The “Digital Age” Artist’s Manifesto

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[Originally Published June 2, 2008]

The Creative Person’s Dilemma

Why do creative geeks (artists, musicians and writers that dwell primarily on the Internet) often live double lives? Because there isn’t a readily accessible system in place to allow a creative artist to chose to make a living from their craft without undue sacrifice, struggle and hardship. This “Jekyl and Hyde” geek spends their waking hours toiling away in an unfulfilling job while practicing their true passion at night and on the weekends.

This duality often leads to personal and professional frustration. It is incredibly unlikely that you, or me, or anyone you have ever met will become a famous musician or artist. The odds are not in our favor. But when you break down the artist’s desire into its most basic elements most of us do not desire fame, and many of us don’t desire wealth. What we desire is to be able to do the thing we are SUPPOSED to be doing (writing, drawing, whatever) all day without having to worry about what else we have to do to support ourselves and our families. We just want our passion to be our job. The reason that desire often gets confused with celebrity aspirations is that, until now, getting “discovered” and becoming rich and famous was the only sure fire way to get your art out there and into the hands of those that would appreciate it. This isn’t the case anymore.

Technology and the Internet have created a new class of creative individual. Today’s digital age artist has four things that previous generations did not. Information, Tools, Exposure and Communication.

Information: With access to the Internet, anyone can acquire almost any knowledge they seek quickly and usually for free. Art and music tutorials abound, as well as communities that offer mentorship and assistance in most creative fields.

Tools: Do you have a laptop? Then you have a full featured recording studiodigital art studio, video production lab or creative writing and research tool. Once you have the computer you can augment it’s abilities with external recording sound cards, drawing tablets, midi controllers, video editing hardware or specialty software. The ability to layout a book, edit a movie or record an album used to be exclusive to professionals with years of training and tens of thousands of dollars worth of hardware (not to mention industry connections). Now everyone has access to this technology at an affordable price.

Exposure: I was in a band in highschool. We couldn’t afford to record a demo tape, so if we wanted anyone to hear our music (it wasn’t that good anyway) we had to play live for them. Booking shows in a small town in Texas was difficult as there was only two places to play and one was 18 and up. Getting exposure with more than a few dozen people a month was nearly impossible. Now an artist has access to hundreds of thousands of people (or millions) through outlets like YouTube, Myspace, Digg, Facebook or any other social area of the internet.

Communication: This one seems very similar to exposure, but it works to the artist’s benefit in a different way. Posting a video on Youtube of you playing your new song, and having it viewed by 100,000 people is exposure. Receiving 500 comments and emails is communication.

Why is it so important for an artist in the digital age to foster communication with his or her fans? Look at it this way: no matter how much a fan likes U2, Bono is never going to answer their email. James Hetfield is never going to add them on Myspace (his assistant might), and  the Members of Coldplay don’t follow them on Twitter. As a digital age artist you can do ALL of those things (and will if you know what’s good for you). If a fan want to know what a song is about, they can email you and expect a response. If someone wonders what software you record with, you are only one degree of separation away. True fans can bond with you, the artist, and know your work on a more personal level. You may never be a star, but you are famous to your true fans. As an artist, you can know your fans/listeners/readers on a first name basis. You can react to their feedback, give them what they want and make them a part of your creative process. For an artist to make a living from their art, communication is EVERYTHING.

A couple of scenarios that illustrate the point:

  • An artist has an idea for a graphic novel. She does some sketches with Photoshop using her Macbook and a Wacom drawing tablet. She posts them to an art forum where she gets critiques and makes changes based on the community feedback. Once she is comfortable with the work she sets up cheap hosting, buys a domain and installs WordPress and Comicpress to publish her work. She uses social networks to reach out to her potential audience and within 6 months 3000 people are reading her graphic novel every day. She publishes 3 pages a week and supports the site through a presale on the upcoming printed volume and advertising.
  • A songwriter records a full album (12 songs) using Garageband, an M-Audio USB sound card and a Midi controller (for drums, keys, strings, etc). He uploads the songs to Amazon S3 file hosting and links the Mp3‘s to a few music forums that he has been a part of for several years. The forum members post links on their blogs and word quickly spreads of his music. He also posts the full album on his website and Myspace page. He uses e-Junkie to sell the Mp3’s for $1 each. Eventually his songs (which are Creative Commons Licensed) are played on popular podcasts and internet radio stations. Eager fans flock to his site and purchase the songs, which are fairly prices and not restricted with DRM. He uses to decide where he should travel to play live shows. He stays in touch with his fans directly through email, his forum and comments on his blog. The fans feel a connection with the artist and support him through song sales, merchandise (physical CD’s and T-Shirts) and tickets to live performances.

These scenarios can be applied to podcasters, video bloggers, photographers, novelists, animators or pretty much any other creative profession you can think of. The barriers between a creative content producer and their potential audience are breaking down more and more every year. The best part is…

You do not have to be famous.

You don’t have to reach 100 million people to be a success. You don’t even need to reach 100,000. How many is the magic number, then? That depends on what you are creating and how much you are selling it for. Regardless of those two factors, would you agree to $100,000 would provide you a comfortable living as an artist? Considering what most artists earn from their art, you would probably be comfortable with considerably less than $100,000. Maybe $40K-$60K is your target comfort range

Assume that through your creative endeavors, which you offer up on the web through a combination of free handouts (free song a month, or free comic 3 times a week or a daily video blog) and paid content/merchandise (CD’s, T-Shirts, commissioned art, books, etc), you reach 10,000 people. We are talking 10,000 regular readers/listeners/whatever. This is NOT a very large number for the web. Popular podcasts like TWiT get 250,000+ listeners weekly and popular webcomics like PVP see daily visits between 100,000 and 200,000. So, trust me, you CAN get 10,000 casual followers. For the sake of our experiment, let’s say of your 10,000 fans, 10% are TRUE FANS.

What is a True Fan? A true fan is someone that holds your creative content near and dear. They feel a connection with your work and want to make sure you are capable of continuing to produce it. A True Fan will ACTUALLY SPEND MONEY on your content.

I’m not going into detail on how you should sell, market, or distribute your goods. There are other sources for that information. For the purpose of our experiment, I’m going to assume you are offering some kind of paid compensation opportunity to your True Fans.

So you have 1000 True Fans (for more info on the “1000 True Fans” concept, read up on Kevin Kelly), but what does that mean. A True Fan over the course of a year may spend anywhere from $50 to $100 on your creative content. That’s $50,000-100,000 annually before tax (a comfortable living for most). This is extremely simplified and your numbers may vary wildly but simplicity is key to getting the point across. With your art or music it may take 5000 True Fans spending $20 a year or 500 True Fans buying $200 original paintings, but the idea is the same. If you can truly connect with your die hard fans, those that would willingly pay for you to keep doing what you love to do, you CAN make a living from your creative output.

Again, the is extremely oversimplified and assumes you are producing quality content that people will want to digest. This experiment certainly won’t work for everyone. The flipside of the new information age is that in addition to YOU being able to get your content out to the masses, so can EVERYONE ELSE. The virtual market is flooded with wannabe webcomics, guitar heroes, videoblog divas and the like. You have to stand out through the quality of your art.

Wrapping up

We, as artists in the digital age, should not have to get permission from a record label, a book publisher or a worldwide media conglomerate to pursue our passion for a living. If our passions were customer service, management or accounting, we really wouldn’t have any problems. There are already very clear paths to achieve these goals and many people live very fulfilled lives that way. But what do those people do to relax? They listen to music, they watch movies, they read book and the look at silly comics on the internet. That’s where we come in. Artists create art so that others can enjoy it. We thrive on the creative process, and everyone else benefits from the result. Imagine how the quantity and quality of your artistic output would increase if creating it were your full time job.

Ask yourself, “Why can’t I draw comics for a living?” “Why can’t I play guitar and write songs to support myself?” “Why can’t I publish my own book, make a podcast or a produce TV show and still pay the bills?”

You absolutely can. We are the first generation of artists that DO NOT NEED PERMISSION to pursue our passion full time.

If you are interested in seeing this theory in action, you can follow my progress in trying to make a living from my webcomic, HijiNKS Ensue, through my Video Blog, or any posts on my website tagged with “The Experiment.”

If you enjoyed this story, enjoy the comic or podcast, or are in any way inspired by what I am trying to do please consider visiting the HijiNKS Ensue Store, making a donation, or telling more people about the comic and “The Experiment.”

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Quick Links:
The Experiment OverviewThe Whole HE Story |  The “Digital Age” Artist’s Manifesto  |
4 Year Experimentiversary, 5 Year Anniversary And More Experimenting