Business Tips for Artists

Cliff Ennico on

The secret to success in an arts business is not to create great works and hope that people will buy them (or that posterity will appreciate them). The secret is to seek commissions and then put your genius into them and make them great works of art. Genius will prevail in the long run, but first, the mortgage must be paid.

When artists lose touch with their customers or fan base (or can't keep up with changing market demands), decline and eventual financial failure are inevitable. But even artists who maintain their popularity and sales throughout their lifetime face obscurity if the talent or genius isn't really there. To be a successful artist in any creative field, you need both genius and revenue.

Third, remember it's the rights that count, not the artworks themselves. You create a painting. You sell it at a galley or exhibition. Repeat. That's one way artists make money.

You create a painting. You make thousands of lithographs and serigraphs of that painting (some signed, some not), and license the rights to the painting's image to people who want to reproduce it. That's a much better, more sustainable way for artists to make money.

Successful artistic businesses are not about the works of art themselves. They are all about the intellectual property rights to those works: the copyright (for works of literature or graphic art), the performance and publishing rights (for works of music), and the licensing rights (for cartoon characters). You can sell the works themselves, but you never part with the "rights" without a fight.

The Beatles found this out the hard way in the late 1960s when they lost control of the rights to their early (Beatlemania era) hits, which were sold for a little over $2 million in today's money. Those rights were eventually acquired by Michael Jackson (yes, that Michael Jackson) in 1985 for $47.5 million. Seven years after Jackson's death, in 2016, Sony bought the rights for $750 million, and Sir Paul McCartney -- who wrote or co-wrote almost all of the songs -- finally got them back in 2017 for an undisclosed sum after a lengthy court battle.

In this reader's case, I would add a fourth step: Form a limited liability company (LLC) owned jointly by you and your husband, and make sure all rights are owned by the LLC, not your husband individually. That way, you -- as the artist's spouse -- are guaranteed to control the rights after your husband's death and make sure your family benefits from them going forward.

Cliff Ennico ( is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at



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