How to Successfully Become a Full-time Artist

I bought a bottle of wine in Durban, South Africa, in March 2015. It’s cheap, cost about a hundred rand, but at that time I was going through very tough times and wanted something to use in celebration when the tide turns. Today, I’m seriously thinking about opening that bottle. I wonder if it’s still good, for I travel frequently and switch off the fridge to save power. I want to celebrate for 2018 is a ten-year anniversary. I quit salaried employment in August 2008 to start a career as a fulltime artist. It is very difficult to survive solely on art, nearly impossible in Uganda, which has no art industry. I think it’s time to celebrate. But I’m hesitant because I’ve not really ‘made it’. So, instead of a celebration, maybe I should share with you what I learned along the long journey of becoming a fulltime artist. Maybe this will help kick start your career.

Back in 2015, I had a huge debt hanging over my head. I thought I’d go to jail, and lose everything, and burn up my career. I needed over fifty million UGX to pay a money-lender, yet I had less than a half million in my account. On addition, I owed millions more to actresses and crew who had worked on my TV series, Love Makanika, the production of which had put me in trouble. I had a pre-sale agreement with a TV station, and I used this agreement to finance the series, certain I’d get paid and clear everybody, but the day I finished editing, I emailed the commissioning editor; “Here it is. All ready for airing. Now, my money.” Not in these words, but you get the point. She promptly wrote back, “Sorry man. We shut down the channel we planned to run your series. We can’t pay you at this time. Maybe later.”

Yes, that was my ‘fock!’ moment. I was really focked.

‘Maybe later’ could be two months, or ten years. I was really, really focked up.

And yet, someone told me, “You are lucky you got that deal. Do you know how many people fail to get the attention of those big stations? Do you know MB (anonymized) failed to raise money for his series though he had a deal similar to yours? You man, how many people can get a big loan like that for an arts project?”

I couldn’t understand what was lucky about being deep in debt. I tried to look at the positive side, that the payment would come, however late (I got paid ten months later), and that I had raised a lot of money for an artistic project. Moreover, I did not use any security to get the loan. None. If I had, I wouldn’t be worried about jail. I looked at these and it kept me sane.

A still from the short film Cursed Widow Blues

While filming a short film, Cursed Widow Blues. I was the only crew.

So how did I get such a large sum, unsecured? Simple answer. I did not pitch it to the money-lender as an artistic venture. I sold it to him as a business.

And this is the first tip I give anyone who wants to become a fulltime artist. Set up a business. Yes, I know, you do art for art’s sake, money screws up art, commercialized art is not pure art. Go that route and you’ll forever be looking for odd jobs to pay the bill. Set up a business and you’ll have a better chance of gaining financial stability, which will give you freedom to create art for art’s sake. A lot of freedom.

In Uganda, it’s easy to set up a company. You’ll start with about 500K in set up costs. The pain of running the company is in bureaucracy – filing annual tax returns, submitting returns to the register general (accompanied by a report from a certified auditor) – you’ll spend anywhere between one and five million on bureaucracy alone every year. Some artists create community based organizations, for its less hectic and expensive, while others simply pay for a trading license at the municipal council, but these limit your area of operation. Whatever you go for, set up some kind of legal entity that can transact business. Whether you are a dancer, photographer, musician, writer, painter, whatever, set up a business. Read: Why I’ll Focus on Making Films for Online Distribution

I made the pilot for my Love Makanika in 2014 and pitched it to several TV stations. I included a company profile for Dilstories in each pitch, talking about what I’ve done as a business. This gave the gatekeepers confidence to put money in the project. One station offered to invest US $52,000 on the series. I had pitched this project to the commissioning editor before, but she did not give me attention until, two years later, I sent her a pilot and a company profile. The deal didn’t go through, for reasons in the fine print, but it taught me that it’s harder for gatekeepers to trust an application that comes from an individual without the backing of a credible company, even if that individual is famous and has won many awards. Actually, the money-lender who financed Love Makanika did not get to know I had won awards until after the deal was signed. Instead, he wanted to know the performance of my company, and he used this, along with the pre-sale agreement, to make a decision. For those who may not know, a pre-sale agreement is one you make with a buyer, who promises to buy your product before it is ready.

A still from the TV series, Love Makanika

A still from the pilot episode of the comedy TV series, Love Makanika

Do you need big company to succeed? Do you need to set up a company with lots of employees? No. Absolutely not. I’ve had this company since 2011 (register yours as early as possible!), and most of the time I’m the only staff. I only employ people when I have a project. Sometimes, I had an assistant, someone knowledgeable in accounts (often students or fresh graduates needing experience), who came in once a week to help me keep financial records. This is an essential tip: Document every money you spend, even if its 1000 shillings for a bodaboda. At the end of the year, it adds up to millions. Even if it doesn’t, it will make your business look active in the audit books. When I got a contract with The World Bank in 2013, they wanted to prove if my company was legit, so they asked for audited accounts. At that time, I had had only one major project, The Felistas Fable, so if I was not documenting every other little expense, the audit would show my company was inactive, and I wouldn’t have gotten the gig. Read: This is not funny! It’s a horror!

Last year (2017), about six years after starting the company, I employed someone on a full time basis to help me run a long-term project, Mobile Film School. Before that, I was the only employee. I did all the dirty work. And here is my next tip. Don’t be a boss. I set up my company about the same time another artist (call him J) was setting up his, but J was a boss. He found some things, like going to Nasser road to print out stuff, demeaning, so always paid someone to do it. That increased his cost of production, and art being low paying, he got frustrated and went back to salaried employment (I think as a primary school teacher). Do all the dirty work yourself, until you can afford fulltime staff. Of course, when I have a specific project, I hire enough people to complete it successfully, but even then, I only hire people for positions I cannot do on my own. If you visit my sets, you’d be surprised at how bare a crew I use. I’ve done odd jobs on set, like holding the boom and cleaning the location. If I can save money by doing something on my own, I won’t hire anyone. The catch phrase is Keep Your Costs Low. If you hire someone to clean the location, you won’t just paying their salary, but their transport and food and these things add to costs. Read: The Secret Life of Adulterers

This year, I met a man, call him John, who said he knew Amos Wekesa of Great Lakes Safaris in the early 2000s, when he and Amos had the same type of car and they did the same business. But whenever John got a deal he hired a driver. Amos would get a deal and do his own driving. I knew Amos when we were children, and I haven’t got a chance to verify this story, but it rings of truth. John still has only one car, still struggles to make ends meet. Amos owns a big company. Every person who succeeds in any business does it by cutting down on costs. A lot. And you can’t cut down on costs if you are a boss type who hires people to do every little work.

A still from my short horror film, Ghost of a Broken Heart

But an office? Surely you need to rent an office? No. No. No. No. No. In the past, they would have called mine ‘a briefcase company’. In this digital era, physical work space does not matter as much as it did thirty years ago. I’ve dedicated one room in my home to use as an office, so I don’t incur additional expenses in rent. A friend, who has a family and so every room in the house counts, prefers bungalows with a Boy’s Quarters, which he turns into an office. If he can’t find such, he uses the garage. Rent is a cost you must find ways of cutting down, by any means. I don’t recommend shared workspaces and hubs. They are often in town and will cause you to incur transport costs every day.

Some people think you need to rent office space to impress clients, but I’ve never had a client visit my office. Instead, I go to them. Most people who give artists money are too busy to leave their offices. They instead call you to their office. My clients have included The World Bank and Raising Voices, and they only care about what you can deliver, not where your office is located.

You need a website. A good one, but nothing fancy, nothing expensive, just something for people to quickly check out your work. All you need is something like US $10 a year to pay for a domain name (I use Namecheap), and a free host like Blogger on which you can load professional looking and customizable free templates to build your website. You don’t even need to pay a web designer. It’s as easy as click and drag. Blogger is better for starting artists who have no money. The free WordPress has limitations. I recommend for those who have money to pay for a hosting service. I used Blogger until 2017, when I was able to afford I actually wanted to pay a web designer to build the site, but they were charging too much, so I turned to Google and I discovered Elementor, a plugin that allows you to build professional websites by just clicking and dragging things around. As easy as that.

Your website needs to have a track record, but how do you create for yourself a track record if you don’t have clients? Simple. You are an artist. Create your work and make it look like your company has created it. Of course, needless to say, you need a logo for your company, something professional looking, which you stamp on all your productions. When I got The World Bank deal, I had not done anything substantial. I just had a lot of small documentaries I had done for myself, which I showed the communication person at The World Bank, and she was impressed enough to give me the deal.

But here is the big question. Do you have to quit your day job and create a company and focus on being an artist? It’s a tough question, and this has turned into a long post, so I’ll break it into two. Read here the next part, where I share with you how I quit my job to become a full-time artist.

Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here

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Note: This article was updated on 26 November 2023 to fix formatting that got broken when I switched my site’s theme and site builder.

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