“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.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.