For most artists, adding the prefix "professional" to their designation is a lofty ambition. It’s hard to make a bona fide living as an artist—finding a viable market for their work and generating enough income to sustain themselves, among their chief concerns—so the common path for the creatively inclined is for their art to become their passion project, not a full-time pursuit.
Fine Art America has been successfully helping artists reach prospective buyers since 2006, allowing artists to set their own terms of sale, and enabling many of its 250,000 contributors make a living doing what they love. Now the company is helping bring the work of its artists to a new audience: buyers looking to license images.
With Pixels.com, founder Sean Broihier has taken his artist-led business model from Fine Art America and applied it to image licensing. What does that mean? Well, instead of offering artists, illustrators and photographers the industry standard compensation model of companies like Getty Images and Shutterstock—which establish prices on behalf of photographers and give them a 20% or 30% commission on their work—Pixels.com allows contributors to set their own prices for their work, adds a 30% markup, and then leaves the rest for the artists.
On Pixels.com, an artist could establish a sale price of, say, $200. With the markup the item would sell for $260, which Broihier says makes the overall price cheaper for the buyer and diverts more of the price to the artist than services like Getty. "It’s going to be to our advantage to do it this way," says Broihier. "It could sell for less than a third than it sells for on Getty and the artist could still make money."
With this business model, it’s Pixels.com that stands to make less money than other stock imagery competitors, but that doesn’t concern Broihier. In fact, he says his self-funded business allows him a flexibility that the publicly held giants can’t afford. "I look at it this way. In the art world it’s pretty standard that you make 25-35% profit margin on every sale. I’m used to running a business at that profit margin. Also, it doesn’t cost me anything at all to get into this business—I don’t have to produce a physical good. It’s just processing a payment and delivering a high-resolution image to the buyer," he says. "And I don’t have investors telling me I need to make 50%, 60% and that puts me at a huge competitive advantage to disrupt this marketplace. The big players have a ton to lose by dropping their margins to pay their sellers a fair percentage. There’s no reason for me not to be happy with 22% to 25%—I’ve been happy with it in the art world for years and we’ve had a very profitable business."
Broihier says he was inadvertently prompted to launch this licensing business by Getty Images. He says his users had been asking for such a service for a while, but the stock footage giant’s move in March to give away 35 million images in their portfolio for online, non-commercial use without compensating their photographers was the last straw. "There was just a firestorm of complaints from photographers following that move. That sort of finally pushed me over the edge," says Broihier, who is also the site’s programmer. "I knew we already had millions of images and we have artists who are happy with us because we treat them fairly. So I said, let’s see what happens."
What could happen could be significant, predicts Broihier. With a quarter of a million contributors to Fine Art America, many who had never considered the possibility of licensing their work, he hopes Pixels.com will disrupt the stock imagery business. A beta test to bring FAA’s contributors to Pixels.com immediately drew 3,500 people off the bat, and Broihier expects to have 50,000 sellers signed up in a week. Shutterstock, by comparison, has 55,000 contributors.
"When people think of Shutterstock or Getty they think of photography. Painters, illustrators and visual artists haven’t considered licensing before because it’s never been targeted to them. It’s just been photography," says Broihier. "Now you’ve got this whole class of artist that will be introduced to it for the first time. And then for the photographers, I would say that it offers them more control and better commissions."
Plus, adds Broihier: "I get a big kick out of treating our sellers fairly and going up against the big corporations."