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Pursue an Artistic Career? Advice for You and Parents

Careers as writer, actor, artist, musician are seductive but worth the risk?

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

I know how seductive artistic activities can be. Starting when I was 12, I was a professional pianist in New York City. By the time I was 22, I had played more than 2,000 union professional gigs. My books and articles have earned me well into six figures. I've acted and directed a number of plays.

But how do you figure out if you should pursue a artistic career? And If you're a parent of an adult child, should you support your child's desire for such a career?

Here is what I've learned from having been career counselor to hundreds of aspiring writers, artists, actors, and musicians

Of course, the decision is easier if the goal is a lower-risk artistic career, for example: technical writer or high-end graphic designer with business expertise. But artistic types usually don't crave those sorts of careers.

Alas, few people land the jobs that most artistic types do crave, for example, rock musician, staff artist at Pixar, or fashion designer.

Sure, if have a degree from Yale School of Drama or UCLA's screenwriting program, won prestigious awards, or already are making at least decent money from your creative output, you have a reasonable shot of getting to live without three roommates.

But typical wannabe artistes that graduated from a low-name arts college and sold only a few hundred bucks of their art or make $75 a performance, and whose praise has mainly come, not from people who'd be paying them but from biased sources such as friends, family, and teachers, are very unlikely to make enough from their creative output to earn even a modest living throughout the decades of their working life.They probably won't even earn enough from their artistic efforts to pay back their student loans.

Far more likely, such people will, for much or all of their life, be living off the taxpayer or, if they're lucky, off their parents willing to sacrifice their financial security so their kid can pursue that life-long summer camp called the artist's life.

The artist's life may sound romantic but too often the reality is having to live in Section 8 housing with the aforementioned roommates, being one of the 47 million on food stamps, and having to cut your pills in half because you can't afford your medication. Nothing romantic about that.

Ironically, so many people end up unhappy in creative careers. They have to spend so much time, not on their art but on hawking their wares--in auditions that too rarely turn into gigs, most of which end up waiting in the wings, sending out their writing, or shlepping canvases that finally gets accepted into a gallery only to find that most of it doesn't sell and half the money of what does sell goes to the gallery. Many former artists end up happier in a "straight" job, with a team to fall back on and be social with, and a steady paycheck.

So if my child were the wannabe artist who just graduated from some low-name art, music, or creative or journalistic writing program, this is what I'd say:

I love you and want to encourage you to pursue a life path that you think is wise. I also don't want to hurt my relationship with you by not supporting you.

But I recognize that parenting doesn't end at a specific age. I wouldn't ignore a stranger about to get run over by a bus so I certainly can't ignore your likelihood of getting run over by a "bus" because of your career choice.

After all, even after years of trying, most wannabe artists still show no signs of an even survival-living artistic career. What they are still seeing is that mountain of student debt. And at that point, they have a tough time landing a decent-paying stable, ethical "straight" job because employers advertising such a job are understandably reluctant to hire a would-be actor, water colorist, or documentary filmmaker over someone who, soon after college, started a career related to that straight job.

Do remember that if you do your craft as a serious sideline or hobby, you'll likely be happier than if it were your primary source of livelihood. For example, you could more likely get great roles in amateur theatre. You could write or create art you love rather than because it was commercial. You could still get to play music gigs on the weekend. You could host a show on YouTube, public-access TV, or on a podcast. You could have great creative freedom as a sound or lighting designer for community theatre. And you wouldn't have to spend so much of your time marketing your art to moneyed interests. And if that serious avocation started to yield serious money, you could then quit your straight job.

As you know, young adults are notorious for making unwise risky decisions: That's why they get into so many car accidents. That's why so many abuse drugs. That's why so many have unprotected sex. I believe the decision to try to make your living as an artist is indeed very risky.

But if you decide you want to pursue your art as your primary source of livelihood, I'll emotionally support you no matter what--unless you're taking drugs, for example, using the now-proven-to be de-motivating pot.

But now that you've graduated from college, I'll only support you financially for a few months more to give you a chance to work full-time on your craft while finding a day job that would further your artistic career, for example, as a personal assistant to the cinematographer you aspire to be.

If you want, I'd be pleased to work with you to create a business plan for your artistic career: what your niche should be, how you plan to make a decent living at it, how you'll build your brand and promote your work, whom you'll network with, etc.

And if you like, we'd agree on a date you'd circle on your calendar: one, two, or even three years from now. On that date, we'd sit down and take a clear-eyed look at your prospects for making a good-enough, long-term-enough living from your artistic pursuits. You wouldn't find it fun to, at age 40, realize you need to get hired in some new career---That is far from easy.

Because I love you, I would love to remain your career consiglieri but not your long-term cash cow despite their being no sign you'll make your livelihood at it. It feels wrong to hurt my own financial security for a long shot. Besides, it would hurt you, making you less efficacious--like those trust-fund babies and welfare recipients that end up lazy because they know that someone else will always pay their bills. It takes a real toll on your self-esteem to go through life always being dependent on your parents or the taxpayer.

Yes, this is tough love but I believe it's the best love I can give you.

So dear aspirant to an artistic career or parent of one, of course, every person is different. So, for you, what do you think is the wisest plan?