Skip to content

Even Artists Have to Figure Out How to Make a Living

August 12, 2011

Last week I attended a function where a friend’s daughter was the featured performer. For years I had heard about this girl’s passion for music, the special performing arts school her parents had afforded, and her brave attempts to make it as a musician in New York City.

“Your daughter was wonderful!” I said to her mom afterwards, keeping to myself the fact that the performance was nice, but certainly not the powerhouse talent I had been led to believe.

Her mom went on to tell me about their family struggle around the daughter’s expectations that the parents foot the bills while she waited around to get discovered and eventually make a living from her awesome talent.

Apparently this girl is so dedicated that she resists doing any other kind of work. “She literally throws up if she can’t do her music!” her mom whispered to me, exasperated.

Isn’t that what they call a panic attack?  At 22, the poor girl has a phobia against having to make a living in the real world. I mean, the non-musical performing world.

(Delusion? Meet fear. Hello!)

“We made her get a job,” her mother finally confessed with a conflicted sigh. “She needs to pay some of her expenses, and her health insurance, too.”

“Good for you,” I told her. The girl will be grateful later on. There’s nothing more pathetic than a forty-year old “artist” telling you their next big break is just around the corner.

I heard Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, professor and poet, put it like this:

“You know, you can be an artist, but you got to do something practical alongside it. You’ve got to figure out how you’re gonna take care of yourself in the world.”

There’s something to be said for taking care of yourself in this world, finding out how to make your own way, figuring it out with all its complications and breakthroughs and disillusions. There’s a kind of nobility, even, to the slogging through the less-than-what-you-expected parts of life in order to become self-sufficient, and to still show up for yourself every day.

I think it’s called growing up.

Beautiful artwork courtesy of Nance, the real deal.

39 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2011 7:46 am

    This speaks to a pair of situations we’re navigating here these days. I needed to hear this again, from someone who isn’t living it today.


  2. August 12, 2011 8:22 am

    I recently went to a workshop presented by a big-name player in the music industry because my son is a talented musician and I don’t really know how to direct him in navigating that world. The speaker said parents of musicians should never tell their kids to have a Plan B. I’m not so sure about that. I think he’s right, in that someone gifted to be a musician needs to be a musician to the glory of God. However your post is dead on. You gotta be able to pay the bills while making the music.

    • August 13, 2011 11:25 am

      My daughter was extremely interested in acting and performance all throughout high school, and I constantly told her that she could feel free to pursue the arts, but she had to have a parallel path in some kind of useful career… a Plan B. I drilled it into her head. I brainwashed her. I even bargained with her: “If you want to try it out full time, go ahead and do it for a couple years after college, but if you aren’t making a good income by the time you are 24 years old, you have to fall back onto your Plan B while you are still young enough to build a career. I figured if arts are meant to be a full time thing for her, then she will make it happen one way or the other.

      Since entering college, she has really toned down the artistic aspirations and is simply enjoying some extracurricular performance groups while cracking down on the academics. She also interned for the first time this summer at an ad agency. So… all that to say… I guess I am a bad father for being too practical and squelching the dream.

      Not really.

  3. August 12, 2011 11:41 am

    So glad you quoted Dr. Elizabeth Alexander on this subject. She has an amazing blend of creativity and practicality. It’s why she’s a good poet. It’s why she’s a good teacher.

    • August 13, 2011 11:27 am

      I have listened twice to her podcast on “On Being” (our favorite radio program!). So inspiring, to hear her, and then when I heard her say this (the 2nd time listening), I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly how it should be.” Get a job, and build your art on the side. Vocation + Avocation. They are not necessarily meant to be all blended together.

  4. August 12, 2011 12:57 pm

    in the nick
    of time
    baked golden
    and slathered
    with soft butter
    and jam


  5. August 12, 2011 12:57 pm

    I’ve always found this mindset confusing. I’m all for people pursuing their dreams. But there are some people who roll up their sleeves and scratch it out, and there are others who think the world owes them something.
    If someone can’t stand the idea of working in something non-musical in order to support their craft, then they’re either clueless or not really serious about doing what it takes to chase their artistic dreams.

  6. August 12, 2011 4:37 pm

    I’m a musician and a writer. At age 62, I have been practicing these crafts for more than forty years. I’ve sung professionally with Seattle Opera and in many choirs as a section leader. I make a living as a technical writer. I’ve learned quite a bit about the arts as both a professional and an amateur. Working for a living is ennobling beyond most of what artists do to promote themselves. The first post on a blog I started several years ago says some important things that I believe about art.

    The World is Upside Down
    Many artists discover after strenuous effort that the world is upside down. The best is often not at the top but at the bottom. Banality and self promotion rant in the marketplace of big art, but you can still hear singing in the backwaters, recitals in old-fangled auditoriums, instrumentalists playing in half-empty churches, or writers reading their work in the living room with friends. Too many of us have willfully abused our crafts in the effort to find promoters who will then abuse us in a concerted amplification of noise. Relief from this hyper-artistry can be found in small writers’ forums or musical soirees among survivors who persist against their illusions of failure. What is salvageable from the edges and depths of our lives is often considerable.

    Send something of yours that we can add to our forum.

    • August 13, 2011 11:33 am

      Michael – I love it : “the small writers’ forums or musical soirees…” I believe this is what is going on with the blogging community. We all are like a little supportive writer’s community that check in on each other and become friends along the way. That’s enough for me. And the idea of soirees has always appealed to me! You last line here is a killer – what is salvagable.. Wow, that should ring loud for many.

  7. August 12, 2011 10:26 pm

    “You know, you can be an artist, but you got to do something practical alongside it. You’ve got to figure out how you’re gonna take care of yourself in the world.”
    Once again, you are totally swimming against the “veg without stress” messaging that is so popular in our culture. hmmm.

    • August 13, 2011 11:34 am

      I don’t know. Maybe I see the value in work, and in working through things. You can’t grow by solely focusing on expressing yourself. Growth comes from hitting the bottom, scraping along, finding what your really made of, and then rising back up again.

  8. August 13, 2011 7:14 am

    Extraordinarily few people earn enough from their art to support themselves. And working at a “day-to-day job” is a good thing – because what you and what you learn will apply to your art. Even in music.

    • August 13, 2011 9:57 am

      I consider myself lucky not to have been good enough early enough to think I could make a living in the arts. The musicians I’ve known who made careers or tried to make careers have been subjected to all the humiliations of working for a living but with the added debility of a market where there are hundreds of well qualified auditioners for every orchestra seat and thousands of fine voices for every operatic role. I used to think I’d go to Germany where the opera companies and symphony orchestras are subsidized generously by the state. I never quite felt ready to leave my decent employments for an environment where Eurotrash productions had become the norm. In the US there is another factor that impacts singers–a gay mafia that is extensively ensconced in the opera business. It used to be sopranos who were susceptible to the “casting couch”. Now it’s tenors and baritones. Don’t tell me I’m homophobic; I used to be young and attractive enough that people with influence tried to divert my interest in music along this line. It gave me a lot of sympathy for women who sue employers for sexual harassment. Of course, none of these things happen in the pop music industry or in CCM!

      • August 13, 2011 11:42 am

        Gay mafia? Now things are getting interesting.

        Did you see the NY Times Sunday Arts section (I get it on Saturdays..) One of the front page stories is “Virtuosos are a Dime a Dozen.” Just as you say. I also was very interested in music (songwriting) as a young person, and was just not talented enough, either. It plagued me for a few years with extreme frustration, but like you, I think in some ways I was lucky and blessed to have realized early on that I needed to pursue another form of career.

        Now, about the gay mafia: I can’t say that I have ever encountered this (perhaps not enough time spent in the opera?:), but I have also heard about it, and have no doubt that it is real. I am just realizing that a gay gentleman from my church, who is also an opera fanatic… could he be..? Nah. He’s given all that up for the Lord.

      • August 13, 2011 12:21 pm

        I was a union musician at Seattle Opera where the straight singers were overwhelmingly in the minority. In the music business that’s the way it is, even among church organists. But these people care about music and are a lot more civil than most of the people I meet at BullySoft. They have better taste in music. They take better care of themselves in many ways. And boy do they have community! They network.

  9. August 13, 2011 10:32 am

    It seems that that the main reason artists think they should single-mindedly pursue careers is that they will have to put up with much of the same unfairness and exploitation in the business world as they will in the arts business, so they may as well suffer for something of intrinsic value to them. The trouble with that argument is that the market dynamics in music or writing are way out of proportion. If there were hundreds of thousands of of jobs with reasonable salaries and benefits in the arts business, artists would have the option of walking away from an abusive employer or publisher that provides the outlet for their art.

    In business, too often, one has to resist the impulse to go along to get along with indignities and injustices. Speaking up for higher value on people and selling things honestly or producing things that work as advertised is, too, often, impolitic. Being an advocate for anything that doesn’t pump the next release is impolitic. Bad news doesn’t help anybody’s career. But, in business some of the time things have to work. Companies have to sell against competition. This puts some limits on the absurdities, some of the time. There is also competition for skilled workers so you can usually find another job.

    • August 13, 2011 11:48 am

      Michael – I never thought about it like this. What would be interesting would be to get a young, struggling professional artist here to post their own perspective. Most of the musicians I knew from college years went on to become music teachers. Except for Rene Fleming, of course (she was a year ahead of me at Potsdam State U of NY. She was a star even back then as a Sophmore in college, when I first saw her perform at the Crane School of Music. I was in the room with her many times and sang in some of the choirs with her, but never dared to approach her!)

      • August 13, 2011 11:58 am

        The most talented young struggling bass/baritone I know, right now, is building web sites. His wife, whom he met in an apprentice program, is making a living as a singer, mostly because she sings as a cantor in the Catholic church. Her family is Italian and she sings for every wedding and funeral in the Italian community and more. She teaches in a Catholic schoool. She is also having a career:
        Her husband, the bass/baritone did the web site. And he is a very good singer. There was a time, he said he’d die if he couldn’t sing all the time.

  10. August 13, 2011 11:09 am

    Sorry for high jacking your post, Bradley, but more people are reading your blog than mine. :0) And this stuff is important! Whether it is art or the art of business ethics, we’re into stress that drives most people to distraction. Distraction from what? From living happy and productive lives!

    Now the publishing business is in disarray because the technology of publishing is open to anybody with a computer. Music and video recordings are easy to produce. Artists and business people with these skills are everywhere. Writers and musicians can do their work and find an audience without spending themselves in the pursuit of a career defined by the big players. It isn’t quite as simple as George Gilder used to say about the microcosm, but the rules have changed. We still need community like we need an army to keep terrorists at bay.

    Many of the things I put online have been rejected by publishers, or more likely I didn’t even see the point in sending them to New York for rejection. Now I can publish myself in fifteen minutes. The search engines will send readers to any blog that contains something they want to read. Money helps, but the costs of entry get lower all the time. Networks, just like this blog network, are transforming art and business. Art, as has often been the case in history, can lead the way. Mozart’s opera, “The Marriage of Figaro”, was subsidized by the aristocracy, but the French Revolution, only three years later, was eerily reminiscent of Beaumarchais’ comedy about servants outsmarting their aristocratic masters.

    • August 13, 2011 11:52 am

      Keep it coming, Michael. You are able to articulate these ideas to a much deeper place than i would have been able to go!

      This is the same idea as what was promoted in “The Long Tail,” about the many micro-niches that are so easily created because of mass accessibility and ease of publishing. So, here I am with my little niche, and it’s very fun and stimulating. But it’s not like w’re going to ever make money doing it!

      • August 13, 2011 12:14 pm

        The niche-marketing and long-tail discussion is interesting. It doesn’t solve everything and the people making money on the niches tend to be the aggregators who make a little money from each niche market, while the producers in those niches still can’t make a living. Making a living is one thing; making a life is another!

        Whether it is singing or writing or working in business, we all want to find our voice. You don’t have to make money at your vocation to have a voice.

        St. Paul was a tent-maker whose letters, not books, changed history. The Pharisees with whom Jesus had his disputes were, like Saul, trained in a business skill or craft, such as Paul’s tent making, that was intended to support their ministries as teachers of the law. Unfortunately most of them in Jesus’ time were selling out and had become religious professionals instead of teachers who earned their own way.

  11. August 15, 2011 9:49 am

    So you are saying I shouldn’t quit my job to write the great american novel? I sure have fantasized about it! I think you are right, Brad. It’s probably not all it’s cracked up to be. My day job provides so much of my inspiration. I like what Glynn says about that. Julia Cameron agrees too. Still waiting for my big break…

  12. Karyn permalink
    August 15, 2011 10:22 am

    I love it! My friend and I were just talking about how we’ve veered from our career dreams, leaving behind art therapy and world religion for more profitable, dependable careers. It’s okay to give up on uniformed goals. I love Michael Dodaro’s post above — your talent and passion can be something you nurture and develop without it being your main business. In fact, when business gets too mingled with your passion and taints it, you may well lose the thing you love at your own hands.

    • August 17, 2011 5:23 pm

      Thanks for reading and affirming what I’ve learned the hard way. I’ve always wanted to work full-time in art, but I didn’t have the talent or the financial independence required. At the same time, I don’t believe writers who write and never work, or singers who sing about the lives the rest of us live without participating in the grind. Working is what most of the human race does to support life at whatever level one can support it. How many books have you read, or sermons, that seemed aloof from the world as most people know it? As my Italian grandmother said about the Pope’s pronouncements on birth control: “He no play-uh the game; he no make-uh the rules”.

  13. Karyn permalink
    August 15, 2011 10:23 am

    that’s “un-informed goals”!

  14. August 15, 2011 3:27 pm

    We have lots of artist friends. Some of them working in New York, some in LA. By equity standards they are successful, but many of them regret that they don’t perform enough.

    My wife is committed to community theater. It’s a mixed bag for sure, but her working friends all agree that she is one of the hardest working people in show biz, even if she has never been paid for it. One of her friends recently lamented that Amy actually performs much more than she does is much more interesting roles.

    (She does get paid trying to help artist types with their accounting oddly enough.)

  15. H D permalink
    August 17, 2011 3:15 pm

    Young, struggling professional artist with her own perspective here…

    That story about the girl who doesn’t want to do anything other than music and (apparently) throws up if she can’t do it was really interesting! As I mentioned before in a previous post (which by the way thanks for the encouraging reply to!), I am a professional musician trying to make as much of a living out of that as I can as that is where my skills lie more than in any other field, now time-wise I practically can’t afford a full-time job as my time-off requirements for gigs, rehearsals, practise etc are far too high, sure I could do that stuff in evenings and weekends but then when would I see my friends and boyfriend, the single most important things to me, far more so than anything beginning to resemble a job or career? So instead I work various part time jobs (bar work, hotel work etc) otherwise I’d not only be virtually penniless, but I’d feel as though I was becoming defined solely by my career (rather than me defining it) and be on the road to becoming simply a physical embodiment of the thing, in which case I may as well be a puppet with a painted on smile and vacant holes for eyes and…anyway, sometimes when I’m on the stage performing it feels as though the first thing people can see is that puppet, when ironically when I’m working in those other jobs (which I’m much less good at) I feel as though people see my actual personality first, which I’m much more comfortable with! Surely it “should” (what a bad word) be the other way round?

    I have an extreme aversion to those musicians who refuse to do “ordinary” work alongside music (I know a few of these, I actually dated one and dumped him for an engineering graduate :P) as they see it is “below” them somehow, that they’re “too good” for other work, that is to me an extremely naieve and closed-minded attitude (and they see themselves as so open-minded and liberal…), no different from those who snobbily scoff at “hippy artists” who simply chose to do stuff like this over a conventional 9-5! Anyway, choosing not to work at all in favour of ONLY doing what you want is all very well until you discover one day that you’ve barely enough money to live off a can of beans for the next week let alone your electricity bill, or that new awesome guitar and studio time you need to have any chance of “making it” (see a vicious circle beginning here?).

    I’m happy to accept that if the music thing doesn’t happen for me by a certain point then I will need to go and do something else, settle for that full-time job for a bit and then maybe try and open a coffee shop or something (a passion and skill of mine). Or maybe I will end up with a record deal after all, which would be just great as then I truly could make my living doing what I love and am skilled at (preferably mainly composing rather than performing to avoid the above puppet-like sensations)! But it’s just that, a maybe, the people who think I am skilled and the people who could actually make it happen may not be the same people, and maybes can’t be relied on if you want to actually get the things you want including, say, a house, a social life, independence from your parents, actually having any chance of “making it” at all, otherwise there’s a whole shelf section full of beans at the supermarket waiting! …oh wait a minute, they cost too much if you’ve never had a job…

    • August 17, 2011 5:26 pm

      I think I could believe you, when you perform. Do you have anything online that those of us looking for the real deal can see and hear?

      • H D permalink
        August 17, 2011 6:34 pm

        Yes I do, but my full name is in the URL and I really want to remain anonymous on here lol! I could always see if there’s a way I can send it to you privately on here (I’m new to this thing)…

      • August 17, 2011 6:40 pm

        My email address is in the display that shows when you click on my picture icon.

  16. August 17, 2011 7:23 pm

    I hope Bradley hasn’t left for his vacation.

    • August 17, 2011 7:29 pm

      All Set… Deleted all those beautiful messages with the beautiful link to the beautiful songs of the anonymous singer (although I think she was Irish…) 🙂

  17. H D permalink
    August 17, 2011 7:32 pm

    …… His vacation post said he leaves on Saturday, so with any luck at all he’ll have time to do it before he goes…

  18. H D permalink
    August 17, 2011 7:36 pm

    Whew, thank you! Ps, British but not Irish 😛 Scottish, sort of…

  19. April 14, 2012 9:29 pm

    I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the latest Glee episode.


  1. Your “calling” vs. “what’s important“ « The Presteblog
  2. 4 Steps for Staying Hungry | Messy Quest

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: