Is it possible to enjoy a financially abundant living as an artist (the word artist being used in the most general sense)? Or is this simply an unrealistic dream?
Of course it’s possible. Many people have done it before. But is it realistic for you? Well… that depends. The honest answer is: probably not. What it takes to succeed as an artist isn’t such a mystery these days. The real question is whether or not you’re willing to do what it takes to get there. If you’re like most people, you aren’t willing. So if you want to succeed as an artist, you must elevate your standards well beyond the level of those who are willing to give up.
Starving artists may be more common and cliché than financially successful artists, but as you’ll discover in this article, there are some very good reasons for that. For starters, artistic skill alone isn’t enough to guarantee financial success.
There are many challenges on the path to financially sustainable artistic nirvana, and all of them have solutions. Successful artists are willing to apply those solutions; unsuccessful artists typically aren’t.
Here are a number of guidelines for transitioning from creating art as a hobby into a financially lucrative profession:
Get Your Financial Beliefs in Order
Do you harbor any beliefs such as these?
Great art and money don’t mix.
It’s noble to be a starving artist.
Artists who make tons of money are sell-outs.
Money corrupts true creative expression.
If your thoughts have been infected by such limiting beliefs, even a little, consider how this will affect your efforts to earn serious income from your work. These beliefs are financially retarded. With such mental baggage, you’ll miss too many opportunities to generate income from your art. In fact, you probably won’t even notice them. These beliefs will cause you to behave stupidly.
Consider upgrading your beliefs to something along these lines:
Money can help fuel creative expression.
Creativity is free; paintbrushes aren’t.
Great art is financially valuable; surely the artist deserves a fair share.
Artists who make lots of money have good business sense.
Great art deserves great financial support.
Art is a creative endeavor, but it’s also a business.
Fans are nice, but customers pay the bills.
It’s a lot easier to generate income from your art if you hold beliefs that support income generation instead of demonizing it. If you’re going to attach some kind of meaning to earning income from your art (an event which is largely meaningless from a cosmic perspective), then at least apply a meaning that will support you on your path instead of creating imaginary roadblocks.
Beliefs are infectious, so choose your friends carefully. If you regularly hang out with people who harbor negative beliefs about combining art and money, they’ll just drag you down. It’s fine to associate with them now and then, but be very careful about inviting them into your inner circle.
Seek Out People Who Are Already Succeeding
Art is a social field, and so is business. The business of art — any kind of art — is hugely social. Insiders have it way easier than outsiders, so aim to be an insider. Don’t even think about trying to go it alone.
Financially successful artists are generally happy to share their “secrets” of success, including how they make money from their work. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Make every effort to meet such people and hang out with them. Join clubs or trade associations, join forums, attend conferences, and find other ways to socialize with successful artists in your field. It’s not that difficult, but it does require that you make an effort. You’ll make some networking mistakes along the way, but eventually you’ll figure it out. Read through the extensive How to Network With Busy People series to get a better sense of how to do this.
I suggest that you identify a certain income goal — something modest — and target people who are earning close to that. If you’re making no money as an artist, it may be hard to relate to the advice of someone who’s earning $1M per year. You’ll have a better shot of understanding and applying the advice of someone who’s earning $30-50K per year. Then when you get to that level, meet with people who are earning $100K per year, and notice what they do differently. And keep stepping up from there.
If you always hang out with artists who are making the same or less money than you, I hope you like eating at McDonalds.
When you meet successful artists, don’t do the fanboy/fangirl thing. It’s best not to even utter the word fan because it sounds too much like stalker, and it steers the conversation in the direction of putting the artist on a pedestal, which really isn’t going to help you. Aim to be friendly, interested, and respectfully curious, but assume equal standing as human beings. Artists are generally very comfortable discussing their work, so a great opener is to ask a specific question about their work. Feel free to pick their brains, but don’t bleed them dry.
Being passive ensures dismal results. Push yourself to go outside and meet people. Take some social risks. If you dork-out now and then, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll recover.
During my computer games business days, I was having coffee with my lawyer on a patio in Century City (a business district next to Beverly Hills). He suddenly turns and yells to a guy walking down the street, “Bill!” Turns out it was William Shatner, who was working with my lawyer on a book deal. Shatner approached us for a friendly conversation, and being a 20-something Trekkie, I dorked out — not too much but enough to feel self-conscious about it afterwards. I learned to be much less dorky around such people after that.
Successful artists in any field typically know each other. They may not get to spend a lot of time together, but they often meet in person as a consequence of moving in similar circles. If you want to become a successful artist, it’s wise to prepare yourself for this. The key is that it must eventually feel normal to you. If it seems like a big deal, you’ll push it away.
Networking with other pros in your field is good business. Most of the income I’ve earned from my creative work (writing, speaking, computer games, etc) has resulted from business deals that came through my network. Other people brought me those opportunities. This isn’t unusual. Money flows through people.
As an unknown artist in any field, it’s difficult to get much exposure for your work. But if you have many friends who will help get the word out, it’s no longer so difficult.
Networking gives you the chicken and the egg at the same time. You can receive income-generating ideas and opportunities as well as exposure, without needing one to get the other.
Create Art That People Want
Think of your favorite music group. Would you respect them more if they created music you didn’t like?
When you spend money on art, is it because the artist was super creative, or is it simply because you like what they created?
Most likely you aren’t spending too much money on creative work that you don’t like. When you pull out your wallet, it’s because you like the work — or at least you expect to like it.
This doesn’t mean that the artist created the work for you (or for people like you), but it does mean that if the artist wants to get paid, there needs to be some alignment between their creativity and what people are willing to pay for.
It’s absolutely fine to create art that no one else will appreciate. Do that now and then. Just don’t expect to pay the bills with such an approach.
If you want to generate income from your art, then pay attention to what people are buying in your field. What’s in demand?
You’ll likely find that you can just as easily create works that align with trending demand but which still give you plenty of room for self-expression. These constraints are not inherently in conflict. You can choose and instead of either-or.
This article, for instance, is one that I felt inspired to write, and I’m enjoying the process of creating it, but it isn’t merely a gratuitous personal journal entry. It’s an article that I expect will provide some value to certain people. It’s art, but it’s also socially purposeful.
Sometimes people will want you to express yourself in ways you aren’t willing to deliver. Feel free to say no. Sometimes you’ll want to express yourself in ways people don’t care about. Feel free to do that. But when you want to generate income from your work, focus on the area of overlap between what people want and how you enjoy expressing your creativity. Then you can enjoy your work and pay your bills too.
If you’re going to be stubborn about this, then be prepared to see much less talented artists whizzing past you financially.
You may not control the waves of public desire, but you can still surf them.
Publish or Perish
Creating art isn’t enough. To be a financially successful artist, you must get into the habit of publishing art.
Many amateur artists amass sizable collections of half-finished pieces. The pros often do this too, but the pros get into the habit of finishing and publishing their work.
I know from experience that if I create and leave something in a half finished state, and I go more than a few days without working on it, it’s dead. The inspi