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Selling out can free your creative inspiration, perhaps

The Art of Selling Out panelists

Selling out used to be what artists did when they lost their artistic integrity and decided that money was finally more important than their creations. It involved checking their egos and vision and kowtowing to ‘the man’, so to speak.

Selling out these days is an art unto itself. Brands, business and artists all have vested interests in success, and artistry now doesn’t have to butt heads with industry.

In today’s world, it’s not selling out if you love what you’re doing.

Jon Korn, a senior writer at creative agency Heat in San Francisco and a shorts programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, and Mickey Duzyj, an Emmy-nominated artist and director, are two panelists at “The Art of Selling Out” at SXSW on March 12, and they know a thing or two about what it means to sell out or sell up.

“The inspiration for this panel was {connected to joining] the advertising world late – I'm four years in at this point,” said Korn. “I had been a full-time film programmer for independent film, screenwriting, freelance writing — online stuff and journalism. I was looking for something a little steadier — you know, [I was] getting married, having a kid, things like that. So I started looking into advertising as a means for selling out. Turns out it's a great way to do that.”

Korn means that in the most honest, and tongue-in-cheek way possible, trying to find a balance between wanting to continue to follow creative pursuits and using the skills he had built as an independent creative, where he could have more resources, more support and perhaps even healthcare and a savings account.

Duzyj’s path to “sellout” meant trying to figure out how to create as many opportunities for himself as possible – those with high visibility that paid well and led to other work he could be proud of producing.

“Unfortunately, those kinds of things don't always materialize on their own, even if you go out and just try and sell the stuff that you want to do the most. Also, coming from art school, I had a lot of professors and mentors tell me that the last thing that you would ever want to do is to sell your work outright — like sell all the rights to your work, which unfortunately, in working with the web and working in ads, is something that you can't always avoid,” he said.

An aspiring indie comic writer and illustrator, Duzyj sold all the rights to a piece he did for ESPN’s website, which got over two million hits and created many more opportunities for his work. It opened his eyes to the idea that “sometimes to get the most visibility for the work that you're most passionate about making, you're not always going to make the most amount of money on it and you do have to sell the rights, but from that comes a lot more opportunity where you can take more creative control, make more money, and have your work be more visible.”

Creative control is a huge issue for artists, and in this changing creative economy, directors, writers and creatives are all getting more say in the process. Duzyj gets approached by ESPN when they have something that they think will be a good fit for his talents, while Korn enjoys getting to use his documentary contacts to create more artistic ads, ones with true storytelling rather than just quick-hit spots. But selling out isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as you get paid.

“I consider myself to be a commercial artist just in that I am doing this for a career and money is very important to my continuing to do work. I have a lot of ideas that would be fun to pursue creatively that would not make any money whatsoever so I'm not doing those,” said Duzyj.

Authenticity as a differentiator

To Korn, authenticity makes all the difference in art and commerce, and it’s easy to spot something that isn’t authentic.

“If you can tell the people who were making [the work] weren't just trying to cash a check but were interested in telling a story or exploring a technique or whatever, then it becomes more than just an opportunity to bother you in between commercial breaks,” he said. “I also think it coincides with intent. I think that audiences, whether it's actively or passively, recognize when the piece of content they're watching is filled with intent, when stuff isn't just happening because this is how it shook out.”

Korn pointed to the billboards for the movie Deadpool, which could have just been a picture and an opening date, but instead the makers figured out how to have fun and be more authentic with it.

Duzyj doesn’t lean towards irony in his work and genuinely makes things that have feeling and that he’s inspired by, so authenticity is built in. But there are times when the work can still feel like selling out.

“I think all of us have to decide what the line is that we're not going to cross. If there are brands that we morally object to, there's no amount of money or creative freedom that I'll feel okay working for. I know sometimes I've been yanked around by advertising agencies or brands, where they play pretty funny with things, like with rights, and that can make me feel really burned, too,” he said.

Korn added that while “selling out” may sound like a terrible thing to do, it’s not a concrete idea and there’s not one specific line an artist can cross to go over to the dark side. Open discussions need to be had on the subject to reach any consensus and decide where the border is.

“It's more like the people who are in the ad world are jealous of some of the freedoms maybe that the people who are in the more creative space are — and the people in the creative space are super-jealous of the stability that some of the people in the more formal office space have,” stated Korn.

The two agree that artists make their art so people can see it, and getting as many eyes in front of the art is optimal, but treading the line between creative control and making money can always muddy the path of an artist and can lead to some guilt. What they hope people come away from their panel with is to bring artists together to know that selling out doesn’t have to mean selling your soul.

“Somebody told me something really smart once where they said, ‘You know, you're never going to be paid the right amount of money that you deserve. You're going to be underpaid, underpaid, underpaid, and then things are going to flip and then suddenly you'll be way overpaid for everything that you do if your work resonates in the culture,’” said Duzyj.

For them, it’s about compromise, and having public conversations about selling out is a great way to help people reach that compromise.

“The Art of Selling Out” starts at 12:30pm Sunday, March 12 at SXSW

​Additional reporting by Doug Zanger

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