I saw a meme the other day that repeated an often-heard attitude — “I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free. I have bills just like you. Thank you for understanding.”
The argument is often made that writers and artists of all kinds are entitled to a certain amount of pay for their work. After all, if they don’t get paid, who will produce all the great literature, amazing paintings, or excellent music? We will all be worse off if people can’t make a living from being a writer or musician.
Honestly, I find this idea conceited and a little bratty. The idea that we can write all day and make a living simply because we write, or simply because we make music, doesn’t correlate with how you generate income. This is not to say something doesn’t have value if it doesn’t make money. Value creation occurs daily for no compensation at all. After-school coaches for kids, Youtubers, Amazon reviewers, Quora answerers and Github users create value often with no compensation, yet their collective time and effort produce an enormous benefit to society.
However, that’s not the point at hand. If you only want to write and make enough from it to earn a living, it will be hard. Some people have done it, but you must create something and sell it enough to cultivate that income. You can write the best books in the world, but if nobody wants to buy them, then you won’t make any money. At the Voice and Exit Festival of 2015, T.K. Coleman said:
“Entrepreneurship is the optimal medium for empirically demonstrating the value of an idea. If you really want to know what an idea is worth, if you really want to know how useful it is, take that idea and engage reality with it. Attempt to create value for others, attempt to solve problems within the context of an accountability structure rooted in profit and loss… When you ask people for money in exchange for something you do, you’re going to get more honest feedback than ever before.”
This drives the point home that if you expect to earn money for what you do, you must convince others that your work is worth their money. Until this occurs, you cannot justify the demand that you be paid, or receive a minimum amount of compensation. Not everyone can make enough money by just being a writer or musician or sculptor. People need to be realistic about the idea of being a full-time artist. The idea that you should be paid more for your work, no matter how much sweat and blood you put into it, clashes with the reality that you are not entitled to someone’s money based on how much effort you put into it.
Simply said, if the artist’s work doesn’t make much money, then the artist won’t make much money. Great works of art, music, and writing will always be produced, regardless of whether individuals can live off the singular incomes they forge from those creations or not.
If you want to create something you are proud of and enjoy, do it. But don’t expect others to pay you more money than you sell, just because you need to pay bills.