Episode 286 — 90% of Artists Fail


Episode 286 — 90% of Artists Fail

If you aren’t willing to do the work — and be anything else than an artist — then you are going to fail. And that’s the brutal truth! That is because you aren’t just an artist. Being an artist is just your skill or your trade. You still need to do the other stuff. 

The reason so many people give up on their career is because they give up the minute it gets tough. You need to learn to manage yourself to be able to step up and look at what is working and what isn’t. Make no mistake: You are a business, you have a reputation. You are a brand. 

In this Podcast, Allan McKay confronts the excuses with which artists sabotage their careers and gives advice on how to make a choice to confront those excuses — and to actually succeed! 



[02:51] Introduction

[03:31] What Inspired This Podcast

[06:20] The Difference Between a Job and a Career

[09:48] Treating Yourself as a Business

[13:21] What are the Solutions?

[18:09] Conclusion



Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 286! I want to talk about why a lot of creative and 3D artists often fail. A lot of us are afraid to face this topic. But it’s really critical for us to understand. Perseverance and strategy is everything — but success is a choice.

Let’s dive in!



[01:14] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was that you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel! 

[18:48] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!



[02:51] Ninety percent of you are going to fail trying to make it as an artist in a creative industry.That’s because you look for shortcuts and quit the minute things get hard. I want to talk about why 90% fail to make it. A lot of us go down that path and after a while we fizzle, or hit a brick wall, or think that the industry sucks. We start coming up with excuses why we fail. Yes, a lot of us don’t make it. But it’s not for the reasons you think.



[03:31] I was responding to someone who made a comment on YouTube who was trying to get me to agree that a lot of us don’t make it. This was in regards to my post on Working from Home (https://www.allanmckay.com/263/). I originally interpreted his comment as negative; but the more we talked, the more I realized that he had a valid point. So I thought it would be good to address it. The real secret to Working from Home (which is what I and this person were talking about) is that you have to self manage. That is on you to get better at. I’ve worked from home so much! But it always came down to self managing.

[04:53] When it came down to the topic that most artists fail, it is because they don’t self manage. If you aren’t willing to do the work — and be anything else other than an artist — then you are going to fail. And that’s the brutal truth! If you just show up and say, “I just want to make art!” and you don’t want to talk to people or think about your strategy, then you are going to fail. Or, you’ll be underappreciated and underpaid. The last thing this person said was, “Advice like this doesn’t work. Otherwise, everyone would be successful!” Again, it’s really critical to bring this up: This is for the 1 or 2 of you who are willing to listen. You’re the same 1 or 2 people I’ll end up working with down the road. You’re the ones saying, “I have to take responsibility for my career!” 



[06:20] You aren’t just an artist. Being an artist is just your skill, your trade. But you still need to do the other stuff. The reason so many people give up on their career is because they give up the minute it gets tough. I want you to think about this: If it were easy, everyone would do it! Everyone wants to bust out the crayons and do the artwork. But also, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it. You wouldn’t be able to look back several years later and feel proud about what it took to get there — and that you earned your place!

[07:00] A lot of people just get frustrated and decide to give up. A lot of us also get overwhelmed. But the key thing — is that you have to be willing to do the work. I think it was Chris Rock who said it in a skit, “There are jobs and there are careers.” If you have a career, you have to put in the energy into it. A job is where you show up and say, “It’s time to make some chicken at KFC!” (And I’ve had that job.)

[07:34] The other critical thing is that we have no strategy. We just keep banging the hammer harder. And I want you to think that this is the problem we make at first. We’re eager at first and want to make a mark. But when we aren’t getting the result that we want, we blame the external factors:

  • “The industry sucks.”
  • “Everything is rigged.”
  • “Art doesn’t pay.”
  • “The market is oversaturated.”

[08:07] We spend 100% of our time in the trenches, and when something isn’t working — we just need to work harder. That’s just the life of an artist. That the struggle is real! And what I see among the artists who are successful is they learned to manage themselves. You need to learn to manage yourself to be able to step up and look at what is working and what isn’t. Make no mistake: You are a business, you have a reputation. You are a brand. All of this is the result of how you’re running the show. Using that self managing metaphor of having meetings with yourself: 

  • Are you taking a step back and thinking, “How am I going to approach this project?” 
  • Are you checking in along the way to see if there is a better way? 
  • How is your employee — aka yourself — spending his / her time? 
  • Are they doing the work and taking pride in their work? Is that work congruent with the brand?



[09:48] So taking that time for yourself, and instead of running in with hammers to bang it out, why not have a meeting — with yourself — to figure out the best way to do it? Figure out how to do this job. Think about the milestones and the agreements with which you came up. Sometimes, that client is you. You have to role play here. It may sound silly, but most of us aren’t doing this. This is you sitting down with a pen and paper and writing down the best way to tackle a problem. Is there a better way? I’ve had so many meetings with artists where I’d say, “If you were your boss, would you fire you?” Because they have so many distractions, they’re spending 10 hours on a task that should take 2 hours to do. If they sat down and figured out a strategy and hit the timer. They need to stop and think if they have to pay someone like them hourly. 

[11:10] The more you’re able to switch and pivot from different roles, the more effective this is. “As an artist, is there a better way to get their work done? Why don’t they do their Facebook stuff later on?” At first it sounds silly. But that’s what the most successful artists are doing. They’re constantly asking themselves if there is a better way. Is this work something they’re proud to put on Instagram and does it represent them? 

[12:08] Skills are like banging a hammer: You can bang harder and you can work harder; or you can step back and evaluate the results you want to yield and what they would look like. This is what will get you from the 90% to the 10%. You need to spend more time looking at your own work from a bird’s-eye-view. That applies whether it’s about opening a tool and making art; or opening a studio and running a business. This is so critical! It’s something I wish I knew earlier on.

[12:58] Most of the time, we’re so frustrated that we aren’t getting the result we want, we’re making the same mistakes. The more we’re able to look at our behavior, the more we’re able to change it. 



[13:21] Let’s talk about the solutions! Forget the shortcuts and the shiny distractions. As far as skills go, knowing Maya or Zbrush is on par with knowing how to use Microsoft Word. It’s everything below the surface that makes a difference. This is such an important thing! Yes, it’s important to know how to get the task done that you were hired to do. But it’s also about the execution. There have been times when I had to fire someone because this person was hired for writing a book on the subject. Or, someone will spend a year learning everything about Maya. Instead, they should be looking at what [their employer] needs. What kind of work does that studio do and how can you get there? The more time you spend stepping back from the fight, the more clearly you’ll see what you need to do. It’s only when you can see the picture that you can realize if you can use your time more efficiently. 

[14:42] The more you can do this, the more you can see results and check in with yourself every moment of every day. Or are you just doing busy work? You may not agree with me right away. I want us to realize that we’re in sales. As artists, we’re selling our skills, our services and ourselves. A good salesperson is not coming to a buyer telling them what they need to buy [their product]. A good salesperson studies what that buyer’s needs are. This is something so important to understand. With anyone asking you to create art for them, you’re selling your services. So you want to cut through the red tape and get results.

[15:51] So it starts with an understanding of what the needs of others are. That includes knowing the market, the trends and what they’re looking for; being willing to ask and take criticism. That information is gold and it’s not to be taken defensively. That’s someone giving you feedback on how you could improve. This is something you could internalize. I used to sit in in meetings at ILM and listen to Dennis Muren give feedback; and it was so interesting to see where their eyes would go. Dennis Muren would be more interested in the way the shots were put together from the film perspective. There are different things you look for. The more you’re around people like that, the more you learn. The more you realize that criticism is part of the process, the better off you’ll be. If someone says, “This sucks,” figure out why it sucks. That’s something that took me years to learn. I’m looking for the diamond in the rough. I would listen to the criticism and find that one piece of information that’s valuable. You can decide if this information is useful or to ignore it. But maybe — just maybe! — there is something in there that you need to hear.



[18:09] So every single time you want to complain that work is hard or that clients are asking for revisions — take a step back! Everyday, I think about how lucky I am, to get to do something I love. Yes, it is a job. But it’s not one where I’m lifting heavy couches. Instead, I get to create. You get to create! [18:10] Make no mistake: The 90% that don’t make it is not because “the industry is saturated” or “there’s not enough work”. It’s not because of our excuses. It’s because we’ve come to expect that doing our art is 90% of our business; and we neglect all the other skills that it takes to attract clients. If you put as much time into the 90% of the area of your career on which you need to focus, I promise you’ll shift from the 90% that don’t make it — to the 10% that do!


I hope you enjoyed this Episode and that you got a lot from it. 

I will be back next week. 2021 will be our Year of Growth: I want us to do better and work harder.

Until next week —

Rock on! 


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