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Conversations with Katherine Amy Vega

Today we’d like to introduce you to Katherine Amy Vega.

Hi Katherine, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I own a media arts business named Kataklizmic Design (pronounced like the word cataclysmic).

I offer a fairly comprehensive set of media and design services, including Photography, Video Production, Website Design & Development, Graphic Design, and Digital Prepress (design for print). The services that my business offers are all performed by yours truly. I have strong professional experience and formal education in all of the trades listed.

Additionally, my business has a couple of branches: 1) Burning Hot Events – an independent, online, music-based publication, with a solid team of photographers and journalists I’ve recruited over the years. I wear many hats here too: Manager, Lead Concert Photographer, Chief Editor, and Web Developer of BHE. 2) Band Identity – service packages that bundle digital necessities specifically catered to musicians.

MUSIC.

Music is my lifeblood, my spirit, my therapy, my haven… Beginning with my childhood, it has surrounded me in many ways throughout my life. While I was aged 5-8, my father fronted an alternative/punk band named Government Cheese. We had a lot of instruments around the house, including guitars, basses, drums, and a violin.

We also had a piano and keyboard (which I still have). My mother, big sister, and cousins played the piano, and my big sister was also in chorus class at school. In turn, I took piano lessons around age 10, then took up the alto saxophone and joined band and chorus classes at age 12. I was first chair in band at two schools, and a high soprano in chorus.

My father also had a huge vinyl collection I liked to dive into, and my parents always played a lot of great music, such as Queen and The Beatles. In turn, I developed my very own musical obsessions with artists like Ace of Base, Spice Girls, Alanis Morrissette, ‘NSync, Incubus, My Chemical Romance, and many many more.

My big sister took gymnastics, while my little sister took ballet, and I eventually joined her in those dance classes and climbed my way up to lead. Between moving to Arizona and away from my dance studio at age 13, and my mother’s insistence that I homeschool for high school, I believe age 14 was when I stopped regularly practicing ballet and alto sax. I will always wonder how far I could’ve gone, but I’m very happy with the other things I’ve done.

As an adult, I have occasionally taken more ballet classes, ballroom and social dance, a lot of pole dance/fitness, and little aerial arts and acroyoga. The pandemic has been preventing me from returning to a dance studio; however, I occasionally get myself to dance at home while I await my return to classes.

TECHNOLOGY.

One of my grandfathers always had a camera on him. As a kid, my big sister had a Polaroid camera… I liked to play with my big sister’s toys of course… I actually returned that camera to her recently when visiting, haha!

My mom and dad gave disposable cameras to my sisters and me for vacations. My parents also had photo albums and many prints that fascinated me as I flipped through them countless times over the years. I took Photography as an elective in high school and did another photography class in college.

Without any professional intent, I upgraded my cameras over the years: disposable > disposable with Zoom > Kodak Advantix 4900ix > Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1 > Canon Elan 7NE > Kodak Z980 > Nikon D7000. (I have my eye on a particular mirrorless camera for my next upgrade!)

It was around age 16 – while I was still shooting with the Advantix (film) – that I started attending concerts. I never stopped doing either activity – photography or concert attendance. 19 years later, I have recently surpassed my 600th concert, and I have photographed many legends performing live.

I have been addicted to computers from as early as pre-K with VideoSmarts, to GeoSafari, Nintendo, Casio electronic organizers, DOS, Windows, PlayStation 2, Mac OS, Xbox 360, PS3, and so-on. As a kid, long before Myspace or even Neopets, I taught myself HTML and designed my own graphics in MS Paint. I decided then that I wanted to design websites for musicians for a living when I grew up.

I took a Hypercard (animation) class in Jr. High and majored in web design in college. I successfully attained employment as a web designer (eventually with the title Front-End Web Developer) – a field in which I have held a career for over 15 years.

In my late 20’s, I started doing freelance gigs in production as a Production Assistant, Camera Assistant, Still Photographer, and B-roll for promo videos, tv shows, live events, and more. My very first gig as a Production Assistant was, fittingly, for The Voice.

THE BUSINESS.

It was during college at age 17 that I conceived Kataklizmic Design, registered for my DBA, and learned the fundamentals and industry standards for all services I offer due to a rather comprehensive curriculum. While working full-time, I would spend years building up my portfolio by moonlight and honing my skills before requesting photo passes for concerts, offering services, and making money.

I pursued multiple ventures that never took off, such as designing my own clothes to sell on Cafepress, setting up a website for young feminists with an alternative style, and attempting eCommerce with Amazon’s Associate’s program to sell alt fashion, and Japanese items.

I struggled with my weight for most of my life, and it was after I got gastric bypass surgery at age 23 that my business and artistic endeavors really took off. With more confidence to put myself out there, I photographed a variety of events on the regular, took pole dance classes, had stints in 2 rock bands, took Japanese language lessons, painted an intricate digital painting, participated in art shows, modeled in alternative fashion shows, and socialized unlike I ever had before.

I made a name for myself – primarily as a photographer at first, but over the years I eventually became known for my skills in the other areas as well. I was nominated by a panel of judges for Phoenix New Times’ “Best Concert Photographer in Phoenix” in 2014, and while the popular vote saw my friend Joe  Abbruscato take home the trophy, simply being part of the nomination felt incredibly fulfilling and it is something I am still proud of.

In 2016, I was invited to be a speaker and vendor at a music industry expo at the local high school that was attended by Lindsey Stirling. The expo was designed for industry professionals to provide mentorship to young aspiring musicians. I chose to give a 30-minute talk called “The Strength of Character Needed to Succeed As an Artist,” speaking on grit, defying norms, self-care, seeking support, delegating work, gaining inspiration from the stories of others, and more.

Recognizing the importance of community, and the changes I needed to make in order to photograph the biggest rock and pop stars, I started a team with a former co-worker, copywriter Debbie Malone. She served as a journalist, and I launched my online publication Burning Hot Events. Considering my previous ventures, it surprised me that this actually turned into something real.

With high standards, I chose photographers and writers to join the team as concert photographers and music journalists. It wasn’t easy to let other photographers in because of my perfectionism, but for this idea to succeed, we needed to produce more content than I had the bandwidth for alone.

Thankfully, some fantastic photographers (such as Mark Greenawalt and Rodrigo Izquierdo) found me, and the picture became bigger. To this date, I have had the pleasure of collaborating with 27 talented individuals that joined the team, and a few guests, and it still blows my mind.

I want to take a moment to express my deepest gratitude and praise to the current members of the team for all of their hard work, enthusiasm, and generosity: Mark Greenawalt (photographer), Rodrigo Izquierdo (photographer), Ryan Novak (journalist), Nate Wert (journalist), Brittney Coon (journalist), Kara Blakemore (photographer), Jim Hesterman (portraiture), Brianne Dunn (content editor), and Will Bloodworth (assistant editor).

I wish that I had a group photo, but that is on my infinite to-do list…

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
My first stint of full-time self-employment began in early 2013, and the last stint ended in mid-2021.

When COVID-19 hit, Burning Hot Events came to a standstill, and over those 2 years, I wasn’t sure we would ever recover. Our definitions of success are ever-evolving throughout our lives. The more we know, the more we realize we do not know.

The place that I am in right now is what I consider to be a dream-come-true of a full-time job with mind-blowing company culture, a fantastic team backing me with an independent, music-based online publication that is finally getting the traffic it deserves, and precious security and stability.

FULL-TIME SELF-EMPLOYMENT.

After being a “wage slave” for 7 years, my perspective was once that as long as I was doing what I love, I did not mind if only basic needs were met. Just getting by was not the ideal of course; however, I knew that money could not subside my need for my heart to be in my work.

That’s quite a romantic sentiment, but the funny thing is that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will come crashing through it like the Kool-Aid Man. On the basest level, we need physiological needs met (food, clothing), followed by safety.

When I am stressed about making a living, the anxiety converts to depression and saps my energy. This situation is what I had to struggle with the majority of the time I was self-employed full-time, for a cumulative 5 years. I did not have a trust fund, capital, or even savings from a former D.I.N.K. living situation – because most of the income came from me, rather than a consistent dual income. I divorced shortly before leaving my job of 7 years.

Those choices were both terrifying and thrilling, and there was no handbook that could be found that explained the path to success with my particular ambitions: Offering a variety of digital arts (media and branding design) on a professional level in the music industry.

For my services, I took the term “media arts” from the curriculum I studied in college. I do not think I have ever seen it used elsewhere, however it always seemed the most concise way to describe my work, and I hoped its meaning would be picked up on.

I had to “Frankenstein” advice together from many sources that did not exactly fit my goals or industry. For a lot of it, I made it up as I went (of course, having applicable experience backing me)! It is not that I did not ask for help. In fact, I tried a mentorship program, and it did not help as much as I had hoped, or fit the vague idea of a business model I had.

For example, I was advised to read a book about franchising, although I was striving to work alone. That said, I remembered what I had learned in that book years later, and it helped me appreciate why businesses tend to have the roles of owner, manager, and “technician” filled by multiple people, and that it is not practical to have 1 person do everything. I still handle too much, but I’m working on it.

There was so much to learn, and I simply did not have a situation that was conducive to supporting me significantly. There are more resources available nowadays, including those involving the music industry and concert photography in particular, but I still would have had to chart my own course and figure things out on my own for many years. Thankfully, I am intelligent, but I’ve had plenty of times I’ve said to myself, “Katherine! I cannot believe you did not think of this sooner!”

I did not have a lasting life partner, a tight-knit family, or close friends living very near or with availability for that matter. I could not afford to pay for marketing. I have not had consistent earnings and budgets for employees or contractors. Only recently have I reached a fruitful enough season to pay to delegate work.

To be honest, romantic relationships have had the tendency to drag me down, as much as I’d hoped for the opposite – that they’d lighten my burden. I’ve made the mistake of surrounding myself with toxic, abusive company far too many times in order to combat isolation too.

The result was the loss of momentum, and getting stuck on a financial treadmill. I fought for the energy and spirit to grow while losing much of my mental and emotional energy in these dysfunctional situations. One of my biggest personal challenges is letting go.

Another challenge of mine is taking care of myself when overworked, and there are a couple of reasons for that:

First, health care is extremely difficult to obtain and keep up with when you do not make enough to buy from the Marketplace (I learned that even if you could afford the payments if you qualify for Medicaid, you are not legally allowed to get health insurance from the Marketplace).

There are a lot of frustrating situations that you encounter (confusing, antiquated systems, astronomically long hold times, employee errors, etc.) when trying to obtain Medicaid and other state assistance, especially in Arizona, which also does not cover dental.

The second part contributing to my difficulty taking care of myself is that I tend to prioritize responsibilities and work over my physiological needs. “Am I broken? That is not how this is supposed to work,” I think to myself. I work from home, and if I’m too busy, I will put off buying groceries in a timely manner, put off chores, throw on whatever clothing is comfy – largely disinterested in my appearance, a hermit in my house, barely seeing sunlight or moving my body for days as I work at the computer, and so on.

I am a sole proprietor, a freelancer, an artist… a salesperson only in the smallest sense one can be. It is downright hard to figure out how to attain a steady stream of business, especially in the areas I pursued. Every time I was self-employed full-time, it was my deliberate choice to leave the stability of full-time employment – with confidence in my ability to succeed based on the impressive growth and trajectory of my business during my adult years, along with my academic and extracurricular success throughout my life. And with those choices came fluctuating between a comfortable salary and poverty. It gave me valuable perspective, pushing me to places that I was once judgmental of, that I had been blind to due to my privilege.

I had to do food delivery on the side, which I came to discover ultimately did not turn a profit in the Phoenix market after factoring in vehicle maintenance, wear-and-tear, and depreciation. People in the Valley often do not tip, and when they do, they are often stingy. I was working my butt off just to pay for my next tank of gas to do the job, keeping me trapped and treading water. Food delivery ended up consuming me, leaving little time and energy for what I intended to do.

I questioned myself and my choices countless times: Did my mind exaggerate my unhappiness with day jobs? Did I ruin my life? My career? Am I running out of time? Will I ever have that kind of energy again?

I could go on, even to the point of telling dramatic tales, if I were to continue to detail the obstacles and challenges I have had along my lifelong journey.

I’ve been through hell, with things like being raised in what some consider a cult, illegal mistreatment from former employers, mental health struggles, liars and cheaters, and more. However, when it comes to inner challenges more directly relating to success, one of the biggest personal challenges was an acceptance that another unexpected path could make me happy.

During the pandemic, I was living in Washington. I moved there for a fresh start at the beginning of 2019, and I saw the difference in the prosperous market and in ample freelancing opportunities in productions. I had less financial stress and was able to get Medicaid with dental easily, however, I also had to start networking from scratch and my only clients were in Arizona.

I was able to manage to provide services and my team remotely, thankfully (if that wasn’t an option, I might not have moved). Still, with COVID making much of my work impossible (no deliveries, no production gigs, no concerts…) and government assistance taking more than a year to come through, we were unable to pay our rent, and eventually, the landlord decided to sell the house. I could not blame her.

There was another form of work that I was doing, beginning in the fall of 2018, and that was as a part-time software tester. I went for this job because it was easy for me with my web dev and editorial background, and it gave me consistent income and allowed me to retain flexibility and time for running my business.

Just as I could not have foreseen the pandemic (5-year plans? HAH!), I did not foresee that Quality Assurance would become my career. I did not want to go back to full-time employment ever again, yet I had to accept that it must be done after 2020 because a sense of safety was needed more than ever. I was committed to the idea that if I was going to do it, it was going to be in web development, and it was going to be my highest salary yet… Then came the job offer to be a full-time QA Engineer with the company I’d been contracting with.

After much deliberation, I accepted the job offer in order to become stable and entirely self-reliant once again. With that came the incredibly difficult and painful decision to leave a deeply troubled relationship and return to my home, my friends, and my publication’s team that were waiting for me in Arizona.

However, as mentioned earlier, I didn’t even know if the publication was recoverable after the pandemic, or if the team members would become available again. I was deeply worried that perhaps that chapter of my life, and that major part of my identity, had ended for good.

I accepted the job without knowing all that it had to offer, and lo and behold, it turned out to be far more than I could’ve imagined! I love my job! I have learned to love QA in a way I never anticipated, and have discovered how well it suits my personality. That said, I have also been working toward a sweet spot where I can put my heart in it further and flex both my Front-End and QA muscles, and my lead and director are both amazingly supportive.

Due to my massive workload and need for self-care, I am not actively seeking clients, but I occasionally work with those that seek me. It is nice to be able to work with clients without stress looming over me. The primary focus of my business has shifted from the services I offer, to the publication.

My strong desire to work solo has drastically evolved into the desire to celebrate accomplishments as a group, and this applies to both my BHE team and my team at work.

The core members of the BHE team have come together again, plus we have a new one on board, and we have been able to photograph and review multiple concerts last 3 months: A tribute show for my friend – the late Stefan Pruett of Peachcake and The Guidance, System of a Down and Korn, Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional, Flogging Molly, Punk in Drublic festival, The Atomic Punks – a Van Halen tribute band, and we also published a special memorial for Foo Fighters’ recently deceased drummer, Taylor Hawkins.

So… As an entrepreneur, do I fit the capitalist definition of success? Hell no! But my definition of success is reaching a situation where I feel secure, where I am able to give generously to those struggling, where I am not alone, where I am thriving in an environment that I am compatible with, where I am able to continue to practice the arts that I love, where I do not stress about making ends meet, where the opportunities to grow to reach the sky once again, and where I am truly supported, respected, and valued.

I do not have to prove my success to anyone – I have proven it to myself, and my happiness is all of the evidence anyone needs. Our perspectives, our realities, are shaped by our anecdotes more than anything else.

While I take great pride in my – and our – accomplishments, I also exercise continuous, immense gratitude to finally be in this place for as long as I am able: this place that I seem to have reached by grit, a seemingly unreasonable level of persistence, and either self-made or pure luck.

Contact Info:

Image Credits

Katherine Amy Vega, Rodrigo Izquierdo, and Kara Blakemore

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