In Jan of 2008 I left my last ever regular job (rock climbing instructor – not kidding), screwed my courage to the sticking place, and began making my way as an independent artist.
I made art, and I put it out into the world. I played live, and worked hard to find my community. I tried a great many things; succeeding in some and failing miserably in others. When I stumbled or fell (which was often) I got up, did my best to extract whatever learning I could from the misstep, and kept moving forward.
Over time, inching ever onward like a pathologically relentless turtle, and in amongst the constant hustle of making sure I had enough money to: eat, pay rent, and do other human things, I slowly, slowly, slowly learned how better to do this crazy job.
Recently I went for coffee with a friend who is thinking of making the leap into this kind of life and, during our conversation, she asked: ‘What are the most important things to know if you actually want to make a living from this?’
So I told her.
I told her the 3 things you have to be very clear on if you want to be a working independent artist in the world.
Afterwords, I realized that this was advice that would have saved me a lot of time and pain when I was starting out. So I wrote it down for you.
Fair warning. These 3 things may seem blindingly obvious, and/or kind of trivial at first glance but do not underestimate their power. In my experience they are absolute principles of inviolate truth to which every single successful independent artist in the world adheres.
#1 -To be a successful independent artist you must be regularly creating and finishing pieces of art that have value to the world.
Many artists make a lot of art but hardly ever finish things. Which is totally fine if you are Arting as a hobby; but which is not fine at all if you want to do it professionally.
If your dream is to make records you must be making and finishing records. If your dream is to write a film you must be writing and finishing screenplays. If you want to be a professional novelist you must be finishing and submitting manuscripts.
Inspiration without execution and completion is basically worthless.
Furthermore: in order to work, the things that you are making must be of real value to the world. This can be a very sticky area of discussion, primarily because the surest enemy of anything great is Ego.
The fact that you made it doesn’t automatically mean that it is of any value at all. I have heard it said that ‘the greater part of any success is understanding what the world wants from you – and not the other way around’…
…and with this I do not disagree.
2 – To be a successful independent artist you must understand (and to some degree master) the art of business.
There is no getting around this. Being a successful independent artist requires an understanding of business; which at it’s fundamental level, is really an understanding of how to facilitate a basic exchange of value (i.e. arrange things so that people can, and do, give you money for whatever it is you are making.)
Do not subscribe to the egregiously seductive ‘Field of Dreams’ fallacy that: ‘all you have to do is make something amazing and the world will beat a path to your door’. For this is the most flagrant of bullshittery.
Yes, you must make the best thing you can make, but you must also do the work to bring it to people. It is not enough to kill the bull, you must also carry it back to the village before anyone can eat. (There is a reason that the people who created the beautiful story that is ‘Field of Dreams’ also chose to employ a massive world-wide marketing campaign…)
And do not get this twisted. Business and entrepreneurship is as much a skill and art as: playing your instrument / writing / or performing brain surgery. And I think we can all agree that, when it comes to things like brain surgery…
…it’s best to know what you are doing before you pick up the knife.
3 – To make this work you have to work really, really hard. In fact, you have to work at least twice as hard as you would in any other ‘regular job’.
If you want to be a successful independent artist you will have to take on the equivalent workload of (at least) 2 full time jobs. You must be able to: devote yourself to your art full-time, whilst simultaneously building and running a successful business around it (a business which, by the way, will have exactly the same challenges as any other full-time entrepreneurial startup.)
So here (as the bard would say) is the rub. The real reason that there aren’t more successful independent artists in the world isn’t that you have to be ultra-lucky, it isn’t that you have to be born a genius talent under a special star, and it isn’t that you need enough resources to rival Scrooge McDuck.
It is that: you have to work like an absolute motherfucker.
This is both: the Iron Price, and the Bottom Line.
These three things are the barriers of entry into this vocation. The time to check whether these boxes are ticked would be before you make your run. Honest self-evaluation may be tough but, if you can, it is infinitely more helpful to check your parachute before you actually leave the plane.
I wrote this because, at the end of the day, if you honestly have the fire then nothing is going to stop you from trying (and nor should it.) And good information can make the difference between: trying and failing, and trying and succeeding.
I hope you found something of value here. If you have any questions the comments box is just below.
Art well, and be cool to one another.
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If you enjoyed this you may also like: my post about how my blog gained more than 15’000 followers in less than 3 years, my essay concerning the greatest book of advice ever written, or the post which reveals the real (and Taboo) secret behind my success.
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