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  • Kelli

10 Ways for the Artist to Survive Unemployment

Updated: Sep 12, 2020


Thanks, Stephen Sondheim!

If you’re reading this, then you’re likely in the same predicament that I find myself in.  You’re frustrated, struggling, pinching pennies to make rent, and wondering when your time will come.  You think back to your early college days, when your elders gave you looks of sympathy as you told them which major you’d be pursuing.  You wonder how long you can hold out before you sell out and assume a “realistic” or “practical” career choice.  Well, first and foremost I’m here to tell you that this period in your life is TEMPORARY.  All artists, musicians, actors, directors, producers, aspiring-anythings begin at the starting line.  The difference between success and failure is perseverance. So, keep the faith. Your time is coming.

Here are 10 Ways for the Artist to Survive Unemployment:

1. Be Smart With Your Money

This sort of goes without saying, but it’s absolutely the most important.  If you can’t afford to live in your apartment in the place you want to work in, you can’t worry about getting a job.  Prioritize your IMMEDIATE expenses FIRST – things like rent, utilities, insurance, transportation, food (etc), and of these, make sure you have the most affordable option of each.  Are you paying for cable? Are you living in a luxury building? Are you taking advantage of public transportation? Are you eating out a lot? Weigh the pros and cons of comfort vs. cost.  Everyone is different, but make sure you’re okay with the amount of money that comes out of your bank account each month for basic living expenses.  Once you sanction off a bit of your income/savings for these things, put that money aside and DON’T TOUCH IT.  Know the difference between superfluity and a once in a lifetime opportunity.  (PS – There will always be a million ‘once in a lifetime opportunities.’  Know which ones are worth going into debt for and which ones are better left OFF of your Visa statement.)

2. Find Some Side Hustles 

You may be waiting for your “big break,” but that doesn’t mean you have to be devoid of income in the meantime!  Find a few (yes, a few) side hustles to help get you through the days/weeks.  I’m not talking about a part-time shift at the coffee shop around the corner (unless that’s something that fills your soul and makes you feel inspired)!  Do some soul searching, and make a list of what you’re good at.  Are you good with kids?  Market yourself as an arts-focused nanny who will incorporate artistic activities into the kid’s day.  Are you a painter?  Present your work on Facebook and advertise commissions!  Are you good with a camera?  Start your own photography company.  Are you a skilled actor, musician, or artist? OFFER LESSONS AT COMPETITIVE PRICES. Not only will you enjoy doing these things because it will fill your day with activities that you love doing, but you’ll also be making an extra chunk of change.  Who knows, it could evolve into your primary source of income!

3. Be a Jack of All Trades

This one is tricky because it goes exactly AGAINST what we were conditioned to be in college.  When you’re in school, you’re forced to choose a TRACK, a FOCUS, an APPLIED INSTRUMENT.  Your degree is in music or art or theatre, but you are an artist of a specific discipline within that field.  NOT ANYMORE!  Take this free time to research your field and learn something new that might make you more competitive.  Are you a musical theatre actor?  Learn an instrument!  Are you a film director?  Shadow a theatre director!  Be open to adapting to the evolution of your field, maybe you’ll find yourself ahead of the times!

4. Keep Getting Better

A continuation from #3…

Remember when you were in school juggling classes, exams, homework, work, family, friends, relationships, a social life, and you thought “there just needs to be more hours in the day!?”  Well, now there are!  Don’t spend them cooped up in your apartment watching Netflix, spend them IMPROVING!  Practice your instrument, take acting classes, read plays, bring your sketchbook to the park and draw strangers, spend time doing research at the library, analyze characters in movies, in books, in television shows.  Fill your days with constructive learning and make productive use of your lack of time-sucking commitments!

5. Put Yourself Out There 

This goes without saying as well… You will not find a job by waiting for it to fall into your lap.  You must be proactive!  Find out where the job openings for your field are being advertised and check every day for new updates.  Reach out to companies or individuals you would love to work for and express your passion for their cause.  Ask to shadow individuals who currently have the jobs that you would someday want!  Not only does this give you invaluable experience, but it also gives you a connection and an “in.”  People are much more likely to welcome you into their community for an hour or two if they know you are genuinely interested in the goings on, and aren’t just gunning for a job.  Once you have had that experience, send them a thank you note.  Allow some time to pass, and then ask them if they can send your resume along if they hear of anything you may be good for. (The trick here is not saying “Can I have a job?”  It’s much easier for someone to simply forward your resume rather than coming up with a career opportunity for you within their means.)

6. Keep the Inspiration Alive

Staying focused and keeping the faith requires a lot of mental and emotional discipline.  When you endure day after day of waking up and making the conscious choice to strive and starve for your dreams, you can get tired.  You may be feeling that right now!  You’ll find those opposing thoughts starting to forge their way into your mind.  You’ll think “What’s the point?” or “Why bother?”  You may even tell yourself you aren’t good enough.  Well, here’s the thing.  You wouldn’t have made it this far if you “weren’t good enough.”  Remember what I said before?  The difference between success and failure is perseverance.  I know that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier right now, but the key to avoiding those feelings of doubt, is to STAY inspired!  Think back to the experience you had that made you take interest in the art form in the first place.  Think back to that moment of validation you experienced when someone else saw your potential.  Go see a musical with a giant tap number.  Go wander a museum on a rainy weekday when everyone else is at work.  Go see your favorite opera.  Go experience a tangible reminder of WHY you’re doing this.  You’re putting in the work now, go get a taste of the reward you have to look forward to!

7. Have an Inexpensive Social Life

As fun as it is to have a bougie brunch at the overpriced boutique cafe in your neighborhood, it’s far too easy to spend what would usually last you a week on a single meal.  If you can master the art of the inexpensive social life, I promise you will be amazed at how much money you will end up with.  Make a list of 10 activities you can do that cost little/no money at all.  Instead of having bottomless mimosas, invite your friends over and have a brunch potluck!  Have a movie night.  Walk in the park.  Play a board game.  Have a rooftop BBQ at someone’s apartment.  Raid Facebook Events and find out what free things are happening in your community!

8. Keep on a Schedule

As easy as it is to sleep in ’til noon each day and nap the day away, AVOID IT.  When you have a job, everything else is sort of structured around those hours where you are SUPPOSED to be somewhere.  Treat unemployment the same way.  I try to schedule at least one meeting/event per day that gets me out of the apartment at a SPECIFIC time.  With just that one agenda item, suddenly the rest of my tasks and to-do items get sorted into other pockets of time, and my day is structured.

9. Expand Your Community

If you’re new to an area (like I am!) and can count the  number of people you know on one hand, it’s time to expand your community!  As fun and helpful as it is to have friends who are fellow artists who understand your STRUGGLE, bear in mind that variety is the spice of life! It’s always good to have a diverse friend group comprised of people with different backgrounds and different career paths.  Friendships can explode out of any situation or circumstance – go to a workout class, talk to someone on the subway, they even have apps to make friends (Hey! VINA is my personal fav)! Also, remember that friendships take time.  As much as we’d love to jump into life with a Phoebe, Monica, Chandler, and Joey by our sides IMMEDIATELY, it doesn’t always happen that fast. Know that, trust that, and invest in others what you want invested in you. (Yes, I left out Rachel and Ross because no one really cares about them, right?)

10. Start Where You Are

This is the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given, and in turn it is the best piece of advice that I can bestow upon YOU.  Do what you can where you are with what you have.  The coolest thing about this field, is that it’s full of dreamers and doers who had an idea and collaborated with other people to make it happen.  So, don’t wait for a job opening to come along to start doing your thing.  Do it now.  You want to be a thriving musician?  Go play your instrument on the subway platform.  You want to work in film?  Start a YouTube channel.  You want to be a writer?  Holy Jesus pick up the freakin’ pen and WRITE already.  Don’t wait for permission.  Don’t wait for an opportunity, just start.

The daily struggle and constant not-knowing is enough to wear anyone down.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you that a career in the arts is “easy.”  We are magicians.  We are creators.  We are professionals at making something out of nothing.  No one else can do what we can do.  Artists have an invaluable PLACE in this world, an invaluable ROLE in this world, an invaluable duty TO this world, and we need you.  So don’t give up, there’s so much more to be discovered, to be exposed, to be created!


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