This article is part of a Moneybites series about artists and how money impacts their work.
I met Martin Montgomery while standing in line.
The wait was long enough to get a whirlwind tour of Martin's professional history. He told my friend and I about his experiences as an animator and video game director, and answered our myriad of nerdy questions about his work on the video game versions of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
Martin and I bonded over our mutual aspirations to write comedy, and talked shop about my at-that-point nonexistent blog. He agreed to do an interview for Moneybites. He probably thought he'd never hear from me again.
Wrong! A few weeks later Martin and I met up for coffee and he showed me his newly published book, Down The Hill. We discussed one of my favorite topics - the complex relationship between money and art. Martin has a unique perspective, partially due to his educational background - a B.S. In Economics and an M.A. in Entertainment Technology. I picked his brain about that strange intersection between creative work and finance.
Martin, let's start light. Tell me about the first time you were paid for your artwork.
It’s funny thinking about my path here. I was a sophomore in college. I was studying economics, but had started taking classes on Photoshop and design in general.
I got a paid summer internship at a bank which is [laughs] the most creative environment you can think of. I worked with great people though. As an intern I didn’t have that much to do. Most of the time I was just sitting around.
It turned out that the bank president was really open to creative ideas for marketing. I asked him if I could work on some stuff and I designed some website materials for him and also made a t-shirt. So even though that was wrapped into my hourly rate, that was the first time that I had actually gotten paid for my work. It was pretty cool.
Do you remember what the hourly rate was?
I think it was like nine something.
Later you switched from studying economics to pursuing art. What led to that change?
I came around to my senior year and I really liked economics but it’s not something I could see myself waking up in the morning and being excited about, so I was sort of at a loss.
Out of the blue my brother Joel sent me a link to something called The Last Lecture. It’s a really famous YouTube video done by a Carnegie Mellon professor named Randy Pausch. At the time Pausch had pancreatic Cancer and this was literally going to be his last lecture before he retired to live out the rest of his days.
“The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things?
Because time is all you have. ”
― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
In his speech he talked about achieving your childhood dreams. There was something that really resonated with me about that. Even though my parents were super encouraging I didn’t know it was okay to do some of these things. I grew up in Alabama and that’s so far removed from entertainment and all that stuff. It just didn’t seem like it was on the table.
Painting gifted by Montgomery to his niece on her 1st birthday.
So I was like “I don’t know how I’m gonna get [to Carnegie Mellon], but I’m gonna make that happen.” I don’t recommend doing this but I put all my eggs in one basket.
During your M.A. did you receive any education related to the financial side of working as an artist?
There wasn’t really a focus on that. I kind of had to learn it when I got done with grad school. I had to take the slap-dash skills that I developed and then find freelance work while I hoofed it around the Bay Area trying to get my foot in the door. I did that for about a year and a half. Through stumbling along the way I learned how to price, what my art was worth, and what my time was worth.
What would you say to somebody who’s going through that now?
Some of it’s trial and error. Some of it’s learning negotiating skills. They say one of the ways you can think about negotiating is [laughs] stand in front of a mirror and keep saying bigger numbers until you laugh out loud. That’s the number you should stop at.
And you’ve tried this?
Yeah! It works.
Now that you're more established, what are your income sources?
I work as a Narrative Designer at Pocket Gems which is a mobile game studio. So that’s my 9-to-5. I also do some freelance illustration which is more just bonus for me. It’s my side hustle.
Video game poster Martin created for ign.com
What else helps you determine the monetary value of your work?
Putting my stuff in front of other people, other artists and writers, and listening to their feedback. It’s scary because I put myself in my work. It requires a certain level of vulnerability. But the only way you’re gonna get better or gauge where you are in your skill level is to show it to other people.
If you're someone who goes through this process and realizes you’re a mid-tier artist that’s okay. Keep working at it, but don’t just jump in like, “I’m gonna be an artiste” and take on a ton of debt and then find yourself in a whole big mess.
So you just published your first book. Congratulations! What was the publishing process like from the financial side?
I had to spend a lot of time on finding the right publisher because I wanted both quality and the right price point. I looked at some places here in SF, some print on demand or PODs, which have been really popular as of late.
They didn’t really offer the options or the flexibility that I wanted, so I found a place in Pennsylvania called Spencer Printing where I was able to print them for about $5 a book. I’m selling them for about $17.
Ultimately, selling a product is about margins. I think a lot of artists just kind of gloss over that and they’re like, “Yeah it’ll be fine”. But you really need to pay attention to what your margins are.
Walk me through how you came to that particular price.
On the business side I always consider a few factors. How good do I think my work actually is? Where am I selling it? How much is my audience gonna be able to spend? I’m also thinking about my competition. I’m friends with some artists who are way, way better than I am, and they might be selling their stuff too. So the price point I arrived at, and I have to test it, was kind of a collection of all those things.
How many copies of the book did you order?
Pages from Martin's book, "Down The Hill"
Tell me about some of the childhood experiences that shaped your perspective on money.
One time when I was like 7 or 8 I got into real hot water with my Dad. He’d paid my buddy and I to do something for him and he gave us like a dollar for it. My friend and I had seen some Laurel and Hardy episode where Stan Laurel took a dollar bill and ripped it in half. He gave it to his buddy and was like, “You can’t spend this now unless we’re together.” So I emulated that and I got into big trouble with my Dad. I think that kinda stuck with me, to try and value every dollar.
The other one was don’t spend money that you don’t have. My Dad’s adage was, “The only things you should really consider going into debt for are a house or education.” To date I’ve only done that for education.
What financial advice would you give to your younger self or others?
Don’t just get a degree because that’s what you think is the next step in the journey. Think prudently about how your debt will relate to your end career path. If you’re coming out with $100k in debt and your job is gonna pay $30k you could be in debt for a very long time. Keep your end goal in mind.
Travel poster for "Zelda" video game.
I think that’s especially important for artists because there’s a big debate about, “Is art school worth it?” I don’t really have a set opinion about that ‘cause I didn’t go to art school, but it’s important. Look at what’s available based on your degree. Then have a healthy dose of self reflection about the quality of your work.
Did many of your colleagues go to art school?
I have friends who did it, and then I have some friends who are just insanely talented, got an industry job their second year in school, and then left it behind. So I can't say, “Do it or don’t do it”, but just think about four years of accruing debt, and what you’re gonna be making at the end of that.
And what would you say to someone who already has the degree?
To the creative out there who like feels like they can make an impact I would say don’t give up. If you don’t know anything about business go and try to talk to a business owner. Talk to them and learn that language because that’s how most of the world operates. They operate in terms of money and so even if you don’t want to be entrenched in it, knowing how to speak that language is really, really valuable.
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