga communities in Nashville and beyond. And, true to his craft, he already has a plan for paying it forward.

“I hate that yoga is such a privilege and is becoming more and more just for the elite and well-off — anyone with money can do amazing trainings with experienced teachers,” he said. “I will continue to grow my private clientele of people who can afford it so that I can also help those who can’t. Once I have gained sustainable income, I will offer two free classes a week to those who can’t afford yoga. The best part is that I can achieve all of this right here in Nashville, where I plan to live for the rest of my life.”


Rachel Briggs

30, freelance art director/designer/illustrator

A glance at Rachel Briggs’ résumé reveals an impressive list of clients: Third Man Records, Chronicle Books, Billy Reid, Ryman Auditorium, Time Out Chicago, University of North Carolina and SXSW.

This Jill of all trades, who received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in music business from Belmont University, focuses on graphic design and illustration, but also works as a photographer. She is a partner in Fond Object Records, running her design studio, Dept. of Goods & Services, out of their East Nashville headquarters.

Briggs, who can work up to a staggering 70 hours per week, shares a four-bedroom house with a freelance photographer, allowing both of them to have a home studio.

“At this time in my life, I live my days and sleep my nights with my work around me, which I love and don’t love all at once,” she admitted, noting that 100 percent of her income is from freelance work.

Briggs said she always talks with clients who approach her for work to learn about their goal, their budget, and their timeline. She’s strategic in her process of taking on projects, seeking work that will garner more interesting and fulfilling work, regardless of  remuneration.

“Artistic payoff goes a long way, and the feeling of fulfillment goes a long way,” she said, explaining that she’s taken on pro bono work when she believes in the cause.

Briggs said her business school knowledge has helped considerably in making financial decisions for her business. It also enables her to know when to walk away from a project.

“If I’m not clicking with what they’re wanting, if I feel like my design style is not really their speed, and if their price is way, way low, I will refer them to other designers who may be more fitting,” she explained.

“And if need be, remind them that design budgets should probably be just a bit higher. It’s hard out here to be a designer at times.”

While Briggs said she doesn’t have any regrets about turning down a job due to low pay, she noted that experienced designers have to compete with “just-got-out-of-art-school designers” who are willing to work cheaply.

“I think its very important to keep the quality and worth of the design trade at a standard, and I have a hard time with other designers mega-underselling themselves in hopes of getting their work out there,” she said. “We’ve all done it in some form, and it’s a bad, bad habit. It cheapens our trade.”


Will Morgan Holland

30, freelance photographer/videographer

Photographer and videographer Will Holland said he always takes the jobs he wants despite the pay, and everything he’s turned down has been for a good reason.

“I’ll pretty much work on any kind of shoot if the pay is correct,” he said. “Once pay isn’t there, it all depends on whether or not I’m creatively interested in it.”

Holland, who lives in Germantown with his wife, fashion designer Amanda Valentine, is mostly self-taught, and he also does a lot of video and photo production work around Nashville, and although he admitted it isn’t all “mind-blowingly interesting,” the pay is always even and fair. These kinds of paying gigs — last year, he made in the $30,000 range — enable Holland to take on projects that have the potential to be interesting.

And while others in his field may work for a reduced rate, Holland feels it’s important to go for all or nothing, which is one way to combat the confusion around rates when clients are shopping around.
“It’s all a project-by-project basis,” he said. “Essentially, I try to work for my rate or I do it for free. The in-between gets messy. You either feel like you are being worked too much, or the client thinks you aren’t working enough. Claim what you are worth and prove you are worth that. If you want to do something pro bono, it should be for one of two reasons: You just love the creative element of what that project is, or you learn something from it that makes you better at what you do.”

While there isn’t really a “typical” workweek, Holland easily works 40-plus hours between pre-production, scouting locations, creating call sheets, shoots, and the subsequent post-production and editing. No artist likes to take a pay cut, but Holland said he’ll do so if a project has a limited budget and his vision requires that funds be allocated towards other resources, like renting equipment or traveling for a shoot location.

“It’s all about choosing the wise times to sacrifice money to elevate yourself to a new professional level in your career,” he explained. “If I can’t get $10,000 to make a high-end video, I’ll take $5,000 and stretch it to its fullest, not make a cent, and get a great finished product that will represent me well. It’s more valuable for me, at this point in my career, to make an expensive-looking video and make nothing than to make a cheap looking video and make a little cash.”

5 Comments on this post:

By: HamBoneHamBone on 5/24/13 at 7:13

You only live once. No one, upon his last breaths, will weigh income earned more favorably than a life lived with meaning.

By: CrimesDown on 5/25/13 at 8:56

My son is an artist / musician. He sculpts, draws and paints among other things. He plays several instruments , seemingly without effort or lessons. He didn't inherit these gifts from me. The one thing that he may have inherited from me is common sense. His art is unbelievably good, but he understands that because it means something to him, it probably doesn't mean as much to others. He doesn't have any false hopes of being able to make a good living from his favorite art forms. He has found a nitch in which he can make a good living, which allows him to continue with what he really likes to do in the meantime.

I guess my point is that even very gifted people shouldn't feel like the world owes them anything. I don't think anyone should give up a dream, but I also believe they need to live in the moment. Art is like most things, it's only worth what someone else thinks it's worth or what they will give for it. There are things in life that I have had a passion for and was good at, but I had to do other things to make a living and which allowed me to do what I was passionate about.

By: Blip on 5/28/13 at 8:26

My deepest sympathies to 99% of the people spending exorbitant amounts of money to get a college degree in the arts, thinking it will help them get a job as an artist. It is a massive con game by the colleges. Nothing wrong with dedicating your life to art, but you really should consider using the colleges to get a degree in something that will help you support you. Get a degree in something the world needs, then use it to pay for what you want.

By: Jughead on 5/29/13 at 5:02

These folks need to give up and start digging ditches.

By: ditavon on 7/24/13 at 3:10

You know - the INDUSTRY of makeup, hair, styling USED TO BE a very legitimate and lucrative PROFESSION. Giving away these skills FREE is an insult to SUSTAINABILITY, as well as the profession of film, tv, print ad and other genres of these professional trades. I'm insulted that HOBBYISTS think it's fine to give away their time for their passion - all because they have money and or time on their hands. It has decimated the industry and our town's fine skilled tradespeople, making a laughing stock of our profession. People coming from EVERYWHERE expecting free day rates or 10.00 an hour or less work. It's fine if you want to TEST and work up thru the ranks as a proper trade was done and is done in the PRO Environment but giving away free work to those companies and productions, or people who should know better - who ARE getting paid for their portion is criminal. You people who do this will not sustain one thing for the industry, the people who are NOT hobbyists, who have sacrificed and worked hard to climb that ladder of their trade. Shame on you. Thanks for having fun at the industry's expense.