One of the most common perceptions of failure for musicians is “having to get a day job.”
This might come as no surprise: most artists aspire to make a living from their art alone. However, having a day job doesn’t make you less of an artist, and in fact, contrary to popular belief, it can play a liberating role in one’s life as an artist.
When your art is the day job
First, let’s examine the scenario of someone who subsists entirely from their art. If this has been you, you may have noticed that something curious happens when you’re depending on your art for financial sustenance. Gradually, the sense of playfulness with which you began creating slips away. You might find yourself caring more about what others will think of your work. Will it “succeed?” Will it “perform” well? In other words, will it pay the bills? However necessary it may be for survival, defining success under these terms can become dangerous territory. On a psychological level, it erodes at the joy of the creative process and can produce tremendous stress.
The separation between creativity and finances
Artists living balanced, healthy, productive, and sustainable lives often maintain a variety of projects. Some of these are purely for art’s sake, and others are for money. A day job or commercial freelance gig can provide a healthy separation between creativity and finances while restoring a playful sense of wonder to your creative process. The state of play is the state from which the best work is often made. The freedom to have no dependency on whether your work is a “success” can be the most empowering condition for a healthy creative flow. Ask yourself: “Am I making my art with regard to financial outcome?” If so, ask yourself how nice it might feel if money weren’t on your mind while you’re in the studio.
A broadened perspective
Many artists and musicians enjoy the benefit of a day job that deepens their knowledge and perspective of the world from a lens beyond their creative craft. The sciences can lend themselves particularly well to this, and even feed into one’s creative practice. Dan Snaith, a.k.a. Caribou, for instance, began as a professor of Mathematics before becoming known for his music. Colombian synthesist Lucrecia Dalt’s background as a geologist and civil engineer laid the conceptual framework for her 2018 LP Anticlines.
Of course, not all day jobs breathe life into your being, and some can in fact do the opposite. The trick is finding a day job that isn’t a soul-sucker — and this is no small feat. It can take years of exploration to find one that accommodates a creative life.
A negotiation of time and energy
The most significant drawback of having a day job is the sacrifice of time. If you’re working eight-hour days, five days a week, this will probably leave you searching for the hours in your schedule to dedicate to your craft. To make things more complicated, it’s not just time you’re looking for — it’s quality time. If you have a day job that you come home from completely drained and need the weekend to recover from, this isn’t a functional life situation for an artist. However, be careful: if your job isn’t all that intense but nonetheless you find yourself preferring Netflix and sleep in the evenings, you should be asking yourself some deeper questions about your dedication to your art. While the feeling of just not having the energy can be real, it can also be an excuse.
I’m always amazed by the most productive people in the world who, in addition to holding down three jobs and kids, can still find the time in the day to meditate, show up to the gym, and maintain a side-hustle. When I ask these people how they do it, they tell me they can’t afford not to make the time for their creative or nourishing practices — it’s those activities that make it possible for them to live the rest of their lives in good spirits. Treat going to the studio like you might treat going to the gym: just show up. If you feel too tired when you come home from your day job, try meditating, fixing the nicest, simplest meal you can, and hit the studio for a couple hours before bed.
The paradox of time scarcity and productivity
Fortunately, there’s an interesting paradox that arises with the scarcity of time. You might find that in spite of being busier, you seem to be more happy and productive than when you had heaps of time on your hands. Constraints breed creativity, and limited time is no exception. If you only have three hours on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons, well then you better make them count, and out of necessity, you will. I’ve found that I’m often more productive in fixed windows of time than I am floundering in an amorphous stretch of days that bleed into each other. Of course, it’s possible to impose structure on yourself and work on music for entire days with focus and rigor, but often we thrive under limitations.
Investment in new equipment and self-enrichment
If you’re constantly ‘on the grind,’ creating just to get by, it might have been a while since you last made an investment in your craft. While I’m an avid believer in working with the resources available to you, the occasional purchase of a new instrument can inject new life into your creative practice. Perhaps you feel you could benefit from enrolling in a class, and a little extra income from something like a day job will open this door for you as well.
The freedom to say no
Perhaps one of the most empowering implications of having a day job is the freedom to say no to gigs you don’t want to take. Have you ever done something with your art you didn’t fully believe in to pay the bills? With the support of a day job, you won’t have to.
How a day job can facilitate balance
All of the aforementioned aspects of the day job / art-life dynamic can facilitate balance. A day job can lend itself to a healthy, sustainable life; having or needing one is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a romantic notion that a “real” artist doesn’t work other jobs in favor of being “free.” If you’re struggling financially living on your art alone, you are far from free.
A day job can lend itself to a healthy, sustainable life; having or needing one is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
If you can support yourself entirely from your creative practice and lead a happy life doing so, that’s fantastic. However, if you’re not there yet, be kind to yourself and keep an open mind to the benefits of a day job. I was surprised by the wonders it worked on my creative life, and you might be too.
January 21, 2020