Why Artists Should Sell Out

Let's acknowledge how healthy corporate ties can be for the arts.

How to create work that is both artistically fulfilling and financially sustainable is an ongoing question most of us face as artists. We are familiar with the stereotype that suggests art and commerce have a tension between them, and we have all heard it suggested that to be savvy artists we’ll have to navigate the cold transactional world of the dollar without selling out or losing our artistic credibility. It’s a reductive assessment, and I think we know that, especially during a recession. (Do not the characters of Rent, who supposedly at one point tapped into a counter-cultural zeitgeist, now seem more than a little foolish freezing in their apartment while refusing to get jobs?) And yet, particularly among those in the not-for-profit sphere, there’s still a priority of art over funding, and a stigma toward wanting financial success too openly, that continues to hold us back. Too often our models become “This is the art I want to make—how can I fund this?” and not “How can I acquire the most resources I can so that I may create the best work I can?”

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The reality is, of course, that artists don’t usually make a lot of money. (We will for the sake of this article exclude celebrities and people at the very top of their industries, who are a tiny minority of all the actors, writers, musicians, etc. out there.) But why is this? Is it in part because we still insist that it is noble, or even necessary, to treat our disciplines as our primary jobs? Is it because our organizations still follow the same standard revenue models—from fundraisers to grants to crowdfunding campaigns to the ticket sales from the work itself—and haven’t explored more ambitious options? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question. But I do think part of it has to do with how culturally we have been encouraged to prioritize the purity of our art over money, and this has held us back from devising aggressive monetizing strategies or rethinking even the basic structure of an arts career, to the point where it actually hurts the art itself. So here are three strategies on how we can embrace “selling out” the right way, to allow us to live and create with more freedom and more resources.

Aggressive Strategies for Self-funding

When we think of jobs that artists use to support themselves, we tend to think of the same basic things — server, barista, bartender, teacher, retail worker, office work, etc.

What if we encouraged some artists to begin in more lucrative careers?

We think of jobs that are used to pay the bills and offer a potentially flexible schedule but are probably not the primary focus of the artists’ lives (although teaching may be an exception depending on their commitment to it). But since we know being an artist can be a struggle, and we know artists don’t always view their day jobs as their true careers anyway, what if we instead encouraged those who aren’t on a committed career track to start pursuing work primarily for the money? What if we encouraged young artists to go into law or finance or software engineering, specifically to earn money to put into their artistic endeavors? This would, of course, delay their entry into a full-time arts career, but it would also give them tremendous resources for powering their work later on.
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There are a variety of ideas across the internet of how people can retire extremely young that are basically alternative lifestyles designed to provide more disposable revenue by rethinking assumed career patterns. While I would take these people’s advice with a grain of salt (I think in some cases they have also gotten very lucky), it holds up that a person who intentionally pursues a career with a high income potential and also lives frugally will have more resources to devote to their passions. To use this strategy for the arts does require some patience, but it could be worth it in the long run. Consider someone who wants to start a large creative endeavor, like a band or a theater company, soon after leaving college versus someone with similar goals who decides to become a lawyer instead. Fast forward several years, and the young lawyer could have a significant savings to really hit the ground running with their project (and the freedom to take time off and devote more hours to it) while the other young artist is unlikely to have accumulated similar resources by that point. There are pros and cons to each of these paths, of course—the young lawyer did have to wait before he could start the arts career he really wanted—but I think we do need to spend more time talking about how artists can take on lucrative jobs specifically to play the long game and fund their art. Even if it’s something as straightforward as learning programming or web design (both things I have wondered if I should learn myself), there are a lot of paths to resolving the “struggling artist” stereotype that we don’t talk about.

Advertise. Everywhere.

There is room for advertising we haven’t explored yet.

I realize this is very subjective, but I personally would be open to seeing more obvious advertising and sponsorships at the arts organizations and events I attend. I would not be opposed to walking into a theater or museum and seeing more advertisements for their donors, nor would I object to seeing new channels of advertising in places we don’t expect it. Before a play starts, in the opening announcements, we could hear native advertisements like the kind you might hear on podcasts, and just because a play or concert might be live doesn’t mean it can’t project a video ad or two before a show begins. I’m not proposing we erect a statue of Ronald McDonald in anyone’s lobby, but I think there’s room for more aggressive advertising we haven’t explored yet, as long as it doesn’t compromise the art itself. And I’m willing to look at a (modest) billboard on someone’s wall, and I won’t think it’s tacky, if it means their organization is also more financially secure.

Find a Benefactor

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has transformed The Washington Post into a thriving media company.

In 2013, Jeff Bezos, who previously had no experience in the newspaper industry, purchased The Washington Post for $250 million. In the subsequent three years, The Post went from a steady decline to surpassing The New York Times in readership, greatly expanding its content (to 1200 articles a day) and establishing itself as a healthy technology and media company for the 21st century, all without sacrificing its editorial direction (which Bezos left untouched). Arts entities, while they almost certainly won’t have access to anyone of Bezos’s caliber, could still learn a lesson from this: instead of trying to support your work through a variety of public donors, what if you invested that effort into courting a single major donor instead? This is most practical for smaller organizations or projects, for whom a single major donation ($50,000? $100,000?) could be enough to sustain the company for years. In exchange, the donor would “own” the company and get something out of the agreement — perhaps a massive amount of advertising or some share of revenue. This strategy is more of a longshot, but it’s actually not too different from the first suggestion I made — it just involves asking someone else from a lucrative career for money instead of the artists supplying it themselves. Artists may be reluctant to let someone else “buy” their company, and you’d need to choose someone who won’t radically alter your artistic goals. But I think crafting a unique arrangement with a more affluent patron or investor is worth pursuing — hey, it worked for Shakespeare and Beethoven — even if it’s unlikely and not a strategy we tend to think of anymore.

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These three ideas, while they could make art more sustainable, do deviate from the career arcs we’re used to seeing artists follow, and they do require them to pursue opportunities explicitly for the money. And, as long as it doesn’t compromise the quality of the art, I think we should embrace this willingness to just be open about the fact that this is sometimes what it takes to make great art. We also need to acknowledge that working in the arts might not always be the best way to create art, and that having obvious corporate ties or putting our brands up for sale (to the right buyers) isn’t a bad thing if it lets us create more, better work. We’re all familiar with the way the artistic life gets romanticized as a struggle, but it’s time to put this harmful stereotype to rest; some may be happy waiting tables, asking their friends to support their Kickstarter campaigns or taking every odd gig in hopes they’ll finally get noticed or “make it.” But it’s not the only way. “Selling out,” when it enhances our work without compromising our creativity or our values, is a good thing, and putting a priority on revenue is not the same as betraying our principles. Indeed, nothing compromises our principles more than not having the resources to promote them.