Artists and Debt

Alright guys. Here’s a meaty one.

So. I have a pretty hard stance on Artists and Debt. There’s a great Blog out there called Mr. Money Moustache (if you don’t know who he is, look him up, and read him, he’s terrific) that basically tells its readers to “get rid of debt like your hair is on fire”. While he’s pretty harsh, I tend to agree. I’m going to say, flat out, that eliminating any and all debt is one of the best ways to ensure that you can continue on in your chosen artistic field. Lower overhead will make your life easier, and will make it possible for you to work in a lower (or barely) paying field for a longer amount of time than you would be able to with lots of bills and debts hanging about.

But, okay. You’re barely making enough money to survive. You wait tables, take odd gigs, and sometimes get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you think about paying the minimum monthly payment (yet again) on your credit card. How is it going to change? How can you ever get that ball rolling in the right direction, and pick up enough momentum to make any kind of difference? While it would be nice to just get the Broadway phone call, sign a $2,000 a week production contract, and kiss your money woes goodbye, I’m going to address this in a somewhat more realistic, maybe even somber manner. My friends- it’s rice and beans time.

No, seriously. It doesn’t have to be rice and beans. It could be sunflower seeds. Or Ramen. Or bulk bags of rice. Or frozen vegetables. I have a friend who spends $100 for AN ENTIRE MONTH of food. I know this is a little ridiculous. I tease him about it sometimes. But, we could all take a page out of his book from time to time. Sit down, look at your monthly food spending. And actually add up all the money you’ve spent on food. Grocery store. Random Chocolate Bar. Drinks at a Bar. Restaurants. Coffee Shop. And look at the number. Oooh, it’s a little bigger than you thought, isn’t it?

I’m not saying that you literally have to go down to eating rice and beans and peanuts from a ziplock bag EVERY day. I actually don’t think you should- I think that socializing with friends, and networking at bars, restaurants, etc, is a crucial thing. But- if there’s a day that you have some fruit and nuts and a yogurt in the middle of the day, rather than a stop at Chipotle, you’ve spent about $2.50 instead of $7. Do that 8 times, and you suddenly have an extra $44 to put towards your credit card’s minimum payment.

None of this is easy. Easy is quitting your artistic pursuits, working at an office doing something random for 40 hours a week, and suddenly having more money. And ultimately, you will eventually need more money to be able to support yourself long term- cutting corners is just the quick fix. But without the initial corner cutting, you’ll never be able to build the oh so necessary cushion- that extra $1,000 that makes you feel comfortable enough to take a week to work on a life changing gallery exhibit, or audition for that Off-Broadway show that might not cover your monthly living expenses, but could possibly launch your career.







Rule #4: Creating Apprenticeships

A while back, I wrote a post titled “Looking for better odds”. It’s sort of the guideline post of this blog. In the post, I write about 10 career/strategic rules that I attempt to work with in my professional life. This is an expansion on rule number 4.

In the arts, it’s very easy to see your heroes and idols creating interesting work, and then seeing yourself on the outside of that world. The “Us/Them” mentality is definitely detrimental- it creates walls between you and the thing you want, and once you start seeing the world that way, it becomes really difficult to move forward. I think the best way to take yourself out of this line of thinking is to try to learn directly from those you aspire to be like.

There’s no question that approaching an idol or artistic hero can be scary. But when so many of the success stories that I read begin with “well, I wrote so and so a letter” or, “I went up to so and so at the show he was directing and asked if I could work with him”, I think that all those people must be on to something. Most of the time, if you aspire to be like one of your idols, dedicate a lot of time, energy, and passion to emulating them, and demonstrate a strong work ethic, said idol will want to take you under their wing, at least to some extent.

I don’t think that every mentor/mentee relationship we strive to create will be live-changing. Yet, I do think that these relationships open a LOT of doors, and help young/emerging/not quite established artists both start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and help foster a sense of “yes, I do belong in this artistic world too”.

So, what are you waiting for? It’s cold, snowy, and awful outside (at least if you’re in NYC). What a perfect day for writing a nice letter to someone you admire!

Long term Goal Setting for Artists

In many ways, I believe an artist needs to manage his or her time like a CEO. This is hard. If you have a job that involves, let’s say, data entry from 10-6PM, you’ve got a VERY clear cut idea of what needs to happen each day. You go sit at your desk, you enter and perhaps manipulate some data, and you can clearly see what you’ve accomplished. The job involves completing a set task, and with a rather small amount of mental energy, you can dedicate yourself to the task at hand and see results.

When I talk to artists, though, the picture looks a LOT more like that of a higher level executive. Most artists that I talk to, myself included, discover that only a percentage of their time is spent actually, you know, “arting” (writing, physically making up choreography, putting paint to a canvas). The rest of the time is spent on “branding”, “marketing”, “relationship building”, “networking”, “publicity”, and “financial assessment of the product”. These nebulous items can make or break an artistic career, but they’re hard to prioritize and often difficult to create concrete action items from. These tasks no longer look like those of an artist- but those of a business owner. The skills needed to build a long term successful business are almost identical to those needed to build a long term successful artist. It’s just with a business, there’s a product. As an artist, the product is you.

Now, I’m sure this is all sounding fairly familiar to those of you who have read some productivity books, and some business/creativity books. But, even so, I think this lesson bears repeating. Just as a business needs a business plan to succeed, so to does an artist need an “artist plan” to succeed. A business plan might be drawn up so that a business looks solvent enough to take out a business loan. As an artist, your goals should be so concrete to you that you could take out an “artist loan” (or, at the very least, apply for a fellowship or grant in your chosen artistic field).

A business plan might ask you where you see your business headed in the next six months, year, or five years. You could very well ask yourself this as an artist. What long term projects to you hope to have accomplished by 2019? Sure, it sounds like a lot of time now…but doesn’t it feel like 2009 was just yesterday? Have you accomplished as much artistically as you might have from 2009-2014? I’m not saying that every day needs to be micromanaged to a T. However, I do believe that long term artistic projects don’t just materialize out of thin air. Creating an exhibition of your own work is HARD. Creating a full length dance theater piece is HARD. Writing a full-length novel is HARD. But a broken down plan might make it a little easier.

For instance, we can look at a common artistic goal in two ways:

1) Gee, I really want to write a book one day.


2) I am going to write a book.
By The end of March, I will have a plot development outline, and I will have details written on each of the major characters.
By the end of June, I will have the first three chapters written.
By the end of September, I will have three more chapters written.
I will continue at this pace of one chapter a month.
By The middle of 2016 (give or take), I will have a completed draft of my novel.

Who do you think is getting their book done?

A business doesn’t just become a fortune 500 company overnight. And most of the time, an artist isn’t just going to burst forth onto the scene with an amazing piece of work he or she developed in a weekend. But, if you put the hours in, even the most impossibly large tasks, goals, and projects can be broken down into manageable tasks.

A Normal Day

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a dear friend about wearing 5 inch stiletto heels in Manhattan. Now, I’m usually wearing the same pair of multipurpose orthopedic walking boots wherever I go- if you know me in person, you’ve definitely seen me in them. I’ll wear them to a Broadway show, out running errands, or to a bar in Brooklyn. It’s not that I never put on a pair of heels…but it’s rare. It’s definitely not my normal. But, wearing stilettos is my friend’s normal, and that’s perfectly alright. We just have different definitions of A Normal Day on this particular subject. For her, wearing a nice pair of heels is the standard- and for me, wearing a pair of multipurpose walking shoes the go to choice.

This got me thinking about A Normal Day on a much bigger level. How do you define a normal day? We all have the ability to make several hundred choices between the time we wake up and the time we go to sleep. Many of them are just second nature, and are things we don’t even think much about anymore.  I, for instance, usually wake up around 8:30AM if I’m working from home. This leaves me with enough time to make some coffee and oatmeal, and still start working on my business or correspondence by around 9AM. My normal NEVER involves setting a 6AM alarm- but maybe I’d get a lot more done if it did!

Today, I invite you to think about some of the choices you don’t even think about- some of the things that happen in your life on autopilot, because they’re so ingrained in your “normal” routine. Do you normally watch an hour of TV? Do you normally play candy crush on the subway? Do you normally get to the gym, or normally not? I’m not asking you, or even inviting you, to make any changes to the “Normal” today- I’m just asking you to think about it. Are you happy with what’s “Normal” on a day to day basis? Are there ways in which “Normal” could be better?

Also, try thinking about what your “Normal” is from a larger perspective. I think as artists, a lot of us have an idea that “Normal” always involves struggling financially. Or that “Normal” always involves hustling for the next gig. Or working three, four, or five random part time jobs just to continue to act, or dance, or photograph, or write. What if it didn’t?

Chosing to work a little bit more OR drops in the bucket

Today, I had the opportunity to substitute teach at a dance studio in Brooklyn (Thanks L!). I wasn’t sure if I wanted it. After all, I had more than enough on my plate for the day, and I could have easily just gone to the gym and gone home. But a little voice (the voice that writes this blog, really), said “don’t you think this is a silly opportunity to turn down?”. So, I taught the class. Of course, I had a lovely time, built the foundation for a new relationship with a dance studio in my neighborhood, and am all in all slightly further “ahead” today than I would have been if I turned the gig down.

A a freelancer, I have to make these decisions almost daily. Do I want the extra shift? The unpaid project? The random substitute dance class? There’s no clear answer, really, on when to take and not take most of these little extra gigs that always come up. But I think there’s definitely one rule to follow: If something appears out of nowhere that actually might help you build a positive relationship with another artist, studio, or community that you might want to be a part of- figure out a way to make it work.

In the end, I didn’t quite accomplish all of the business odds and ends I had initially set out to do, but I did do something that stretched me a bit, and expanded my personal network. Whenever I do do something like this, I like to think of it as a little “drop” in my proverbial bucket- something that’s very slowly helping me creep my way towards something that looks like success.