Don't Be a Starving Artist

Why you should stop giving your creations away for free.   

By Henry Adeleye on November 21, 2014 


A few weeks ago, multiplatinum artist and ex-Kanye West victim, Taylor Swift, pulled all her music from streaming mammoth, Spotify, ahead of the release of her latest album, 1989.  Her reasoning being that Spotify doesn't pay artists fairly.  1989 went on to sell the most copies in the first week of any album since Eminem's 2002 album, The Eminem Show.  This is a scenario that's become all too common in the artist community.  Not the selling of the most copies of anything.  Rather, being in a situation where they're not being fairly compensated for their work, and not doing anything about it.  Of course, everyone isn't Taylor Swift, but that doesn't mean you have to be a starving artist.  Dreams and ideals alone won't pay the bills, but no one wants to feel like a sellout.  What is an artist to do?  Well, let's "Swiftly" get into it! 

The dilemma is two-fold.  On one hand, artists have bought into the idea that true art can only be created from people who are struggling to make ends meet.  It's like some kind of romanticized European Shakespearean belief.  However, Shakespeare made a really great living, so why shouldn't you?  The other side of the equation is the people who exploit others' art for their personal gain, while paying artists crumbs in the name of "exposure".  Unless you can become an instant success by someone merely mentioning your name, don't fall for the exposure trap.   

In a great article outlining the life of Jim Henson, the creator of shows like The Muppets and Sesame Street (no big deal), author Elizabeth Hyde Stevens outlines how Henson was able to walk the line between making art and making money.  Henson was your typical hipster, an artist with a long beard and an affinity for craft beers (ok I made that part up).  Coming from an already successful career in broadcasting, he never bought into the idea of giving away your stuff for free.  It's not that he was greedy.  It's more that he knew that it takes money to be able to freely do the art you envision in your head.  He was very meticulous with his shows, carefully cutting turkey feathers, slicing their spines in half, and bleaching and dying them golden yellow until they looked "gorgeous" on both US and British TV stations.  All for some guy named Big Bird.  But he also knew that there was a commercial aspect to the show, where even though he didn't want to, he knew he had to run commercials to keep the lights on for both his family and the show.   

This is something the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, struggled with as well.  Early in his career, he wouldn't let a computer leave the design room until he thought it was absolutely perfect in his eyes, resulting in computers that normal people couldn't afford and that excluded things he thought didn't look good, like hard drives.  Eventually, as Apple was headed towards bankruptcy, he was fired from the company he founded.  After some years spent facing the music, he was able to fund Pixar, a company responsible for hits like Toy Story and Finding Nemo.  Without the artists who had the vision for Pixar, it wouldn't exist.  But by the same token, without financing from Jobs, Pixar wouldn't have existed, either.  After his return to Apple, he learned to balance his art with the realities of the business world, and the rest is history and whatnot.  

The mantra Hyde found that was common behind the successes of artists like Henson, Swift, and Jobs was this:  Make art, make art make money, make money make art.  In that order.  The first thing you have to do is create your best work possible.  Then you have to become a businessman or woman and find a market for your art.  Lastly, use the earnings from your art to make more and better art, hire people to make it easier to produce, and form the infrastructure necessary to make everything run smoothly.  Money isn't the end game, and it's definitely not the root of happiness.  Rather, it's the energy necessary to bring great ideas to life.  

You may not work in show business, but whatever your art, there is a business that accompanies it.  Scientists, athletes, inventors, and teachers all resemble Henson, Swift, and Jobs in that they are professions of the gift of being able to work for the benefit of others.  If you simply want to do work of higher quality than business-as-usual seems to allow, you are a holder of the gift, and you are not alone.  Do amazing work.  And don't starve while doing it.