Making Up “Making It”

In most professions, but particularly artistic endeavors, the concept of “making it” looms large. However, what makes “making it” an especially frustrating goal in the arts is that the meaning is so vague and often almost completely subjective. So-called career paths in the arts are extraordinarily varied – there are as many options as there are practitioners. One person’s success is another’s stumbling block. My dear friend and kindred musical spirit Pat Harris writes well on this topic in his 12.20.14 blog post.

“Making it” has, for me, become more mythological than tangible over the last few years, much more of an abstraction than something measurable. Often you’ll hear or read in interviews artists saying something to the effect of, “At least I don’t have to have a[n office] job,” and that’s generally the accepted barometer. But I think it’s far more complicated.

The quick go-to answer, I suppose, is that if you “do music full time” then you’ve made it. But that can be very misleading, and ultimately it’s reserved, in the purest sense, for a fortunate few. On the surface, one can make all of their money from the saxophone, but there’s a wide gulf between making an living from playing your own music (or, rather, music of your preference) and paying your bills by freelancing, teaching lessons and/or classes, arranging, and occasionally performing and recording your own music (the latter at a loss, as you’ll finance it yourself). Add to that an anemic economy overall and a culture that continues to financially devalue music at an exponential rate and you have a recipe for disaster.

Enter academia. If one wants a life in the arts but the stability of income and benefits, then simply get a teaching job. More importantly, teach college. And make sure it’s a tenure-track position. The only problem there is that stable tenure-track positions are, at best, holding steady in the arts and, at worst, becoming an endangered species, a relic of the past much akin to VHS cassettes and rotary dial phones. More concerned with the bottom line, universities have (and continue to) become increasingly reliant on temporary (non-tenure), part-time (adjunct and fixed-term), and/or student (be it graduate or, in some case, undergraduate [!]) workers to fill the space once occupied by full-time faculty. All of this occurs against a backdrop of terminal fundraising campaigns, campus construction and beautification, and increasing entertainment and activities budgets. (And yet, all the while, the university has also transitioned away from a bastion of free speech and free thought and exchange of ideas into a stifling kid-gloves-only safe zone hesitant to push anyone’s buttons or challenge the status quo. But that’s a topic for another day and blog…)

That’s not to say that college positions don’t exist; far from it. I have friends and colleagues who have secured good jobs in the last couple years, but they’re definitely in the minority. And, for some of them, they’re so busy with their teaching, committee, and recruiting duties that they find little (if any) time for their instrument, manuscript paper, or research beyond keeping the rust off. As for the majority of those with advanced and even terminal degrees in the arts, they work in directly- or tangentially-related positions; some of them have gone into completely different fields altogether. Directly related positions would often be cobbling together enough adjunct work and private lessons to amount to a somewhat full-time income (without security or benefits — there’s no such thing as a paid sick day when running a private studio) via myriad part-time jobs. And adjunct work mostly pays a pittance, particularly considering the amount of work that goes into it.

I’ve worked (for separate institutions) both as an adjunct professor since 2009 and as annual fixed-term faculty since 2011. If I purely got paid for the actual hours I’ve put into both jobs over the past several years, then I could probably pay off a great deal of my mortgage lickety-split. Instead what matters is the credit hour, or how often I see the students face-to-face in the classroom. Small details such as lesson plans, continually creating and revising assignments, handling student and department email (with atrocious etiquette, by the way), grading (or, for you European readers, “marking”), and meeting with students outside of class are beyond compensatory concerns. Of course, I probably sound ungrateful in this context. That’s not the case, as I do very much enjoy teaching. At this point, I do it more because I get something worthwhile out of it than just a paycheck.

One possible side effect of teaching as one’s backup profession is that actually teaching can be seen as a hindrance to one’s own artistic endeavors or research. I know a few professors (both full-time and adjunct) who, at best, find teaching to be okay, and at worst despise it. Students can tell when a teacher doesn’t want to be there. It certainly makes a (detrimental) impact. So why make everyone else suffer along in your own personal drama?

Aside from teaching, aforementioned related positions could include those in arts administration, officially or otherwise. I know folks who do and don’t have degrees in Arts Administration, and sometimes it’s hard to tell who has (or hasn’t) which degree and how it’s helped. (No offense to AA-degree holders. Part of it is my own ignorance.) That aside, it could involve the dreaded “office job” related to an arts organization (i.e., concert presenter, symphony, etc.) or college or university arts department. On the one hand, one still has a job “in music.” On the other, they’re likely spending more time in Microsoft Office (Enterprise Edition, of course) than Finale. Having said that, it’s important to note that not everyone wants to actually perform. Many want to just be involved without being on stage, and this is a great way to do so. For what it’s worth, many of the people I know in this field enjoy their jobs.

Then there’s the dreaded nuclear option: selling out and “getting a [non-arts] job.” Welcome to the cubicle farm, please leave your soul at the door. Right? Eh, not really. Some jobs (and careers) definitely fit that description. Others don’t. For some, a 9-5 job (or the modern equivalent, since that notion is almost quaint now) is a way to have a stable income and security, allowing one to focus on their art in their own time. For others, it can be a death sentence. It’s all what you make of it.

Speaking for myself, I’m a bit of a hybrid. I do have a full-time non-arts job with salary and benefits. I’m fortunate that I telecommute and pretty much stick to my own schedule (within reason, of course). On top of that, I also teach (as is obvious throughout this post and the blog as a whole), both university courses and private lessons. And I perform and record regularly, and the music does well. The best part about it artistically, for me, is that I pretty much only accept the gigs that I consider are worth my time (i.e., I either want to do them or the price is right — fortunately both boxes are checked more often than not). I’m very busy, but I’m not the artsy albatross financially weighing down my marriage, as often seems to be the case. I’m artistically active and satisfied, and my wife and I are financially secure. Occasionally I briefly consider taking on substantially more private students, try to teach additional classes, and freelance more to “only do music.” But then I quickly realize that I’d likely be far busier, have much less income, be artistically deprived, and lack any security for me and my family should something happen to me. Other times I consider going back to school for my doctorate, which I may still do when I’m completely ready, but I won’t be doing with the sole purpose of landing a teaching job afterwards. The chances of that working out are quite small, and if it even worked out, it’d likely be at great financial cost. I feel like I know as many people with terminal degrees who have seemingly abandoned their field altogether as those who’ve been “hired in.”

[Even though it’s no secret, I can sense that my explicitly “outing” my work/life balance has caused a couple readers to condescendingly think poor guy, I hope he makes it someday. I hope the weather’s nice up there on Mt. Pious.]

We don’t lead an ascetic life, but my wife and I are far from extravagant. We are happy, have a house in a great neighborhood and community, and are preparing for an imminent addition to the family. These are choices I’ve made and am both happy with and proud of. How selfish would it be of me to take myself out of the income column to “chase my dream” when I’m actually living a version of it right now anyway? How would that be fair to the family? Some are find with a vagabond-like existence, but that’s not for me.

On a related note, I occasionally see colleagues my age or older picking up part-time temp jobs here and there to fill in the gaps when artistic work is light. That’s perfectly fine, but I don’t know how that’s any more noble than having a full-time gig somewhere. Apples and oranges. If anything, they’re equal.

Tangent 1: This is getting into territory that’s fodder for another post entirely, and that’s the concept of work. Artistic types (in my case, musicians) constantly pride themselves on the work ethic involved in studying a craft and the intellectual benefits of the arts. My social media news feeds are a steady stream of that and how today’s artists are so entrepreneurial. And yet, when asked about working a “real job,” one boilerplate answer is, “I could never do that [work an office/desk job]” or “I have no skills other than [art].” Well, which is it? Are you smart and take-charge, or are you incompetent and lack life skills or work ethic? Pick one. And then there are the folks who’ve never actually worked a minimum wage job (even in high school or college)… But I digress. Again: another post for another day.

Tangent 2: Part of my focus on this topic in my own thinking the last several months is that producing art requires MONEY, something that I don’t think really gets adequately addressed. In order to finance your composition, recording, show, painting, sculpture, novel, or film, you need some sort of income. Back to work: where does that money come from? A job? Selling your art? Contributions? A wealthy family or relatives? A sugar-momma/daddy? Yet another topic for another day. (I touch upon it here but hope to dig deeper down the road.)

Before veering too far off course, let’s get back to “making it.” So, on the one hand I’ve raised the soulless white flag of getting jobs and property. However, I’m artistically active both in my own community as well as regionally and nationally, I teach, and my recordings sell some and get airplay. (One feather in my cap is when I heard Jan Garbarek sandwiched between a couple Borghi | Teager tracks on the nationally-syndicated Hearts of Space, the program’s first episode in its over 1,000 dedicated the saxophone…) And, as I wrote here, Matt and I recently embarked on a brief but packed East Coast tour that resulted in a net profit. I don’t write it this way to toot my own horn, but rather to say that I’m “making it” in my own way. Just like those who only wield their instruments or paintbrushes, and those who teach. The question shouldn’t be “Will I make it?” but rather “Am I making it?” It’s of course a long game, and one should never rest on their laurels. But it’s important to realize that success comes in many forms, and to say that there’s only one way is almost like saying there’s no way at all.


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