“If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a conservative by the time you’re old, you have no head.”
– Benjamin Disraeli
“Musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them.”
– Louis Armstrong”
About a decade ago, I was a professional artist. Under a stage name, Xenethor, I used to write for TV shows (Good News Week and Talking About Your Generation – 2 million each viewership per week) and was a touring comic who sold out shows all around Australia. I toured full time for about 2 years before quitting and going to university. The life plan I had was to be a full time writer and artist and become famous.
I don’t really talk a lot about that part of my life because it was a lot of talking about my dick on stage and on TV to lots of people. It was something of an embarassment to my conservative Indian parents and is something I avoid mentioning when I want to be taken seriously in the high flying world of technology entrepreneurship and real estate development.
Before I left that world, I had a book deal that would be published if I ever got around to writing it. I never did but there was a ton of half finished ideas and manuscripts and such sitting in an old Dropbox. I recently discovered them again and wanted to publish the ones I thought were done and really liked.
The original idea was going to be a fully fledged novel about a blind drug addict who would take LSD and other hallucinagons because it was the only time he could see. Essentiallly about trauma and his relationship with his dreams. He also had a dog. But then I never finished this book and I didn’t really want to write about it anymore as I saw some of my friends spiral into their own drug addiction.
The other idea I had was about a short stories book full of every short story idea I’d ever had. Lots of writers seem to write these things as compilations of all the half baked ideas they’ve built up over the years. This was what I ended up settling on but I only had 12 months to complete the book. In that time I went through a bad breakup and so the book deal expired before I finished it. Whatever I had done has been sitting in an old Dropbox for the last decade.
A few months later I ended up quitting being a writer and an artist anyway. The major reason I quit being an artist is because I was tired of not making any money. Even as a C list celebrity I was earning about as much as a regular school teacher. The trajectory looked pretty bleak as a career choice. You had to become famous to make any real money and it’s hard to do, even most famous people don’t earn serious money after everyone takes their cut. I didn’t particularly care about the fame but I really wanted to make serious money.
The reason is because the splits of your revenue are actually pretty aggressive. Your agent takes 15%, your publicist takes 15%, your marketing budget is 15%, your travel / accommodation budget is 15% and about 30% goes in producing the show or art work that you’re selling. So you, the artist make about 10% of all the revenue that you generate as a brand.
So if you sell $1m worth of tickets or art in a year, you’ll make about $100k. It’s not very good. Every artist in existence is on a similar split with the machine that turns them into a brand. But the way artists make real money is through scale, if instead they sell $100m worth of art, they’ll make $10m. That’s how it works in Hollywood. You scale the market up to become well compensated for the art you create. If you scale up enough, you’re a rockstar or a movie star.
This is the other reason it’s hard in Australia because Australia as a market for entertainment isn’t big enough to sustain large celebrity entertainment salaries for anyone except the A Listers. In a top down way there just aren’t enough people watching and paying money for the entertainment produced by us for the entertainment companies to pay large sums to the creators. The Australians that made it big actually had to leave Australia for bigger markets like the US.
In a bottom up way the business model for an artist to make a sustainable career is to get 1,000 true fans who will buy everything you make which is hard work. So I learned pretty quickly I cared more about making money than I did about creating art. The romance of a starving artist clashes with reality when you try to put down a house deposit. But the process of software creation and property development feels very much like the same iterative artistic process but with more money and less dick jokes and people take you more seriously.
Something that used to annoy the hell out of me was just about anytime that someone I’d meet found out I was a comic, they’d ask me to tell them a joke. Like ok man, dance monkey dance. But that’s the public perception of what it means to be a comedian, you’re a clown and your life is a joke and you’re not a serious person.
I’m much much happier in where I ended up and don’t think I’d ever go back to the art world. But it is nice to talk about kind of like an old washed up rockstar talks about the glory days of their band. Even though they’re much happier as an accountant or lawyer or whatever and the romance of their old days ignores that they were much worse than even they remember.
Like I remember sometimes when you’d do a season at a festival. Because the festival pays you at the end based on how many tickets you sold, even if you sold out the whole thing, you’re super broke for that whole month. My favourite hack at the beginning was getting a nice bedding set and crashing back stage at the venue to save on accommodation costs. That was until I got big enough for companies to start paying for the hotels.
The other reason being an artist is less lucrative is because it’s a hits driven business. If your new art work doesn’t sell, you don’t make any money. Or sometimes one festival will generate more income than another festival or one piece of work earns more than the other. This is particularly bad because the apparatus of society isn’t built to have someone like this with lumpy income. Any artist who has ever tried to get a home loan will empathise.
But in a standard career you trade that hits driven unpredictability for consistency, you have predictable and consistent income. That predictability and consistency I think is the secret weapon of conventional career choices over the arts. Because it lasts a lifetime, as a lawyer you will have a fairly straightforward career for 40 years. But as an artist, you might be a one hit wonder like I felt I was, where you might have a great 5 years but a shitty 40 years.
This is where the property and software made my life much much less stressful because even though entrepreneurship is stressful, it’s nowhere near as stressful as the arts. But also the highs aren’t as big. One thing that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top in the non art world is a stadium gig. That is a high that only exists in the art world that you cannot get anywhere close to in the non-art world.
Going on stage to 25,000 people is it’s own particular kind of euphoria and even though it’s been a decade since, it’s still one of the all time highlights of my life. For one thing, they tell you to wear a jacket because it’s cold. Why? Because when 25,000 people all laugh at the same time, the air collects and the back and then rushes at you at once so after each time you tell a joke it’s like getting hit with a giant gust of wind.
You also have to change your timing and way you speak because everyone is hearing what you say at different times, a second after each other as the sound is travelling. So it sounds like canons going off in front of you and you have to wait 5 seconds before telling the next joke. The high after the stadium gigs are unlike anything I think I’ll ever experience again life. I don’t think doing well in business is something that comes anywhere close to it, even though in business your life is better than it ever was as a creative artist.
That’s what my mentors in comedy used to say to me backstage. At the peak, I was managed by the same agency as John Cleese, Dylan Moran and Ross Noble. The absurdist comics were the ones I was most similar too and spent time with. But I was scared to death of and I didn’t want to become them someday. They were all depressed, alcoholics with failing marriages who were never in the same city long enough to maintain their relationships and friendships. And that’s what 20 years as a comedian does to you, even if you’re successful and make a lot of money.
The reason is because touring means being by yourself all the time. Even though comics have more consistent income than actors because they get paid everytime they go on stage. Because your physical presence is required for a show, touring is lonely and depressing. The recurring message that I’d get told was that happiness is something that is elusive to the comedian and if you want a good life, you should leave the industry.