[ June 6th, 2005 ] In May, 2001, Michael Muratore left the Phoenix artist representation firm, Black Inc., to pursue a career in Web site development. Within a few days, the phone started ringing. But it wasn't potential Web clients calling, it was artists asking, "So, what are you going to do now?" And when an art director from a large agency called for help finding an artist for a project, Muratore thought, "Maybe there is enough room in this town for another rep agency."
Two months Later, Store 44 Reps was born. One of the first artists to sign up was Wayne Rainey, a photographer who was established enough to sign with a larger, major market agency if he wished. "I was impressed by Michael's approach to working with clients," Rainey told Altpick, about his decision. "We share a common belief that it is important to understand the clients needs. And also, I appreciated that he was interested in knowing my whole story, not just that I made pretty pictures."
In its third year with a dozen artists, Store 44 Reps provides artistic visuals for clients around the world, including Samuel Adams, Wachovia Securities, Major League Baseball, Hasbro, Cox, and a host of magazines. Taking the path of providing fine art for advertising projects, Store 44 quickly found a niche in the Southwest. With a little help from some Alternative Pick ads, some friends in some big cities, and many 16 hour days, Store 44 Reps has seen increased revenues each year.
Altpick caught up with Michael Muratore via email.
What brought you to representing artists?
A friend of mine introduced me to Pamela Black, an artist rep in Phoenix back in '98 or '99. I had been at an advertising agency for a few years prior, and the writing was on the wall that the ad agency wasn't going to survive another year. Photography and illustration had always been driving forces in my life. I'm very much an amateur, but I love the creative process, and the work. The opportunity to work with a group of established, talented artists was very appealing to me. I come from a business background, having worked in Canada for a couple of different stock brokerage houses. Working for a rep enabled me to use my business skills to assist people whose work I was passionate about.
What's with the name of your company?
I named it Store 44 Reps after a pizzeria franchise that I worked at as a teenager. Store 44 was one of the oldest restaurants in the chain, it had the most outdated equipment, the smallest staff, and a host of other problems and difficulties. Funny thing though, it routinely pulled in the best numbers and biggest compliments for consistently putting out a quality product. It was the perseverance of the staff, the owners, and everyone involved that made something that should not work well, work really well - better than most actually. It became a source of pride for the people that worked there and to the company whose name the franchise bore. Starting out with outdated equipment, no money, and a small staff - well, I just wanted to capture that energy. Plus, I don't have a really cool last name like so many other reps. I figured if I named the company after my last name I would spend all day spelling it out for people trying to find me.
How is it to not have your office located in a major market?
Great, actually. All the access, none of the overhead. I can be in L.A. or New York at the drop of a hat. I'm from New York and I love to get back there as much as possible. I have friends in the business that are always pushing for Store 44's artists. L.A. is even easier.
Do you think that agents need to be in a major market?
I'm sure it helps, but there are plenty of boutique agencies like Store 44 Reps that are scattered all over the place. The thing about the second tier markets like Phoenix is that there is a lot of work here. Plus, we have plenty of clients who want to come out here to shoot. Who doesn't want to come to Arizona in the winter? As for me, location matters very little. Right now I'm in Buenos Aires. My phone works, my e-mail works, and I work. The major benefit of being in a major market is more opportunity to meet face to face with clients.
How have you seen the business change?
From chromes to Epson prints. I don't even have a light table anymore. I can't remember the last time an artist submitted slides for our consideration. Of course obvious things like the growth of Internet, advertising, and the need for more animation or interactive works as opposed to stills.
Right now, what markets in the industry do you find interesting?
Being in the Southwest, it's easy to see the growth rate in the Latino advertising and marketing communities. (Photographer) Irvin Serrano, who hails from Mexico City, is one of the artists on the crest of that wave. And the differences in the ways that market pitches to its members makes for some really interesting projects, too. We see new agencies popping up every couple of weeks. We see a lot of growth in that area for us.
Some other things we are watching is the automotive sector. There seems to be a bit of a push towards 3-D renderings instead of photography, at least for a few applications. Having a well-executed rendering of an automobile allows for some really neat tricks. Hanging the angle of the car or the color isn't a big deal once completed. That's something (digital artist) Frank Vitale has been working on. I'm not sure if you'd call it an industry, but we get a lot of inquiries about combining illustration and photography in a single project. To use automotive again as an example - the ability to photograph a scene, and then drop a rendering into it - that opens up a lot of possibilities.
Where do you see the challenges for artists?
The sheer volume of competition out there. And it seems to grow exponentially each year, especially at the national-international level. When I first started, it was not uncommon to be one of 10 portfolios called in for consideration on a project. The last big job we bid on, the client called in over 40 books. Forty! How do you place yourself atop that pile?
How do you sell against stock?
Well, you can't art direct stock. The people that come to us usually do because they have a vision, and they see in one of our artists the path to that vision. But certain things: portraits, fashion, music, they need to be fresh, unless you're willing to use images or selects that have already been in a magazine, ad, or brochure. Someone like (photographer) Brandon Sullivan can get plenty of great stock during a fashion or location assignment, but from our opinion, the world moves pretty quickly, and there's nothing worse than stale artwork. However, most of my artists also sell their work as stock through a couple of different sources. That's an important part of their income, so that makes it important to me, even though we don't get involved in that end of their business. Shooting stock allows them to really experiment with things since they are usually paying the bill themselves. They can spread their wings and try new things that occasionally make for some of the best images in their books.
Do any of the artists you represent live abroad?
Not nearly enough. I have one, Giulio Iurissevich, who is in Italy.
How does that work?
We've been in talks with a large retailer for a while. They are a big fan of (illustrator) Giulio Iurissevich. When we first sent in his book for consideration, I was concerned because one, he's in Italy, and two, he doesn't speak English. The art director quickly put my mind at ease when she said, 'He could speak Martian and work on Venus. So long as he has e-mail and ftp access, I could care less where he is.'
Have you seen the role of agents change?
I think you nailed it right there by saying agent instead of rep. When I started, I considered myself a rep. But then I realized that it's more then selling the work, it's about working closely with artists on a set of goals and accomplishments that they want to achieve. Now when people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm an agent for commercial artists. The difference is that we really consider the artist-agent relationship to be a marriage. Through thick and thin, good and bad, we stick together and get it done. To me, it's much more personal then just simply saying I rep someone.
What keeps you motivated?
The artists. They are the driving force: full of energy, enthusiasm, a lust for life, and a creative fire that never ceases to amaze me.
What do you love about the business?
Sitting down, looking at books, and discussing projects with the creative teams. Just being involved, actually. I've been passionate about advertising and art separately my whole life, so being in the business of blending both is really beyond satisfying. I was always the guy cooking chili for the Super Bowl party that only came out of the kitchen when the commercial breaks came on. It's a sickness.
I have a collection of TV commercials and print ads on my computer that rivals my iTunes play list. I flip through magazines looking at the ads, then I go back and read the articles later. I actually have more magazine subscriptions than I have time to read. But mostly my love is for the artists. They have such unique and amazing souls. They are the magic that brings me back to work every day.
How long do you think you'll be doing this?
I still feel like I just started. I have no plans to retire.