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Don’t paint yourself into a corner: making art pay the bills

Illustration by Lily Greenwood

Living off your passion would be a dream come true for pretty much everyone. However, there are many pitfalls that can halt a budding creative entrepreneur in their tracks. Many of these things I have found are not discussed between us and our teachers, which will leave many students stranded in the deep end when their degree ends and they’re not prepared for the world outside of Uni.

When I use the word ‘creatives’ in this article, I’m describing anyone with a passion within the creative industry. Whether that be musicians, visual artists, directors, writers and anything in between. If you enjoy using the right hemisphere of your brain, this article is for you.

The creative industry, like most industries, requires hard work, dedication and desire to achieve and succeed.

Most degrees teach the necessary skills for students to get by, but there is a hidden expectation that many do not realize until it is too late: that most of what you actually need to know you have to find out yourself.

Too many creatives rush into creating content and neglect to sort out the business and planning side, only to run into issues later on down the track because they didn’t take the time out to sit down and do the research.

So, through my own experience and research, I’ve created 5 key points that I wanted to share with others. These are things that people might not necessary think of at first, but can be a major thorn in your side.

1) You need to have a clear idea of what you want to do.

“But I just want to sell my art/music/work! Isn’t that clear enough?”

No, it is not.

When you want to sell yourself and your work to others, you need to be clear about what that work actually is. You want to sell your music? What is your style? What format do you want to sell your work in?

‘Art’ is hard in this sense as it is fluid, and can come in so many forms. However, the same questions do apply to all creative industries, such as what format will you put your work forward as? Where are you going to sell?

It is important to take the time to map out all of your ideas first before moving on to anything else. Having your ideas out on a page, whether you have just one idea or 20, is so helpful in piecing together what you are about and vital in creating a plan or timeline for you to work by.

2) You gotta know about government support and funding

I’ve put this point second because it is something most people overlook when starting a profit-based venture. In the end, ignoring the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink is one of the most commonly spoken grievances aired by creative business owners.

For those who receive student support, always remember that Centrelink can be controlling. They have no issue with being invasive, and will always want to know when you are earning income. The ATO is similar in the latter point.

Another issue that trips up some people is deciphering the fine line between a small business and a hobby. The simplest way to find out which one you are is to go onto the official ATO website and search: “Hobby or Business?” When I searched this, the first entry was a page that walked me through the process of figuring it out. But if you’d rather type down a URL, here it is: https://www.ato.gov.au/business/starting-your-own-business/business-or-hobby-/

When it comes to the ATO, I can’t give more advice other than do your plan from Step 1, and then take this quiz. Whatever result the quiz fires back at you is the one that Centrelink will normally accept. If you are still confused, both the ATO and Centrelink are available to contact in person or via phone, a step I would highly recommend.

Yes, establishing contact with these two services as a small business will mean you will have to stop creating content and work on paperwork regularly, but this is what running a functional business of any kind is all about! Rejoice as you leap into the exciting pool of the self-employed!

3) You have to know your basic business accounting- or know someone who does.

Following on from the point before, one of the other most crucial things you need to know or have someone help you with is business documents. This goes without saying for any sort of profiting venture. What I mean when I say basic business is: profit and loss statements, business budgets and efficient recording keeping. Don’t be freaked out like I initially was!

These documents are just records of all your income and receipts as well as all your expenditures and expenses that your business has incurred. When reporting to Centrelink and the ATO, all they need is your profit and loss statement for specific periods of time. In the case of the ATO, it may be for financial year end whereas Centrelink may require them fortnightly.

Budgets are a great way to keep track of expenses, and for potential funding. Therefore, it’s highly recommended you get used to writing these. Budgets are the assumed future cost and expenses that you think may occur and they are good at showing you how your business is developing, or if you sell on commission based such as writing, it’s still good to see how much income you hope to be getting against your living costs.

The best site I can lead you to in terms of this information would be www.business.vic.gov.au – this site lists all of these things, but in much more detail and is generally useful to have open close by.

4) Networking!

This is something I have to admit we did get told about, however I really have to bring it up.

NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK!!!!

You could be a writer looking for your next magazine to submit to, or an artist looking to exhibit or even a musician looking for your next venue; and the most common and successful way to find these opportunities is- you guessed it- through your contacts.

I understand that there are some very shy people out there, and the very thought of having to put yourself out there and mingle with strangers can be daunting. However, the amount of opportunities that can open themselves up to you the moment you start networking is astonishing. You never know when the next person you meet will be inspired by your passion for your craft and work and offer you a new opportunity to grow. Half the people I have met that have helped me grow, have been found in most unlikely of places. One of the easiest places though I think is definitely in our university environment. We are really lucky to be here, and there are many opportunities to network and set ourselves up, you just need to be willing to look. Start with clubs!

5) Are you an artist or a brand?

Finally, I want to talk about something that seems so fun and easy to do, but can in fact halt the process altogether: the name you work under.

I had come up with this awesome design for a bag, and thought that if I made this, I would be able to make a lot of money. I had skipped the most important step (which I outlined in point 1) and was then stuck between creating a product-based business and working as an artist.

Working as an artist, I would keep my name and promote everything I make as work handmade by me. But if I wanted to chase the dream of running a business as an owner (and maybe hiring people one day) it could be better to use a brand name, or to use my name as the brand.

There are some cases where people have done this, and it has been super successful, but the only reason I struggled with this at first is because I didn’t do Step 1. I had so many ideas in my head. The moment you have a clear picture of all the things you want to do and be, whether that’s to be brand or just a self-employed artist, this last point will come along as easy as pie.

So there it is, my 5 key points to being a self-employed creative that you may not have thought of. I hope this will save you time and help you in your endeavour in turning your passion into your life!

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