Here's what I've learned.
1. The number one thing that would let more independent artists exists in America is a universal basic income. The number one thing that has a possibility of happening is single payer healthcare. This is because artists are humans who need to eat and live and get medical care, and our country punishes anyone who wants to go freelance and pursue their dream by telling them they might get cancer while uninsured, and then not be able to afford to treat it.
2. Companies are not loyal to you. Please never believe a company has your back. They are amoral by design and will discard you at a moment's notice. Negotiate aggressively, ask other freelancers what they're getting paid, and don't buy into the financial negging of some suit.
3. I've cobbled together many different streams of income, so that if the bottom falls out of one industry, I'm not ruined. My mom worked in packaging design. When computers fundamentally changed the field, she lost all her work. I learned from this.
4. Very often people who blow up and become famous fast already have some other sort of income, either parental money, spousal money, money saved from another job, or corporate backing behind the scenes. Other times they've actually been working for 10 years and no one noticed until suddenly they passed some threshold. Either way, its good to take a hard look- you'll learn from studying both types of people, and it will keep you from delusional myth-making.
5. I've never had a big break. I've just had tiny cracks in this wall of indifference until finally the wall wasn't there any more
6. Don't be a dick. Be nice to everyone who is also not a dick, help people who don't have the advantages you do, and never succumb to crabs in the barrel infighting.
7. Remember that most people who try to be artists are kind of lazy. Just by busting your ass, you're probably good enough to put yourself forward, so why not try?
8. Rejection is inevitable. Let it hit you hard for a moment, feel the hurt, and then move on.
9. Never trust some Silicon Valley douchebag who's flush with investors' money, but telling creators to post on their platform for free or for potential crumbs of cash. They're just using you to build their own thing, and they'll discard you when they sell the company a few years later.
10. Be a mercenary towards people with money. Be generous and giving to good people without it.
11. Working for free is only worth it if its with fellow artists or grassroots organizations you believe in, and only if they treat your respectfully and you get creative control.
12. Don't ever submit to contests where you have to do new work. They'll just waste your time, and again, only build the profile of the judges and the sponsoring company. Do not believe their lies about “exposure”. There is so much content online that just having your work posted in some massive image gallery is not exposure at all.
13. Don't work for free for rich people. Seriously. Don't don't don't. Even if you can afford to, you're fucking over the labor market for other creators. Haggling hard for money is actually a beneficial act for other freelancers, because it is a fight against the race to the bottom that's happening online.
14. If people love your work, treat them nice as long as they're nice to you.
15. Be massively idealistic about your art, dream big, open your heart and let the blood pour forth. Be utterly cynical about the business around your art.
The Internet will not save creators.
Social media will not save us. Companies will not save us. Crowd-funding will not save us. Grants will not save us. Patrons will not save us.
Nothing will save us but ourselves and each other.
Now make some beautiful things.