All My Content is Free. How Do I Start Making Money as an Artist?

You have been working hard.

You’ve been building a catalog of work. You’re constantly creating and freely sharing the fruits of your labor along the way. Because you’ve been sharing your work for free, you’ve gathered a following. You have fans. You have subscribers. You have people that cannot wait to see what you make next. And that’s a really good thing. Just ask Peter Hollens.

He has this to say about building community as a creator:

“…engaging with people on social media, responding to every comment and message, and just being really genuine and honest! People want to follow and support artists who create something meaningful, who are real people. The age of the celebrity is passing. It’s all about building a community.”– Peter Hollens

Now that you have all this great, free content and fans who love it — how can you turn that into income?

Free is the first step

You’ve spent a lot of time and effort accomplishing something important: Gaining exposure and honing your craft.

By sharing free art consistently, you have been exposing your work to various populations of people (through Facebook, or Instagram, or your website, or your blog, or your buddy’s blog) and getting a good feel for how it resonates with them. By giving your art away, you’re attracting the people who love it. You’ve been commenting with them and getting to know them very well.

This is valuable, but not quantitative. In order to start making an income from your art, you’re going to want to gather data that will inform what avenues you’ll take next.

Focus on engagement with your people, not reach

Analytical buzzwords can sometimes feel like gobbledy gook. But these two are very critical: Engagement vs. Reach. Understanding how these metrics work will help you start making sales from your art. 

Reach is how many people encounter your art. It may whiz by in someone’s social feed. They might click into it for half a second and skim the article. They may stay on the page for a full minute or two. But then they’re gone. You’ve effectively reached someone with your art, but they haven’t engaged with it. Reach is fleeting.

Engagement occurs when a user interacts with your content by completing an action once they’ve seen it. For example, leaving a comment on your video after watching it, or signing up for your email list at the end of a blog post. (Some sites count a click or a 5-second-view as engagement, but for the sake of this article, we’re counting a true interaction as engagement.)

Engagement allows you to connect with your biggest and best fans. When someone engages with your art, it’s quantitative proof of who they are and how your work is interacted with.

So how do you actually promote engagement in your content? This article from Content Marketing Institute has some great ways to get people interacting with your work.

Know your people as well as you can

If you’ve been commenting back and forth with your fans or gathering an email list, then you probably already have a good idea of who your people are. You may know their preferences in similar creators, what kind of personalities they have, or what age range and basic demographics they fall into.

If you feel a bit in the dark about your fans, you’ll want to change this. Understanding your fans (and their content consumption preferences) will help you deliver paid content to them that they’ll really, really, really want to buy. You want your fans to say, “Wow. I feel like this was made for me!”

Learn how they consume your art and other content. Chances are, you have fans who would love to support you even more, but they simply don’t have the opportunity to do so right now. They already love the art you’re creating, so how can you give them even more, presented in the most effective way possible?

“Lots of people said they had wanted to support me but didn’t know the best way other than purchasing my songs.”– Peter Hollens

Some simple ways to get inside the heads of your fans include:

  • Putting a poll on your website, Instagram or Twitter when you’re making decisions
  • Sending out a “getting to know you” survey to your email list
  • Looking at the demographic info on your social media accounts and website

So now that you’re promoting engagement with your content and you know exactly what your fans want, let’s look at different ways you can start making money from your art:

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Method A: Recycle and re-release past work

Whenever you can recycle old content into shiny new content, do it. Using what you already have to create even more is a great way to start bringing in income quickly. I’ve laid out some ways to do this in this post

Think of ways you can repackage your art in ways that your fans would like to consume it. For example:

  • Are you an author or comic artist who releases single chapters or pages at a time? Consider releasing audio versions of your chapters for a fee. You can do this in many ways, like through apodcast on Patreon or on iTunes. When the work is finished, offer a full audiobook for sale. You can sell full ebooks of the completed books, or graphic novels. Take it even further – make it exclusive for VIP pricing. Do limited edition hardcover runs. Include exclusive pages or additional chapters. Sign it. Write a letter on the inside cover.
  • Are you a musician who has a solid YouTube following? Start making albums for sale physically as well as digitally (I love Distrokid for easy digital distribution). Bring your fans into the mix – take cover requests for a price. If you’re a songwriter, write songs for hire. Find out your fans’ favorite songs then put the lyrics on merch. Offer VIP tickets to online shows and physical shows you’re already playing.

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Method B: Come up with entirely new revenue streams

Maybe remixing your novel into an audiobook isn’t all that exciting, or perhaps you know your fans won’t be into it. But you do know that your fans are into, say, writing their own poetry. You know they have a penchant for good notebooks, where they like to jot down their ideas. From here, you can easily see how creating your own line of notebooks would serve both you and your fans.

Consider bringing a product to market – something in-line with your brand that your fans will love. Make an Etsy store to sell your goods if you’re handmaking them. Fine artists like illustrators or comic artists will love selling prints in a Big Cartel Shop. You can start a Society 6 store and create on-demand products like t-shirts, bags, home decor, and more. You can sell your new product on your own website, too. I love Squarespace and the WooCommerce plugin for WordPress sites.

Don’t want to make your own products? Partner with other brands to offer something unique, be it a product or service or artistic collaboration. Think Beats by Dre headphones. Partner with calligraphers, jewelery makers, or another creator to build custom products. 

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Method C: Get paid for free work with clever placements

Submit work from your back catalog to paid placement opportunities. Get that wonderful archive of work to work for you. For example:

  • Musicians can submit their professional recordings to music libraries like Musicbed (film and television) or AudioJungle (various projects). Join Sonicbids or Music X-Ray to browse tons of opportunities you can submit your music to.
  • Fine artists, read this post on how to get your art into movies and television. Talk to the owners of local boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops about hanging your art in their brick and mortar stores, along with a sign telling patrons how to purchase.
  • All creators, if you’re known for your technical prowess in a certain area (such as your guitar playing or your black and white portraiture), create an online course or do workshops in your local area and invite people on your email list for first dibs. I love Teachable for online courses and Eventbrite for organizing in-person workshops.

Get some good press

Now that you’re all set up to launch your work for sale, it’s time to get some more eyes on you. Make yourself a DIY PR Checklist. Where do your fans hang out? Consider reaching out to brands, blogs, and brick and mortar businesses to help spread the news:

  • Announce the new goodness to your email list first (and tell them they’re first to know!)
  • Submit to blogs for interviews and features (not enough time? Consider bringing on an assistant for just this task)
  • Write guest posts on relevant blogs
  • Contact radio stations – college radio stations, internet radio stations, regional – for interview opportunities
  • Approach podcasters in your niche for interview opportunities
  • Ask influencer friends to share your latest release
  • Ask your fans to share the heck outta your latest release
  • Run ads on social media where your potential new fans are hanging out
  • Submit your work to print and online magazines. Artchain has a useful directory.
  • Check out co-ops, organizations, leagues, and other groups that are in your region and reach out for opportunities
  • Approach storefronts to see if they will sell your artwork/album/books in their space

Continue sharing your work

You now know how to foster engagement with your free content, as opposed to just getting reach. And you also know all about your fans, so you can create more free content that will attract more similar fans. This is the secret sauce to hardworking free content that brings in sales – it attracts the right people to your work, and gives them what they want.

Set up your email list and sales funnels to lead people through your work. Start with your free content, and lead them to relevant products and work for sale.

Like the guys at Bay 12 Games say, do all you can to “catch your luck:”

“It’s also important to have mechanisms in place to catch your luck — we’ve worked to create a community and a visible presence where we can be contacted by the media, for example, and it has really helped to spread the word. We’ve poured more than a decade into our current project, but that doesn’t ensure success on its own.”
– Tarn Adams, Bay 12 Games