In 2020, Every Artist Can Make Good Money (Doing What They Love)
People love the idea of a starving artist. There’s something romantic about a man willing to lay down his life for his art, of a misunderstood genius living in a tiny Parisian attic, of the masterful Van Gogh achieving the acclaim he deserved after he was penniless, earless and very much dead.
That said, I am writing this article in a bid to dispel the myth of the starving artist. I believe it’s more romantic to make a great living doing what you love than be forced to eat your own paintings. I believe its more romantic to be writing on a tropical beach somewhere, sipping ice-cold Mojitos with your proud and pampered wife than to have her starve along with you in a crummy apartment.
Above all, I believe that with the advent of a little something called the internet, it has never been easier for an artist to make great money from their craft. I mean, I’m far from the best-earning writer on this site, but I made nearly $2000 over the past 3 months off my writing alone. I’m not writing this to show off — God knows there are many writers making much more than me. I’m writing this to show you that it is possible.
The internet has changed the way business is conducted forever — most artists just haven’t realised it yet. This is going to be a long read, but please be patient; stick with me till the end to learn some pick up some concrete steps that will go a long way in helping you become a well-fed artist instead of a starving one.
Caveat: There is nothing wrong with making money from your passion
Let’s clear this mental hurdle right away.
Making money from what you love isn’t selling out. It isn’t dirty. It is, on the contrary, awesome. To me, it certainly beats the hell out of working a regular 9–5 job!
If you hate the wealthy, you’ll never be wealthy. Your mind will never allow you to be something you abhor. Similarly, if you detest financially successful artists — or even worse, detest the very idea of being able to make money from your art, then you might as well stop reading his right now because no amount of advice can help you.
Before any of these tips can work, you have to first change your mindset. You have to stop subconsciously hating on successful artists and start getting inspired by them instead. Even if you think they’re not that good — particularly if you think they’re not very good, actually. Because if they manage to be financially successful despite being unskilled, then what’s your excuse?
It’s cool to make a living doing what you love. It’s cool to be able to put food on the table with your passion. It’s cool to get paid to change the world with your art. In fact, I can think of nothing cooler.
Get out of the way of your own prejudices. Once you stop being a hater, your eyes will be opened, and you’ll see inspiration everywhere. Then, and only then, will you be ready to ascend to the next level.
You’ll be ready to become an artist/entrepreneur.
Treat Your Craft Like A Business
Can I be brutally honest here? In my experience, most artists aren’t the best businesspeople. I’ve been training martial arts for 9 years, and I’ve seen time and time again how my fellow martial artists unknowingly sabotage their careers by doing things like:
- Not marketing themselves properly
- Not bothering to monetize their work
- Being rude to the boss/clients who can advance their career
- Being late to meetings
- Having an unprofessional, unkempt appearance
- And more
Writers, musicians, painters and most other artsy folks are much the same. They want to lock themselves in a room with their art and leave the business side of things to their managers. There is a purity in that way of life. I get that. I respect that.
But here’s a harsh truth: your managers will never care about you as much as you care about you — if you’re lucky enough to be part of the 1% who manage to land a manager at the very beginning of your career, anyhow. Solving this conundrum is the entire point of this article, and the answer, I have found, is as follows:
To be a successful creative in the 21st century, you have to be proficient at being both an artist and an entrepreneur.
Being an artist/entrepreneur means wearing two hats. It means being the best creator you possibly can while spending your downtime picking up entrepreneurship skills instead of goofing around getting drunk like most other wannabe artists.
More than anything, it means taking a professional approach to your craft, treating it, and by extension yourself, like you would a business.
Here are some ways you can do it.
Shamelessly marketing your work
Some people treat “marketing” as a dirty word.
They think it means being pushy, selling yourself out, selling your work. Well, my counter to that is this: If you truly believe that your creations have the ability to touch people and play a part, no matter how small, in changing the world, then the more people who get to see your work, the better off the world will be, wouldn’t it?
This is the mindset I employ to aggressively market my business, using just $100 to make 5-figures. I run a martial arts event business, and I believed — still believe, that the more people get into martial arts, the better the world will be. Hence my willingness to market my business with an almost evangelical zeal. Remember that old saying,
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Marketing-wise, the answer is a big fat no. It doesn’t matter how good your work is — if nobody knows of it, it doesn’t exist. The greatest writer of all time can write the greatest novel of all time, but if he locks his manuscript away in his drawer instead of publishing it, it might as well have not been written.
No angel is going to grow wings, fly into his room in a burst of gold-dust and discover his book solely because of its merit. Life isn’t a fairytale. I’ve been fairly harsh up till this point, and I apologize, but it's best to get these romantic notions out of your head right away. This allows us to move on and grow in a realistic manner.
Here are some other realistic methods that you can use to market yourself and your work:
- Practice where your fans hang out. Public practice makes you perfect your practice. Medium is a great platform for non-fiction writers, Wattpad an amazing one for fiction. Spotify is great for musicians, so on and so forth.
- Share your work on your social media. Tweet your latest article on Twitter, take a screenshot of it and post it on Instagram Stories. Your network is your net worth. Don’t have a following on social? Grow one.
- Join groups to connect with fans and friends. Facebook Groups aren’t dead — in fact, they’re one of the main ways I market my writing. Other great alternatives are WhatsApp and Telegram Group chats.
- Use the time-tested superpower that is email marketing. Statistics show that though old, email is still by far the most effective way to market your product. This is something I admittedly need to work on as well.
Remember, if you don’t get your work in front of your fan's eyeballs, they’ll likely go consume some other mind-numbing content. Funny cat videos on YouTube, perhaps, or another re-run of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
If you believe in the positive impact that your creations can bring, I believe it’s a moral obligation to share them, and share them loud and often. Shout their names from the tops of the tallest mountains. How much is enough marketing, you ask? Personally, I stop when I hit the point of shamelessness. Never before.
That’s how you get people to know your name, your work, your creations. That’s how you change the world with your art, one share at a time.
Create a personal brand
Nicolas Cole has written about this at length. Have you ever had your mind blown by a great novel, then proceeded to google the author only to unearth little to no information? He might at most have an old website with blurry headshots taken five years ago, and an Instagram account with a weird username and nothing on it but snapshots of cats and coffee.
This has happened to me more times than I can count. Granted, creators are better with branding compared now to even a few years ago, but the state of things still leaves much to be desired.
The term “branding” gets overcomplicated and thrown around a lot, but essentially, a strong personal brand must get this one thing done:
Establish you as a professional of your niche.
Let’s talk about niches. Your branding is what allows your would-be fan to tell, at a glance, what you’re all about. What you stand for. For example, Stephen King is synonymous with the horror genre. When you think about Mike Tyson, you think about knockouts. And the name Bob Marley goes hand in hand with weed and reggae.
This places you in a searchable category — and this is an article for another time, but contrary to popular belief, boxing yourself in a niche, particularly at the beginning of your career, is a very, very good thing.
Secondly, to be a well-earning artist, you want your image to be associated with consummate professionalism. There’s a reason why business executives wear suits, and A-level actors go to great pains to ensure their portfolio is as stellar as possible.
This is because if you are perceived as an amateur, you get stiffed, whereas if you’re perceived as a pro, you get paid. So choose the latter. Some ways you can do this are:
- Have a professionally-made website, complete with high-quality photos.
- Have at least one active social media account where your fans can follow your journey. Mine’s Instagram.
- Have an email so that people can contact you for business.
- Have a bio that clearly describes who you are and what you do.
Remember, to be a star, you have to first treat yourself like a star. This means swapping out your blurry profile picture for something clean and professionally taken. This means building a loyal following on social media. This means no lewd pictures or swear words on said social media — unless, of course, that is part of your brand!
These are simple but criminally overlooked tips. Remember that a strong personal brand fulfills the dual purpose of establishing your niche and making you look professional. This allows fans to tell who you are and what you do at a glance.
More than that, a strong personal brand will allow these very same fans to build a connection with you, to follow your journey, to not just become casual observers of your career, but true fans who will buy anything you create.
And true fans are the lifeblood of a professional creative.
Create, and most importantly own, content
This last point is the most important.
In the 21st century, we have access to the internet, a platform the artists of old could only dream of. The internet not only allows us to better market our work, but it also allows artists to own 100% of our content while still making money from it in the form of royalties.
This changes the playing field. For example, just a couple of centuries ago, even if you were a great artist like Van Gogh or Michaelangelo, you only had two main ways to make a living from your art. You either had to:
- Be a commissioned artist, or
- Sell your artwork
Both of these options means you no longer own your work. It legally belongs to whoever paid for them. In writing, this is the equivalent of ghostwriting a book for a client. They own the fruits of your labor, not you.
“But what about writing your own book? Authors make royalties from book sales, don’t they?” Ah, this is where things get interesting. Every writer dreams of being discovered, of becoming a traditionally published author with a huge advance.
What these writers don’t understand is that if you’re traditionally published, you only get between 8–15% of the royalties from book sales. In effect, you only own a tiny percentage of your own work — the publishing house owns anywhere between 85–92% of the book you created. The same goes for the music business. Record labels and agents take a massive cut.
This explains why more and more artists are choosing to self-publish.
If you have the first two points down pat, aka the ability to market well and a strong personal brand, you can leverage the unprecedented power of the internet to make money from your art while still owning it. You can, unlike the artists of yore, have your cake and eat it, too.
This takes power away from the big publishing houses and record labels, putting it squarely in the hands of the creators. Here are some statistics to back up my claims:
- Amazon only gets 15% (plus a small flat rate) of your book sales.
- Music is a little more complicated, but as of now, Spotify pays out about 52% of its royalties to artists.
- YouTube pays out 55% of all ad avenue to creators.
The numbers are good, but the key point is that at the end of the day, you own all the content you create. For example, I own all the articles I write here.
Should I decide to compile my best-performing stories into a book, no one can stop me. Should a rival platform come up and start paying writers a more competitive rate, I could transport all my work there. I am the boss of my own show. I call the shots.
Owning your own content is a very, very powerful thing. It’s how Joe Rogan was able to get his $100 million dollar deal with Spotify. Michael Jackson was also wise about it, paying over $47.5 million to own the Beatles’ catalogue. And Floyd Mayweather, a very shrewd and underrated businessman, became the richest boxer in history because he owns the promotion he fights for.
When you own content, you hold the cards. You can market it any way you please. You can lease it out any way you desire. And most importantly, content in this day and age can be uploaded on a platform such as Medium, YouTube, Spotify, or even your own blog, and reach tens of thousands of people every month, providing you with a form of semi-passive income.
Bill Gates wrote back in 1996 that content is king. Well, the same is true for today, but I would like to make one small amendment.
In 2020 and beyond, owning your own content will make you a king.
This isn’t 18th-century Paris anymore. In the hyper-connected global village that is the 21st century, artists can leverage the internet to market their work, introduce millions of fans to their brand, and most importantly, create and own content, content that could provide a steady stream of income for them and their descendants decades down the road.
Change is coming. I look forward to the day where more artists wise up and realize there is nothing wrong with monetizing your passion. I look forward to the day where artists embrace the concept of duality, the day where artists become entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs become artists.
More than anything, I look forward to the day where more people can quit the soul-sucking jobs that they hate and make a great living from the one thing they truly love.
What a fine day that will be.