Are creative people doomed to scraping out a miserable existance?

Get the RSS Feed


I love creative, complex, funny people.

When I see a photo or video or clever ditty or hear great music or read a deep, insightful essay it makes my heart expand.

This is the case with supremely talented fine artists or wacky creative geniuses like Hugh McLeod, who did the above gapingvoid cartoon.

Or ZeFrank, whose mind I love so much I would marry it if I could.

If you have 18 minutes, watch his TED talk:

(link here if you can’t see video – it has a teeny bit of profanity so if you are at work, take note)

A client, whom I won’t name to maintain his privacy, told me that he was a musician.  He wanted to explore making a living by his art, but was unsure if he could do it. By the way he described it, I assumed he was a decent player, most likely entertaining family and friends in the living room, or playing at a local small coffee shop.  Then I viewed him playing on YouTube.

My jaw hit the floor.

He was sublime, exquisite, hyper-talented. Carnegie Hall material.

And I wondered — if he, Ze Frank, Hugh McLeod worry about making a living from their art, what about the rest of the average creative Joe or Jane?

We went to the Tempe Art Fair a few months ago and a talented
street performer named Dana Smith did a show in the middle of a huge
crowd of people.

My 3-year old son watched with rapt attention.  At the end of the
show, Dana asked for volunteers. My son waved his hand and stood up .
After Josh’s “performance,” he told me that he had to go speak with the
artist.  “I want to work with you,” he said to Dana.  Dana replied:

“If you want a
life of driving around in a beat-up pick-up truck, come join me,” he
said.  “Otherwise, become an accountant!”

This half-joke/half truth stuck with me.

Is there really a correlation between pure creative joy and poverty or selling out and prosperity?

A coaching client from India told me something I never forgot:

“My father told me from a young age that I had three choices for my career.  I could be a doctor, an engineer, or a failure.”

for him, he was a software engineer for a very successful high tech
company.  Who deeply longed to chuck it all and be a creative writer.
He drank.  A lot.

My friend and fellow coach Brooke Castillo said this in a recent post:

Today I learned something that blew my mind: Michelangelo hated painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Hated it.

If I had been his coach, I would have asked him why.

would have told me that his boss was a tyrant and that he didn’t see
himself as a painter-he believed he was a sculptor.  He would have told
me he missed his family in Florence and that the pay was inconsistent.

Then, as his coach, I might have asked him why he didn’t quit.

I know.

I am so glad I wasn’t his coach.

ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one of the most inspired and beautiful
things I have ever seen.  How could he have hated doing it?  How could
he have spent four years making something so amazing and not enjoyed it?

It makes me wonder. . .

What if he had followed his “North Star” and not done the thing he hated?

I cringe at the thought.

And then I wonder…

What might he have created (and loved creating) in those four years instead?

Or was the Sistine Chapel his North Star and he just didn’t realize it at the time?

I don’t have the answers.

I don’t have the answers either.  Every once in awhile, I
come across someone like Hugh who seems to blend genuine joy at
creativity with a healthy attitude towards commerce.  But he worked terribly long and hard at it, giving away his drawings on the back of business cards for years before successfully selling them as prints.

But mostly, when talking with extremely creative people, there seems to be an inherent friction between pure creative freedom and making a living.

Maybe we need more creative genius grants to let the truly creative do what they are meant to do without twisting themselves into “packages” of e-books, sound bites or workshops.

If I had it my way, Rhett and Link would not have to worry about paying rent.

I wish I had a neat process to ensure you could maintain the feeling of total creative freedom while making a living doing it.  I just don’t know if one exists.  I am sure that part of it has to do with changing the “starving artist” mentality, and maybe part of it has to do with relaxing the expectation that you should always make tons of money from what you love.

Your thoughts on this one?

44 Responses to “Are creative people doomed to scraping out a miserable existance?”

  1. Which is actually appealing, You’re an exceedingly specialized doodlekit. I have joined the rss feed and search forward to within the look for really your excellent write-up. Additionally, I contributed your internet-site inside my social networking sites

  2. sex says:

    I do consider all the concepts you have presented on your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are too short for starters. May you please extend them a little from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.

  3. Jake says:

    In response to the title.


  4. Cheryl Kling says:

    If I remember correctly, Michelangelo painted the ceiling because the Pope was his boss. He was basically under house arrest to complete the task. I do believe that despite that he created a masterpiece and despite the Pope he had the last word with symbolic inferences in the painting. Regardless, I’d like to think that artists today have more freedom in chosing their commissions in life. My own success as an artist is rooted in the support I had as a creative child. I was told I could be anything I wanted, to do it well and it would support me. It was true. Also, I’ve never had to lay on my back on a scaffold to paint a ceiling. Long handled rollers in one color is all you’ll get out of me.

  5. Carla says:

    I think for me, it’s the combination of being “creative” and having very little talent in the areas I’m interested in. If a musical or artistic genius cannot make a living, how can the average creative type? I guess at a certain point, you have to decide if you should follow a dream or work the pay the bills – or spin your wheels burring yourself out to do both. Who can determine if you are good enough to make even a small living from you talents?

  6. Can I jump in and suggest Carol Lloyd’s book Creating a Life Worth Living ? which is a great book on making a living while being a creative person and really helped to transform my thinking.

    Also the work of Christine Kane

    I have a ton of stuff to say on this but have noticed that once people are doing what they love they need less money because they need fewer ‘treats’ to get through their horrible jobs.

    Part time work ! Its fabulous you get an income and time to do what you want.

  7. Oh my freakin’ God I cant believe how many passionate comments Pam i think you found the seed for your next book! BTW who is the sublime artist on YouTube?

  8. Hi Pam:

    I’m currently reading a book by Johnatan Fields called Career Renegade, that deals precisely with very practical and actionable ways one can turn his/her passion into a business. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far I’m pretty impressed by it, and pleasantly surprised that there are so many ways to monetize our passions.

  9. A Fine Artist says:

    Great discussions. However, to compare Michelangelo’s 16th century Sistine Chapel commission with anything going on in the 21st century is to compare apples to oranges. First off, Michelangelo was a successful sculptor and worked–like all atists of his time–on commissions. Retail galleries did not exist and artists worked for patrons. Michelangelo was okay with a patron dictating the theme of a commission because this was the norm in his time. Secondly, he felt uncomfortable painting frescoes because he was, by choice, a sculptor and did not have much recent experience with this medium. (Fresco is a very difficult process–even for fresco experts.) Thirdly, he agreed to do this huge commission because his boss–Pope Julius–had abruply halted his huge and very ambitious sculpture commission to build the pope’s tomb–one commission which Michelangelo was thrilled to have. Michelangelo needed to stay on his patron’s good side to ensure the commission he DID want to work on remained a possibility. After all, the Pope was probably the most powerful patron an artist could have–regardless of the fact the he was a tyrant. I could go on citing major differences but I think you get the point.

    Unrelated to the Michelangelo topic, most entries here fail to see that creativity exists outside of fine arts as well. Coming from a fine arts background myself, this realization took me years to acquire. Everywhere I look, I see the work of creative people… now, more than ever. Anything from sleek kitchen appliances to great toys to clever ad campaigns to unusual album covers to beautiful auto designs to Pixar films–to name a few examples–was the brainchild of a creative person or team of creative people. Many people are making a living in the arts. Finally, many fine arts creative people ARE also making a living doing what they love. And, they’re finding creative ways to get their work out there. The myth of the ‘starving artist’ lives only in the minds of people who fail to see the creativity all around them.

  10. Lisa Gates says:

    Pam, so excellent a question. Or questions. I think you nailed it in your very last paragraph.

    Prior to becoming a coach myself, I worked as an actor. Plays, commercials, voiceovers, all of it. I made mediocre money, but it was a very liveable mediocre.

    Curiously, I noticed something that flipped my thinking entirely. I had adopted the “herd” poverty perspective–so much so that I didn’t actually see that I was not poor, and that in fact I was making a living. My perspective was in solidarity with my actor friends (without conscious choice, I might add).

    So I guess my takeaway here, or giveaway, is to work from within, challenge assumptions and herd thinking, and I can’t help say it, do what you love. What is the point of making gazillions of dollars if it causes us to turn the other cheek on who we are at core?

  11. Andy Pels says:

    Jeez Pam, what have you started?

    It’s your next book. :}

  12. Keith Handy says:

    Jeff Schmidt: although my interests fall mostly within your definition of “art”, I feel happier calling it “creativity”, maybe because sometimes people perceive “art” and “artist” as elitist.

    I absolutely agree that creativity covers a lot more ground than just “the arts”, but maybe that’s part of why I like the term better; if your focus is on creativity, you can better see the parallels between your area of expertise (painting, music, whatever) and… well, everything else. You can get musical ideas observing others’ approach to painting, theater, computer programming, cooking, corporate structuring, etc.; add other fields of interest to this list, swap their order around, and cross-pollinate to your heart’s delight. 🙂

  13. Jeff Schmidt says:

    Awesome post Pam! Lots of great comments also.

    Personally, I like to separate “creative” from “artistic”.

    We can be “creative” with all kinds of things like business creation, problem solving, personal relations and other kinds of skills without being “artistic”- like being able paint, draw, sing or sculpt.

    Creative people, in general, don’t find it that hard to make enough money to live on. There’s actually lots of formal jobs/careers for “creative” people. The issue is when people want to be “artistic” – that is “make art”.

    Artists who are pursuing their own personal art are the ones more likely to have the frustration articulated in the headline of this post.

    I know several artists who eek out a very modest living with their art. Some are the happiest people I know. And yet others constantly feel lack from their restricted finances. Many of the very happy artists I know have a working spouse who carry a lot of the financial weight. They can engage in artistic activities that are deeply satisfying but produce only part-time level income.

    The exceptions get written about quite often – but most people producing “art” need a stronger financial partner/spouse or a day job that doesn’t drain their artistic spirit.

    I am personally most intrigued about the opportunities to make money not from the art itself – but things related to the art.

    It’s still a little tough to wrap my head around – but something inside tells me that’s probably the way I’ll be able to earn enough to avoid needing a day job.

    • Actually … I once took a workshop with a career consultant who specializes is something she calls “the creative type.” She said it was her experience that a) many artists/artistic people are not creative; b) the world of the fine arts accommodates the creative type pretty well, but creative types are a minority even there; and (c) creative people outside of the arts can have a really difficult time because many business environments punish divergent (as opposed to convergent) thinking.

  14. Barbara Saunders says:

    One additional thought – there’s a “mind trip” element to this belief, too. We talk ourselves into unhappiness. When I worked as a personal trainer, I met a guy who subsidized his passion for training with acting; a woman who subsidized her passion for unpaid animal law with teaching aerobics classes; and a number of trainers who subsidized their passion for training as musicians!

  15. I have a different perspective: The biggest problem is not that it’s hard to make a living out of “pure creative” work; it’s that making a living so often requires adopting an entire lifestyle plan that interferes with creative work. As a writer, I’ve realized that there’s nothing about even the dullest, most “non-creative” or time-consuming job that precludes writing. What does hinder writing is the constant demand to hide or abandon my own thoughts and opinions in order to appear “positive”, “agreeable”, or “normal” in many work situations. My creativity actually benefits from a range of experiences, even ones I don’t particularly enjoy. Many jobs have served that purpose while paying my bills. The “acting job” is a drain, and cultivates destructive habits of mind.

  16. Ken says:

    Thought-provoking post, Pam, and good comments from your readers.

    My question is for people who make a living from their art, or know those who do: What exactly do the finances look like? Stacey, for example, mentioned that she currently makes about 60% of her former salary. How much is that (approximately)? How much do you sell each painting for (or what’s the general range)? What other sources of income do you have based on your art?

    Not to put Stacey on the spot here–I’d be curious to hear from anyone who is a full-time artist. I’ve just never seen any details like this. Anyone know where I could find this kind of information? Thanks

  17. Charlton says:

    I started out aiming to be a musician. I am currently working a cubicle job and practicing my music “on the side.”

    What it really came down to for me was that I hate networking and self-promotion. I’m an introvert: it exhausts me and drains the energy that I would spend on being creative. And being a musician meant that I had to network *constantly* and self-promote *constantly* if I wanted to eat — and the more I networked and self-promoted, the more exhausted and burnt out I was, and the less energy I had for doing what I loved, to the point that when I was the most successful at networking and getting the most work, I was also the most burnt out and uncreative. I never found a solution to this problem.

    Being a cubicle monkey means that I have to keep my network current (most of which is accomplished by LinkedIn), but the 95% of the self-promotion was over when I landed the job. And it also means that I can focus on the work, and that I don’t have to invest any significant energy into worrying where next week’s groceries and next month’s rent are coming from. It also means that I don’t have to choose two of sheet music, food, and heat.

    I’m not thrilled with cubicle monkey work, which is why I read this blog. But until there’s a pill or a meditation technique to turn task-focused introverts into extroverts, or a sudden uptick in how much *good* musicians are paid, I don’t see any way around the problem.

  18. Bill says:

    “I hate writing, I love having written.” (Dorothy Parker)

    I think a lot of us have an ideal in our heads of what being “creative” is and it usually involves being unfettered and obliged to nothing but our art. The image of the starving artist comes from this because, honestly, to pay someone and then cross your fingers that they come up with something worthwhile is a bit nuts, unless you’re a philanthropist of some kind.

    A lot of times, the best creative work comes out of having to work within imposed parameters, like “paint me a ceiling.” I think a truly creative person works within and against those parameters at the same time. Often, that’s where the real creativity comes in. Their creativity comes through, perhaps unwillingly, but inevitably, because they ARE creative.

    I’m not saying this is the only way to be creative, but often a lack of parameters leads to chaos. And even when we do toss off the parameters, like refusing a paying gig because it doesn’t allow you creative freedom, leads to parameters of a different kind, such as economics.

    People also tend to have very limited views of what creativity is, thinking it’s acting, making music, writing and so on, and only those kinds of things. But as we see online continually, people also bring their creativity to how they reach an audience – perhaps forced to because the traditional ways aren’t very effective now.

    Finally, parameters etc. aside, it doesn’t surprise me artists hate what they do, while they’re doing it. Usually, they challenge themselves, find some way to make it harder, something beyond themselves that pushes them further. During the process, frustrated, they “hate” it. But as Parker suggests, once done they love it.

  19. Chris Zydel says:

    Hi Pam,

    Wow! You have obviously hit a nerve with this one! I am a person who is making a very nice living doing my creative work and part of what I do is to help people who are trying to bring more creativity into their lives.

    Many of my students are the businesspeople, corporate world,accountant types who have a very strong belief which is “I am just not a creative person.”

    However, I also work with artists. painters, photographers, musicians, etc and they have an equally strong belief which is ” I am just not a worldly businessperson.”

    I think that the challenge we are all faced with continually and that has been amped up tremendously in this time of massive change, is the challenge to become more whole. To make friends with both the right and left side of the brain and to bring them together so that we are fully operating with all of our capabilities.

    The artists that I know who are willing to heal that split, to claim their “inner businessperson” , that realize that marketing is a highly creative act, are nowhere near starving and miserable and actually doing just fine.

    And the corporate, left brained types who are now claiming their” inner artist”and learning to trust their intuition? Much happier , more fulfilled. and just all around having more fun in their life!

  20. christy says:

    Many successful artists (often in the performance field, but others as well) tell aspiring artists that they should only go into the business if they completely, totally, and in all other ways suck at everything else. Being an artist of any sort is as much lifestyle as vocation.

    Yes, money can be made, but it doesn’t come easy. There is no “easy art” button made by Staples.

    It takes hard, work, dedication, and a knowledge that (as Hugh said) you are unlikely to actually earn a living doing what you love. The odds are quite literally against you.

    But you do it because you can’t not do it. Anything less and you’ll be frustrated to the point of delusion.

  21. Joann Sondy says:

    Well, today I wonder if I can sustain a living from my creativity. As a self-employed designer creating stuff for the corporate arena many of my clients are taking 45-60 days to pay. It’s not that my services aren’t marketable…it’s the economy!

    Is this the ideal time to jump back into fine art?

    I’d like to plan a transition from corporate designing and return to my true love as a painter. But, will I be able to sustain a living? Can I modify my living expenses to pursue such dreams?

    I read a post earlier today at about looking at possessions we collect and cherish as a statement of one’s own creativity. Maybe there is some real “value” in those storage boxes.

  22. If any of you is interested in a movie about the Michelangelo Sistine Chapel story starring Charlton Heston and a wonderful Rex Harrison, it’s titled “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (1965)

  23. Brian DR1665 says:

    This was a great read! (Thanks to Matt for directing me here.)

    Like everyone else commenting here, I know the feeling. There’s that one thing you want to do more than anything else. You know that some people are doing it for a living (and making a good living in the process), but, given your understanding of whatever it is, you’re painfully aware that the odds of your duplicating said financial success are slim.

    So what do you do?

    Many relegate their dreams to mere hobby status and pursue them when they have the time. They don’t make as much time because the jobs they take in order to maintain the lifestyles they want right now are highly efficient at sucking the spirit right out of them. Spend your days doing something you loathe and you will be too exhausted in the evening to challenge yourself in your studio, workshop, or garage (I’m a car guy).

    Doing what you love and are passionate about is paramount in this life. If your passion can’t pay the bills right now, reflect inward about what aspects of your passion inspire you the most. Is it the playing of the song that brings you joy, or is it learning that your song helped someone else through a tough situation? Is it seeing the image in your mind finally realized on the canvas, or is it seeing how much your piece makes someone’s house feel more like a home?

    You might want to be a musician, artist, or race car driver so bad you can taste it, but break your dream down into smaller pieces. You will be able to identify skills which could be applied, maybe not to your dream job, but to a different job where you at least feel that the work you’re doing during the day will serve you well in the future. Put your finger on skills you might be able to find a more profitable use for in the interim, while you’re taking those baby steps (in the right direction).

  24. Matt says:

    I think businesses need creative people. A lot. If you want to make music, or sculpt, or paint, that’s one thing. The line of talented people is long and there are no guarantees of success. Follow your dream but know that it’s a rough road.

    But if you just want to be creative, look around. There are endless opportunities in every endeavor. Creative clerking, creative consumer support, creative dry cleaning — and I’m not kidding even a little bit. To steal an idea from Stendahl, your creativity is a kind of engine. You may have always used it to power one thing, but you’ll find it can run almost anything if you try. And get paid well, too.

    You may never get around to that novel, but that doesn’t mean you have to live a life that isn’t full of creative opportunity.

  25. I think most people believe they CAN’T make money doing what they love and also don’t see the multiple ways they could possibly make money doing what they love. I firmly believed for the last 20 years that I couldn’t make a living pursuing any of my creative interests. (My problem – lots of creative interests, so which one to pursue?) Successful people, whether they are in a creative field or not, move forward fully knowing they will succeed, and if they don’t succeed at the start, keep following through until they do. It’s this determination and perseverance that separates the successful from those who fail. If we go into a creative pursuit with the attitude, “I’ll never make any money at this,” then most likely, we won’t. Many people do, however, make money doing what they love. They not only make a little money at it, they make a ton, because they believe they can, and because they look for multiple ways in which they can make money doing what they love. Take the example of the street performer. I don’t think anyone believes they will be a millionaire by becoming a street performer, but with her attitude and her limited vision, she will stay where she is – poor. She could, however, change her attitude to think she could make money and get out of her limited vision and start to brainstorm ways she could make money with street performing – for example, have people work for her, or create the next Cirque du Soleil or make some sort of Broadway production out of snippets of street performances all strung together (I think I’d rather shot myself than watch something like that, but people watch CATS, so I’m sure there’s an audience for this, too..). I don’t know if I fully believe the Michelangelo story, because we don’t know for sure, however, in my opinion, he may have preferred one form of creative expression over another, and the drudgery of working on one project for so long might had been “a real drag” for the man, but you can’t look at any of his works and think the man didn’t enjoy the initial creative process at some level. There is an energy in the Sistine Chapel ceiling that wouldn’t be there without a bit of passion.

  26. Keith – I appreciate your point of view, and agree that my brand of art might be more saleable than some. But I have plently of friends who are making it as abstract artists. And I can go check the news for stories about art, and find plenty of publicity about those who are making a profit from being “shocking”. I guess the issue is that sometimes it takes longer to find success as an artist than other fields, and depending on what road you take, it can take along time indeed. I still maintain that those with originality, skill, and serious discipline can make it if they really work at it. Of course, maybe that means accepting jobs that aren’t the pinnacle of creativity (Michaelangelo’s commission), and realizing that it’s still better than sitting in a cubicle. Every job has a work component. Even successful playwrights and musicians have to pay the bills and do their accounting – it’s not all fun, all the time!

  27. PhxAZLaura says:

    What a great post! I’m guessing there are many, many of us who can relate. I don’t personally believe that financial freedom and creativity are mutually exclusive – but so much of that is determined by how you view creativity.

    I had this very conversation yesterday with my friend and spiritual mentor, Sunil Ahuja, of Integral Transformation. I’ve been struggling with money for a while, and he’s been helping me puzzle out the reasons for my resistance to earning what I’m worth. One of the things he helped me figure out in the conversation yesterday is that if the work is not creative, I don’t find it interesting and am inclined to feel like I “have” to do it, rather than that I “want” to do it, which becomes a problem because I have all kinds of resistance in the area of doing things I feel I “have” to do.

    I am in business for myself in a job/career I chose as a professional editor. “Isn’t it interesting,” Sunil commented, “that you chose the job that’s at the very end of the creative process. No wonder you get stuck – you don’t think editing is creative.”

    I remember back in college, talking with friends who were angry that U2 had sold out and gone corporate. See – that’s the all or nothing mentality at work. Their music didn’t change (or get worse) because they were no longer playing dingy bars and small venues – what changed was that they had access to bigger audiences, and many more people could hear them play live.

    Perspective…I think a great deal of this has to do with perspective.

    Also, it’s a worthiness thing. We have to learn to give ourselves permission to be paid well for our creative endeavors.

    All of it is definitely food for thought!


  28. Karen says:

    The second time I do something, it’s not creative anymore, it’s production. Production sells, but it doesn’t have the appeal of the first, “perfect vision” instance.

    +1 to the “treat it like a business,” which is huge. After that, I also have to realize that the world pays much better for implemented creativity, not for the perfect idea that’s so appealing to me.

  29. Pam,

    “if you could read my mind…”

    Okay, hacking Gordon Lightfoot, you seem to have done exactly that.

    This topic has come up a lot – as I speak with other songwriters and musicians. Why is there sometimes a disconnect between the art and the pay?

    With my consulting, I found it easy to cold-call on businesses. I marketed myself. I was, dare I say it, pushy/aggressive.

    I felt I had something to offer of value – that I really could help them and should be compensated for it.

    But with my music, I have been far less so.

    Recently, I began reading about and looking into performers who earn full-time income from their craft. In particular, independent, non-major label folks. Lo and Behold, they pursue their music like it is a business!!

    I think the challenge has a couple of aspects

    First, similar to what IT professionals sometimes face, an artist (musician, graphic/image, performance) must have a degree of technical talent. They work at their craft. This requires a focus on maintaining or improving your chops and often – particularly when you see someone else just “rip it up” – becomes the sole focus. It professionals do much the same thing.

    In doing so, they neglect the soft-skils, personal marketing, networking needed to create a strong career. That is the focus of my book. Artist often do the same – lacking some of the soft-skills, marketing, networking needed to create income from art.

    Also, I believe there is a misconception that you should be discovered more or less naturally. That, while you want people to notice you – calling attention to yourself – personal marketing/branding – is somehow evil.

    There is a great little cartoon in the book on writing I once read. A little boy is looking up at a grown up and the grown is saying to him, “Johnny, it isn’t enough to be a genius, you must be a genius at something.”

    And finally (although I am sure there are more “reasons”) is just plain fear. Fear that you might fail and fear that you might just succeed.

    I’ve been publishing quite a few blogs on the busienss side of music – tutorials on branding your videos more professionally for instance and on building your mailing list.


    I’ve also started a marketing and promotion plan for my business and while I have 10 defined objectives/initiatives, I have reduced it to 3 that I will focus on for now.

    I’ve already seen the benefits of this both monetarily and in exposure.


    Thanks for a great topic (again) Pam.

  30. Steve says:

    Hi Pam,
    Great post. Hugh also has a “Sex and Cash Theory” where a person has a “real” job to pay the bills in order to be able to do the creative, sexy stuff they really enjoy. The creative world is so competitive that sometimes creative people have to live in both worlds until that opportunity arrives that allows them to really make their living doing what they love.
    There is no way my drawings are ever going to pay the bills but they do allow me to exorcise the frustrations that build up from my “real” job. I’m content to keep my creative side as a hobby with it being a nice bonus if someone else happens to enjoy what I put out there

  31. Hugh Hancock says:

    I’m surprised no-one has mentioned the basic economics of the situation here.

    (Full disclosure – I’m a film producer who makes a pretty decent living off his work.)

    One of the main factors in being successful in a business sector is having appropriate demand to meet your supply – obviously. And there are more people making films, writing novels, acting, dancing and so on than there are audience members to support them, given the current market.

    How many movies did you watch last year? Because (according to Mark Gill of Fox Searchlight) there were over 5,000 feature films made in the US last year, with a market that has room for less than 300. J. Michael Straczniski, a very experienced screenwriter, reckons that 1 movie gets made for every 255,000 scripts that are written. The slush piles at publishers’ offices are legendary.

    Added to that, these days most artforms (music, TV, film, books) exist in a close to perfectly efficient global market. That means that a) every filmmaker is competing with Stephen Spielburg, and b) all artists are on the end of a nasty power law curve (, which dictates that the people at the top get exponentially more revenue than the average person in the field. The average salary for a published UK author per year from his or her fiction is approximately $7,500.

    In order to succeed in making cash in the arts, you need to either work extremely hard (Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of work), be very lucky (“I’m gonna make you a star, kid!”), or be extremely smart (by finding a great niche or just out-designing, out-marketing or out-storytelling the competition.).

    And there’s a hell of a lot of non-art stuff in the arts – the makers of the hit series “The Guild” were working solidly doing nothing but emailing people about their work for days and making forum posts, for example.

    • Dazz says:

      Hi Hugh,
      Have been reading through this site- some great words of inspiration and home truths.
      I guess i fit the mould of the struggling, emerging artists. I’ve done OK with the world of TV/Film/Theatre but like millions of others have gone bust chasing my dreams.
      I’ll be very bold here and ask, if you’re a Producer, if you’d consider me for any upcoming projects. Am happy to send my biog of work and any other relevant stuff. Im not anamateur!
      Cheers anyway, and greetings from Australia.

  32. lilalia says:

    Very interesting and zany post. I think Michelangelo was very pre-Web 2.0 and ZeFrank and Rhett and Link are very much Web 2.o, now I’m waiting for the Web 3.o, semantic web artists. Artistic endeavours that include creating, consuming, collaborating, and sharing all together. Clay Shirky talk at web 2.o expo sf 2008, said that if you are creating anything without these element, “no one will stay around to watch”. I’m not quite sure where that takes us as a society, or as individual artists, but it’s worth examining.

    Thanks for the post, it’s got me thinking.

  33. My manfriend just got a job at the Exploratorium making art-science-things for the teacher insitute. It sounds like the coolest job in the whole world. He gets to think of what he wants to create, and then he gets to build it. And they pay him for this! These jobs are out there. It really helps to specialize, to have an area that is ‘yours.’ His is welding & science & art. Sure, I guess specializing takes away the concept of total artistic freedom. But everyone wants an audience. So, even as an independent, you always have to balance your desire to connect with and move as many people as possible with your desire for total freedom. I’m a sucker for attention. I’ll always try to find that balance between what I really want to express, and what people really want to hear. Total freedom is overrated!

  34. Andy Pels says:

    “Charge less, but charge. Otherwise, you will not be taken seriously, and you do your fellow artists no favours if you undercut the market.”
    Elizabeth Aston, The True Darcy Spirit, 2006

    “Luxury is the wolf at the door and its fangs are the vanities and conceits germinated by success. When an artist learns this, he knows where the danger is.”
    Tennessee Williams (1911 – 1983)

    “There are only two kinds of freedom in the world; the freedom of the rich and powerful, and the freedom of the artist and the monk who renounces possessions.”
    Anais Nin (1903 – 1977)

  35. Matt Thomas says:

    I believe that creative experiments can be a personal R&D lab of sorts.
    If an idea sells, then it becomes a way to pay the bills. If it doesn’t sell, but you still love it, then remember that it’s just a hobby.

  36. Andy Pels says:

    Certainly being creative doesn’t necessarily mean one lacks business savvy, but the starving artist phenomenon does not seem to be myth either.

    From the outside looking in on creative people, I see different explanations.

    First, it does seem logical that while many business savvy folks seem lacking in creativity, or seem to have not developed their creative side, the converse would also be true.

    Aside from that, there is a cultural component that cannot be overlooked. Artistic creative folks seem to sometimes have an aversion to making money from their artistic product. The community is important to the process (for some) and if the community is mostly “starving” then those who do well financially may no longer be welcome in the community. Or consider Keith’s comments about doing what you believe in. Many artists have forms of expression that are not well tolerated, or not understood, by most people, yet the artist learns not to take such approval to heart, or at least learns to suffer for the sake of the expression. So if another artist has a form of expression that happens to be pleasing to many people (like a beautiful landscape piece many can identify with) the first artist who has endured general lack of approval can see that as selling out.

    Another factor that I suspect exists is that much creativity and artistic expression is born from suffering or angst or other forms of intense emotion. Many artists (including Michaelangelo perhaps) would find their creative juices dried up by having an assignment that is prescribed by a buyer.

    I think most often there exists a combination of all of these factors, and each of them can be overcome by tweaking the others *IF* what the creative person really wants is to have that financial success. Some, like Dana Smith you mentioned, might actually prefer the whole package of expressing herself and driving around in a beat-up pick-up truck. The lifestyle and the expression are intertwined, and her words to your son were not words of warning, just a statement of reality.

  37. Pamela Slim says:

    Hey All:

    Great comments. I will respond in more detail tomorrow morning when I can think straight.

    I will say, that it is so worth writing this post to see your comments again Keith! Lovely to see you. Sorry I have been so “10 ways to … pragmatic list-ish.” What can I say, like Colleen (Communicatrix), I am a Virgo. 🙂


  38. Keith Handy says:

    Stacey: while I appreciate and agree with the overall positivity of your comment, you have to admit that paintings of landscapes are on the “safe” end of the artistic spectrum, fitting relatively unobjectionably into most people’s living rooms.

    For some forms of expression, particularly anything that “shocks” in any way, the creators may have to go through a lot more trial and error — and failure — before they find their place in the world. This can mean stretches of near-poverty.

    I think the point is not that artists have to suffer, but that they’re willing to keep doing what they believe in, even when the world around them says “no”.

  39. Keith Handy says:

    Pam, I haven’t left a comment on here in a while because your posts tend to be more practical than philosophical… and I’m not good at commenting on practial things. But I’d be interested in more discussion about this particular sharp edge in the laws of reality.

    “Doomed” and “miserable” are subjective words, though, and financial hardship is a relatively shallow and superficial pain for creative people… nowhere *near* the pain of choking off inspiration inside yourself. You open the envelope with the bill in it, say, “sorry, dudes, you’re asking me for something that doesn’t exist right now”, and you get on with your life. I know that may sound irresponsible, but the people who print those bills don’t even know who you are. You can try to pay them eventually, but you’re not a *bad person* just because you’re broke.

    To argue about this with someone who has differently prioritized values is pointless. Just let them think whatever they choose to think, and respect their choice to leave this world with an epitaph like:

    “Here lies Joe, Equifax score of 765 as of last report.”

  40. NO! Creative people are not doomed to scraping out a miserable existence!! I hate that assumption!

    I quit my well-paying engineering job two years ago to work as an artist (I paint landscapes). It’s a job that allows me very flexible hours so that I can spend lots of time with my daughter, and honestly pays better by the hour than my engineering job. This year I made about 60% of what I would have made at my old engineering job, but I was only working a couple of full days a week (I stay at home with my two year old the other days). I believe 100% that I’ll be able to replace or exceed that engineering salary within 5 years (honestly, I could probably do it now if I was actually able to work fulltime).

    I think the key for artists is to find those who are already successful in your field, and use them as your inspiration, your guide – emulate their business practices and seek them out as mentors. Art is a different kind of business, and you need to hang out with the right people to learn what really works. And those people exist in every field.

    Despite what society may want us to believe, there are plenty of painters, musicians, and actors who make a living doing what they love. They’re the ones who are at the top of their field, always willing to learn, and who have the discipline and work ethic it takes to succeed in a difficult type of profession.

    The artists I know who make a decent living probably work harder than the average joe who works 9-5 at an office job. They don’t work only when the muse strikes – they get up early every morning and stand at the easel all day, and then spend just as many hours marketing their work. Most hobby artists I know don’t have that dedication – at the point where painting becomes a job, they lose the focus and discipline they need, and so they don’t succeed.

    As for Michaelangelo, any painter knows that commissions can be challenging, and honestly, I’m not sure I’d enjoy painting a ceiling either! But even a creative job has to be a “job” sometimes. If you’re faithful to your craft, even the more difficult jobs can have artistic merit – that’s what you’ve spent years learning to do.

    You can’t listen to the people who think it’s not possible, or even to those who do something creative as a hobby – they’ll only bring you down.

  41. Yeah, I’d never heard that about Michelangelo. Not surprised, though. If you think about it, it’s like being an advertising copywriter who’s pretty damned good at writing ads and creates pretty entertaining ones but drinks too much and smokes too much and wants to throttle all the stupid, stupid people paying her all that money to write stupid, stupid commercials.

    I’m no Michelangelo, but I have a passing familiarity with the conundrum, you see.

    It is very difficult to make money doing what you love *in the exact way that you want to do it*. There are plenty of jobs that let artist express creativity, even with their particular skills. But I can tell you, it’s like you die a little each time you work. I finally swore off copywriting because it’s a sort of twilight job for me. My heart is in the kind of writing I write now, and guess what–it doesn’t pay. Yet, anyway.

    So a couple of other things.

    You try to find a job that’s unobjectionable–a monkey job, with nice people–to keep you afloat. Or, if you’re lucky, you’re also good at something else, and you can exercise that part of your brain for cash while keeping your art “pure.”

    Also? You learn to live on the cheap. I ran into a playwright friend of mine this morning, walking his dog. He still has dial-up. And is perfectly fine with it, b/c he gets to write his crazy plays.

    Priorities and plenty of clarity around them.

  42. Interesting about Michaelangelo. I’ve often made the point that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to like it.

    Creative people are known for being more depressed than average. I wonder if it’s partly because of this inability to do what they love consistently and make a good living at it.

    Kind regards,

    Alexandra Levit
    Author, How’d You Score That Gig?
    Blogger, Water Cooler Wisdom