How To Avoid Becoming A Starving (Martial) Artist…

avoid becoming a starving martial artist

The Tragedy of the Starving Artist

I’ve known a lot of artists in my time, mostly because I admire people who are artistic. I like being around them, because they tend to have unique perspectives on life and culture.

Among the artists I’ve known there have been brilliant painters, musicians, photographers, and writers. People who had talent and skill that takes years to develop, and that very few people could emulate.

And most of them could never earn a living from their art in a million years. Some of them tried, and ended up living that sort of classic starving artist lifestyle. Which, if I’m being honest, kind of sucks.

Many of the martial artists I’ve known have led similar lives. I’ve known a lot of brilliant martial artists, people who spent years attaining skill in and perfecting their art. And likewise, few of them could ever earn a living with their art in a million years.

Why Talented People Starve

Do you want to know why?

It boils down to one simple thing. And that is, free market economics.

I’m not going to bore you with a bunch of dry, complicated economic principles. But I will say that any artist’s ability to support themselves financially with their art is entirely dependent on the following…

…and that is, whether or not they can please a large enough audience with their art to make a living. That’s it–that’s all there is to it, in a nutshell.

If you don’t want to be a starving artist, then you have to come to grips with the fact that the part of your art that you love might not be very popular with mainstream culture.

The Practical Value of Commercial Work

It’s simple supply and demand. If you supply a service for which there is no demand, you’re never going to be able to support yourself financially with your art.

That’s why the smart artist does commercial work, in order to support the art that they truly love.

An artist might paint commercial portraits or landscape scenes that she knows she can easily sell, so she can spend her nights working on impressionistic pieces or abstract sculpture that is less likely to find a market.

A photographer might do family portraits and wedding photography, so they can put together a portfolio of more serious work.

A musician might do studio work with mainstream commercial performers, and spend nights and weekends playing bluegrass, or jazz, or the blues.

A writer might write sales copy and ads or romance novels to pay the bills, all while they are working on their “great American novel.”

And a martial arts instructor might spend his days teaching children or running fitness kickboxing classes, so he can spend his nights and weekends training the aspects of his art that he truly loves.

When “Selling Out,” Isn’t

Critics will call this “selling out.”

But the artist who makes a living by doing commercial work calls it “making rent.”

And in no other artistic field will you find so many artists tearing down other artists for doing work that pays the bills while they pursue their passion in their spare time. Only in the martial arts industry will you find this widespread notion that by doing commercial work, you are incapable of being a “serious” artist.

In every other field, it is accepted that an artist must do commercial work to make a living so they can pursue serious art. And while there are purists in every field who scoff at the commercially successful artist, for the most part their peers will say, “Well of course she had to do that; everyone pays their dues that way.”

So the next time someone gives you flack for teaching commercially popular classes, just remember that your critics don’t pay your bills.

Until next time,

Mike Massie

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– Looking for a list of books and resources I’ve written? Click here!
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P.S. – Avoid using that term “McDojo” when referring to other schools owners, because most commercial schools don’t fit the bill. If you have time to watch a really long video (I like to hear myself talk more than I probably like to admit), here’s a video I did a while back about the concept of what makes a McDojo and why it’s so often wrongly applied to serious martial artists who run commercial schools:


  1. Brett Malone on January 17, 2019 at 8:14 pm

    Sir, I have read your views on this subject dozens of times, said many different ways. .. and always thought “Well that’s all well and good for so and so school, but *I* am different!”

    From SDBP, and from listening to your podcast, and reading your posts, this message washed over me again and again, and never sunk in.

    Until this moment.

    I begin to understand – and agree.

  2. Mike Massie on January 18, 2019 at 7:52 am

    That’s good to hear, Brett. We’d all like to think that the universe works differently for us, but the sun shines and the rain falls on us all. The bottom line is, we all have to pay our bills, and so long as you don’t cheat anyone, sell rank, or teach crap martial arts, who cares whether you pay your bills teaching kids, or fitness classes, or summer camps? Always, always, always remember: “Your critics don’t pay your bills.”

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