Real Life as an Artist or How Much are You Worth?

I’ve been debating if I was going to mention this for a few weeks now, ever since a friend of mine posted it on Facebook. I agree with a lot of it, but I also think that it (somewhat) takes for granted what a hard time it is if you choose to make a creative field your vocation, as well as the need for constant versatility and a fairly good business and marketing sense. There’s a reason there’s a running joke on writing panels when people ask “What do I do if I want to be a writer?” (Answer: Don’t do it…) But we’ll get to that..

So in this article, the author talks about the fact that recently Iggy Pop gave a lecture for the British Broadcasting Corp titled Free Music in a Capitalist Society. Basically, it comes down to the fact that he can’t make a living off of royalties and has to supplement with various ads and side-projects because no one wants to pay for music anymore. The author then goes on to question what art is worth and if someone like Iggy can’t make it on the basis of his art alone, what chance do other people have?

First off, I love The Stooges. I adore Iggy. I’ve seen him in concert, I’ve met him, and I agree that he’s charming, intelligent, and talented as hell. None of the points I make are aimed at him, because I also think he raises a very good point.

I agree with a lot of this – there is, indeed, a continued devaluation of creative entertainment these days. Blame it on streaming, blame it way back on Napster, blame it on whatever, it’s there, and not just in music. I can assure you that although I still take commissions, I prefer to work with companies, events, or other artists because the negotiations are much less stressful. Thanks to the DIY movement, most people think the kinds of things that I can sew or build are easy peasy and fun for me, so I should let them go at box store prices or for the price of materials (and most people don’t get how much raw materials cost anymore). With everyone crafting in their spare time, it’s admittedly hard to see my 15+ years of costuming, design, and theatrical experience not taken seriously when that translates into an hourly or project rate. And, quite honestly, this can happen professionally, as well, depending on what you’ve worked on in the past and who knows who and on and on.

When people can’t walk into a Wal-Mart and find your book on the shelf, and in a world where it’s joked that every housewife is a writer in her spare time, believe me, I get it. I get not being taken seriously – a good part of my creative life is not being taken seriously. It doesn’t seem like a lot because, yes, you are supposed to love your art, but it would also nice to have that love translate into being able to make a living off of it. It is very, very frustrating to not be making what you’re worth. I completely agree with that, and it is depressing. I don’t know what the answer is other than to keep moving forward, to keep being smart and making decent business decisions, and to try to figure out all the new curve balls being thrown at us as one can.

Because here’s the other thing: artists, actors, singers, and other creative types having to do more than one thing to make a living is nothing new. Whether it’s right or not could be debated for a month, I’m sure, but let’s be realistic: JK Rowling and Stephen King would probably still be making livings off their books, but they wouldn’t be sitting as pretty without the movie deals, other forms their works have been turned into, and/or merchandising. As an independent director, one of the smartest things George Lucas ever did was take a cut of merchandising off of Star Wars in lieu of payment. Most big league touring musicians still have to have sponsorships for their tours, whether they’re with a label or independent. David Bowie has had his internet service, his merchandise, his art, his foray into publishing, but it wasn’t until he hit upon Bowie Bonds that things just exploded beyond belief. The members of Motley Crue have their fingers in more pies than a baker. Jamie Farr admitted in his book that one Pepsi commercial he did netted him more than a substantial amount of MASH episodes – there’s a reason so many actors have turned to ads, endorsements, and other side projects. Unfortunately, any more you can’t equate a person being well-known or famous with being out of this world wealthy (or rather, out of this world wealthy JUST from the one thing they’re well-known for). Diversify, diversify, diversify. It will not only keep you out there, it’ll save your butt.

Is it fair that people just can’t sit in a room and make their art and have that be it? No, not particularly. But then again, way back in Renaissance times people still had to have patrons and even then hope that they could remain solvent. We don’t know the names of all those Greek statue-makers and potters. All we have is the art and its value today, because that civilization is gone. We don’t think about how their creators were compensated.

It sucks, but not every person that goes out to have a career in any sort of creative field is going to succeed the way they want to. That’s why when I’m on panels the first thing I say to new writers/creative types is “Know why you’re doing this. Do it because you have to, because you need to do this, not because you want to be validated, not because you want to be rich, not because you want to be famous.”

I’ve been working in costumes, design, and theatre performance for a long time. Sewing is still my primary way to earn my keep, and I still have had to line up job after job after job. I’ve worked continuously for six months at a time before, just insane hours – and when I had a day off on one gig, I was working on something else, and I’m still nowhere near where I want to be. I’ve gone from doing design and costume work to event planning to puppetry to dinner theatre – sometimes all in the same year – while writing books. Let me repeat so that it is very clear:

Making a living as any sort of artist is hard.

You are going to have to work and work some more, You are still going to have to focus and make sure people aren’t taking advantage of you because, unfortunately, people know that so many artistic sorts desperately are looking for a break. Even when you’ve found a break it doesn’t mean you’ll keep it. It. Is. HARD. It is rare to have someone patting you on the head and cheering you on at every moment of the day or every station of your journey. People are going to think you are crazy. You will probably have to take a day job and there is nothing wrong with that. You will have to really debate when to take risks vs. when to play it safe. The world and what it wants are constantly changing.

It. Is. Hard. Is it worth it? If you truly want to be doing what you’re doing, then yes – but easy or guaranteed? No. And honestly, I don’t know that it ever has been. Easier, maybe, but never guaranteed.

Do I know at what level I’ll end up? Nope. I do, however, know how to work my butt off, and as I’ve made mistakes I hope I’ve learned from them and now know more of what to pay attention to. I’m still working through my journey, but I will tell you that a creative life – if you want to make a living – is just as much about working hard and developing a smart business sense as it is anything else.

Now then, circling back around….I’m not talking against the article or Iggy, let’s be clear. I still agree that these days consumers are taking expertise and training and work and creativity for granted. Yes, our technology has begun to make it much easier to devalue the person attached to the song, the book, the project, especially in a world that’s become so over-saturated with choices. Is this an amped up version of a fact that’s always been the case, though? Piracy isn’t a new thing, people wanting a deal isn’t a new thing, either. Are we finally getting scared to the point where we’re paying attention? I feel like surely this has to be a debate that has people talking every so many years, so it will be fascinating to me to see where things go.

3 thoughts on “Real Life as an Artist or How Much are You Worth?

  1. Amazing points. It is hard to make a living on just creative work, diversifying and working harder than you’d ever work at a regular job are the only way to make it happen.

    1. Thanks, Andi! Yeah, unfortunately it is a lot harder than most people want to believe or give others credit for. I’m not saying it isn’t worth it, but it’s not a walk in the park. So often, we want to believe that those we see either don’t deserve to fight for their earnings or assume that because they’re in the public eye, that they’ve got it made. They may, but not for the reasons we all assume…or we may really be making a lot of assumptions. Definitely not an easy time.

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