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

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.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.