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The myth of the starving artist

There’s a myth that you can’t make money with a creative business. Parents love to tell their kids to choose a more “reasonable” or “reliable” path in life—choose a college major or a trade or a job in a safe, necessary field. They may point to friends or family members they know who are broke artists, using them as a cautionary tale. And honestly, I think people mean well. Your family doesn’t want you to struggle, so they push you into safe choices, thinking that will save you from poverty, heartache or the whims of fate. 

What are some safe job options, according to our parents? When I graduated high school in 2001, people thought teaching and nursing were two accessible options that would have lots of growth in years to come. Except the teaching industry took a major hit during the recession, and lots of newly graduated teachers struggled to find jobs, eventually leaving the field. And we’ve all seen what Covid has done to the medical care industry. 

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A white hand pointing at a computer screen filled with programming code.
The world doesn't need us all to learn code. That should be up to you to decide.

In the 2010s, the focus shifted to STEM: Jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Learn to code!,” well-intentioned people said. Two decades after the initial boom, it seemed obvious that the crossover of the internet and technology would create a massive demand for people with STEM-subject fluency. Except…not everyone wants to learn to code. Or is interested in engineering or mathematics. Not to mention, the kinds of tech start-ups that hire tons of new graduates to “move fast and break things” can be pretty volatile—there’s no guarantee your job won’t vanish when the next round of funding comes up short, or the company gets acquired by another tech behemoth like Facebook or Google. 

For those of us more interested in creativity, ideas, and the arts, it’s obvious something has been missing from the conversation. 

What we think of when we talk about business

In college, I got a business minor. Believe me, it wasn’t my idea, although I can appreciate it now. But whenever I went to classes at the business college within my university, people literally showed up to class in suits. And I, a dippy lil English Major with frizzy hair and colorful sneakers, felt like a visitor to an alien planet. 

Despite the fact that it takes all different kinds of businesses to make the world go round, the idea of business is filled with visions of white guys in suits, spreadsheets, cubicles with nasty overhead lighting, and terms like asset depreciation schedule. Business subjects might seem bland and dry and filled with the kinds of things many creative people recoil from—accounting (math? no), marketing (what, convincing people to buy shit? no), business law (torts and copyrights? uhh..), operations (…). 

But those aren’t a business. They can be—you can provide accounting, marketing, business law or operations consulting—but all those things are just practices that keep a business running. In other words, they’re skills, and you can learn them or hire someone to help you. 

A woman with brown skin sitting on a bed with a cup of tea, embroidery project and a laptop.
This can be a business, too.

So what is a business?

Ridiculous question, right? But for the sake of clarity, a business is simply anything you sell to make money. It could be a service, a tool, a product, a guide, and so on. A lemonade stand is a business just as much as Coca-Cola is a business. Selling sketches is as much of a business as selling real estate. Selling art is just as legitimate as a business as accounting.

What is a creative business?

Business 2 Community, a financial advisory firm focused on creative businesses, says: 

“The first things that come to mind are arts-based businesses in industries which include visual arts, advertising, architecture, design, media, music and publishing, as well as some cultural organizations such as museums, galleries and libraries.”

They go on to say that in recent years, new technologies necessitate that we broaden the definition of a creative business to “all economic activities resulting from the creation and circulation of intellectual capital.” But for our purposes, let’s focus on the more traditional definition—businesses relating to the arts. 

Those businesses span a wide variety of tasks and products. And the thing is, unless you 1) work in a creative industry already, or 2) know someone who works in a creative industry, you probably don’t know about most of these businesses and jobs. 

Okay, like what?

For example, my career has been in advertising. I started as a Junior Copywriter intern and moved all the way up to Creative Director. My job involved coming up with creative ideas for how to advertise things—from cereals to feminine hygiene products to cars to non-profit organizations. I created TV commercials, billboards, printed brochures, websites, digital games for kids, Facebook ads, stunts, viral videos, banner ads, etc. 

But when I was in school, I had no idea what I would use my English degree for. And honestly, I got lucky. But all of this is just to prove that there’s a ton of creative businesses and jobs that can support your life, jobs you may not even know about. 

Another example: Someone has to photograph hamburgers for restaurants, right? That’s obvious. But food stylists work behind the scenes to craft, assemble and optimize the way food looks in front of the camera. They use a variety of tricks to make food look more appetizing, including creating food-like objects made from other materials. How else do you photograph ice cream before it melts into a messy blob? 

A close up of a black person's hand over a piano keyboard.
You don't have to be a touring musician to make money with music.

Even more examples...

I’ve met people in all kinds of creative industries.

Voice over artists, who provide voices for videos, commercials, audiobooks.

Color retouchers, who ensure that a video’s output is representing the color of a product faithfully—so that the car you see on TV is the same color as what you see on the road.

Stock music creators, who create tunes at home, with and without lyrics, for brands and creators to use. 

Family documentary photographers, who spend all day hanging around with a family, capturing the kind of candid photographs you treasure for a lifetime. No posing necessary.

Illustrators, animators and comic book artists who create their own art, but who may also partner with companies looking for art for a specific paid project.

Session musicians who play instruments in a recording studio without being a permanent part of the band. 

Casting directors who help you find the exact-right person for a video project. 

Makeup artists who make brides glow, apply special effects makeup on actors, or create wild looks for editorial shoots. 

The list goes on and on.

But seriously, can I make money with my creative idea?

No matter what your specific creative interest is, I promise, there’s probably someone out there doing it for good money. The kind of money you can build a whole life on. Maybe they’re artists themselves. Maybe they’re art-adjacent, like gallery owners, copy editors, drone operators, etc. 

Regardless, creative businesses are everywhere. Your ability to make money at a creative business depends less on your craft, and more on learning just how to find the kind of people who want to pay you for it. 

So yes, creative businesses really do make money. Are you finally ready to launch yours and live life on your own terms? You’re in the right place. 

A white woman sitting outside, smiling at the camera.

Hi, I'm Lana.

I’ve spent 16 years in advertising, and now I’m using that knowledge to help creatives grow their own small businesses. Will that include you this year? 

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