Beyond the Starving Artist

I’ve always wondered if any artists out there were thinking carefully about the economic realities facing today’s creative community.  Then I found Createquity, a great blog that discusses exactly those issues in a very smart and creative way.  The author, Ian David Moss, is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Management as well as a musician and composer.  His thoughts on the arts and sustainability are well worth reading; he also summarized some of his main points in a recent post:

The internet, while making it possible for more people than ever before to reach an audience and establish a public identity, may at the same time be making it harder for artists to make a full-time living from their work over the long term. Reconciling these two impacts might well be one of the major challenges of policymaking in the 21st century.

I can’t agree enough with this.  As I mention in my bio, I recently moved to New Jersey from Oakland, CA, where I tried to make a go of it as a musician, and pretty much fell flat on my face.  I learned a lot from the experience, however, and certainly gained a great appreciation for those out there who are working hard to pay the bills as artists.  For all the celebration of “information wanting to be free” (thoroughly dismantled by Malcolm Gladwell here,) it doesn’t make sense that the only people making any money from an artist’s work are the people who sell the machines that play it.  Every new way to promote yourself (are you following me on Twitter yet?) brings with it the fact that everyone else can, too. 

Why am I writing about this?  Because, even though I’m a part-time MA student, I’ve still got bills to pay!  I’m very fortunate to be writing for, but my other income — teaching Music Fundamentals at Rutgers — is wrapping up this week.  I need to figure out what I’m going to do to support myself financially for the rest of the summer.  And I know that, sadly, music is not somewhere that I can turn right now to supplement my income.  In order to be able to pull off a steady revenue stream from music, I first would have to invest a TON of (non-compensated) energy into promoting myself, practicing, honing some tunes, recording a demo, etc.  I do have some promising projects in the works (more on that soon, I hope!) but nothing that I can bank on in the short-term.

Of course, if being a great jazz trombonist was all that mattered to me, that wouldn’t be a problem.  But that’s not all that matters.  I have academic ambitions, writing work, teaching work, and an immediate need to pay rent and buy food.  All of these other things attract time and attention.  I believe that diversity of interest is a good thing, but the (lack of) economic reality makes it fitting music into that milieu a real challenge.  What will probably happen is that I will find other non-musical work (anyone looking for an SAT tutor?) to supplement my income.  This will leave me with less time and emotional energy to practice, which will make it even harder for me to effectively invest in my own musical life.  This is the vicious cycle that I found in Oakland — one that led to me putting down the horn entirely after about a year.

So how can these trends be reversed?  I wish I had all the answers; I don’t, but I do have a few thoughts:

– Reject the Myth of the Starving Artist.

When I lived in Oakland, I had this strange inner belief that I somehow deserved to not be making any money, that it’s what artists do.  Obviously, I had to get past this in order to survive, but the cultural expectation (especially for young artists) still exists.  It’s time for us to realize that 1) Yes, artists should make money from doing their job, just like everyone else and 2) No, you are not “selling out” if you do manage to find a way to earn money doing what you do.  The false dichotomy of art and commerce is deeply ingrained in our society, and until it begins to erode, very little progress can be made for artists lower down on the food chain.

– Art is not merely a privilege for the wealthy.

This ties into the Myth of the Starving Artist, but is more insidious.  More people need to be talking about the class divide that is emerging in the creative community.  Moss is very blunt about this in his post, and I think more people need to be talking about this.  Equality of opportunity must exist in the creative community; that struggle is as hard here as it has been anywhere else in our society.  This trend concerns me more than anything else in today’s changing artistic landscape.  The current educational models are not helping, nor are the “shadow networks” that exist in many artistic communities.

– Little by little, it adds up.

When I can achieve a baseline of practicing regularly, even if it’s just 30 minutes per day, five days per week, I can feel myself improving and I am more prepared when the unexpected gig comes my way.  This serves me much better than trying to carve out a whole day to practice for six hours and then not touching the horn all week.  Then, when I do have the energy to spend a bigger chunk of time with my music, the experience is much more rewarding.

– Other people matter. Find them.

Working with people who share my passion for music, even if we’re not playing, is awesome.  The Jazz MA program has been a godsend in that I have been able to meet other people who love the music and can really play.  As people begin to work across disciplines, lots of cool things emerge.  I’ve only been here for six months and am already starting to see it happening.

That’s enough from me — please share your comments below if you have any other thoughts or experiences related to art and your economic livelihood.  I’d also love to hear any practical tips for integrating an artistic livelihood with economic stability.

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
This entry was posted in Links, Resisting Definition and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Beyond the Starving Artist

  1. Zahra says:

    Bravo! As a graduate student studying poetry and teaching composition part-time with no summer job in the interim not only do I understand your perspective, I share your condition. No doubt there are many artists struggling with the dichotomy of creative focus and paying bills. I think of Virginia Woolf who said a woman needs money to see the world and a room of her own to practice her craft if she is to write anything good. Ms. Woolf had a rich aunt who had left her money. Some students in my program have full rides to study writing. I have loans. So every month I see a new article on why one should not take out loans to get an MFA (I’m getting an MFA). Unlike med school or law school, the arts don’t pay so why pay to study the arts; makes sense, but where does that leave me? As you say, I take some solace in knowing “little by little, it adds up” and “other people matter.” And on other days I read a great poem or write a great line after listening to great music and remember that I really don’t want to do anything else.

  2. hi alex.

    You might be interested in the work of Lewis Hyde, particularly his 1983 book, “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World” — it came up in a discussion group I’m on for poets on exactly this topic, and it’s on my reading list for the summer (I’m planning a massive trip to Powell’s when I visit next week!)

    Nice to hear what you’re up to and what you’re thinking about. Poets have been (at least since the last hay days of poetry — at least in terms of $$$ with the Romantic era) reconciled to making no money at all through the sale of their work — hence most of us find academic homes and make addtional money through readings or workshops. The trick is to find some way to make money that doesn’t absolutely deplete your creative energy.

    And for what it’s worth, this has always been a different question for women artists than it has been for men.


    • arodjazz says:

      Thanks for your response, Lynnell!

      I see many in the jazz community following the poets into that model as well, relying on academia for “patronage” since the economic engine for the music is becoming more and more limited. I’m not completely sure how I feel about this, the only thing I do know is that nobody is talking about the changes that is bringing about in the community, particularly those who it leaves out of the conversation. Obviously, I’m one of the cases of the migration towards academia, so I don’t think it’s all bad, but I certainly don’t believe that it provides a big enough home for the art all by itself.

      I’m curious to know more about how this plays out differently for women — I’ve got another post about that issue simmering, so watch this space, and if you wouldn’t mind expanding on that thought I would appreciate your input.

  3. Jason Parker says:

    Hey Alex,

    Thanks for the shout-out, and I agree with your premise. As long as we as artists continue to operate within the “starving artist” model, we shall forever be just that.

    Me, I decided to go the other route. I made a conscious decision to treat my music “career” like any other career. I offer a service that is valuable, and I deserve to be compensated for that service. Sure, there are many in our society who don’t see art that way. No problem. I choose not to waste my time with those people, and go search out those that do value what I have to offer. And I tell you, as soon as I stopped trying to change people’s minds, those that were in agreement with me filled my life. Now I don’t really concern myself with the $50 gigs and the low-ball offers for my band. I just say “thanks but no thanks” and spend my time cultivating a client list that will fairly compensate me for my services. They are out there, even in TEC (this economic climate).

    Let me address a few specific points that you make:

    “you are not “selling out” if you do manage to find a way to earn money doing what you do. The false dichotomy of art and commerce is deeply ingrained in our society”

    Amen. I play weddings. Lots of them. Sometimes 3 a weekend. Some would say that I am selling out. I say bring it on! The weddings (and corporate events, parties, etc.) that I play have allowed me to pay my and a fair wage and have financed all of my other musical projects, from gigs to CDs to tours. If it weren’t for the weddings I’d be making money away from the horn. I choose to make money with the horn. I see no dichotomy between art and commerce. In fact, they are inextricably linked if one wants to be a working musician.

    “In order to be able to pull off a steady revenue stream from music, I first would have to invest a TON of (non-compensated) energy into promoting myself, practicing, honing some tunes, recording a demo, etc. I do have some promising projects in the works (more on that soon, I hope!) but nothing that I can bank on in the short-term.”

    Isn’t this true for any endeavor? If you want to be a doctor you have to train to be a doctor. Same for a plumber, electrician, CEO. Work takes work…

    “I am more prepared when the unexpected gig comes my way.”

    If you want to work as a musician, you can’t wait for the gigs to come your way. I did that for years, and you know how many gigs I played? Maybe 5. 95% of the gigs I’ve played in the last 7 years I have gone out and gotten. As you say, this does require lots of time, energy and marketing dollars. But they do pay off if you do it right. And I find myself playing WAY more gigs than many of my peers simply because I go out and ask for them. Many of the other players often ask me how I get so many gigs. I just smile and say that’s my job.

    “Other people matter. Find them.”

    Again, amen! Surround yourself with like-minded people. That’s the best thing you can do. Many people who are not living a creative lifestyle don’t really understand what it takes. They look at it as a hobby, or ask “what is your real job?” But those of us trying to make a living understand your pain and can be a great resource, sounding block and support system.


    I don’t mean to sound like I know all the answers, or that it’s easy. I’m just speaking about what I’ve done, and what has worked for me. I found that as soon as I stopped fighting against what I perceived were the “lack of” situations inherent in being a working musician and started opening up to all the possibilities available to me my career took off. Which goes back to your original point. STOP thinking of yourself as a starving artist and start thinking of yourself as an artistic businessman (or woman)! That’s the first step.

    Thanks for raising these issues. As you can tell I enjoy discussing them!

    • arodjazz says:

      Thanks for the in-depth response, Jason. I totally agree with your points. My struggle is that I have a legitimate interest in cultivating non-musical aspects of my career — the writing, teaching, etc. — and it happens to be easier to get paid for that stuff. In some ways, I’m jealous of the folks who are able to seriously commit to a career as a musician and rock on like you do. But I’ve come to understand that isn’t me. I’m glad to be able to know people who understand the struggle and are doing interesting and innovative things that combine their musical talent with other pursuits.

      Let me clarify a couple of things that you brought up: with regard to my mention of “investing non-compensated energy into music” — that’s not necessarily a complaint. I was just trying to highlight the fact that it can be a very all-consuming effort (you of all people know this I am sure!) and is difficult to do in tandem with other things like writing and teaching — it’s not a part-time job! You’re also right that unexpected gigs rarely happen, but from my perspective (not gigging much at all) even the fews and far betweens matter and if I blow one of those for being out of shape, bad news.

      Keep on keepin’ on, man — I appreciate your writing and giving voice to the new generation of working musicians on the scene.

      • Rich Daigle says:

        I’ve really enjoyed the conversation, and I hear a few key things that I would like to add. When you say “legitimate interest in cultivating non-musical aspects of my career” with a combination of your practice schedule plan …I hear some bells going off. Here’s what I can tell you from experience; you are about to embark on a journey that will either shine a light on your TRUE passion for your art. It’s not about starving, it’s about not buying into the common societal pressures hammering us everyday telling you “you need to drive this car” and your “house should be X amount of square feet” “four and half kids” “carry x amnout debt so that you can have this great credit report”UGGHHH, it’s my belief that this will be mans undoing or at least Jazz. My experience has been that whenever I “gave in to the pressure” , and got caught up with that thinking, my art suffered severally and I think I may have forever damaged a portion of my soul. As an artist, you have to stand hard against the pressure whether it’s friends or family etc. stick to your guns/instrument…If you cave, and think that a 30min practice schedule provides you enough to hone your talent etc. then; I wish you the best. It’s not easy, and yes you will play weddings, and corporate gigs, and teach students that don’t practice, but, you will be your own boss, and not take shit from anyone. Have hours and hours to spend on your instrument, and time to enjoy this brief business called life, rather than make money for someone else bottom line.
        Check out my blog… i’m collecting stories of the current state of Jazz and any other stories that may begin to make a change.

  4. Jason Parker says:

    You’re right about it not being a part-time job. I actually had to quit my job in order to focus on playing and cultivating the life I now lead. And let me tell you it was a struggle in the beginning. And the beginning lasted about 4 years! But it has paid off.

    And kudos to you for knowing what you want, and what you don’t want. I think that’s a huge step in getting it! You’ve realized that you have interests in the non-playing aspects of the life, and that’s great. That’ll keep you from spending unnecessary time chasing things that may not get you to your ultimate goal.

    It’s all a process and I look forward to seeing where your process takes you!

    • arodjazz says:

      In response to Rich:

      Thanks for your comment. It’s always good to have different perspectives in the commentary. Let me clarify some assumptions that you are making about my choices:
      First, I don’t believe that 30 minutes a day is going to be enough to make me a superstar jazz trombonist. The point is to stay in shape and try and keep a balance with other parts of my life. I don’t see this as “caving into the demands of the capitalist society” or whatever because I don’t necessarily consider myself a full time professional musician. Teaching DOES matter — not all students refuse to practice, and when they do it is a really great experience. The research I am doing into the history of jazz is also very important to me. I don’t see this as “caving”.
      Second, you argue that because I am not spending most of my time honing my skills as an instrument that I am not TRULY passionate about the art. This could not be further from the truth. Not everyone who loves jazz has the “practice for 10 hours a day” gene. I relate to the music differently than some of the professional musicians who love jazz just as much as I do. I’m not doing this for the “four and a half kids and a good credit score” (although, what’s wrong with a good credit score??) but because I am trying to navigate the best way for me to interact with the music that I love.
      Thanks again for posting!

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