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 inspiration is gone. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s easier to start and finish a new piece than it is to rez and finish the old one. A half finished piece isn’t 50% done; it’s more like -50% done. To finish a half-done piece weeks later may take 150% of the effort of creating a new piece from scratch.
If I start writing a blog post, and I get it 60% finished, but I get interrupted and can’t get back to it for a week, I’ll virtually never finish it up and publish it. I’ll just delete it and move on. If it’s 90%+ done, or if I just need to give it an editing pass, then I’ll likely finish it, but if I can’t cross the finish line with ease, it’s a dead work that will never see the light of day.
I’ve learned how important it is to kill my unfinished work and let it be dead. I don’t save it or let it linger in my drafts folder. I put it out of its misery and kill it for good. Then when I look at my portfolio of creative work, I see 1000+ finished and published creative works: mostly articlesbut also computer games, speeches, workshops, a book, a poem, and some podcasts. I don’t think of unpublished works as being part of my portfolio. If I didn’t complete and publish them shortly after conception, they’re dead to me.
This may sound overly harsh, but what’s the alternative? Amass an ever-growing collection of partially finished pieces? How do you feel when you think about that monstrous pile of unfinished work? It’s draining, distracting, and demotivating, isn’t it? It’s clutter that weighs on you.
If you’re thinking about stuff you need to finish up from the past, then your creativity isn’t focused on the present. Creativity is limitless and abundant. There’s no need to tie it to past obligations. Thinking that there’s value to be extracted from partially finished work is a result of scarcity thinking. If there was major value in finishing those pieces, you’d have finished them long ago.
Chalk up the value of those partially finished pieces to the learning experience you got from them. If you wouldn’t get much growth from finishing them, let them die. Focus your attention on the sweet spot of artistry by creating works that provide value to others and provide growth experiences for you. Your creative energies must be focused on the present, which is the only place where you can create. Don’t allow your creativity to be drained by past regrets and obligations. The flow is here and now. The wave that passed you by is gone. Don’t go swimming after it. Just ride the next wave. And there’s always a next wave.
You could say that publishing is an unnatural process. A creative work is never really done — it’s abandoned. You can keep polishing and refining a piece indefinitely, but at some point you have to declare it done and move on. If I ever feel that I published an article too soon, I’ll give it an extra editing pass after it’s posted (that’s a nice thing about publishing online). Sometimes I over-polish a piece that probably didn’t warrant so much attention. It takes time to calibrate and get a feel for when a piece is ready to publish, and there’s no right or wrong solution per se. It’s mainly a matter of trial and error and experience.
When I begin a new creative work, it’s a race to the finish line to get it published. I need to express the ideas quickly and tune out distractions till the piece is done and released. Friends who’ve been around me when I’m designing a workshop, for instance, will know how single-minded I can be during such times. Even if I’m ahead of schedule, I can scarcely pay attention to anything but the workshop. My energy is focused on bringing everything to completion. I can pay attention to other things when the workshop is over.
I find it best to work on one major creative piece at a time. I try not to start something new until the previous piece is done. I can make some exceptions like writing a blog post in the midst of a bigger project like designing a workshop, but I want to avoid creating more loose ends. I wouldn’t want to design two workshops at the same time, for instance.
Visibility First, Then Income
If you want to become a successful artist, you’ll need to get your art into people’s hands (or eyes, ears, etc). If the art is hidden in your closet or buried on your hard drive, don’t expect it to generate much income.
I recommend that you focus on visibility first, and don’t worry so much about generating income at first. If you aren’t very visible, you probably won’t be able to earn more than a pittance anyway. But if you can gain visibility and sustain it for the long run, then it’s much easier to generate abundant income.
A good strategy for creating visibility is to give your work away for free. Spread it as widely as possible. Encourage people to share it with no restrictions. If you can manage it, favor media that encourages sharing without costing you anything — i.e. anything that can be put into digital form.
Show your work to anyone who might be interested in it. Give your art as much state time as you can. If you aren’t willing to do this, don’t expect your art leap onto the stage and market itself. Being timid about promoting your work will hurt you financially; don’t pretend it won’t.
If you give your work away for free or otherwise procure lots of stage time for it, and people don’t seem to appreciate it, consider the possibility that your work (1) isn’t very good, or (2) isn’t what people want. This happens to just about everyone. Everybody falls the first time. Keep refining your creative output until you strike something that people appreciate enough to share.
Once your visibility is high enough, then start charging for your work.
Commit to Excellence
Mediocre artists are broke artists.
Don’t settle for mediocre. Put in the hours and years it takes to become outstanding. If you want to become an overnight success, spend a decade building your skills first.
There’s little income to be made from most art forms except for those who commit to excellence. Such fields are simply too crowded and too competitive. The good news, however, is that most people in these fields are just dabblers. They aren’t serious about it. Rest assured they’ll give up within a year or two and go back to working at Starbucks, only to be replaced by people with even less experience. There’s a lot of churn at the bottom.
Consider the field of music, for instance. There are millions of wannabe musicians, but only a small percentage of them are committed to becoming truly outstanding. They’ll practice a little here and there, and they might dream of great success, but at the end of the day, they’d rather watch TV than invest an extra hour or two in practice. These people aren’t your competition. If you stick with your craft for 3+ years, you’ll be well beyond the majority of them, and they’ll never match your skill.
Persistence is your friend. With persistence you can easily outlast 99% of the people in your field. The longer you stick with your craft, the more the gains begin to pile up: a growing portfolio, a growing network of peers, and a growing fan base. As these aspects improve over time, it gets harder to fail, and it becomes easier to generate income. You have more work to leverage for income generation. You have a larger network to bring you opportunities. And you have more fans who could become customers.
If, however, you go around switching fields every year or two, you’ll have a hard time building a financially sustainable practice. If you’re unwilling to commit to long-term mastery, you’ll be denied access to its rewards. You can still switch fields if you really want to, but there’s a price for doing so.
It may be true that 99% of artists within a particular field aren’t making much money. But that’s largely because those 99% aren’t any good at it. The top 1% get paid because they’re the ones who put in those 10,000 hours to become world class.
Are you willing to commit yourself to joining that top 1%? Do you love your art so much that you’ll invest 10,000 hours into it? That’s about 5 years working full-time. If you aren’t willing to make that kind of commitment, well… Starbucks is hiring.
If 99% of artists in your field won’t become financially successful, then you’d better commit to bypassing that 99% if you wish to avoid their fate.
I realize this might sound like a very difficult challenge, but the truth is that it’s actually easier to make such a commitment in the long run. It only appears more difficult in the beginning. Think of it like this. The time is going to pass anyway. Someday that distant future will become your present reality. Now imagine that your future self is reflecting upon the decisions you made today, decisions that greatly influenced his/her results in life. Is that future you shaking his/her head in disgust or smiling in appreciation?
One reason I kicked off my 30-day trial of learning music is that I’ve been thinking about where I’d like to be at age 50 (I turned 40 earlier this year). I have the sense that my 50-year old self would really appreciate it if he had some serious musical ability to enjoy during his 50s. He’s not too particular about which instrument(s), but he’d be disappointed if he had to enter his 50s with no musical skills to speak of. He’s glad I developed my writing and speaking skills to such an extent, and he can count on their continued development, but he’d be even happier if he could express himself through music as well.
I’m not at the point where I’m willing to commit a decade to learning music, but a 30-day trial is a good starter commitment. I’m enjoying it so far, and I’ll likely commit beyond that point, but for now an exploratory approach is best since I wouldn’t even know what kind of long-term commitment to make yet. Even as I conduct this 30-day trial, however, I’m approaching it with the mindset that I might be initiating a new thread of skill building that could last for decades. This long view sharpens my short-term decisions. I’m willing to embrace the awkward phase of being a newbie, since I know it’s a stepping stone to building new skills I can enjoy for years to come.
Get to Know Your Customers, and Serve Them
If you want to be financially successful in any field, not just art, then sales are very important. Without sales, there’s no income, and without income, it’s hard to sustain yourself as an artist. If you can maintain strong sales, then even if you screw up almost everything else, you’re still going to have a sustainable art practice. Strong sales are very forgiving of mistakes. Weak sales aren’t.
Fortunately, selling needn’t be pushy or manipulative. If you create work that aligns with what people want, then selling is largely a matter of letting people know that you have something that will please them. If, on the other hand, you have to do a lot of convincing to get people to open their wallets, then the problem is likely the art itself.
Earlier this year I went to a local art fair. I walked past a lot of art that didn’t resonate with me, but then I stumbled upon an artist from Arizona who had a collection I really liked. I have an affinity for Southwestern art, especially pieces depicting bears and eagles. This artist had some really unique copper pieces, and I bought one of them. It currently hangs above the fireplace in my living room. He did his part to help sell the piece — very softly — but it was mostly a “you had me at hello” situation. The main act of selling he did was to envision, design, and create a piece that someone like me would appreciate.
If you want to create art to sell, it’s wise to know why someone would actually buy it. If you haven’t a clue or if you assume you’ll figure out how to sell it later, best of luck with that.
Selling is often treated as a discipline unto itself, but for a serious artist, selling is an integral part of the creative process. Selling begins with the question, Who would most appreciate this? Ideally this question should be asked before you start a new creative project. Determine who will buy your work and why. Who’s the buyer? Does such a person actually exist? How do you know?
If at all possible, meet your customers (or at least your potential customers) face to face. Talking to your customers about what they want is perhaps the best source for your sales education.
At my workshops I like to spend many extra hours talking to attendees outside the workshop itself. On the first day as people are arriving, I greet them with hugs. I stick around during breaks, at lunch, and at the end of each day to talk to people. Partly I do this because I enjoy it — these are interesting people to connect with. But I also do it to better understand them. Who are they? Why did they attend this workshop? What else can I help them with?
It’s important for me to create workshops that give me plenty of freedom for creative expression, but it’s also important to give people what they desire, especially if I want my workshops to be financially sustainable.
Respect the role of money in your artistic endeavors, but don’t put money on a pedestal. Money is lubrication to grease the wheels of your artistic endeavors. You’re always free to create art for art’s sake, even if it won’t pay the bills, but if you want to get paid, then create art to sell.
Canadian actor Michael Ironside said in an interview that he accepts some acting roles for the money (Robocop being a good example), while other roles he performs for the soul. I make similar choices. Sometimes I write articles that I expect will boost traffic or generate income, while other times I write purely for the sheer enjoyment of being creative. And sometimes I get the best of both worlds. This variety is very nice.
Creating art to sell doesn’t equate to selling out. In my opinion the sell-outs are the artists who spend more time complaining than they do creating. If you create art to sell, then you can spend a lot more time creating art for the sheer joy of creating, and once you’ve built up the sales side of your practice, you may find that there are
buyers for anything you create.
As a corollary to the above, when you see art you like, buy it. Yes, with money.
Get into the habit of financially supporting artists whose work you appreciate. Don’t do the piracy thing. Piracy is rooted in scarcity thinking, and it’s disrespectful of the artists. The beliefs that justify piracy are at odds with the beliefs that will help you generate sustainable income from your art.
By piracy I’m referring to illegally obtaining something that isn’t free. That which is given freely is a different animal. All of my blog posts and podcasts are uncopyrighted, for instance, so you can translate, republish, or share them however you wish, and it wouldn’t be piracy. But if you do this with copyrighted works without the artist’s permission, that’s piracy.
When I first began developing my own computer games, I was still into pirating games and other software. I realized that if I expected people to buy my software instead of just pirating it, it made sense for me to get my own house in order. So I stopped pirating, and I began purchasing what I wanted. If I wasn’t willing to purchase it, and if it wasn’t free, I did without.
Making that transition was easier than I thought, and it felt really good. I observed that I appreciated what I purchased more than I did when I pirated it. I also became more selective about what I consumed and less impulsive. My computer was easier to manage. I felt better about myself knowing that I was helping to support other people’s creative work. I felt like I was partnering with them in some fashion.
If you want others to financially support you as an artist, take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Are you an avid supporter of other people’s creative work? Do you readily purchase art that you appreciate?
Like many people I have a sizable collection of media, especially music. None of it is pirated. When I scroll through my collection, I not only see a lot of art that I enjoy, but I also see a list of artists that I’ve helped support financially. It’s comforting to know that Alan Wilder will never run out of hair gel. 🙂
I know it’s tempting to try to justify piracy. Don’t go there. You can claim that everything digital should be free, but such beliefs are at odds with those who choose not to release their work for free. Some people would still appreciate fair payment for their work. If you’re going to demonize them for making such choices, realize that you’re also necessarily demonizing the part of you that would like to make money from your creative work. That incongruency will surely come back to haunt you; usually it will show up in the form of self-sabotage.
When you support other artists financially, you reinforce the belief that you deserve to be financially supported. That’s an important belief to have if you wish to succeed as an artist.
Although it might seem more difficult to pay for work you could easily pirate, in the long run it’s easier than the alternative. If you wish others to respect your work and to pay for it, then have the integrity to show this much respect to other artists. Respect their right to ask for payment. If you feel their prices are unreasonable, don’t patronize them.
Supporting other people’s creative work can also be good motivation to increase your own income. I rather like spending money on books, seminars, music, and other art forms. This tells me that the more money I earn, the more I can support other creative people.
Learn to Handle Criticism
In any creative field, you’ll find plenty of people willing to assume the role of critic, largely because it’s easier to criticize art than to create it. Sometimes critics can be helpful by providing specific ideas for improvement, but they rarely bother to do so. More often they approach art with a sense of entitlement combined with undercurrents of bitterness, resentment, and envy.
A good summary of the relationship between artist and critic can be found in Teddy Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech from 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
What really disturbs critics is the knowledge that they don’t want to face — that they simply don’t matter. The critic is irrelevant and superfluous. History remembers the great artists, but it forgets the critics.
If you try to respect the critic, you’ll feed more power to the self-judgmental part of you, the part that says you aren’t good enough and can’t measure up. To empower your critics is to empower your self-doubt. If you want to be more prolific, then give your full attention to your artistry, and starve the critic of attention. A good way to transition is to laugh at the critical part of you. Poke fun at it. See it as the joke it truly is.
Abandoning self-criticism doesn’t mean letting go of reason and becoming blind to areas where you could stand to improve. You can still examine your work with an eye for improvement without getting bogged down by the voices of envy and resentment.
Genuine constructive criticism is what artists bestow upon themselves. Look at what you’ve created, and pay attention to your reaction. What do you think about it? How do you feel about it? Is this your best work? How could it be improved?
Feedback from others can be helpful, but such feedback rarely comes from would-be critics. Often the best feedback comes from other artists, people who understand what it’s like to play in the arena. Even then, you’ll still need to take such feedback with a grain of salt. If it makes sense to you, then use it, but don’t give it more weight than your own opinion.
Here’s some more text from that same Roosevelt speech:
There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities — all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness.
Offer your art to those who will appreciate it. You can safely ignore the critics, for history will treat them as if they never even existed. Their weakness is unworthy of your respect. Regardless of criticism, artists will continue creating art. The artists will have their cake and eat it too… while the critics scurry for the crumbs.
One of my most criticized pieces is the article 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job (2006). Another one is 10 Reasons You Should Never Have a Religion (2008). For me these were inspired pieces that I truly enjoyed creating. Criticism of those pieces has drawn even more attention to them, making them some of the most popular works I’ve ever created — both are in the top 1% in terms of the referrals and traffic they generate. To c