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Is There Still a Path to Profitability for Creatives?

By Wil Forbis
November 1, 2018

Is There Still a Path to Profitability for Creatives?I should first state that I am not a fan of the neologism "creatives." My main beef is that it implies that certain people use creativity in their jobs whereas others are just mindless drones and that doesn't jibe with my experience. I've worked a lot of jobs---pizza delivery guy, auto detailer, web designer, software consultant, music teacher, music performer---and I've used creativity in all of them. At least I have if we define creativity with its purest definition: the ability to develop new ideas that solve a problem or make a statement.

But I've long suspected that that isn't what the term means these days. To investigate this I googled "What is a creative?" and discovered this article written by author Jeff Goins. He aptly first makes the point that, "...if you donít work in marketing or advertising, you may not have realized that creative can be a noun." He then defines the term as...

A creative is an artist. Not just a painter or musician or writer. She is someone who sees the world a little differently than others.

A creative is an individual. He is unique, someone who doesnít quite fit into any box. Some think of creatives as iconoclasts; others see them as rebels. Both are quite apt. A creative is a thought leader. He influences people not necessarily through personality but through his innate gifts and talents.

Ugh---it's all this pretense that really makes me hate the term. According to this new vernacular, a creative is a special person, someone a step above those average idiots on the street who spend their days punching numbers or pulling levers.

Anyway, for the purposes of this piece I use creative to just mean "arty type." Someone who does visual arts, music, fiction writing, film and photography.

I, of course, as a sometimes professional musician and dabbler in visual arts and fiction writing, consider myself a creative, though I'm not an elitist snob about it. And in my life as a creative, I've noticed the following.

It's hard to make money.

This is partly because another definition of creatives might be "people who make non-essential things." Food is essential. Housing is essential. Even lawyers, loathed as they may be, are providing an essential service helping people navigate the laws of society. But nobody really needs a song, or a painting, or a film. Those things are in the "nice to have" list.

Creatives may balk at this and say what they do is essential in some ethereal way. But the fact remains: nobody ever starved to death or was beaten down by the elements because they didn't have access to a Shakespeare play, a Picasso painting or a Bach sonata. (If one were lost in nature and only had a Picasso painting, one might find it would make a handy umbrella.)

If you specialize in producing non-essentials, you're going to have trouble making a living. Biographies often accentuate this point, describing artists who led lives of poverty that ended in some unmarked grave. But, many creatives do well and even thrive. Historically, there have been a number of ways to make a profit as a creative, including...

Royal or wealthy patronage
In the good old days, painters, musicians and such were often supported by wealthy royals or other rich folk. This eliminated the burden of an artist being dependent on the marketplace for sustenance.

Good old-fashioned mercantilism
Many artists have prospered selling their art, music, stories or films in the open market.

Operating as an artist-for-hire
Creatives can also use their talents to fill the needs of an employer. I'm talking about painters who paint book covers, musicians who write scores for films or events, writers who use their narrative gifts to craft compelling commercial copy, etc.

These systems worked reasonably well for the past 400+ years but lately creatives have hit some stumbling blocks. So let's take a look at the landscape and see what a modern creative might do to make money.

Modern Patronage
In a certain sense, patronage is still alive. You need look no further than the web site where creatives can request support for their pursuits. What's different here---as opposed to patronage of yore---is that the creative is looking to retain not a sizable largesse from one or two wealthy patrons (say $100,000 a year), but multiple smaller micro-payments from people in the middle or lower class (say, $30 a month from 50 people.)

I have no idea how this concept is working for artists* as I haven't tried it but it seems largely a doomed effort to me. I look at various friends who put calls out for patronage and think, "Come on! I'm worried about grocery money and you want me to give you $20 a month to make comic books/horror novels/amateur porn?! Not gonna happen."

* Well, I actually do have an idea thanks to this article which states, among other depressing facts, that only 2% of creators make more than federal minimum wage from the site.

The marketplace
An alternative to asking for open-ended support for creative pursuits is to simply put your artistic commodities up for sale. By this I mean make a music cd and sell it, make an indie film and get it distributed, paint a painting and sell it, etc.

This tact strikes me as a bit nobler than begging for patronage but it's still got issues. I purposely used the term commodities above to hint at the controversy of commodifying art. Once an artist starts judging his art from the viewpoint of the marketplace, corruption occurs, or at least art purists allege it does. My view is that everyone's gotta make a buck, but I also think we all recognize this sort of artistic "cheapening" when we see it. It's the gratuitous T&A or violence thrown into a movie or comic book when it doesn't really add anything to the story. It's novels that seem to follow a recently popularized theme (like the endless Harry Potter clones). It's the sense that a song or painting is chasing a trend. (Recall for instance, when the Rolling Stones went disco.)

Beyond all that, the internet has given us access to so much for free that it's driving down prices. Music is a prime example of this. We used to pay 15 bucks for a CD, now we have instant access to millions of songs on youtube/Spotify/etc. Why buy your local band's CD when you can listen to the complete works of Led Zeppelin without paying a dime?

Other kinds of art suffer for similar reasons. There may not be a "Spotify for books" but there are plenty of free apps and content sources that compete with our book reading time. (There are also arguments made that the everything-all-at-once style of information processing engendered by the internet has shortened our attention spans and made book reading difficult.)

How can all this content be given away for free? Because the people profiting are selling the delivery, the devices and data. Creatives are put into the position of putting content out for free (or near-free), hoping to go viral and then start earning money.

One might think creatives can find some income as simple employees who use their talents to complete assigned tasks. But there are roadblocks here as well. For one, because of globalization, artists-for-hire in the first world are increasingly competing with people in countries who can charge far less for their labor. You see this on web sites like fiverr or Pond5 where comic artists in the Philippines or production music composers in eastern Europe offer their services at well below the U.S. rate. I'm not doggin' them; if I was them I'd be doing it too. But it clearly undercuts the market.

We also again have the specter of disruptive internet technology glaring down at the creative fields. Tech already disrupted the world of music 20 years ago when mp3s made music easy to duplicate and distribute. Currently we see tech-driven online services that can add the final flourish of music mastering* for pennies compared to what an old-school professional might charge. (Whether it's of the same quality is debatable but most people don't need the best.) With the eBook explosion, numerous tech-driven book cover design tools have arisen to take the place of the painters or graphic designers who might otherwise do the work.

* Mastering is the final stage in a production cycle of a song during which effects such as compression and reverb are tweaked to perfection.

And, to beat a drum I've banged before, I think artificial intelligence is poised to make inroads in creative work. As recently as a few days ago an image created by an A.I. algorithm sold for almost a half million dollars at an auction. Doubtless that price was inflated by novelty but, nonetheless, once computers can easily and affordably create images---and there are plenty of indicators they will be able to---human image creators of all stripes will be on shaky ground.

So, what does this all mean? Are creatives doomed? Certainly not, at least for the short term. (And even if it becomes a totally unprofitable exercise people will always create for the pleasure in it.) If you're like me, in your 40s, you can probably hack out a living until retirement. But if I were a kid choosing a career today, I would question the validity of going into painting or music or other arts.

Of course, one response to this is to simply expand what being a creative means, to recognize that lots of jobs use creativity (essentially problem solving). With that approach, creatives may be a species that lasts but they will be a far different breed than the "special person" described above.

What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email -

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.