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What does it mean to be an independent artist?

This article originally appeared on Peter Mohrbacher's blog: www.vandalhigh.com

What does it mean to be an independent artist?

Many artists share the same dream. We want to create imaginative images and share them with other people. Whether that’s by recreating our favorite characters from pop-culture or by creating new worlds from whole cloth, our ambitions are very similar. The one common barrier that we all share is sadly practical. We need money to pay our bills and take care of our families. The way we overcome that barrier is often what defines our career. Some of us find work in studios, while others work from home as freelancers. I have found much more happiness and success as an independent artist. Being an independent artist is not a label that defines the sorts of art you make, but how you choose to make a living off of it. It means making the majority of your income directly from your fan base without working through an intermediary like a publisher or studio.

Why now?

Part of what makes the independent career possible is the fact that we are currently going through a period of expansion within the world of genre fiction. More fans than ever are pouring through physical and online marketplaces. Attendance at the world’s largest pop-culture conventions are exceeding the capacity of the world's largest venues. Meanwhile, online spaces like Tumblr, Imgur and Instagram are providing engaged fan bases in the millions to artist that spend the time to attract them. With so many customers, with so many diverse tastes, there is a seemingly endless amount of space for creators to bring their products to this market.

What do I need to be independent?

Time

Some people believe that there is an opportunity to get rich quick in this business. That’s possibly the biggest misconception you can make. To acquire the skills to create a strong product in the independent art market, you need to spend years learning to draw and paint. It takes as much dedication to build this skill set as it takes to become a surgeon. On top of that, you must also spend the time to learn how to create and operate a business for your art. This is not a shortcut to easy success.

Grit

You will fail many times on your road to becoming a successful independent artist. These failures will come in every conceivable form and you will likely fail in every way possible before you learn to do better. Having the capacity to absorb these failures and learn from them is as necessary as any other trait. If you are lucky, a thought may occur to you that will make you realize that your mistakes cost you vast amounts of money, years wasted or relationships trashed. This should not be avoided, this is the toll you must pay to succeed. Anyone unwilling to pay that price will not be able to move past those failings and do better.

Business Acumen

We live in a world where you are only as powerful as your most powerful spreadsheet. That’s not any less true for us as artists as it is for any other industry. It is essential to step apart from the inward facing world of the artist so that you can see your work as a business. Learning the trade skill of business is not any more complicated that the trade of painting, but it requires a level of analysis that is deeply uncomfortable for some people. You must coldly evaluate your work, your time and your expertise. It’s a strange and ill-fitting hat, but it has to be worn in order to be your own boss.

Where does the money come from?

As an independent artist, there is no right or wrong way to make money. As artists work differs, so too does the business around the work. However, there are some common threads.

Website sales

Having an online store is the backbone for many artist’s income. It’s also easier than ever to make one. I use Squarespace to build my sites and it usually doesn’t take more than a day to completely build or overhaul a beautiful looking website with an integrated storefront. A good website, with appealing products, fed by strong traffic can provide enough income to support an artist wholy. The most common products for sale are often original art and reproductions. However, many artists also invest in developing books, gaming accessories and apparel that can bolster their sales substantially.

Convention Sales

Traveling can be a burden, but it can also be a boon. Going to where your customers are instead of waiting for them to come to you can mean the difference between success and failure, especially in the beginning. With a seemingly unlimited numbers of comic cons, anime cons, art festivals, music festivals and gaming expos, the only limitation to the number of events you participate in is your tolerance for the rigors of travel.

Crowd Funding

Websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Patreon have allowed creators to create online sales campaigns. This can mean making some extra side cash, foregoing traditional publishing or even creating a treadmill of income that funds your entire life. The nature of these sites speak to the heart of being independent as an artist and reward its core values.

Education

The old adage that “those who cannot do, teach” is fundamentally wrong. The people

who have learned the most are the best equipped to make money with educational products and services. Creating online tutorials and running personalized mentorship programs are an opportunity to enjoy the satisfaction of teaching while also making a sizable amount of income.

How does the pay compare?

There is very little talk of money in this business. It’s a deeply personal matter to many and discussing income can be seen as offensive, insulting or degrading. This is understandable but a lack of discussion on this topic has lead to the propagation of a folk wisdom that can be hazardous to the artistic community at large. I believe in erring on the side of openness and honesty, so let’s talk real numbers.

The Low End

Most people will make less than $10,000 per year. That’s a normal place to start but it’s not enough to live off of. There is a lot of space for people to succeed in this business, but there is infinitely more space for them to fail. Finding a track where you can begin to find your market is hard and you may never be able to do it.

The High End

The upper end of the pay scale is very very high. There are millionaires in this space but there aren’t a ton of them. There is at least one independent artist I know of that’s broken $1,000,000 a year in income are there are certainly a few more that I don’t know of. There is technically no upper limit to pay in this market. That can be both deceptive and encouraging at the same time. Don’t count on it.

The Middle

In the middle, there is a lot of space to make a livable wage. We can define this as around $30-60K per year. If you have invested smartly in your work, making this much is very doable. It’s actually more doable than most people give themselves credit for. Dedicated artists who have carved out a small, dedicated fan base can make this much if they make good, well informed business moves.

With only a few slight adjustments and a little time, more seasoned independent artists make $100-200K per year. What’s interesting about this is that those adjustments are rarely related to the craft of art. It’s the strength or your vision and your business that can make the difference between $30K and $150.

How to get started?

This is the part where I plug my workshop. Along with five other independent artists, I’m helping to teach people how to get into this space. We’re holding a 4 day workshop and symposium where we are going to be helping artists become better at being independent. It’s called One Fantastic Workshop.

This year’s workshop is in Nashville, TN on November 5-8. Tuition covers room and board. You will spend four days working alongside, hearing talks by and meeting one on one with people who do this every day. Come out and meet us!

-Pete