How to make a living as an artist

In this article, I’ll look at different ways to make a living as an artist, by making art.

If you’re an artist, you might currently be making money using one or more of the following ways:

  • Have a day job to pay the bills and make art in your spare time
  • Live off various grants and gigs, while being stressed out and constantly broke
  • Already be wealthy by inheritance, previous business success, winning the lottery or something else
  • Have a patron supporting you
  • Your art is also a business which provides you with a living

For the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the last one. I think it’s the most sustainable way to making a decent living, while letting you concentrate mostly on creating your art.

I like art. I like artists. But I’m not an artist, I’m a marketer, product developer and entrepreneur. I want to see more artist be able to make a decent and sustainable living, and that’s why I’m using my craft to share strategies suitable for artists in pursuit of making a living.

Introduction: 1 000 true fans, or how to make a living as an artist

Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired, wrote a cornerstone piece on making a living as an artist called 1 000 true fans. You might have read it, but if you haven’t, I encourage you to do so.

Let’s look at some of the key points Kelly makes to show us how having 1 000 true fans can help you make a living as an artist or creator.

Artists can cut out the middle man

In his article, Kelly notes that the internet enables any one of us to have a direct relationship with people who enjoy what we create.

Historically, artists needed to go through different types of gatekeepers, like gallerists, publishers or agents to get their art in the hands of customers.

This is no longer true and lifts a major restriction: that someone in a position of power must approve of your work.

Artists will, however, still need to find their audiences.

Others will share your weird

Because the internet is global, it enables us to find large amounts of people who have the same, peculiar interest.

Let’s take an example: how many people do you know who enjoy grindcore, the extreme fusion of heavy metal and hardcore punk? I’d bet the number is small, yet this style of music has a sizeable global following and many flourishing bands.

In my opinion, the hardest part is finding the first handful of devoted fans, since they’ll help spread the word once found.

Given the ability to cater to a global audience, there’s no need to please masses, but artists can be true to their vision and still find 1 000 people around the globe who subscribe to whatever sort of weird that’s yours.

True fans help you make a living

Kelly defines a true fan as follows:

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month.

Kevin Kelly, 1000 true fans

A true fan will buy things you make. They like what you make, want to have it, don’t have a problem paying for it, but instead like supporting you in your art.

The catch is: fans can only support their favourite artists, if the artist provides a means for doing this.

Make things people can buy, and you can make a living as an artist

Some forms of art are easier to to package than others. Fans have

Ideas for packaging your art into something people can buy to help you make a living:

  • Livestream of you creating or performing your art
  • Downloadable art: digital drawings, digital music etc.
  • Merchandise through Print-on-Demand (PoD) companies
  • Online course showing fans your process & technique
  • A book showcasing your work
  • A book showcasing your process

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was one of the early experimenters in this field. The album Ghosts I-IV was published free-of-charge, yet the band make $750,000 with just the exclusive collectors edition.

(Sidenote: I’ve written about this back in 2011, but the article is in Finnish.)

That’s how artists catering to true fans operate: create something fans can buy and the true fans will buy it. Even if the art itself is free.

Platforms designed to help artists make a living

A lot of tech entrepreneurs have set out to help artists and creators to earn money and enable their art. This is great news for you, if you’re here reading this article.

Patreon is the go-to example for this. Their platform let’s artists offer monthly memberships. This can be great for some, but I’d bet it isn’t suitable for many artists. Far more creators are better off creating products people can buy, since churning out exclusive content for fans can easily become a full-time job in itself.

Kickstarter is a great way to fund larger projects through crowdfunding. Maybe you’re designing a game and need cash to produce it? Maybe you’re putting together an exhibition, which comes with costs?

Finnish first-time author Linda Liukas used Kickstarter to fund her book Hello Ruby. She raised $380,747.

Crowdfunding can be a hassle too, of course. In order to stand out, artists need great promo materials and the use of crowdfunding can be complicated from a taxation perspective in some countries.

Nevertheless, it offers a great way for raising funds, selling art and products as well as finding new fans.

Gumroad offers a platform for selling films, courses, music and books. If you’re into any of these, I suggest you check it out. They’ll manage all the complexity of payments, distribution etc and make it a breeze to sell art and digital products online.

Gumroad even takes care of VAT complexities, which you definitely don’t want to struggle with.

While researching this article, I learned Gumroad has been used by prominent artists like Eminem and Bon Jovi. But the platform isn’t just for people like them.

Illustrator Kyle Webster made a sizeable income selling virtual brushes to artists on Gumroad. He’s now an evangelist for Adobe and runs live streams on Behance (which, for the record, are great).

An artists chore called marketing

Let’s role play a bit. Let’s imagine that, at this point, you’ve found some number of true fans and you’ve created something for them to buy.

In order to complete the process of making art into a living, something more is needed. This might sound scary, but that last piece is marketing.

Marketing and selling is not about sleazy tactics, overpromise and ruthless self-promotion. It’s about making sure your fans know you’ve created something for them to buy, in order for them to have more of your art and a way to support your great work.

In its simplest form, marketing is just communicating with fans to make sure they know what you’ve made and how they can buy it.

My suggestion, for those readers who don’t like marketing, is to treat it as a chore. You do the dishes and clean your home, even if those aren’t your great passions in life. You market, because that’s the extra bit that lets you earn a living.

Every Monday I spend an hour marketing, because that way I don’t need to get a day-job. It’s not my favourite hour of the week, but I know I’ll grow to enjoy it eventually.

(Sidenote: Personally, I have zero problems with this, since I enjoy marketing.)

Another take on marketing comes from Hassan Osman, who writes short books as a side projects. He researches his books subjects to make sure there’s demand for them ahead of time. This way marketing becomes much easier, because he knows the audience is there.

(Sidenote: I know Osman’s approach isn’t in line with how many artists operate. Hence, I was torn whether to include it or not. But here it is, for inspiration if nothing else.)

Summing it all up: from starving artist to well-fed artist

I like simple lists, so let me sum up the key takeaways from this article as a simple, 4-point list:

  1. Do the math to realise it’s possible (1 000 fans buying for $100 a year per fan makes you $100 00 per year)
  2. Find your first true fans and get their help to find more
  3. Create something your fans can buy
  4. Market what you’ve created by telling your fans about it

The blueprint is fairly simple, but the execution is anything but. Every artist and creator needs to find their own way, and do this in a way they feel comfortable with.

If it doesn’t feel good, it will not be sustainable.

In the beginning of this article, I noted artists and creators can cut out the middle men. This is great for most creators, but it doesn’t mean the traditional route is closed.

Former architect, current illustrator/cartoonist Chaz Hutton found his way to a book deal by posting his Post-It comics on Instagram. He didn’t need to create his own products, he created art that people loved, so publishers wanted to help with the hard lifting.

As we’ve seen, there are a lot of great ways available for artists and creators to make a living doing what they love.

If you know more good examples of artists who have found success in turning their art into a (small) business, @ me on Twitter and I’ll keep adding examples to this article.


Examples of business’s recession pivots

There has been a huge change in customer behavior in just a few weeks. It would have been impossible to prepare for a shock like this, but it’s possible to adapt to the changed customer demand.

Screenshot from Google Trends comparing the search terms “restaurant” in blue and “delivery” in red. Results are for the UK. Screeshotted on April 1st, 2020.

Quite a few business’s are, indeed, changing their business models to better fit the current climate.

Here are some examples for ideas and inspiration.

Zalando becomes a marketplace for small shops

Zalando has announced that they will open up access for smaller shops to sell on their platform.

With the Connected Retail program, physical retailers can connect with the Zalando platform and sell their products directly to our online customers

Carsten Keller, VP Direct to Consumer

It’s clear this isn’t just to help smaller shops or to adapt to the changing marketplace, but following in the footsteps of Amazon and claim more ownership over end customers while providing broader inventory for shoppers.

For small business’s this might still help bridge the gap from pre- to post-corona times.

Zalando press photo

Finnish taxis doing grocery runs

Helsinki based Taxi Helsinki launched a new service where their drivers can do your grocery shopping or go to the pharmacy for you.

The service isn’t exactly cheap, but it will help you stay home if you don’t want to go out.

It will probably also contribute some new revenue to a company which I’d guess is losing revenue right now given people are encouraged to stay at home.

McDonald’s is borrowing employees to Aldi in Germany

In Germany, fast-food chain McDonald’s and grocery store giant Aldi have made a deal that enables Aldi to use McDonald’s work force to help with their surge in demand.

This is a win-win since it also helps McDonald’s keep their employees and the employees keep their pay checks.

Employees are re-deployed between the companies depending on demand.

Restaurants convert from dine-in to take-out

Most restaurants that are still operational today have converted from dine-in to take-out.

Suburban restaurant Keittiö & Baari Kulma have changed their opening hours from 4pm onwards to 11am to 7pm and are selling only take-away.

The entrepreneurs state that with a shift to home office and home school, there has been a surge in demand for lunch, even if the suburb used to see the demand come during after-work hours.

Helsinki based Michelin star restaurant Ora have changed their concept from fine dining to sushi.

Other restaurants have found a new delivery channel in grocery stores. One grocery store in Töölö sells foods from several restaurants including grubs from renowned chef and restauranteur Henri Alen.

Screenshot from Facebook post where the grocery store announce their upcoming menu for the week.