Ah, money. We are told we will never make any as an artist, we sneer at the idea because we are brilliant and special and nineteen and if anyone can do it it’s totally us, and then we go out and live on ramen noodles for the next ten years and realize dear God, I am broke af.
It is, of course, not true that we will never make any money. In fact, I’m sure you have made some already. What is true is that making money as an artist usually requires compromise. Either you must concede that you will not make nearly as much money as you hoped, or you must agree to make art that sells (which is usually not the art you want to make).
My husband, an economist, explained this to me in a really fascinating way. The reason, he says, that art makes very little money is because of a choice that artists make about access. Art is often (usually? always?) priced lower than its market value because we want people to have access to it. Is the two years of your time that you spent on a novel actually worth a $5000 advance, nearly half of which you will lose to taxes, and then 15% of the $9.99 book price on each copy, 15% of which will go to your agent and some nebulous percentage of which will go to self-employment taxes? No. In terms of your time and what you could be paid somewhere else with your skill set, it’s worth way more than that. But is it worth it to price your art low enough that a ten-year-old girl can easily save up her allowance and then go into her magical hometown bookstore and trade a piece of paper for the experience of your book? The art world, as a collective, has seemed to decide that, yes, yes it is.
Alternatively, you can submit your stuff to paying publications, get paid roughly a dollar per word, but sacrifice a little freedom in terms of what you write about and also a lot of freedom in terms of editorial decisions.
There are ways to make money, but they require a delicate balance of your passion and practicality.
So what can we do to maximize our ability to eat AND maximize our ability to make art the way we like to?
Learn how to f*cking budget
This is aimed more at my former self than at you, but just in case you, like I did, have an intense need to be liked, minimal financial know-how, and a bunch of friends with more spending money than you, I cannot overstate the importance of this. No matter how much money you make, you will never, ever be free of the need to budget. Budgeting helps keep you comfortable, supports strong (read: non-mooching) relationships with your friends, and puts you in a better position to eventually quit working and do art full-time. In other words, your lack of money is not temporary. Understand that as soon as you decide you are an artist, you are also committing to making a little less than you should for the rest of your life. Plan accordingly. I highly recommend reddit’s r/personalfinance and Mr. Money Moustache’s blog (yeah, I know; just pretend it’s called something else because it's super great) as starting points for improving your attitude and behaviors around money.
Sell your time thoughtfully
You may need a day job. Odds are that you definitely need a day job. And it’s important to choose one that won’t drain you of all your artistic energy. I sort of knew that when I finished college and so I thought I’d just work at a restaurant, but that was a different kind of draining: pretty soul-sucking and physically exhausting, and I wasn’t surrounded by people with similar interests (in my case, all my co-workers were really interested in was getting high in the freezer and banging the newest waitstaff, but your mileage may vary). That was when I realized I couldn’t do something for 8 hours a day and not have it be a part of me. So your day job needs to be something that contributes, somehow, to your art. Something that provides you with inspiration or lets you learn or helps you practice your art, without using up all of your creative juices on the job. I wound up in the museum/non-profit world. Many others end up in education, freelancing, or design. You know yourself better than anyone, so evaluate your strengths and needs and your own energy levels, and choose accordingly.
Sell your art thoughtfully
The goal, I expect, is to be able to make a living from your art. But this is its own pressure; you become an entrepreneur as well as an artist, and with entrepreneurship comes the marketing and the branding and the networking and the customer service and the thinking about the saleability of the work. It is important to make that transition at the right time and with the right pieces of work. It is important to make a living rather than sell out. Make sure you don’t wind up branded as teen romance author when you want to be writing MLP erotica, or vice versa. Don’t create art just because you can sell it, and don’t sell something just because you can.
Don’t sell yourself cheaply
It’s true that you will probably not be JK Rowling. And it’s true that you may be chronically underpaid. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid a fair price for your work and your talent. Be honest with yourself about your skill level—are you a beginning college student whose work isn’t quite professional level and so you can offer a discount? Are you an expert with tons of publications under your belt and a brand name that brings value? Whatever level you are at, your work is worth something, even if it’s just contributor copies. Don’t sell your work for the promise of “exposure,” but be honest about what you are offering, what the best price point is to achieve what you want, and what your time is worth. Then charge accordingly.
Take a long hard, look at your money beliefs
Money is, by nature, a symbol: it stands for value. And we artists are symbolic creatures. Many times, issues with money are projections of our values, wishes, and beliefs onto our own behaviors. To deal with my own bad money habits, I had to fully confront two core beliefs: 1) people who want or have lots of money are bad people, and 2) that I could and should use money to make people like me, by buying them presents or going out with them when I couldn’t afford it, etc. Obviously that was a delve into the deep sh*t of my psyche, and I still don’t have it fully sorted out, but I’m out of debt and have an actual 403b and better habits, so I’ve improved. Take a look at your own beliefs. Why do you do what you do with money? Is that belief true? Is it you? And ultimately, is the thing you’re about to buy worth what it would cost you in terms of your art?
Money is usually part of the sacrifice you will have to make for your art. But be mindful about the ways you sacrifice it, and that will help you stay afloat for longer and remain conscientious about the concessions you make. You don't have to be broke, but you do have to be an artist, and that takes commitment, sacrifice, and proper prioritization.
Click here to read Part I: Time