Business vs. Art: Defining Success and Finding Balance

Art vs. Business. The contention has been called the eternal conflict of the art practitioner and represents a paradox I see all the time, either in my own artistic ventures or in other artists’ that I’m surrounded by.

The key to success seems to lie in the answer to the question: How do you market your art without risking artistic authenticity? How do you sell without selling out? I’ll disclaim right now that I don’t have a concrete answer–but I don’t think that anybody does. This is because there’s a natural tension between expressing oneself completely, critics and consumers be damned, and creating a piece to fit a mold.

Commercial Art is Still Art

A local art crew from Boise called Sector Seventeen is the epitome of how this balance can be achieved. They do graff murals and aerosol art that’s been featured in Freak Alley as well as on business fronts all over the city. You can check out the work they did for the City Center Plaza Lobby below:

These guys are commissioned to work, and I see them doing a lot of pieces for pay–but they’re still able to express themselves and put their creative twist on things. Another example of a Boise artist that balances commercial endeavors with personal art is Cary Judd, who works a number of personal artistic projects including with the band The Vacationists, and as a videographer, photographer, engineer, jack-of-all trades at Wormhole Productions and Studios. Cary’s a madman, but he’s produced great photography and videos for rappers in the valley (including EE’s own ZERO) as well as his own music. Here’s a look at The Vacationists latest video “I Am Not My Face”:

These are just local examples, but you see it with some of the massive names that have stuck around too. In hip hop specifically we can look to Kanye West. His music is genre-defining, and he knows how to market it and his persona at the same time. Some may point to reports of his declining mental health as the cost of this supposed balance, but I don’t think we can point to that stress as the definitive cause of a mental break. I also think it’s important to recognize these types of situations as general outliers.

Jay-Z is another prime example. “If skills sold truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli,” he says on “Moment of Clarity” off of The Black Album, “truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense, but I did five Mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” He’s embraced the side of his art that will sell–still creates good art laden with themes of becoming something out of nothing–but doesn’t dabble in much of the social commentary that somebody like Common does.

Kendrick Lamar is on the other side of the coin, as somebody who made two extremely successful albums by breaking the mold and staying true to himself artistically, while marketing his albums for the conscious content they contain. His style reflects that, with the purchase of a modestly-priced home making headlines and bolstering his humbled, low-key image.

In almost all of these cases, the artist knows how to make the listener both think something and feel something about them, which are two basic components of successful marketing.

Art That Doesn’t Sell: Redefining Success

The alternative to achieving this balance is either that you’re never heard or seen, or that you’re a one-hit wonder who is “successful” for a short amount of time before falling off. The problem is though, that not all of us can be Jay-Z or Kendrick. For every Kanye that this world sees, there are at least ten people just as artistically gifted as he is that just don’t know how to sell themselves, and ten more who managed to sell themselves but just couldn’t tap into their artistry to continue making hits (“Throw Some D’s” by Rich Boy, anybody?).

I like the way that Daniel from Art Making Secrets describes this predicament: “A great artist has that [artistic consciousness] together with the technical skill and craftsmanship to execute the creation of the work. But the technical skill alone does not make an artist. I see this regularly at art fairs and exhibitions – technically excellent work that has nothing behind it. As such it is decoration and that is OK – but it is not art, at least in my personal universe.”

Is creating ‘decoration’ a bad thing? Is creating art that doesn’t sell a bad thing? Do these two scenarios define an unsuccessful artist? I personally think that one of the biggest problems I see hip-hoppers struggle with is what it means to be “successful,” and I imagine this is the mirrored in other forms of popular art. If the measure of success for an artist is commercial, the majority of artists will never be successful. Even then, you have to ask: how much money means an artist is commercially successful? If you sell 10 CDs of your band for $10 a piece, you’ve made $100 bucks. Are you successful?

Hip-hop was born of technological innovation and spontaneity, and it was a culture long before it was a commercial instrument. So, to some, success in hip hop has much more to do with skill and the values of that culture than it will ever have to do with monetization of those skills. Make sure you understand what success means to you before you decide whether or not you’re successful–and if it’s commercial above all else, I highly suggest getting into a different field. There are far more effective ways of making money.

Achieving That Balance: Tips

There are far more effective ways of making money than making music, or writing poetry, or shooting videos–but ultimately, as artists, that’s not why we keep coming back to our craft, is it? We come back because it fills a space that we’d rather not ignore. And while money doesn’t compel the soul to create masterpiece works of art, the cold hard fact is that we live in a capitalist world and everybody needs to make money. Why not make a little money while doing what you love?

Here are a couple of pointers, some that I’ve pulled from different sources and others that I’ve decided on by practicing as an artist myself:

  • Develop a signature element. Chris Dellorco, writing for, says that “as a fine artist it is important to develop an identifiable look. Every time a viewer looks at one of your pieces they should know that it could only have been made by you.” Dellorco’s signature element is a female figure draped in fabric. Of course, developing this comes with time, and it won’t be as pertinent across every medium, but the important message is the same: every piece you create, commercial or otherwise, should have something representative of you within it.
  • A man (or woman) without a smiling face must not open a shop. According to HelpOnClick, this is a Chinese Proverb meant to remind us that customer service is essential to selling anything. I’d have to agree–you’ll catch more flies with honey than with shit. Even if you’re the broody type of non-conformist artist, realize that to achieve the art vs. business balance, your average customers/fans have plenty of other artists to spend their money on who aren’t assholes. At least not to them directly. This goes into my next point perfectly…
  • People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. In a 2009 Ted Talk, Simon Sinek breaks down this concept of “the golden circle”. In fact, it’s been considered by some as number one on the top 10 TED Talks on leadership of all time. where if you were to imagine concentric circles, and the interior was labeled “why?”, the middle was labeled “how?”, and the exterior is labeled “what?”, most companies work from the outside in when marketing. What do we do? We make awesome computers. How do we do it? With unique, innovative, and creative processes that nobody has thought of before. Why? Uh… to make money? If you start from the inside-out, however, you’ll capture people’s emotions, and convince them that they’re on your side no matter what you’re doing. Why do we do what we do? To change the status quo and challenge people to think different. How? With unique, innovative, and creative processes that nobody has thought of before. What do you do? Oh, well we sell computers and this new thing called an iPod… this is an approach not used often enough in marketing.
  • Be ready to pay your dues. Whether it’s business or art, life is often like a totem pole that you’ll have to keep climbing. If you’re learning as you go, there’s nothing wrong with starting at the bottom and progressing up–this is where most people start. But don’t give up if you don’t get to the top as quickly as you’d like, and don’t give up because you see people climbing higher up on their totem pole than you are on yours.

Feel free to leave any tips you as an artist yourself might have in the comments section. Thanks for reading.

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Andy O.

Andy O. is an independent hip-hop artist from Boise, ID and one of the co-founders of Earthlings Entertainment. Follow him on twitter @AndyO_TheHammer and facebook.