Busting Myths: Starving Artists Aren’t Real

By Megan Grady

Do you have a student who’s extremely musically or artistically inclined or one who is passionate about pursuing the arts for college and beyond? Does the idea of your child trying to “make it” as an artist worry you? I’m here to unpack the antiquated idea that a career in the arts is a death-sentence on your salary, lifestyle or economic stability/mobility. Sure, it requires a lot of hard work to sustain a life as a musician (or other artist) and there are certain aspects that are far short of perfect, but who’s job is really secure and perfect these days?

The idea of the “starving artist” traces back to the Boehmians, a term that was designated to the artistic population in Paris in the nineteenth century. Without going into a full-blown history lesson, I’ll summarize by saying that this was the period when the idea of putting your art before the comforts of life became popular and has remained a stereotype since. The flaw of the stereotype is that it’s not particularly realistic, at least not in the Romantic era sense of dying-without-a-penny-to-your-name and “only famous after death” scenarios.

The myth is long-overdue for being debunked. Artists now have to possess more skills than being a sheer genius at their art form in order to be successful. There are only so many Renée Fleming’s and Yo-Yo Ma’s in the world - not everyone needs to strive to be famous. Making a living as an artist is not always about acquiring fame, but rather is about finding success within your target audience.

What does a musician or other artist look like today? The skills that the most successful artists possess involve (but are not limited to):

  • Creativity - inherent and acquired skills, the desire to take risks, constantly pushing to create something new and better. Many musicians are naturally creative, but for many, it takes practice to expand this skillset.
  • Business skills - marketing, networking, and entrepreneurship are crucial to finding success as an artist in the 21st century. Many colleges have started to incorporate arts-specific business skills into their classes to help prepare students, as well as arts administration or music business concentrations/majors.
  • Flexibility - being an artist requires a good dose of patience and the ability to be flexible. This could mean flexibility in where you live to meet market needs or flexibility in how you build your career - generally being open to change is a cornerstone of managing a successful artistic life.
  • Taking opportunities - many musicians wouldn’t have ended up on the path they are on, if someone had not said “hey I think you’d be a good at this.” Be open to saying yes to opportunities that may not seem appealing, may seem too overwhelming to try or you may think have nothing to do with your musical interests. Take the opportunities - if nothing else, you’ll learn something about yourself!

The tenants of being a successful artist parallel the skills needed for any career in the 21st century: creativity, entrepreneurship, opportunities, flexibility, willingness to accept a “non-traditional” life which is how we’re all going to be working over the next twenty years. The good news is, early studies are showing that Generation Z* students are primed for entrepreneurial careers and thinking creatively, so they’re the perfect generation to find success with an artistic background and make something of themselves.

I think about my own life and reflect on how I’ve “avoided” the starving artist trope, without “giving up” or “selling out” on my musical interests. For example, I’m writing this on a Saturday morning and my day looks like this: I woke up, brewed some coffee, threw some clothes in the wash, warmed-up on my clarinet, reviewed notes from lessons I taught this week, wrote this blog post, and then headed off to a rehearsal with a colleague for our upcoming recital. Monday I’ll go back to my full-time job as a music admission counselor at a university, a career path that runs tandem to my “artistic” endeavors and is one that I fell into from student work in my undergraduate and graduate years.

How did I avoid becoming a stereotype myself? Exactly the same reasons I’ve presented - creativity, taking opportunities, networking and being flexible with how I incorporate all of my interests into my life and career(s). Sure, I’m not performing in the career I dreamed for myself, but I find that my life is so much more engaging than I could have ever pictured, with the ability to pursue all of my interests at once. And I’m not alone - just in my own circle of colleagues and friends, I know plenty who balance a job in arts administration in addition to a teaching or performing career. Many have their own studios and hefty performance schedules, others teach in public and private schools as band or choir directors. Some run their own music festivals, perform as sponsored artists for companies, or are university professors. Others have “normal” careers where their creative skills and background in the arts are appreciated on their teams, even if they only play in community ensembles. None of these people are a starving artist because they utilize the skills necessary to support themselves and their career. It just takes thinking outside the box and a willingness to take risks on yourself and your career.

Further resources on being an artist in 2017:

21st Century Musician

The Savvy Musician

Myth of the Starving Artist

The Artist Myth

*Source: Generation Z Goes to College

Megan Grady is an Associate Woodwinds Teacher at AWSOM. Megan holds her master’s in clarinet performance from Florida State University and her bachelor’s in music from The College of William & Mary in Virginia. As a clarinetist, she has been a featured alumni for the Delta Omicron International Music Fraternity Triennial Conference and was the winner of the William & Mary Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition. Megan currently performs with the South Sound Symphonic Band and the Washington Wind Symphony; additionally, she has been a substitute with Symphony Tacoma, the Rainier Symphony and other area groups.

To learn more about Megan, please visit her bio page, and to sign up for lessons with AWSOM, fill out our Enrollment Form.

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