And, in an instant, all the big shows were cancelled into the foreseeable future...
Being a freelance artist means riding the financial cycles like a surfer riding waves. Sometimes you wait in the water with your board for hours till a great wave comes by and other times the waves are too choppy and the water too cold to venture off the beach.
The COVID-19 virus, coupled with some tricky Russian oil market shenanigans, just triggered a sell off on Wall Street which should cause concern for everyone who works for a living. Especially for those who are self-employed and doing something that's (short term) not mission critical for the clients they serve.
The fear of contagion just shut down the biggest yearly event in Austin. SXSW brings in, according to the city of Austin, nearly $355 million dollars to the local economy. That's all gone now and it's not recoverable. For many small businesses there's no way to make it up. Some will tighten belts and some will fade away, buried by bills and salary expenses.
If the country goes into recession in the next few months then this will be the fifth or sixth recession I will have navigated in my working life as a photographer. Each was different and each was the same. The decline of assignments starts early and then accelerates. After an awkward % of the business dries up and vanishes then the remaining clients start aggressively price shopping and, while some of us dig in our heels and pass on projects with too low a price tag attached, there are generally legions of artists who are scared, panicky and hungry enough to chase the market for their services to the rock bottom.
I scraped and starved through my first recession and learned just how much more valuable having some money in the bank was than having the latest miracle camera or life-changing lens. We started tossing about 10% of our profits into savings accounts and liquid investments. With each new recession we were in better shape than in the previous ones and the panic around us pounded in the message of how important it is to save for a rainy day. Or year.
This potential recession might be short. It might be long. But from a business point of view it's already following the traditional pattern: the freelancers are the "canaries in the coal mines." The assignments have started vanishing left and right. We'll be the first out and the last in for the recovery and, for the first part of the recovery we'll probably be struggling to get our pricing back up to a sustainable level against the pushback of clients newly trained to expect more for less.
I've positioned myself as a portrait photographer for wealthy business people. It's the last market in photography to dry up. I'm still booking portrait work. Event work is more skittish. The cancellations just after the SXSW show cancellation are stacking up. The calendar is becoming more porous, like Swiss cheese.
So, What will I do???? Well, for starters I think I'll not panic. There are several older cameras I've been itching to try out along with those old Olympus Pen FT MF lenses I keep writing about. I have my eye on a used Panasonic GX-8 but I can't decide if I want one in silver or in black. If you shoot with a GX-8 I'd love to read your mini-review and get your thoughts about it. I know all about the "shutter shock" stuff but I'm interested in learning how the I.S. is and how you like the handling...
Next up, I'm itching to buy a Leica SL2 but they seem not to be shipping at the moment and no one seems to have stock. In the meantime I'd love to hear from people who've shot with the previous model, the SL. I know they are different cameras altogether but I'm assuming that lots of the handling DNA will be similar and I'd love to hear stories about what separates the images from mortal cameras.
As you know (and part of my huge, sinister plan) the Panasonic Lumix S Pro lenses are interchangeable with the Leica lenses so my total investment, if I want to dip my toe back into Leica-dom, is just(?) the cost of a body. If my ship ever comes in maybe I can cherry pick one or two Leica lenses for the ecosystem. That 50mm Apo Summicron at $8,000+ looks like just the thing to totally disrupt someone's retirement account....
And, if you are dumb enough to take financial advice from a photographer then
here's my strategy as sketched out on a paper napkin over coffee:
Wait for the Dow Jones Industrials Average to hit 21,000 and then dump
a bunch of cash into a Vanguard Stock Index Fund.
then, grab my favorite camera, go for walk and ignore the market for a while.