How to run a business as an artist

I have looked for this information for a long while. I had a hard time understanding how all and any of this works as it doesn’t seem to come naturally to me at all. But there it is, freshly picked up from game developer Alexis Kennedy’s GDC talk on growing an indie studio on Youtube. A very simple formula how to know whether you are running a business or not:

  1. You know how much money it costs you to make what you are making.
  2. You know how much you will make from it.
  3. You know when it will be done.

Of course there is a lot more to it to run a successful business, but a lot of things seem to fit beautifully into these three questions.

I can imagine why artists notoriously have a hard time with this. When our skills aren’t fully developed yet, we have a hard time finishing a project or even just a piece at all. And even if we stick to it, we often can’t tell you when it’s done or how the quality will be. But then the art market isn’t exactly stable and predictable either. Sometimes you have a surprise success, sometimes you are surprisingly out of fashion and not in demand and it’s not entirely your own fault. Sometimes trends shift spontaneously and harshly. Sometimes you have no idea where from and when your next gig will be coming in. I’ve heard more established artists can predict an at least stable looking monthly income, so for us newbies it’s about working up to that point first.

That’s one of the pitfalls of art. You will have a long period upfront where you have to build your skills until you even are in a position to conduct business. Getting to a stage where you can confidently say how long it takes you to draw one of your typical illustrations or whatever your product is, is a huge win. And you have to be able to actually execute that no matter how you feel each day or what else comes your way. How long it takes to get there depends on the person. If it takes years, that is okay, that is just the nature of doing art.

You can have luck on the path and skip some things, but you can’t skip it all. You can also have success in art without bothering with the business side of it ever, too, but I think it would be better to at least roughly know what’s going on. You cannot rely on future luck alone.

And then you also have to establish ways on how you make money from your art. Yes, there are ample opportunities for artists, but not all of them are open to everyone and sadly there are always less open positions than artists eager to apply for the spot. If you’re doing your own thing, you’re competing with a lot of other works, too, both from living and dead colleagues.

And then you have to build it up to a state where the money is coming regularly enough and in amounts high enough to sustain yourself.

And during all of this your art may not cost you your physical or mental health or be so expensive to make that your chances of recouping the costs are too low, even if you sell.

But this for once is a clear marching path from start to finish. How exactly you get there is an individual process. Different artists value different things, have different things to offer to the world and just plainly have different life experiences that shape them and what they decide to make of it.

By these metrics I’m still a beginner and there is no shame to that. But at least I know where things are going for me now and roughly what to work on to get there. Maybe I’ll write a plan of action out loud in one of the upcoming blog posts, keep us updated on it and see what worked and what didn’t, having these business goals in mind.

Where are you going?

See you next blog post!

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