“But starvation, unfortunately, didn’t improve art. It only hindered it. A man’s soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whiskey than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist was a hoax.”
– Charles Bukowski, Factotum (1975)
Have you ever heard of the idea of the “starving artist”? Of course you have. It’s a stereotype that has existed as long as I can remember. When I was growing up and started expressing an interest in music, a common response would be one of concern and fear. “You’re going to struggle”, people would almost invariably say. Shouldn’t you pursue something more “safe” and “secure”, they would implore, implying that I needed to get with the program and follow a more conventional path.
Well, despite the good intentions of my family and friends, I chose music as my career path. After high school I headed to Berklee College of Music. After Berklee, I returned to my hometown of Chicago and started a band. Although I never starved, there were a few years where I did indeed struggle, early on. But for the most part, when I look back over my adult life so far, I’ve done pretty well for myself. There were a few lean years in the beginning, but for the last decade at least, I’ve made a salary well above the median income in the US.
Now to be fair, all of my income doesn’t come directly from writing and performing music. I’m also a music educator. I give music lessons and I teach music business courses, in addition to writing, licensing and performing music. But everything I do to earn money is related to the music business in one way or another. When people ask what I do for a living, I respond without hesitation, that I’m a musician. I’m a musician, and I’ve figured out a way to earn a pretty respectable living. I might not be filthy rich, but I get to do, for the most part, things I enjoy doing and I earn a comfortable living in the process.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of the “starving artist” lately and decided to investigate the idea to see where it came from and most importantly, if it’s true. I don’t think it’s a really a healthy stereotype and I think in many ways it serves to discourage a lot of potential artists from following their true calling out of fear of failure and possibly living a life of disappointment and struggle.
So, let’s dive into this topic…
Let’s start by looking at the facts. According to Mybudget360.com, the median salary in the US is $26,695.00. According to Payscale.com, the average salary for musicians in the US is $37, 789.00 per year. Now I’ll be the first to admit, this isn’t a fabulous salary, but relative to the rest of the country, it’s also not bad. Of course, some musicians make less and some make a lot more, but on average, when compared to the rest of the population, musicians in the USA make more than the average person does.
A recent study of approximately 13,000 graduates of performing and visual arts programs who received their degrees between 1990 and 2009, found that the overwhelming majority of them were employed, mainly in fields related to their degrees, and that most of them were satisfied with their lives and careers. The study was conducted by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, a joint program of Indiana and Vanderbilt universities, and was based on completed questionnaires by graduates of more than 150 arts programs at liberal arts colleges, state universities and independent art schools in the USA.
I made a video not too long ago, where I outlined how to make $60,000.00 a year working 25 hours a week as a musician, through a combination of teaching, licensing, performing and doing session work. You have to hustle, but you can make a very good living as a musician if you’re motivated and resourceful. Sure, there are easier career paths to earn a living in, but in my experience, it’s really not that hard to make a good living in the music business if you truly apply yourself. Plus, you’ll have the added bonus of actually doing something you enjoy.
So, if musicians are making more than the median salary on average and are generally content with their lives and careers, where did this idea come from?
Rachel Arandilla from 1st web designer.com states:
“The ‘Starving Artist’ evokes a romantic and mysterious feeling around it. The image evokes stories of the past; of artists, sculptors, musicians and actors who chose to live a life of poverty to pursue their dreams of success. It particularly evokes memories during the 18th Romanticism period. You can imagine young, enthusiastic men from the countryside dreaming to be artists who moved to the city and find themselves living the Bohemian lifestyle.
Even our greatest artists in history did not escape the fate of the Starving Artist. The Bohemian lifestyle—or unconventional living in the company of people with similar interests for artistic pursuits—is a common lifestyle chosen by artists then and today. Most did not see fame and fortune during their lifetime, only to have their works become worth millions of dollars after they passed away. One example is the great Vincent Van Gogh. Now, he is considered to be a true genius in art. Van Gogh’s works are worth a fortune now but during his lifetime, Van Gogh only sold one single painting–to his own brother.”
Author Corey Huff, writes this about the myth of the starving artist:
“Many artists have bought into a romanticized notion that art is somehow more legitimate if it is created by poor people. This notion was popularized in the mid-19th century by the writer Henri Murger, who wrote Scènes de la vie de bohème a famous French novel about a group of poor artists living in the Bohemian quarter of Paris. The book was wildly popular and it became trendy to be a poor artist.
Over the last 150 years, Murger’s ideas became entrenched in popular culture, and artists hold to the notion that art is a product of the financially unsound and morally superior.”
The idea of the “Starving Artist” is an antiquated notion that leads artists to a mindset that isn’t helpful, to themselves, or their careers. There’s nothing romantic about the idea of struggling your way through life and there’s nothing about poverty that equates to better art. Although, being down and out can serve as motivation for picking yourself up by your boot straps and making things happen.
I think it’s time we drop the idea of the “starving artist” and instead focus on the abundance of examples of artists that are carving out successful paths. Is the life of a musician harder than some career paths? Sure. But so is living a life doing things that don’t bring us any sense of joy or meaning.
Maybe we can’t all be wildly successful and filthy rich as artists, or maybe we can. What I know for sure, is that with a little bit of resourcefulness and a lot of ambition, we can all create lives that are fulfilling, stable and creatively rewarding.
This myth's time has come and gone. No one can afford to starve today. There was a time, for instance, in 1961 when Bob Dylan moved to New York, he constantly was able to crash at friends' apartments. He never even rented his own place until after he signed with Columbia records and that apartment went for $60.00 a month on West 4th street in Greenwich Village. He received a $100.00 dollar advance.
2/4/2016 11:33:15 am
The notion of starving artist is really a direct descendant of the apprenticed artist who tried to go it alone during the Middle ages and the Renaissance period in Europe. Once his patronage stopped, in an age before social welfare, he had no resources to fall back on and therefore often had to semi-starve and or beg/borrow or steal in order to continue his work. Almost every culture has a version of this tale.
2/4/2016 03:23:56 pm
I think the starving artists are alive, if not well. Sure a studio musician can make a great living. But, how many musician's can play well enough to get established in that. Most songwriters I know just barely get by on publishers weekly advances
2/5/2016 10:45:38 am
Thanks for your insightful comment James!
2/5/2016 01:31:50 am
The crashing majority of musicians cannot make a living out of music. $37, 789.00 ? How did you come to this conclusion?? Surely you cannot include session musicians which are but a handful...
2/5/2016 09:49:01 am
This is a good one Aaron. I have big opinions on this one (big surprise there). I started asking to be paid to play music at the early age of 15. I knew some jazz guys in NJ and NYC and they were these jaded older musicians but they were playing constantly and making their living that way. It was all weddings, society gigs, casinos etc... Nothing art about playing Feelings a hundred times a night but it paid. That is where I started and though I always had my artist on board, I would play money gigs when I wasn't honing my craft or writing and recording. I still look at everything I do as money and arty, anti money gig guys drive me a little crazy. I had a full service music company in the 90's and in between doing some pretty big tours with my band ,I was providing services that would add up to 5 figures every year. I actually had an accountant and lawyer. I took about 10 years off making a ton of money as a web developer, but I kept producing music, writing scores making music money in my part time hours. I am getting ready for the big push again to be full time, but I think the starving artist thing is just one attitude to have. My attitude is Abundant Artist and I sticking with it.
2/5/2016 11:04:44 am
Great attitude Keith! No point in sitting around whining about the "good ol days".
2/5/2016 11:06:36 am
Nope. I have been around the biz so long that I remember washing machine sized recorders and Moviolas. Now I have a recording studio on my phone and SMPTE
2/6/2016 12:19:36 am
"Nope. I have been around the biz so long that I remember washing machine sized recorders and Moviolas. Now I have a recording studio on my phone and SMPTE
2/6/2016 07:39:52 am
Well I am sure I agree with that. Not everyone wants to be a star. They just want to create and before you couldn't record unless you had record label backing. Now you can do it on your own. I uses to be signed and have development deals but now if I want to be funded, I work on creating great music and finding fans who really like it and then if I need to take time off work, I crowdfund. I think there are more opportunities than ever before,not less. You just do it differently. You don;t have to wait to be signed.
2/7/2016 02:44:21 am
Yeah, I agree, not everybody wants to be a star, and that's cool. Creatively, with the absolute and strict meaning of what we are talking about, yes, music production has opened up to everybody and that is truly great.
2/7/2016 09:04:15 am
I mostly agree with you John. I do tell my clients that if they are not willing to work hard and persist even when things are not happening,then they should quit and try something else. I don't there is any wasted time, but sometimes you need to stop and think and plan. If you do the work, the universe will provide assistance. Sometimes it's not in a form you expect. You have to be patient and grateful for any help provided. I am kind of like Richard Gere in Officer and a gentleman when he says, "I got nowhere else to go!" I feel like music really is my only path and I keep going no matter what happens or where I am in life. It is a do or die for me. Remember, professional is an attitude,not an aptitude.
2/7/2016 12:02:37 pm
2/8/2016 01:29:08 pm
I hope you don't mistake my view of the music industry as me being hateful or negative. Forgive me if I did.
No worries. I live in reality when I am attending to business. I don't ever work without contracts and I am always accused of being too business like. I came that end and have been recovering my artist. I have been lucky. All the producers and directors I have worked with have been kind and respect me and what I do. I now don't really want to work with anyone unless I like them and they like me. I build the friendships before the work happens it seems.
2/9/2016 12:26:23 am
Cheers Keith, very best!
3/29/2016 03:42:29 pm
Good music always find it way to the audience. Maybe now. Let's keep hopes alive guys. :)
3/30/2016 06:56:29 am
It always has and always will. The format may change but the heart and soul won't
10/5/2016 01:26:26 am
Hmmm, I wish this was so. A lot of very talented people are dealt soul crushing cards in life, so let's not generalise.
10/5/2016 08:27:28 am
I know some of those people. I have quit so many times. But, you have to dust yourself off and keep going. we are doing it for the love first after all.
1/30/2019 06:54:19 am
"Good music always find it way to the audience. Maybe now. Let's keep hopes alive guys. :)"
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