Updated on 01.31.11

An Artist on the Side: Coppola on the Future of Artists and Artisans

Trent Hamm

Earlier this week, I stumbled upon a great interview with Francis Ford Coppola over at the 99 percent. In this interview, Coppola talks about the past and future of people making money from their art, whether it be music, movies, or other things:

We have to be very clever about those things. You have to remember that it’s only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.

This idea of Metallica or some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?

In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you’d be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, “Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” Because there are ways around it.

Here’s an interesting question. How exactly did you first find The Simple Dollar? Maybe you discovered it from a Google search. Perhaps you found it because a friend sent you a link, or maybe you first spied it on some other website.

The fact of the matter is that regardless of how great my writing is (or how awful it is, depending on your position), you didn’t find it solely on its own merits. You discovered it through some other means – a friend, Google, someone’s website, whatever the case may be.

As much as I love being a writer, I don’t make money from writing. Writing is the fun part, but my income comes from the time I spend working on the software behind The Simple Dollar, marketing the stuff I write to other sites, making it easy for people to send links to their friends, negotiating with advertisers, and countless other mundane tasks like that.

Without those types of tasks, my writing wouldn’t earn me a single solitary cent.

Coppola’s point is exactly that: the fun creative stuff that so many of us do really doesn’t earn us much money at all, at least not most of the time. Yes, we just passed through a weird time in history where a handful of people benefited from an inefficient means to distribute media, but the internet is eroding those things incredibly quickly.

Soon, we’re going to be right back where artists started. They’ll either be doing their art via patronage (meaning people directly pay for them to continue producing) or they’ll do it in their spare time purely as a hobby.

Why am I writing about this?

A few times a week, I’ll get a passionate email from a reader who has some particular talent. They’ve written a novel. They’re really good on the piano. They can make gorgeous end tables. They can spin and flip with grace. How do they make money?

My painful response is that unless they are incredibly, incredibly lucky, these talents alone won’t earn them much money. In order to succeed, you either need to have the ability to get your talents right into the laps of the people who want to see it or have the means to hire someone who is able to do that (often with them getting a split of the proceeds).

In the recent past, the answer used to be a publishing contract, a music deal, a movie deal, or something along those lines. Today, that’s changed. Such businesses won’t take an interest in you until you’ve done something that attracts their attention because, frankly, more people are publishing and producing now than will ever get read or heard or seen or have their products purchased. The internet has created too much noise and no one is going to bother until you rise above it.

I’ve published two books, but neither of them would have ever been published without The Simple Dollar, and The Simple Dollar, regardless of how good of a writer I am, was built on my ability to convince people to link to it and to keep the site running.

If you have big dreams that revolve around some particular talent or skill that you’ve cultivated, I have some very serious suggestions for you.

Don’t assume your talent or skill will be your money maker for a long, long time. Your talent or skill is going to be your side job – treat it like such. If you go to work, come home tired, and convince yourself to not do anything with it today, you’re never going to make it. I spent years writing and learning how to program and learning about internet marketing in my spare time, failing over and over again, with nothing to show for it other than a gradually growing skill set.

Find some type of work that will help you spread your talent. Be an administrative assistant for someone who works in media distribution. Become a software developer. Get a marketing degree. Get your foot in the door, any way you can, in the path between where you are right now and where your audience is. Barring that, find a job that will provide minimal intrusion, such as a job as a gas station attendant.

Live frugally. The more money you have in the bank and the less expenditures you have, the easier it will be to make the leap into practicing your skill on a full time basis when the time comes.

Make friends and connections – lots of them. Spend at least some of your time cultivating relationships with people who can help you with spreading what skills you have. Seek out software developers, people with online followings that focus on your area of interest, and people who are involved with your skill on a professional level. Talk to them as peers, not as fans, and attempt to build a genuine friendship with them. You’d be surprised how “famous” or “important” people can react if you treat them as an equal and not as a superior.

Improve your own social skills, especially in gently promoting yourself. If you’re introverted, this is key. The ability to communicate successfully with others, particularly when talking about yourself while not coming off as a braggart, is an ability that’s vital if you want to get others interested in your skill.

If you want riches, find another career path. Art is wonderful, but it doesn’t channel human effort in a way that generates wealth. If you want wealth, put your guitar aside and start hitting the books.

Find patrons. Yep, patronage. I know of at least one person – a painter – who has a patron who covers an annual stipend and supplies in exchange for four original pieces a year, and the person can sell the rest that they produce. That person hangs some of the originals in their home and gives others to friends. Don’t be ashamed or afraid of this type of arrangement. It was the cultural norm for many, many years – up even until 100 years ago, most artists had patrons as that’s how the wealthy would support culture and the arts. Such arrangements still exist today, and I would not be surprised at all to see them become more prevalent. Don’t be afraid to take opportunities to show your skills to the wealthy.

The best thing you can do if you have talent and are passionate about that talent is to start packaging it up. Even the brightest gem can lay unnoticed in the mines if no one is able to see it. Shine a light on what you have and learn how to polish it and put it in the right hands.

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  1. Dena Shunra says:

    Exactly right.

    The way I put it has been that I am a “kept woman” – kept by my work (which is not particularly glamorous), able to do the art that I do.

    I figured that out early, because my particular forms of art do. not. pay. Poetry? Like, full time? not for people who want to eat.

    Thanks for stating it in such a clear and easy-to-share-with-aspiring-artists way!

  2. Kate says:

    I know one person, and only one, who has been able to make a living off of her art. I contineu to be hugely impressed by her.

    I wouldn’t say she lives off of her art exactly, but she has an incredibly good head for business and has been able to leverage that into a good living. She started out slow, taking seemingly unrelated jobs that could feed her passion of making jewelry. She got involved as a salesgirl at one store, and when one of the owners later wanted to sell her 40% share, she bought her out with the money she had slowly but surely stashed away.

    She now works in the store, makes jewelry while she’s there (customers love seeing pieces “in progress”), sells her things alongside other artists, and continues doing art shows/fairs outside of that.

    I’m excited to see where she’ll go next, quite honestly.

  3. Nancy says:

    Great article! As an Art teacher who also has a musical daughter, everything you have said is true. The daughter is a business major, mock trial participant, who plays gigs to pay her student loans. There are so many talented people out there. It is so unfortunate that our culture doesn’t support the arts as deeply as they are practiced.

  4. Jamie says:

    I love this blog, and I am forwarding to a few of my struggling-artist friends.

    I wrote a novel that I think is great, tried for a year to get it published, and then gave up.

    I have a comedy troupe that is successful in popularity and to date has not made a dime.

    I conduct photo shoots and have shows all over town, and have sold a total of 2 pieces in the past seven years. What I made from those sales covered roughly one photo shoot.

    What this blog made me realize is I don’t want to make money, I want to make art. Maybe when I’m retired– in 35 years– I’ll put more “work” into these projects, but for now I am perfectly satisfied creating without financial profit while I financially profit (without much creating) in my office job. Bills are getting paid, and I’m making art. Pretty much the goal here, isn’t it?

  5. Holly says:

    Wow…this was a great post, full of honest advice and wonderfully written!

  6. BD says:

    They should be passing this blog entry out to every Art school out there, AND to every financial blog that parrots “DO WHAT YOU LOVE AND THE MONEY WILL COME!”

    THANK YOU, Trent, for being the first one to really dive into this issue publicly. I wish I would have read this back when I was going to college for graphic design.

    Now, I’m middle-aged and in college AGAIN to earn an entirely different degree (Accounting) because I learned the hard way that graphic design/art does NOT pay and it is highly unlikely one can make a living off of it alone. The jobs in the art/design field are few, and many of them are minimum wage. The people fortunate to land a creative job that pays a real living wage ($35,000/yr or above) are like musicians that happen to make it big (like your Metallica example). For every Metallica out there, there are 1,000 no-name bands that never made it. For every graphic designer or artist out there who ‘made it’ and can earn a good living off their art, there are 1,000 more who are working retail jobs or flipping burgers because they cannot make a living off art alone.

    Anyway, this is a well-written and much needed post. Hopefully, other financial blogs will link to it.

  7. SwingCheese says:

    When I was teaching, I had several incredibly talented students, who were determined to “make it” in the arts, and when I would listen to them talk about the future, I would always tell them this story: I have an aunt, who has an absolutely BEAUTIFUL voice. In addition, she has played bass guitar since she was about 12 years old. She was in bands throughout high school, and dropped out of college to “make it”. And she did. Kind of. She was in a successful band which signed a contract with a major record company. They were featured in a late 80s movie, they were sent to London to record their next album. And it tanked. Because they were a hair metal band and it was 1991. They were dropped from their label when the record failed to perform. She still plays locally, and she’ll always create and love music, of course, but she was always after me to finish college, as not doing so is a major regret for her. Do what you love, but have a back up plan that you can tolerate to support what you love.

  8. kristine says:

    “DO WHAT YOU LOVE AND THE MONEY WILL COME!” has been touted even here.

    Instead, it should read, Do what you love, and you might just be happy. Every artist should have a back-up skill for income.

    I am on my third career. Fashion- did great, but quit after visiting the factories in HongKong as it made me sick. The fashion industry is parasitic. And it pushes disposability and insecurity.

    Advertising/publishing. Yes, you CAN make good money as a graphic designer or art director, or a creative director. In NYC. At a top place. I was one of the lucky ones, made a lot, and worked 12-14 hours days. I know how rare my job was. I quit to teach- missed my family.

    Now I teach. The art teachers around me are making a lot as they stay longer, and will have a pension. I would be in much better shape financially has I started teaching from the get-go. BUT, I would not have enjoyed the successes I had, and the adrenaline.

    OH! And I paint. When I tell people m paintings have been noted in the NY Times, and Newsday, and that I have had a 60 piece one person show in a LI museum, and that every opening I have is attended by about 90 people…they think I make money with my painting. Nope! Critical acclaim and publicity do not equal income. Some commissions, yes, but I was a single mom then, and speculative income was not for me. I paint for joy. not money.

    But to illustrate what I really think- please watch Harlan Ellison’s “Dreams with Sharp Teeth.” He is a character, and uses profanity, but he is brilliant, and on the money with this. People giving their art away for free undercuts professionals, and lowers the level of professionalism overall. The graphic design industry destroyed itself with every young kid who would work long hours for peanuts because it was cool. Now design wages are in the toilet.

    Bloggers work for free, and writers post novels for free, or self publish, and now writing income is in the toilet.

    YouTube is free, and now we are stuck with theaters having 3-D movies to compete. UGH!!

  9. deRuiter says:

    Musicians who form a band and do weddings, the rubber chicken banquet circuit, bowling banquets, parades and parties make a living because they produce music for which people will pay. It isn’t glamorous and they eat a lot of gummy chicken to avid having to buy their own dinner (saves money). It’s a job, they make a living. This “follow your passion and the money will come” is a way to sell the writer or an article’s work. Always look at the RESULT, not the talk. If it’s your art, your passion, to make collages out of cat hair and and dried sticks, don’t let me discourage you. Most artists don’t make a fortune, or even break even on their work. In the past there was the opprotunity to float the occasional crucifix in urine, and call it “art” and be paid, or glue horse manure to a picture of the Virgin Mary and get paid, but luckily now government subsidies for Leftist art are becoming harder to get, and artists are forced to paint what sells, if they want to make money on their art. A lot of art which is produced isn’t what the buying public wants, so they don’t buy it. Art is not necessarily successful business. Better to do art on the side and have a real job to pay the bills.

  10. kristine says:


    While the examples you gave do not thrill me, most art that is considered “great” today, that was made post-patronage/ post-Renaissance (the work of Monet, Picasso, DeBuffet, Turner, O’Keefe, MaGritte to namea few) was considered fringe and only accepted by the “out there” factions at first. Today it is among the most collectible and valuable in the world.

    Someday Kostabi and that artist who paints the saccharin mansions of “light”, which people love, are considered to have zeitgeist, and are highly saleable, but will probabaly disapper into the annals as popular but poor art. Whether they will hold any monetary value long term remians to be seen.

    If you are looking at it form the point of view of a collector, not an artist, the innovative and out there work that symbolizes an era is still the best long term investment. Mexico accepts artwork from artists as a legitmate payment of taxes, based on the artist’s market rate at the time. In doing this, they have built up, over time, a priceless collection of works by artists who went on to major success. But they cannot sell the work unitl the artist dies, as it would mean a tax refund! This system encourages artists to continue making art.

  11. Callie says:

    Interesting post. Timely too, as I’ve just made a move to heavily market myself. I just hired a team of budding graphic artists to help me. I’m excited about the changes happening and plan to enjoy the journey.

  12. AniVee says:

    Great post! – I really agree with “Get your foot in the door, any way you can” –

    Ruben Blades started out in the mailroom at Fania Records, college degree and all ….

    So many entry level jobs in “glamour” industries pay peanuts because so many people want those jobs – but at least it’s a way in the door. Yesterday I heard of a really good Italian photographer who would not take an entry level photography job years ago at the best-known Italian newspaper – “salary too low for my experience” – where is he now? Assistant Manager of a pinball-machine-rental company in Central America… makes you wonder …

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