It seems like every time I get on social media I see a sponsored post from a creator trying to peddle a masterclass or creative course to me. I’m normally a pretty positive person, but my sassy side got triggered. *deep exasperated breath*
First, I want to make it very clear that I am not criticizing all masterclasses or online courses. If you have paid for a creative masterclass of some sort, you did nothing wrong. Honestly, even if you paid for what I consider to be a con/scam, maybe you thought the value matched the price you paid. I didn’t want to write this post to demonize anyone trying to teach you something while making a profit. There are many great courses offered online. I wanted to write this post to bring awareness to a trend of artists selling advice and trade secrets at a premium while using predatory sales tactics to do it.
Why all the sass?
So many reasons.
I can’t stand when people prey on our dreams as creators. I can’t stand when people con money out of those they know can’t afford it. I can’t stand when people manipulate by using shame, guilt, insecurities, and desperation to sell a worthless product. I can’t stand when people pose as experts and pass on sketchy or vague advice at a high cost.
Manipulation in general frustrates me, but I definitely can’t stand it in the art world.
Sponsored posts from self-proclaimed successful creators keep pitching me ways to “get rich selling your art” and “learn how to make abstract art that sells” and more. I click on the ads and study the profiles out of pure curiosity. Some are legit and try to sell a specific skill for a reasonable price, but some are scams that sell inspiration, a perspective shift, a belief system, or a promise that “you too can make hundreds of thousands selling your art online.”
Creative masterclasses, get rich quick plans, paid artist communities, “free” webinars. An artist starts off saying something like “I never thought I could be a full time artist, but not only did I quit my 9-5 job, I also made over 100k selling my art online.”
They all sound the same after you’ve seen enough of these posts, and most of them lead you through the same click-funnel template. They cast a wide net with sponsored posts, entice you with a free webinar where they sell you the artist dream, then they dangle a masterclass that will make these dreams come true in front of you. They tell you to invest in you dreams, your future, and nonchalantly drop the $2500 fee on you at the end while creating urgency to jump on the great deal. Oh and bless their hearts, they have payment plans! *rolls eyes*
“This is better than any art school. You want to succeed, right? You can be like me and all my masterclass graduates. Look at how successful I am. I’ll teach you everything you need to know in this 8-week class, but you have to sign up now. This offer won’t last.”
They all follow the same template because it works. One time I watched an hour long webinar from a woman selling a masterclass on how to create and market masterclasses. She was vehement that you don’t even need to be an expert on the subject to create a class about it, and don’t be afraid to raise your prices. People will find a way to pay for it just because you have declared it is valuable.
The value is arbitrary and the content doesn’t need to come from an expert.
That’s a huge problem.
Artist vs. Con Artist
There is one Instagram profile in particular that really tickles me pink. Her sponsored posts keep showing up in my feed (obviously in part because I keep tapping on them out of curiosity). I’m going to liberally paraphrase what I’ve seen from this artist’s marketing copy below:
“Manifest the money you dream of. Don’t be afraid it. Call to the universe to reward you. Practice abundance and wealth will find its way to you. Squash your limiting beliefs which are what really hold you back from succeeding! I am very successful. I exceeded my wildest dreams as an artist and you can too. I used to be afraid of money, until I practiced a new mindset, and now I’ve made over $250k THIS YEAR ALONE!”
For one, ew. Two, co-opting wellness tools like an abundance mindset for future financial gain feels sketch. The whole point is to feel abundance in the present moment regardless of wealth or material possession, not to physically attract more things and money by being some sort of abundance magnet. But I digress…
Anyway, my personal favorites are the posts that address “haters” (like me) who question the validity of what these teachers have to offer with language akin to this: “People will get triggered by your success, because they are jealous and are so limited by their own beliefs about money that they can’t manifest income the way that you and I have. This system works. Trust me.”
Let me be the first to say, yes I am triggered, but as a full-time working artist who can pay her bills off art sales, no it’s not because I’m jealous of the “success” of these creators. It’s knowing the whole goal of waving their success around is to make other people feel bad enough about their own circumstances that they open their wallets to scammers like this.
I don’t mean to sound like a cynic here. I believe it’s important to think positively, and I really don’t have a problem with people trying to help and empower other people. I do it all the time. I toss out positive encouragement like it’s parade candy. But stuffing creative advice into a hyper-capitalistic machine with all the tools for success being behind a giant pay wall cinches my sassy pants real tight.
Creative people are being exploited by other creative people and it truly breaks my heart.
Capitalism and Creativity
I am not going to condemn any and every creator trying to market an online course for profit. A teacher’s time is valuable. Good teachers should be paid well. Education is beneficial. I am always trying to learn new skills, but I will criticize anyone charging a premium for their knowledge of “industry secrets”. I’ll criticize it with more intensity than I criticize fine art schools for charging tens of thousands for an art degree that has very little ability to recoup the costs for a majority of students.
I will not argue that some of these online masterclasses or ancillary products could provide helpful advice. I will not argue that people have bought into some of these programs and had positive results. But I will argue that the predatory tactics are being used in a lot of ad copy I’ve seen and it grosses me out.
Everyone is trying to sell you something, including me, but the product offered is not inherently more valuable as the dollar value increases. Again, as the woman selling me a masterclass course on selling masterclasses taught me: Raise your prices. People will find a way to pay for it.
Can you trust the teachers?
In short, I’d say be wary of every single person selling you something, including me. Especially online. Because it could all be a lie.
The success they claim to have. The money they claim to make. The positive reviews they advertise. Their backstory. Their fantastic life. The expertise they claim to have. The secrets they claim to know. It could all be flashy marketing and not at all true.
This may make me sound like a weirdo conspiracy theorist to be all “trust no one!” But for real, the internet is the last place you should place your trust. Lead with skepticism.
Before you give any self-proclaimed successful creative entrepreneur your money, I want you to check into them. Look at their social media accounts. How many of their posts are dedicated to selling their masterclasses versus how many posts focus on their art? How much do they actually create new art? Posing with the same handful of pieces in different outfits while holding paint brushes over and over again is a great staging, but could also be just that. Staging. How many authentic comments do they get on their posts? Are they doing the thing they claim they can teach you to do?
How to spot a Masterclass con:
If an artist is paying for sponsored posts to show up in your news feed that sells you a course on how to sell art, I would wager their primary source of income is not selling art. If an artist pays for an ad to sell you a course about leveraging your social media following to sell your art but only has 5,000 followers, I would wager they are not the social media experts they claim to be.
What is most likely is that you have turned into their revenue stream. Why sell a single $2000 painting when you can sell a $2000 class to multiple artists who desperately want to learn how to sell a $2000 painting? It’s way less work. If they get 5 artists to sign up a month? Whew. Who needs to sell art with income like that?
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If it comes with a high price tag and preys on your dreams, run. I want to provide more specific examples of predatory sales tactics and flashy language I have seen on the countless ads that pop up in my social feeds.
Take a look at this list of example ad copy and the vulnerabilities they prey on:
- “I did it and you can too.”– The level playing field: This preys on your desire for validation and encouragement. Believing in big ideas is scary. I am all for encouraging people to chase their dreams, but we are all built very different and have different circumstances. There are some things that you can do that I can’t and vice versa. There are some privileges that others have that we don’t.
- “I never thought I could do this either.” Creates vulnerability and relatability: Preys on your need to be validated a and encouraged again. They were just like you before learning the secrets outlined in their masterclass. But they weren’t just like you. Some people selling you a dream often omit their own privileges that helped them succeed.
- “I’m going to share the 3 secrets I used to make my dreams come true.”-Letting you into the cool kids club: Preys on the worry that your lack of success ultimately comes from just not being part of the inner circle. That success isn’t about hard work, but industry secrets you haven’t been taught yet. The truth is, there’s no one-size fits all creative system that will lead all of us to success.
- “Work smarter, not harder. I’m writing this on the beach right now.”– Hacking the system: This preys on your desire to rest. But nothing replaces experience, practice, failure, and persistence.
- “I made *insert huge number* my first *insert small timeframe*”- Get rich quick: This preys on your desire for change and financial relief. Creative careers take time. I cannot stress this enough. I was impatient when I started, but no masterclass could have sped up my development. Not a single one. I needed practice. I needed to experiment. I needed time. Also, don’t trust someone who leads with how much money they make.
- “Extinguish your limiting beliefs.”-Believe your way to success: This preys on shame and puts all the accountability of success onto you. Teachers that push a change in mindset as a key to success can blame you for not believing in yourself hard enough when you don’t make that $100k they promised you could. (Just FYI, It is not your belief system’s fault that your online store isn’t getting traffic.)
- “I quit my day job to sell art using this system.”- Living the dream: This preys on a need to escape your current life. It’s flashy ad copy and preys on your unhappiness. (You don’t need to quit your day job.)
- “Other people will doubt you, but I believe in you.” – I’m your true ally, outsiders are enemies: This preys on a desire for community and validation, and discourages you from questioning the teacher and accepting outside criticism. (Nobody can predict your potential. Not even you and especially not a high paid coach/teacher. PS This tactic is used in cults.)
- “Look at all my success.”- Establishing credibility: People lie on the internet. I can very easily mislead you if I wanted to. How can you verify how much someone made without seeing their financial statements or taxes? You can’t. Now, some people are honest, but if a bunch of these red flag phrases are used in ad copy along with the credibility claims and high price tags, be wary.
- “Don’t just trust my word, look at all these reviews.”- More credibility building: The internet is the wild west for reviews. Reviews are used for good and for evil. Some are legit, some are faked, some are paid. They are usually the icing on top of the marketing click funnels.
- “Act now, this offer is ending soon.”- Create urgency: Preys on your fear of missing out. This is used by good and bad actors. Alone, it’s not a cause for alarm.
- “If you believe in your passion, you’ll find a way to pay for this.”- Testing your dedication: This preys on the insecurity that if you’re not willing to invest in your dreams, then you really aren’t a real artist anyway. (YOU DON’T NEED TO SPEND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON MASTERCLASSES TO BE AN ARTIST OR START A BUSINESS! Sorry for yelling.)
This list isn’t every tactic used to sell overpriced courses, but it’s a lot of what I’ve run into the last few weeks.
If you have dreams, they can be exploited.
I hate seeing people be manipulated and taken advantage of. I’ve been that person. I have fallen for flowery language. I have been sold worthless products and ideas because I had dreams open to being exploited. Do you know how many diet changes, skin creams, supplements, naturopath visits, essential oils, teas, and more I’ve tried in the pursuit of fixing issues with my body? I’ve dreamed of clear skin that doesn’t itch like a mother-effer from eczema, rash up from allergies, or break out from hormonal acne all through my adult life. Thus, I was vulnerable to damn near every marketing tactic in the wellness industry. I even found myself trying to “manifest” clear skin at night by thinking about it as hard as I could before I fell asleep. Did any of it help? Nope. Not a single thing. Especially not the thinking part. That just made me more hopeless.
Some of these creative masterclasses are no different in my opinion. Just like how you can buy a $5 supplement vs a $60 supplement that claim to do the same thing, you could pay for a social media crash course on Udemy for under $20 or a $1000 masterclass taught by a well branded influencer and get the exact same education. Or, better yet–go spend your money on art supplies and watch free YouTube videos instead.
The most dangerous part is when the people selling these products believe their own sales pitch. I would honestly rather the person selling an overpriced masterclass know they are over charging. Rather than the alternative where they have a genuinely overinflated sense of value, and really believe their advice is worth that much. Their confidence can be intoxicating, which means they can more easily get money from people, and spin any failure as the student’s fault and not the teacher’s fault.
Who can you trust?
Not everyone is trying to exploit you and take your money. There are genuine, knowledgeable people out there who want to see you succeed and want to teach you the skills needed to do it. Actual experts and successful creators that thrive when nurturing others. They will also charge you reasonable fees or none at all for concrete steps to learn a new skill. Not multiple hundreds or thousands of dollars to teach you how to “manifest your income”. Once you know how to spot a sketchy sales tactic, you can also feel more comfortable spotting a valuable teacher.
Here are some of the things I look for in valuable mentors, teachers, and friends in the arts community:
- Artists that didn’t pay to get into your social feeds.
- People who don’t ask anything of you.
- Communities that lift you up without a sales pitch.
- Knowledge that doesn’t come with a price tag. (Like YouTube, library books, blogs, conversations, social media groups etc.)
- Mentors who encourage you to have patience and stress that building a creative career doesn’t happen overnight.
- Mentors that are realistic and focus on what you really seek.
- Mentors who don’t tell you all your dreams are going to come true, but still encourage you to follow them.
- People who encourage you to practice, fail, and work hard.
- People who don’t promise riches. (I often tell people not to make art into a career if they want a bunch of money. Not because it’s not possible, but because I believe primarily seeking money stifles the creative spirit.)
- People who nurture your passion.
- People teaching a specific skill and not a flashy idea/dream. For example: How to sell your art online vs. a masterclass on how to make $100k a year selling art online. One is a concrete skill that doesn’t prey on your desperation for money and is in a free blog post online, and the other will probably cost as much as your rent.
- Look for artists that focus more on selling their art than anything else.
- Look for products that provide value at a reasonable cost. I’m not saying don’t pay $9.99 for an ebook with advice from an artist you trust. That won’t break the bank and the time spent putting resources together should be rewarded.
- Look for tangible proof of credibility beyond ad copy and sponsored posts. It’s easy to fake a lot of things online and blatantly lie, but you can still get a good feel for someone’s credibility through online comments, engagement, accessibility, and behavior. A lack of engagement can be illuminating too.
- Look for people who lead with their passion.
- Look for people who inspire you. Not manipulate your insecurities, shame, or vulnerabilities. If they make you feel “less than” or down about where you are now, keep on scrolling.
- Look for people who aren’t presenting you with a problem only to sell you a solution shortly after. Ex: Do you want to quit your day job and make art all day? (presenting the problem) I did that and I can teach you how to do it too! Register for my class! (solution).
- Trust the people who speak about the boring and unpleasant truths about chasing your artistic dreams. (I feel another blog post coming on…)
The hypocritical elephant in the room.
Okay, I think I’ve covered most of it. Except one thing.
I sell consulting services to artists. I’ve worked with a lot of artists. I have made money off an artist’s desire to succeed. Sometimes I worry that I am doing the exact thing these other creators are doing, but then I look at my blog, my consulting prices, and my main streams of income.
I sell my art. That is my main focus and always will be. I write these blog posts when I need a break or feel so sassy I can’t shut up. I do consulting sessions when artists seek me out after reading this blog. (Which contains a crap ton of free information.) My consulting sessions aren’t advertised in sponsored posts and I don’t mention them often on my social media channels. We all need a little direction sometimes, and I enjoy being a resource, but if I start making reels touting how much money I’ve made as an artist to sell consulting work or some other garbage, please don’t trust anything I ever say again.
Pay for classes at reputable institutions. Pay for books from artists with long careers of selling art. Take classes to learn specific skills and techniques, and not for the secrets to success. Value is subjective, but nobody has a secret to success. No matter how much someone charges you to learn how to make 6-figures selling art, it doesn’t make the advice more effective or more plausible. It’s a con and that preys on your dreams.
But hey–maybe that’s my limiting beliefs talking. <–Another blog post is definitely in the works for that topic. In the meantime, I want to hear your stories. Want to tell me about your experiences with learning from other creators online? Good and bad!
Sorry this post got so long! I had a lot of opinions….
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P.S. If you do want help with your online branding, Instagram account, or selling work online, then check out my consulting services. You can easily add a session to my online calendar now. But again, my blog covers a lot of topics you might have questions about. Start there. I’d always rather you spend your money on art supplies than my time.
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