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.

SparkToro review: finding influencers made easy

SparkToro is a new tool launched by Rand Fishkin and Casey Henry. I was able to get my hands on a press version pre-launch. This post is based on the pre-launch version.

Problem to be solved

Let’s say you’re launching a new product designed for avid knitters.

If you take the traditional digital marketing playbook, you’ll probably choose one or more of the following options:

  • Run Google AdWords ads with keywords related to knitting.
  • Run Facebook ads and try to use Facebook’s tools to target knitters.
  • Upload your customer list of current knitting customers and use Google’s and Facebook’s tools to target them and automatically generated twin audiences.
  • Since you know the knitting scene, you might place some ads on Ravelry, given that’s such a popular site for knitters and they have their own ad tools available.

This is where SparkToro aims to provide another option.

You can use the tool to find out:

  • Which accounts on social media knitters follow
  • Which websites knitters frequent
  • Which podcasts knitters listen to
  • Which YouTube channels knitters follow
  • Get insights about knitters as an audience

With this information on hand, you can appear as a guest on the right podcasts, get the right bloggers to review your product and sponsor the right YouTube channels in order to reach your target audience.

Sounds good, right? Let’s see if the tool can deliver.

Taking SparkToro for a test ride

I used SparkToro to test seven different cases:

  1. I wanted to know where I can reach people who talk about product management.
  2. I wanted to see if there was a difference in people talking about product management vs product launches.
  3. I wanted to know where I can reach people who talk about knitting.
  4. I wanted to know which type of people read the site
  5. I wanted to know where I can reach parents of twins.
  6. I wanted to understand the difference between people who characterise themselves as founders vs entrepreneurs.
  7. I wanted to know what type of people talk about sketchnotes.

Let’s look at how to do this with SparkToro.

Using SparkToro

There are three ways to use SparkToro:

  1. Audience Intelligence, where you search for information about your audience (more on that soon).
  2. Compare Audiences, where you see differences between two different audiences (same search operators as in 1).
  3. Profile search, where you can find information about audiences that interact with a specific website or social profile.

I’ll walk you through these functions one by one and then look at what I learned from the different test cases.

Audience Intelligence

I started by testing the Audience Intelligence functionality. I used it for use cases 1, 3, 5 and 7.

You can search for audiences base on:

  • what they talk about
  • which words they use in their profiles
  • which social account they follow
  • which websites they visit and which hashtags they use

I couldn’t find a use for the hashtag function, but the rest made sense for me and my test cases.

The results page shows a summary of:

  • how large the audience is
  • how similar or diverse it is
  • how much confidence SparkToro has in the results

The results page also show summaries of findings about:

  • social
  • websites
  • podcasts
  • YouTube
  • audience insights

You can expand and explore each of these sections.

When you expand a section, like Social above, you see all the results and you can filter the results, export the results as a csv or add them to a list in SparkToro.

When you export something, the resulting file has a meaningful name. This is a very nice little usability touch, especially for heavy users working in bulk.

Compare Audiences

The audience comparison functionality let’s you compare two different audiences. I used this for use cases 2 and 6.

You can use the same search functions as in Audience Intelligence to compare audiences.

You could compare audiences that talk about product launches with audiences that talk about product management (like I did above).

But you could just as well compare audiences who have ”VP Marketing” in their bios with audiences that talk about product launches.

The results show you comparison along the familiar data axis:

  • Behavior similarity
  • Audience size
  • Audience confidence
  • Social accounts
  • Phrases in bio
  • Podcasts
  • Websites
  • Geographies
  • Hashtags

Profile search

Profile search lets you start with a website or social profile and see what the audience for that is. I used this for use case 4.

I tested this functionality by looking at the audience of the personal finance site

Unsuprisingly, the top social profile followed was that of the founder, Ramit Sethi.

Summarizing results and verdict overall

I showed you earlier the seven cases I used for testing. They were the following:

  1. I wanted to know where I can reach people who talk about product management.
  2. I wanted to see if there was a difference in people talking about product management and product launches.
  3. I wanted to know where I can reach people who talk about knitting.
  4. I wanted to know which type of people read the site
  5. I wanted to know where I can reach parents of twins.
  6. I wanted to understand the difference between people who characterise themselves as founders vs entrepreneurs.
  7. I wanted to know what type of people talk about sketchnotes.

Let’s look at them in turn.

  1. I found helpful results to where I could reach people talking about product management.
  2. I found results for the differences between people talking about product management and product launches, but since the audiences where quite similar, the results weren’t that meaningful.
  3. I found where I can find people talking about knitting. Unsurprisingly, Ravelry was at the top of the list. I did, however, find it surprising that the Philosophize This podcast was highly popular among knitters!
  4. I found helpful results when analysing the audience of
  5. I completely failed when trying to find where to reach parents of twins. The tool offered me results about the Minnesota Twins, the Twin Cities and the Dolan Twins. But nothing related to twin children.
  6. I found helpful and meaningful results when comparing people who describe themselves as founders vs entrepreneurs. The difference was bigger than I expected.
  7. I found helpful and meaningful results when searching for information about people interested in sketchnotes. Spoiler: they mostly seem to be teachers and students.

My overall finding is that SparkToro is a well designed and well built tool. Even if I was testing the pre-launch version, I didn’t encounter any bugs or anomalies.

There are, however, challenges.

The example about twins shows that context is hard. Google has put on a lot of work to provide the right context in search and made advances.

SparkToro still needs to figure this out.

I also tried to use the tools in Finnish and Swedish. The results where poor. To be fair, that’s what I was told to expect.

Conclusion: the product does what it promises and seems more mature than it is. Contextual ambiguities and major issues with other languages than English should be expected.

Goal setting: a guide to setting meaningful goals & measuring progress

Goal setting is an art of it’s own.

We all set some sort of goals.

Do it right and it helps you make progress and feel great about the progress you’ve made.

Do it wrong and it can make you feel like you’ve made progress when you, in fact, haven’t.

Why do we need goal setting?

We set goals to clarify where we want to go and to define what success looks like.

It might feel clear what ”earn more” or ”lose weight” stand for right now, but in a few months, you won’t feel the same.

You might make a ton of progress, but feel like you’ve made none. The underlying phenomenon is called the Hedonic Treadmill, i.e. our tendency to get used to a new normal very quickly.

By setting goals with absolute measures, we make it easier to see if we are making progress and when we have achieved our original goals.

Goals tend to change as we go along, and that’s ok. But in order to have realistic data on progress, you should know if you’ve reached your earlier goals or not.

Setting goals that work: defined, measurable and time-bound

What’s a good goal?

In my opinion, a good goal is defined, desired outcome. Plain and simple.

A goal is a defined, desired outcome
A goal is a defined, desired outcome

If we want to make the goal more actionable, it also needs to be time-bound.


Because you would have to do different things in order to earn $1M in one year vs earning $1M in 10 years.

A goal is measurable and time-bound
A goal is measurable and time-bound

Which brings me to the thing separates goals from dreams. That’s a plan how to achieve said goals.

Without an action plan a goal is just a dream
Without an action plan a goal is just a dream

There are many different frameworks that help with setting goals. The two I’d recommend as further reading are:

  • SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound)
  • OKRs (Objectives and Key Results, a goal-setting system used by the likes of Intel and Google)

(Note: I’ve used action and activity interchangeably in this post and the accompanying images.)

The difference between goals and todos

A goal is a desired outcome and an action plan is a collection of activities we believe will give us the desired outcome.

It’s important to note that plans are based on beliefs of what might or might not help you reach a desired outcome. Most meaningful goals require that you figure out what works, even if there are blueprints available to guide the way.

Let’s say you set as your goal to bench press your own bodyweight by the end of the year. Then this is your desired outcome.

In order to reach your desired outcome, you need to make a plan.

An action plan makes goals attainable
An action plan makes goals attainable

The plan is based on which actions you think you will need to do in order to reach your goal.

This might mean bench pressing exercises 2x per week together with some isolation exercises to fix weaknesses holding you back.

At this stage, you can’t tell whether your actions will lead to the desired outcome. They might. Or they might not.

You will need to start implementing your plan and measure progress. When you see progress over a longer term, you can adjust your plan accordingly.

Which brings us to the next subject: what to measure and how.

Measuring progress towards the goal you set

In an ideal world, progress would happen one small step at a time, just like we plotted in our plan.

Ideally, one would make linear and steady progress towards a goal
Ideally, one would make linear and steady progress towards a goal

Too bad reality doesn’t work this way.

Instead, we’ll make some progress, stall, make some more progress, stall, regress, stall, make some progress and so on.

In reality progress towards a goal is messy and inconsistent
In reality progress towards a goal is messy and inconsistent

This has implications for what to measure and how to measure it.

Actions can be performed neatly according to the plan. It’s within your power to do so. This means that it makes sense to track progress on our actions day-to-day.

Deviations should be acted upon immediately, or we risk the desired outcome. Why? Because we believe we need to take all the actions in our action plan to reach the desired outcome, i.e. the goal.

Let’s say you insist on measuring progress towards your desired outcome day-by-day instead.

Take a look at the graph showing how progress usually looks like. If there was no progress today, should you change your plan? Probably not. What if there was no progress during the entire month, should you change your plan then? Yes, you probably should.

You should measure actions consistently, but progress towards your goal more seldom
You should measure actions consistently, but progress towards your goal more seldom

Hence, you should only care about outcome measures on a cadence you feel comfortable changing your action plan on.

Would you change a 1-year plan daily? No.

Weekly? Probably not.

Monthly? Definitely.

You get the point.

You can only manage actions, not outcomes

A common mistake managers do is to try to manage an outcome instead of managing actions.

A sales director can see her sales decreasing and push her sales team to sell more. But that’s useless.

Instead she needs to figure out which actions need to be changed and how. She can look at the sales funnel and see her people are meeting too few new prospects. With that data in hand, she can require her sales reps to meet a minimum number of new prospects each month.

After those changes are made, the sales director will see if they had the desired effect or not.

You can only manage actions, not outcomes
You can only manage actions, not outcomes

Since most goals require complex actions, it makes much more sense to manage the actions than to manage the outcome.

Actions are easy to understand and implement. The changes in actions let you learn how they effect the desired outcome in your unique situation. Hence, actions are a better way to manage.


A good goal:

  • Is desirable
  • Is well defined
  • Is time-bound
  • Comes coupled with an action plan

When working on the goal you should:

  • Remember that your action plan is just a best guess of what might or might not lead to the desired outcome
  • Focus on measuring progress by comparing what you’ve done to what you planned to do day-to-day
  • Measure progress towards the goal only as often as you feel comfortable changing your plan
  • Remember progress isn’t neat and linear, but messy and incremental
  • Remember you can only manage actions, not outcomes
Goal setting summary
Sketchnote summarizing the main points from this blog post

The Copy Machine Experiment gives advice for getting your requests granted

We all ask for favors. We all make requests. Some are big and significant, some are small and mundane.

Nevertheless, we hope these favors and requests are granted.

If you’re in sales or marketing, your livelihood depends on getting a ’yes’. So pay attention.

In order to maximize our chances, we should take advice from social scientists about how to get our requests granted.

The Copy Machine Experiment

Sketchnote summary of the 1977 Copy Machine experiment by Ellen Langer et al.
Sketchnote summary of the Copy Machine Experiment and most interesting results.

In 1977, Ellen Langer, Arthur Blank and Benzion Chanowitz arranged for an experiment at the Graduate Center City University of New York.

They wanted to study how people respond to requests.

In the experiment, the experimenter asked to cut in line at a copy machine.

(Note: this was a loooong time ago, so people studied in libraries and made paper copies of things they wanted to keep.)

The experimenter had three kinds of requests:

  1. Just ask to cut in line with no specific reason.
  2. Ask to cut in line and give a non-reason, like ”because I need to make copies”.
  3. Ask to cut in line and give a valid reason, like ”because I’m in a hurry and I need to make copies”.

The had some other variables to test as well:

  • Small request vs big request. This was measured in amount of pages to copy. They tested with 5 pages and 20 pages and classified requests as big if the experimenter had more pages than the subject and small if the experimenter had less pages to copy.
  • Man vs woman. They had two different experimenters make the requests.

Results from the experiment

The results where surprising.

  • 60% of the subjects given no reason said yes.
  • 93% of the subjects given a non-reason said yes.
  • 94% of the subjects given a valid reason said yes.

These are staggering numbers! Almost equally many granted the experimenters request given any reason, valid or not.

This means we should always couple our asks with a reason for why we’re asking. The reason can be almost anything.

Important caveat

But… There’s a big but.

This part of the results is often neglected when the experiment is presented.

This result is only valid for small requests. When we look at the numbers for big requests, the results change significantly.

  • 24% of the subjects given no reason said yes.
  • 24% of the subjects given a non-reason said yes.
  • 42% of the subjects given a valid reason said yes.

The conclusion is that for larger requests reasons still work, but the reasons need to be valid.

It’s also worthwhile noting that the female experimenter got more requests granted than the male experimenter.

References and links

References: the paper published, the full text.

SEO4LIFE sketchnotes

I attended the SEO4LIFE live stream today and made some sketchnotes.

I had to step out for an hour, so not all the talks are sketched, but the ones that were, are available for your enjoyment below.

You can also download a pdf including all the notes.

Aleyda Solis

Aleyda Solis on migrations

Hamlet Batista

Purna Virji

Kevin Indig

Kevin Indig on search engine to answer engine

Cindy Krum

Cindy Krum on fraggles

Jono Alderson

While the other sketches are quite traditional notes, during Jono’s presentation, I did a lot of reflections while he talked. So this note is a mix of Jono’s presentation and my reflections on what he was talking about.

Jono Alderson on changes in Googles approach

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.