Making a Living in a Creative Profession


Many people are gifted in the areas of art, music, dance, writing, and acting. However, when it comes time to choose a profession, many choose to pursue something other than their creative gift. “You can’t make money as a writer (dancer, artist, musician, etc.),” they are told. Or the pressure to get a “real” job comes from concerned parents who don’t want their kids living in ratty apartments (or at home) forever. There’s a widespread perception that it’s impossible to make a living in the creative professions, so many people opt for more “sensible” occupations and forget about their creative passion, or put it so far on the back burner that it might as well not exist at all.

This was the case for me for many years. I knew I wanted to write, but I was encouraged to find more lucrative sources of income. I hedged my bets in college, majoring in “Communication.” (Journalism held no interest, which was the only clear-cut “writing” job.) I didn’t believe that it would be possible to make money with words any other way and I figured I’d end up in a job in sales or something. And I did end up in marketing, for a little while. But I made sure to say, “Yes” any time someone asked me to write something. I soon found myself working as a technical and marketing writer. After a few years, I went out on my own and then started writing novels.

And that’s how I stumbled into a writing career. I was able to support myself with a “real job” while I wound my my to my true passion, which was fiction. But all the time that I was working for “the man,” and now as a freelancer, I was using my creative muscles and working with words every day. That said, it wasn’t easy and I can understand why some people are afraid that they’ll never be able to survive on a creative income.

Despite the popular belief that all artists are doomed to the poorhouse, it is possible to make a living in the creative professions. In reality, they are just like any other occupation. You have to work hard, aggressively pursue opportunities, and be willing to do some work to pay the bills while you work toward your big break. You also have to be flexible. If your only goal is to write a bestselling novel or sell your paintings for millions of dollars you’re going to find it difficult if not impossible to achieve that goal. If, however, you can be happy doing other types of writing or art while you work on your masterpiece on the side, you can have both money and creative satisfaction. Here are some ideas for making money in the creative professions.


The more ways you can find to make money, the better off you’ll be. For example, you may want to write novels. That’s great but not likely to pay off immediately. In the meantime, you can write for other markets. Write for magazines or blogs. Become a technical or copy writer. Dabble in journalism. Write greeting cards. The more sources of income you can create, the more money you’ll have. You’re still flexing your creative and writing muscles, but you’re making money, too.

Diversification works for almost any creative profession. Artists or musicians can teach. An artist or writer can take on commercial work. A musician can do side gigs such as weddings or parties. An actor can do commercials, teach acting, or run a community theater program. It’s great that you want to dedicate all of your time to your art, but you need money, too. So diversify your work and find the kind of work that allows you to use your creativity while also paying the bills. In your spare time you can work on the masterpiece, novel, or band that will launch you into stardom.




Aggressively Market Yourself

A creative professional has to be willing to market his or her work. People aren’t just going to trip over your great painting and buy it for millions. Fortunately, marketing is easier and more accessible today. Build (or pay someone else to do it) a professional website to showcase your work. Use social media to build up a fan base. Take advantage of any opportunities to show your work such as public exhibitions, community fairs, or local performances. Enter contests. Network with other professionals every chance you get. You can’t just hide in your studio or office and expect success. You have to put your work and yourself out there.


Learn the Business

It’s great that you’re an artist or writer, but you also have to be a businessperson. You have to understand at least the basics of your industry and conduct yourself professionally. Learn business etiquette, including phone manners, professional email composition, and letter writing techniques, if applicable. Learn the protocol for submitting your work, submit to appropriate people, learn how to make a pitch, and learn how to engage in professional negotiation. Contrary to popular belief, agents, editors, gallery owners, and other “gatekeepers” don’t like dealing with eccentric or “crazy” artists who don’t care about the business end of things. They’d much rather deal with professionals who understand the industry and who can function within it.


Find a Day Job

You’ll probably have to have a day job to tide you over while you wait for your breakthrough. This doesn’t always mean soulless cubicle work, however. Maybe you do something totally unrelated to your creative work. Going this route can give your creative brain a rest and make you more creative when you get home. Or, you can find something loosely related to your creative work so that you’re always engaging that part of your brain. Maybe you cobble together several part time gigs. Whatever you get, find something you like, if not love. It doesn’t help if you hate your job so much that you come home depressed and unable to work on your main passion.


Look for Grants and Awards

In most of the creative professions, you can find grants to help you defray expenses while you work on your masterpiece. Some grants require you to teach or do other work, while others just give you the money for expenses. To get one, you’ll need to learn how to write a winning grant proposal and make a solid case as to why you should get the money. You can also enter contests that pay money as prizes. You may not win a year’s salary, but every little bit helps.


Get Professional Training

Many people have a natural talent for their art and some refuse to “compromise their muse” by getting professional training. However, professional training can make a difference. Aside from improving your skills, it may make others take you more seriously and expose you to networking opportunities. If you’re willing to put in the time for training, it shows you’re serious about perfecting your craft. It may also be required for certain positions, such as teaching or working in the corporate world. Even if it’s not required, having a degree or certification can result in a higher salary. Find out the credentials that are valued in your field and get them.


Adjust Your Goals

There’s nothing wring with aspiring to earn a full-time living from your artistic passion. However, it simply may not be possible (or your definition of the income you “need” to earn might have to be adjusted downward). In that case, perhaps you have to be satisfied with making a part-time income from your passion while earning money from other things like teaching or using your talents in the corporate world. There’s no shame in that.


It may take years to get your big break or complete (and sell) your masterpiece and if you don’t have an alternate plan you will end up like the cliched artist that lives in a tiny apartment and eats nothing but Ramen noodles. That doesn’t have to be you. You can make a decent living in the creative professions, if you’re willing to adjust your goals, market yourself, learn the intricacies of business, and take on several types of work.


(Photos courtesy of senjinpojskic, DevilsApricot)

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