How Much Should Artists Care About Business?

As a person who is (slowly, painfully) trying to break into a creative field, the idea of what makes a person successful is often on my mind. Despite being a creative person first and foremost myself, I try to ground my dreams in realism. While I don’t feel a need to become world famous or obscenely wealthy (though I guess I wouldn’t complain if either happened), I would like to make at least some semblance of a living doing what I love. Money makes the world go ’round, for better or worse, and without the support of business and fans, a creative person is at best making their work solely for history or fun, and at worst forced to give up on any semblance of living their dreams and letting those ideas die stillborn.

This leads me to wonder just how much conscious thought towards the business end creators should put into their work. Should it be the driving force behind all decisions, should it not matter at all, or should it simply be something considered? Perhaps that question is best left to individuals, but I find that answering every hard question with “it depends” is a big fat copout that contributes nothing to the conversation, so I’ll see if there is actually a reasonable answer, or at least a series of reasonable questions to ask when considering.

Anyone teaching art, whether it’s writing, painting, music, or whatever, will tell you to you to know your audience. This seems sensible, but what if someone doesn’t have an audience in mind? What if the audience is one’s self? I don’t really want to weigh something like this down with semantics and endless platitudes of do what feels good, because of course as artists we want to express ourselves. Works often fall into genres, and most genres have fans, though some probably more than others. It is therefore helpful to have some idea what genre or style one’s work most closely associates with, even if the fit isn’t perfect. If a work fits no genre at all, it tends to be classified as experimental or literary, which also have their fans, usually critics. Knowing this doesn’t mean one has to shoehorn a work into said genre, but it is often a way of knowing which rules to follow and which to break, as well as the common language a reader/viewer/listener will understand. It also helps publishers to know how to market one’s work.

Marketing is a strange part of the process. My creative nature innately rebels against being mindful of demographics, brand-growing, and the like. One occasionally hears stories of George Lucas and how he creates certain characters to appeal to certain demographics, and while it horrifies me, I can’t help but notice that the man is extremely successful, no matter how many people claim that he raped their childhood. I personally don’t think about things like that when I write, and I would probably feel dirty if I did. But am I letting my creativity be honest, or am I willfully ignoring information that would allow me to take my work to the next level?

There is also the question of “selling out.” What is it to sell out? I’ve heard a variety of answers on this. Does it simply mean to become a financial success and leave the underground behind? Is it to change who you are for money? Is it to sell ancillary merchandise that might be seen to cheapen your product? Various people have various definitions, and some may not care at all. The whole point is to sell out for some. For myself, I would be perfectly all right with the internet model of making extra money on merchandise so that my actual creative product could remain alive and unblemished. If my comic series Redemption ever gets picked up by a publisher, you can bet that I will sell every t-shirt and action figure I can, but I will never change the story or the characters because it might make the series sell better.

This may not be the answer for everyone, but I think the answer for me is that if a creative person wants to sell their work, they must to some degree be a businessperson. In a world saturated with virtually endless entertainment, where it is absurdly easy to get lost in the crowd, one must find a way to sell one’s work. Sadly, quality alone is not enough unless one is very lucky. It is also important to have some level of business savvy because otherwise it is very easy to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals. That said, the business and the artistic should be separate. Unless a person is solely in it for the money, artistic concerns must be primary. If a person cares about artistic integrity, they can’t create solely to capture certain markets. It will ultimately fail because they don’t have the guts to go completely mercenary and the artificial bits will taint the artistic side. So for me, the answer is to be both artistic and shrewd, just not at the same time.