How do you survive an arts career?
October 15, 2008 12:59 AM   Subscribe

Artistic MeFites: I'm looking for some advice. For any of you pursuing (or already established within) some time of artistic career, whether it be music, film, writing, theatre, dance, sculpture or whatever, how do you keep yourself happy and productive in your field? And most of all, how do you get there in the first place?

I've decided that I can't run from it anymore. I've wanted to write and sing for as long as I can remember, and despite my fear, I think I'm just going to go for it and see what ends up happening or else I'll go batty wondering what might have been. The questions are: do you keep your day job and/or pursue a second, perhaps more stable, career simultaneously, or just attack your dream full force? And how do you keep yourself motivated against all the odds? (Answer however you feel; I know I threw in about nine million questions.)
posted by themaskedwonder to Work & Money (12 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I used to do a lot of contracting and freelancing for my day-to-day, but when I decided to devote more time to music, I took (and am very happy with) an extremely stable job. I know months in advance exactly what my schedule looks like, I have a generous amount of vacation and flextime that allows me to tour, and a predictable income which makes it easy to know how much I can spend on gear/etc.

Motivation or being "against all odds" has never been an issue for me. I don't have any interest in making it big, living off of my music, or competing with other artists for awards/etc. If I can write, release, and perform, that's all I need.

At the end of the day, I'm working so I can do the things outside of work (like music) that I enjoy doing. A stable gig is, for me, the best way to guarantee that. Most of the artists I work with feel the same.

But, as I said, I'm not interested in trying to get signed to a major and sell a million records. If that was what I really wanted to do, I think I'd probably ditch the job and work the music full-time.
posted by Jairus at 1:36 AM on October 15, 2008

When I decided to finally pursue a lifelong dream of being a writer, I started sending out query letters in my spare time and kept my day job. I had a lot of "right place, right time" luck and was offered a full-time gig with a magazine less than a year later. It didn't pay as much as my regular job, so I kept both for about seven months. I then got another offer of full-time writing work with a different publication, and between that and the magazine I was able to quit my "regular" job.

Even though my original visions of writing meant being a best-selling fiction author, I ended up writing non-fiction, specializing in trivia and unusual factoid-type stuff. And I prepared (somewhat unwittingly, because I didn't know that a paying career in trivia was in my cards at the time) for seven years prior to sending out my first query letter by writing and hosting a weekly online trivia game.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:58 AM on October 15, 2008

You may want to read about Wallace Stevens.

All artists face the decision Stevens seems to have finessed his entire life. In their late 'teens and early twenties, those with any artistic inclination or talent must decide how their lives are going to be. And they confront a dilemma: Are they going to pursue a career that will give them the living to support their art--and exhaust their energy on business? Or spend their lives on art--and not have enough to eat, let alone a place to live, and do their art?

George Orwell makes interesting observations on this very question in his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

Wallace Stevens seems to have balanced this two necessities of his life by leading a curious double-existence. On one hand, he was a poet, and philosopher, of great accomplishment. On the other, he rose to become a senior executive of an insurance company.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 5:29 AM on October 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is a great question. I feel like most people expect you to fail. I think when trying to pursue this life long dream, you need to remember who you are doing it for....YOURSELF. No one else will be able to motivate you.

My motivation right now is the refusal to fail. I'm making big moves and a hasty choice to venture out jobless to a city where I know the opportunity lies and my skill level will be tested. I might not be the best at what I do, but I'm determined to prove everyone wrong. I have talent and I just need to push myself to access it and remind myself that I'm in this for 'me.'

I don't know if that helps...
posted by ss448 at 5:37 AM on October 15, 2008

I took the day job route, albeit in a field, advertising, that still had a creative component in it. I worked on all other things in my off hours. I don't regret it for an instant. For while I certainly have missed out on things that I know I have the ability to do, the day job gave me the predictability and income to have a wonderful family, be a good father and work stress-free on other things. I guess the key question is whether you're a person who values balance and can accept a little less success for a little more balance. I happen to value family life as much as I do personal success so this way worked well for me. It may not for you. Just keep in mind, day jobs and full artistic success are not mutually exclusive. I've met many creative people in my line of work and they'e offered opportunities. You can still jump off the carousel and go 'full-in' at a later time. You might even find that a quai-creative day job affords you more opportunities than just showing up without any track record whatsoever. Good luck.
posted by lpsguy at 6:15 AM on October 15, 2008

For me there was quite a long period when having a full time day job (which I hated, but that's another story) and feeling that I was not valued in that position and my time was not my own was a very efficient driver for eventually getting my shit together and moving cities, starting to work part-time and going back to college to do a practice based doctorate (in sculpture).

In fact, I think it was actually the fact that I could only work on 'my dreams' in the evenings and weekends that made me more productive and less inclined to waste time (at that point at least!)
posted by Chairboy at 6:47 AM on October 15, 2008

If I had to do it all over again, I would have gone to nursing school in my 20s. If you already have a bachelor's degree, you can get out in 15 months in some situations. You can work 3 12 hour shifts a week and have 4 days off. You get paid well. The work is hard but possibly rewarding and there is never a shortage of jobs. If things with arts go well, you can work per diems whenever you have some time. I'm doing it now, at 33, but it would have made the last 12 years a lot easier had I done it sooner than later.

Just a thought.
posted by sully75 at 7:01 AM on October 15, 2008

I think for most people it's a good idea to have a skill or trade so you can make a decent living and do the artistic stuff on the side.

Look at it this way. If you write an hour a day you can probably produce about 500 words daily. That's 182,500 words a year, which is easily first drafts for two books, or one well-edited, finished book. I don't know how to tally the singing you can do in a year, but an hour a day will likely produce some great yearly results in that area as well.

And not only can you have a satisfactory output of work, you will never have to take on some awful project or sell crappy work you aren't happy with to pay the bills. Because full-time artists so often have to do this, you may end up turning out a better body of work than them in the end.

I work as an editor at a publishing company (actual typo: punishing company, heh). I do make enough to live on modestly but the pay's not great. If I could do it again I'd have gone into something that would make more money in less time. There are lots of options. Someone I knew in high school became a massage therapist to support her acting career. She made decent money and had a very flexible schedule.
posted by orange swan at 7:24 AM on October 15, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell article on artistic prodigies versus late bloomers, and how the late bloomers manage to hold on to the drive long enough to do good work.
posted by TimTypeZed at 9:23 AM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll tackle the first question: "how do you keep yourself happy and productive in your field?"

My subfield of music is, I suppose, a little rarefied, but I keep myself happy and productive by listening to as much music as possible. I'm always interested to listen to new things and I try to be an active listener where possible. It's vital to be open-minded even though your aesthetic filter will mean that there are plenty of things that you will dismiss. In other words, even though you hate this person's music it's still a good idea to listen to the latest thing that they've written as you might learn something.

Apart from that, I really try to push myself. I really try not to take the easy path and to do the thing that I know how to do, but to deliberately try to do things that I find difficult or alien. That way I'm constantly having to come up with solutions to problems that I've given myself. Finding a satisfying solution to these issues does two things: it builds confidence and it enables you to develop a breadth of expression that you might not have discovered otherwise. If this all seems quite abstract I apologize.

Lastly, there are little productivity tricks that you discover along the way. One useful one is to end the workday mid-flow, mid-sentence if you like. Then, the next day when you're procrastinating, you'll just have to finish that sentence (or whatever) and you won't just end there. It's only a little trick and most creative people that I know have an arsenal of them, but it works for me.
posted by ob at 9:29 AM on October 15, 2008

I'm part of a collective of writers who all have full-time day jobs in the arts. The current set-up leaves us happier and better placed to sell our writing, but we find ourselves writing much slower than when we had mindless day jobs which we hated.

As for how to get started, you need to immerse yourself in the arts, particularly your chosen field.

If you live in a major city, you should aim to be attending at least two arts events per week, preferably participatory ones. This means going to poetry slams, attending the theatre on nights when there'll be after show discussions, attending book launches, signing up for workshops or something else. Get into the habit of checking noticeboards at local universities and your nearest big library for this sort of event. Collect leaflet for further events at the venue, sign up for mailing lists. Go to things even if they're not your kind of thing. If you can't find anybody who wants to go to these things with you go alone. If you're worried about looking friendless, just carry a pad and paper; everybody will assume you're a reviewer.

By doing this you will learn more about what is currently 'hot'. You will find out who the major players are in the local arts scene and those major players will start to recognise your face. Don't hassle them, just enjoy the art on offer and make intelligent comments on it where appropriate.

Often the people who run these events will ask people on their mailing lists to help out by volunteering. Do this! It's a great way to make contacts and see what happens behind the scenes. Work as a theatre usher, volunteer at a literary festival, do admin for your local poetry collective, help promote gigs. Having proved you're down to earth and responsible (and done them a favour!), it's fine to say 'Oh by the way, I'm a [sessional musician/writer for hire/whatever]. If any opportunities come up, give me a call. Here's my card. See you at [Upcoming Arts Event]!'
posted by the latin mouse at 9:45 AM on October 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a classical composer and I left my last job (part-time adjunct faculty position at a university) three years ago, with the plan that, ideally, that would be my last-ever scheduled work for money.

The operative word, of course, is "scheduled." Effectively, I now have a telecommuting day job that consists of:
A) seeking money (researching and applying for grants, commissions, prizes);
B) seeking to directly replace expenses (researching and applying for residencies and travel grants -- in other words, replacing my living expenses with paid housing/food and travel);
C) building professional momentum (interacting with festivals, ensembles, conductors, performers, commissioners); and
D) work and admin for the occasional work-for-others I still do (two weeks of teaching composition each summer, some audio tech work, some freelance graphic, web and photo work).

Right now, I spend less than 10% my waking hours actually composing (and in "composing," I'm counting both the actual scribbling on paper and the computer notation afterwards of scores and parts). This percentage will increase as I keep building momentum. For the last decade I've been getting opportunities and money because I've applied for them and been picked ("I approach you"). One of the goals of building momentum is that over the next decade -- over my 30s -- I'll shift more towards getting commissions, performances and opportunities without putting in the research and application labor ("you approach me"). I'm also building towards the point when I'll be competitive for the year-long fellowships like Guggenheim, Radcliffe, etc.

This kind of life requires either naturally having or cultivating certain personality traits:
- a Zen-like, very matter-of-fact approach to competition in general;
- a confidence that one's work deserves some of the funding that exists (and that funding does exist, but as it dwindles it takes more research to find);
- a taste for or at least a tolerance for extremely detail-oriented planning, writing, communications and documentation; and maybe most importantly,
- taking the long view, being willing to live very simply and frugally when necessary, and not having a desire for kids (at least during the lean years when you're building the momentum).

Not every artist naturally meets the world in these ways, and for many people a scheduled day job is way better (less stressful, more conducive to actually working) than my approach. I'm lucky that my approach fits me, and in the lean times I just remember that if I keep working with the focus I have now, and keep being fortunate in the ways I've been over the last few years, my landscape will really start changing within a decade or so.
posted by kalapierson at 12:49 PM on October 15, 2008

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