The Modern "Starving Artist" (or: how I make a living)

I enjoy nice things. I like coffee from micro-roasters and fashionable denim and Apple products. I enjoy traveling. I like visiting new cities and building my SkyMiles balance and seeing Asia.

But, I am an artist. I am a musician. I am starving. So, I can’t do these things. 



I am not* a starving artist. The starving artist is a myth. The starving artist no longer exists. Our culture doesn’t allow for it. Those who can’t make money in the arts, don’t make money in the arts. They end up doing something else. They don’t “sacrifice material well-being in order to focus on their” artistic output (as Wikipedia so concisely puts it). 

Certainly one could present anecdotal evidence to prove that some artists and musicians live in abject poverty, surviving on the inspiration of Bach alone. But by and large, these people are a romantic fantasy, the thing bohemian Hollywood box office successes are made of. In our capitalistic, dog-eat-dog, international marketplace, artists cannot afford to create their art unless they can. Musicians cannot afford to be musicians unless they are paid to be musicians. 

While I believe that the starving artist is romanticized folklore, I don’t believe that musicians have it easy. Friends of mine who perform for a living are not pulling in six figure incomes. The idea of making a living wage playing in an orchestra is all but nonexistent (but the Freeway Philharmonic is always hiring), and conservatory students who expect to be soloists should probably temper their aspirations to the modern workplace. I recently dined with an inspirational musical figure who pointed out that there is no middle ground fee between Renee Fleming and a soprano 99% as good as her. You are either Renee, and make $80,000 a night, or you aren’t, and you make $500 per three-show run (expenses will not be covered thank you very much).

A conservatory education is - at its heart - a trade school education. The good schools prepare their students to enter a world that is hostile to their trade, with the skills to seek out existing revenue streams and the foresight to develop their own. A former-conservatory-student who is not entrepreneurial (a word I kind of hate) WILL starve. But that former-conservatory-student will soon be a former-artist, as s/he will be forced to find another profession to make money and survive. Few, if any, music students are independently wealthy enough to pay off their music school debt, purchase fine instruments, and continue to have enough time to further their professional development (practice).

I have always wanted to be a performer - chamber music, solo recitals, hell, even in an orchestra (but not really). What I am doing now is not how I imagined I'd be making a living. After finishing my own music degrees, I made some choices to set myself up for financial security. Musicians don't like to talk about money. It's tawdry, and the collective attitude is usually some self-righteous version of, "I didn't do this for the money; I did this to create something bigger than myself, so I don't want to talk bout how much I make!" That's crap. One needs to be paid to survive, and Beethoven's inspirational influence won't keep the lights on. We need to talk about money. We need to know what the standard fees are. We need to stop canibalizing our income by asking each other to create for "exposure" in lieu of a fee.

From 2010-2013, I was privileged to play approximately 140 concerts and recitals. My bio pretentiously announces that “Justin Dougherty performs upward of thirty solo and chamber music concerts each season.” This, mostly, is true. Or, was. In that span of three and one half years, I had a regular salary, paid to me by the University of Georgia, where I was a doctoral candidate. After 2013, thrust into the real world without my cushy job at UGA, I had to work to make my money, to make ends meet, and to perform. It is easy to play 140 concerts when you aren’t worried that 80% of them realize that you aren’t Yo-Yo, and pay accordingly. It is easy to front the travel and hotel costs when you have money in your accounts and aren’t worried about whether or not the concert presenter will actually send you a check. That was the luxury of a nice salary. When that salary went away, I was forced to look for other means of income.

I found that income in teaching (which began as a selfish pursuit to fill my bank account and has since become a legitimate passion). Some in my professon see this as failure, a "less than" means of making money in music. This opinion is not valid. I can afford to play concerts, because I can afford to front necessary expenses. I can afford my delicious coffee because I teach amazing kids how to play the cello. I can afford to travel because my schedule has me teaching less than thirty hours per week, forty weeks per year. I don't have to play Canon in D for Bridezilla and her mother if I don't want to. I found a means to pay for my artistic “addiction.” Even in November and December, where - thanks to the holidays - I only make 67% of my usual income, I'm doing pretty damn well.

In 2016, I estimate that approximately 25% of my income will come from performing. That's less than some would prefer, myself included. But, I am happy with this distribution. I get to play what I want, when I want. For me, this was no accident: I sought out students in areas with excellent music education programs, with motivated parents, and a dearth of good cello teachers. (This is not to say that I am cynical, only in it for the money, and not good at what I do; on the contrary. I am teaching to make a living, and I made business decisions to do it.) I didn’t move back to Boston or to New York or San Francisco because I knew that there was a good chance that I couldn’t afford to be a musician in those places. I moved to Atlanta, and I’m very, very happy. I made a choice, and I've done well.

I believe that I am lucky. I have developed a means of income within my artistic field. Some musicians aren't so fortunate: many make a decent living, but they have absolutely no idea how to manage their money, so as to set themselves up to look like the Joneses, at least on paper. Others who don't play the violin, cello, piano, trumpet, or flute have a terribly hard time finding students to make money in the manner that I have pursued.

My sources of income satisfy my desire to remain a creative artist, though they are far from what I planned to be doing when I decided to major in musc. Some might criticize my choices, but they are right for me. There are many ways to make money in the arts, many of which are not covered during sophomore theory class, and as a result, starving artists - those who are REALLY sacrificing worldly posessions and a standard of living for their art - have largely fallen by the wayside. Musicians - and artists in general - should find happiness in whaever they do, ignore those who criticize one's method of earning money, and above all else, should continue to seek to create and inspire others.