Startup VS Job VS Artist

May 2014

(Followup Essay to Startup VS Job)


“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.”

– Jane Wagner


“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

– Vincent Van Gogh


After writing the previous essay, received an email asking for the same thing for an artist. It seemed like fun. The art world is a different story. I don’t know if there is a typical trajectory an artist follows. I was only an artist for a couple of years so didn’t experience the full time horizon. But did experience a selection of it and can extrapolate from that.

I think what happens is most experience some success, get burntout and give up. But the success of the ones who stick at it are way more heavily influenced by luck. Like something really lucky will happen and then an artist will achieve some surge of notability which will get them noticed by important people who take them on to proceed with a career. So a good rule of thumb is to always be creating things because that improves the chances of that lucky thing happening to you. This can take a long time and is a demoralising process.

After that initial surge, even if you make a lot of money, the reality of how long it takes to actually establish yourself as a blue chip successful artist kicks in. By blue chip, I mean the kind of things society might turn to and depend on for consistent entertainment, distraction or emotional connection.

That’s when you hit the drop off. For me this happened when I started touring and realised that 90% of my time was spent in places I’d never been to, long stretches in airports and empty hotel rooms, surrounded by egotistical people I didn’t like, all to spend 10% of my time entertaining people I didn’t know in exchange for their money, of which a quarter of the time they didn’t get or even like what I was doing.

Touring is both a very gratifying and also very miserable experience. It’s amazing while you’re young and it’s a new thing but the novelty quickly wares off. The first year on tour was probably one of the best years of life.
It’s like travelling full time for a job. You get to visit all these new places, meet new people and try new things. The sheer quantities of new sights and experiences is like living in a kind of heightened awareness. 1 year spent on tour feels like you’ve lived 4 years.

But then the dread kicks in that you might have to do decades worth of this to actually be a career. It’s suited for a certain type of person. Someone who loves meeting people and travel. Almost exclusively. Or someone who really loves their art.

The big secret is most of the time is actually spent in transit. And you have no control over what you do half the time. Your agent just sends you an itinerary off all the places you need to be and then you go there to perform your show. After a while the airports and hotel rooms start to blur into each other. And there’s a phenomenon where you see so many faces, and they’re all looking at you, that you get a constant feeling of deja vu.

The worst part is you are constantly away from nearly everyone you know. Being surrounded by people you know is something lots of people take for granted. And so being on the road constantly is a very lonely experience. A colleague of mine put it really poetically. After a while you get tired of a sea of faces and just want to spend time with people you know and love.

If you were a soldier fighting some noble cause, there would be some solace in spending so much time away, but there isn’t. You’re just entertaining people. The same entertainment they could get from their laptop or television, at triple the price. All of this is compounded by the fragile and default emotional state of being an artist. Especially in a time of technology where individual pieces of art such as films and albums sell for much less, you recover nearly all your money while on tour, selling stuff.

This was kind of a soul crushing realisation and when I decided to quit. The art world wasn’t for me. It’s like trying to milk all of your self worth and self esteem from 10% of your time. The other 90% feels like it gets wasted. And it makes relationships very difficult to maintain. You have no friends, but in a distorted way where you feel like you don’t, whilst also surrounded by people constantly.

You kind of have this weird feeling that you don’t actually do anything. That you’ve just managed to pull an elaborate trick on everyone and they think you’re someone much bigger than you are and give you money just to be in front of you for a little while and to hear you speak. It’s a testament to conceit really, and it’s so easy to slip and start to believe your own marketing.

After a while, I felt some weird need to do something worthwhile with my life afterwards. To try and help people or because you feel a bit parasitic. You don’t contribute to society as say a policeman or nurse does. You do the opposite. You keep people from doing perhaps more valuable things. And you take their money. If you really don’t love the art, it starts to become crushing and overwhelming very quickly.

There is also no real such thing as job security. So it’s common to be earning a lot one year, then to earn next to nothing the following year, then earn a lot again the year after. You put a piece of art into the market and see how well it responds. If it responds well, you make money, if not you don’t. And at any given moment there are thousands of young aspiring artists hoping to replace you.

But if your art is really your life’s calling and you love it so much that you can overcome the negatives and make the most out of the positives. Then you’re going to be rich. All you have to do is make unique, good art and be around long enough. Eventually you’ll find a following who will give you money. And many people want recognition more than money anyway.

The great majority of artists spend most of their careers in obscurity. Embarking on a career in the arts is akin to saying you are trying to be famous. Because the amount you earn is a direct result of how famous you are. It means trying to convince people en masse how great you are and is like the optimum conversion funnel. Wanting to be an artist but not be famous is an oxymoron, it’s like wanting to start a technology company without having any users.

Emotionally you are in constant flux. Because the highs of doing what you do are so high, the lows are so low because they are the absence of the highs. It’s like a drug, then you go a long time without getting it so get depressed and feel withdrawel symptoms.

I remember the first time I got off stage from my first ever stadium gig and I was literally shaking from the high. I was still shaking hours later. Pretty sure I was still shaking the next day. It wasn’t until the following week did the down hit and I was depressed for the next month. It felt like the entire world and everything around me was moving too slowly and I was travelling at super speed.

It’s because the ups are so surreal and scary, it triggers all sorts of survival instincts, euphoria and neurotransmitters that warps your experiences. You actually feel like you’ve conquered the world. The only thing I’ve felt a similar rush doing is skydiving.

The sad part is everyone has an opinion and they like to give it to you. No one is just happy consuming your art, they always want to pass judgement on it. And you experience this warped funnel of intense despair, exhaustion, unappreciation and pride like you are being criticised or complemented by everyone you come into contact with, all the time.

Like if you put a tennis ball in a washing machine, it hits the walls and gets tossed around constantly. The walls of the proverbial washing machine are peoples opinions. And everyone acts as if they are entitled to you, like as a direct result of your public profile every person is entitled to a part of your attention and cast judgement on you.

Audiences have total apathy towards an artists plight. Nobody cares. The public sees fame as the end result in itself, the same way they view money, as if all problems melt away or can be solved as a self fulfilling band aid by being rich or well known. “Who cares if they’re upset, they’re famous?”

Sometimes people who are just unhappy with their lives take it out on you, the artist, for no explicable reason. Because people in general see you as a person but what you are is a product. But that distinction isn’t readily apparent in their minds. So you get a weird phenomena of people saying how much they love you yet they don’t know anything about you.

What they’re actually saying is they love your brand but it doesn’t occur to the median person that you are in fact a brand, you’re not a person anymore, you’re a product. Like any product you can’t please everyone and there are a ton of angry customer service emails. They expect you to be human as well as provide a service so as a result hold you, the artist, to a much higher degree of social integrity.

Everything you do wrong is microanalysed and scrutinised. Why are people really surprised when a celebrity has a failed marriage? Tons of people do. But this is an insult when the person is famous to people who don’t know anything about it. This affects new artists the most as it first starts to happen to them. But over time you just get used to and get over it.

It’s a common human trope to worship idols dating back to religion and ancient times. Famous people are modern day versions of religious idols. So the stress felt by a lot of particularly famous artists is to live up to the inflated egotism of self and societally imposed expectations and becomes a self defeating prophecy. You end up plagued with self doubts.

This was the main reason I quit. I really didn’t like that to be successful you would have to become a certain type of person and to not is to swim against the current. And that you can put so much effort and parts of yourself into a piece and have a critic tear it to bits. Coupled with the realisation that I didn’t actually like doing this and am a quiet person who likes peace. The arts are definitely not for that, or at least not the version I experienced.

Most of art is actually not creating art. It’s doing paperwork. There are a thousand things that have to be done; insurance, venue booking, marketing, film, makeup, photography, production, security, logistics etc etc just to go out on stage and talk for 30 minutes, then sit in an empty hotel room for hours. You can’t help but wonder if it’s really worth it. The stage part and the creation is fulfilling and amazing but getting there is just lots of sustained unpleasant hard work.

The stress you feel is different also. I think artists are predisposed to stress and emotional extremes but it’s a different kind of stress. There are two kinds, isolation stress and overwhelmed stress. Isolation stress is like an existential crisis and is how you can feel terribly alone even when surrounded by a lot of people and creates a sense of despair or hopelessness like you’re wasting away.

Overwhelmed stress is like being assaulted by stimuli, when too many things are happening to you at once. It bombards the senses and is draining in the way putting your soul out there for the world to judge causes attrition of your self worth. Life as an artist alternates between each of these states.