Artists & Money: A Follow-Up

Artist & MoneyLately I’ve been thinking a lot about artists and their money woes. It’s a stereotype that artists choose poverty – or else simply don’t understand how money works – and it’s a stereotype for a reason. My previous post reacting to Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk was intended to be my way of working that little demon out of my ears, but I’ve only been thinking about it more and more since having written it. And I suspect that one follow-up post will not satisfy my brain either, so instead of this being the follow-up, this is simply a follow-up. Everything else around me notwithstanding, my thoughts go like this:

One of AFP’s most important points is about connection and understanding. Her work is widely accessible, despite being described as a post-punk cabaret act (which sounds like it wouldn’t be widely accessible), and her work stands on its own, meaning a fan can sit in their room alone, holding the CD case and listening to AFP’s songs, and the audience is moved. However, the studio recordings played back by a machine are not the same as a live performance, or meeting her in person.

She has two things going really strongly for her: her live performance and her accessible songwriting. As an artist and as a human being, AFP connects with people. This is one core aspect that comprises her ask-don’t-force payment philosophy.

So the question now is how does this translate to bands? Or theatre companies? Or artist collectives? Or, really, any group of more than one artist contributing to the same work of art? Is every single member required to connect on a human level the way AFP does?

Not necessarily. I want to believe that the art is what sells itself, and all it takes then is one person to hold out one hand. But unity is important. Each individual really ought to be on the same page for this philosophy to work in actual real-world practice. Not every musician in the band needs to ask for money, but every musician needs to know where their money is coming from, because any disagreement on this spells automatic discord and possibly doom for the band.

Furthermore, “sales” in general is something that doesn’t just happen. Art doesn’t sell itself. You can convince an audience that your art is worth paying for, but the actual process of transferring money from audience to artist is, for some reason, avoided by artists. Sales also requires human interaction, especially if, like Amanda Palmer, you are literally accepting cash into the palm of your hand. Or into your hat. Or a credit card into that little slider device that plugs into your iPhone. Or anything. Sales is a tricky pickle, and it requires time and presence. And, like art, most of us are not instantly good at it. It’s a skill that takes time and practice, and the more you do it, the better you get.

There’s this amazing blog post from, and I strongly recommend every single artist in the world to read it. It’s extremely important, and it hits the nail on the head.

The biggest takeaway is that artists need to realize their worth, and they need to not just understand their craft, but they also need to understand real-world finances.

I think coupling this punch-in-the-face message of “artists need to know they should get paid” with Amanda Palmer’s message of “allow your audience pay for the art they enjoy” will bring the happy medium artists need to stay artists in the long term. If this can be adopted on a large scale, it’s possible that as audiences, our society will place ever-higher value on art, both with money and with emotional connection.

Is it too soon to whisper, “Utopia?”

7 Replies to “Artists & Money: A Follow-Up”

  1. I wonder…

    One of the reasons I stopped doing theatre for a living is because I didn’t enjoy it anymore. I enjoyed it just fine when I did it for fun, and I still enjoy the occasional opportunity to do volunteer work for a theatre company here and there. That’s still fun for me.

    But I didn’t enjoy it when it was my job.

    I think this illuminates a core issue: there is a qualitative difference between doing your art for fun/personal fulfillment and doing your art to make a living. Turning it into a job makes it a different beast altogether. (Which I assume is true of most things.)

    I wonder how much of the reluctance of artists to deal with money is a subconscious attempt to deny this altered state, to continue believing that it’s still just for fun – even as they try to make their living with it.

    1. Quite right! I know there is at least a subconscious (if not conscious) aversion to “creating art for a living,” because it is equated in the minds of many artists with “creating art for money,” or in other words, working for monetary reward vs. artistic and emotional reward. (It would also be nice if those who ran theatres, venues, parlors, etc. didn’t squeeze every last minute of work and ounce of strength from their paid employees. Just because you’re paying someone $100 doesn’t mean they’re your slave.)

      Again, I think this is a cultural issue. Many of us are scared of money because we’re young and don’t understand it, and we find ourselves far from home with debt collectors calling and we have these grave moments of self-doubt and we blame it all on Capitalism. Or, like you (and many others I know), we find the responsibilities of a profession overbearing to the point where the artistic rewards are completely nullified and all satisfaction disappears. There’s no sense in blaming anyone or anything, that’s just sort of the way it is and probably will be for a long time.

      Here is what I would love: a shift in the attitudes of young artists entering their chosen artistic realms. Speaking from my own experience: if I could do my 20’s over again, I would not leave college without a few business classes under my belt, and I wouldn’t venture off without a career plan. All I ever thought about was artistic satisfaction, and I got it in spades until suddenly I didn’t. But for the longest time, I just never wised up to the fact that “business” is good and all those shows I acted in, all those festivals I wrote for, they all could have been steps on a staircase. I could have worked for no money but built up a reel, I could have reached out to agents before shows opened, I could have produced more of my own works, etc., etc.

      In other words, I could have made a career if I had thought about it in advance. But I, like so many other artists, just wanted to play. Culturally, we need more real-world preparation in college, and we need greater respect for working artists in the real world. (By “working artists,” I mean artists who work non-arts jobs to support their art.) And we need to think of artistic careers as a complete and complex balance between managing money, managing time, and improving our art.

  2. I love that we’re talking about this! When I wrote for a living with straight gigs, I lost the joy of the written word. It bored me, actually, and I found myself utterly uninspired. Now that I am running a business that I love separate from my art, I’m finding the joy in it again., I think T.S. Eliot’s path of business and art as separate works for me so I can play in my art. But even my books, if I publish, should pay. Artists need food, clothing, and shelter as much as anyone else. And if we finally as a community agree to acknowledge and accept money is important, then perhaps our attitudes and subject manner may evolve from that too.

    1. I know exactly what you’re talking about. Blogging for other people has grown stale for me, whereas blogging for myself has only gotten awesomer and awesomer. I feel like the trouble we run into when we do find paying gigs is that we’re not working for ourselves, we’re working for other people, and that emboldening creative spirit gets put aside –– and we all know what happens when that gets put aside.

      I think what we all need to find is the means to work for ourselves and get paid for our art, not for our labor.

        1. Agreed! Your wisdom, sir, is deep and profound!

          (That sentence comes across as being sarcastic. But it’s not. You are wise.)

          For me, there’s a couple of fundamental paradigm shifts I’d like to see:

          1) Satisfying your soul and making a decent living aren’t mutually exclusive. The only reason we think they are is because we – for whatever socio-cultural-historical reason – see them that way. I’ll be as clear about this as I can be:

          Making money on it does not devalue art.

          Why we think it does is beyond me. It’s similar to how we think of altruism – we tend to think that if it isn’t selfless, then the value of it is somehow undermined. But in reality, the fact that I get some personal reward for helping others doesn’t in any way lessen the good that others receive from my efforts. It’s win-win, and doesn’t that make it even better?

          Art and making money can be the same.

          2) You talk about the difference between doing art for yourself and working for other people. I think this is a false dichotomy. Or, at least, it should be a false dichotomy. Especially for anyone who works in theatre, which must be a collaborative effort to reach its pinnacle of achievement. But it’s true for all forms of art – no one exists in a vacuum. No one goes it alone, no matter how solitary the practice of their art must be. Artists gain inspiration from the world; the world is changed by art; and all artists depend on the efforts of others to for the supplies they use, etc.

          It’s all connected.

          I think the problem here is that the economics of art is set up all wrong. Established systems (big profitable theatre companies, art galleries, publishers, etc.) don’t really allow artists to be fully invested as stakeholders in the business. On the surface, this sounds kind of ridiculous – artists enter these systems to get paid, and how much more invested can a person be? Theatre companies, art galleries, publishers, etc., depend on the product of artistic endeavor to make their profits – doesn’t that make the artist essential to the system?

          But it’s the difference between the Artist – the nebulous idea of someone, anyone, who puts art into the system; and the artist – an actual individual person. As an artist, I don’t have any say in how the business runs itself (be it theatre company, art gallery, publisher, etc.); I have no authority in the decision making process, no direct personal responsibility for the ultimate profitability of the enterprise as a whole.

          So the artist isn’t a full partner in the art economy. We’re more like serfs contributing our effort to the profit of the landowner.

          One of the things I like about Amanda Palmer’s way of doing things is that she’s created her own independent business within the art economy and she and her band mates are each fully vested stakeholders in it. She’s taken direct personal responsibility for the ultimate profitability of her work. She’s made herself her own landowner.

          DISCLAIMER: There have been, and continue to be, efforts of all kinds to create non-traditional art economy systems. I don’t include these efforts in my criticisms. But these efforts are extraordinary (not the norm) and tend not to be terribly profitable.

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