Max Alper received a DM from a student who has burned out making a living as a working musician in Brooklyn. For the sake of his mental health, the student told Max he was giving up on music altogether and applying to trade school. Max responds in an excellent letter, which I’m excerpting from:
Not only are you not a failure for coming to terms with the fact that you’d prefer the peace of mind and mental health benefits that financial stability outside the arts can provide, but you’re also that much more of a professional artist as a result of this acknowledgment. A day job not only pays the bills, but also provides a necessary break for your ears and brain. You know your work requires sustenance, time and money doesn’t grow on trees, so you seek to build a cushion to support your artistic practices. It doesn’t matter if you’re not practicing every day or gigging every weekend. You make it work on your terms, at your own pace. It’s more than what most do in their adult age. At least you’re fucking doing it.
I’m telling you this as a guy who has never paid his bills off gigs and record sales alone. I make fucking noise music and walls of ambient textures, dude, I don’t expect to receive a big advance from Atlantic or Sony to crank out my algorithmically generated pulsating meter nowness anytime soon. I came to terms early in my musical career with the fact that I needed to find a trade if I wanted to pay my bills and continue to pursue my art. The key is finding something you’re actually good at….
Philip Glass, boring as I may find him, is a hero of mine in this regard. He has gone on record to say “I expected to have a day job for the rest of my life”, having worked alongside fellow minimalist Steve Reich and sculptor Richard Serra as a moving company in the 1960s, as well as a cab driver up to (and during) the premiere of Einstein on the Beach in 1976. John Cage never stopped foraging for rare mushrooms and truffles – what was once his primary skill for sustenance during the Great Depression had transformed into his main source of income well into the peak of his career as a composer and public intellectual. Michelin Star restaurants in Manhattan paid top dollar for Cage’s occasional fungal findings upstate, enough to make sure he could spend the majority of his time composing and writing, sometimes with and or about mushrooms themselves. Charles Ives never stopped selling life insurance. Fenriz, of Norwegian Black Metal pioneers Darkthrone, never stopped being a postman and a union member. The list goes on.
You’re not a failure by being a dayjobber, Billy, you’re an artist, just like the rest of us. So what if you aren’t some rich kid from the Upper East Side who had the privilege of being stuck in a practice room since Kindergarten? Sure that kid can shred, but do you really want to be that person? You’re playing shows, making records, and selling merch online, all without daddy’s money to hold you down. You’re making it happen without the head start that Richy Rich got the second he was born. Be proud of that! Knowing that the game is rigged is liberating! Just because the music industry lacks meritocracy doesn’t mean you can’t blow these assholes out of the water through your craft. Your experiences outside their bubble will only foster more creativity as a result.
So what if it takes a bit longer because you can only dedicate an occasional evening or weekend to work on your new record? So long as you dedicate yourself to that time, as little as it may be, so long as you allow the public to hear what you’ve been up to, whenever or wherever that may be, Billy, then you’ll never be a failure. You’re still alive, aren’t you? Then you can make the time, but no rush.
Quitting a full-time pursuit of your life’s task isn’t so much a failure as it is a pivot; a day job just means a new way of working, with less pressure on your creative work to sustain your life.
I can add to Max’s list—T.S. Eliot, William Blake, Angela Álvarez, Beeple—from an essay that remains in my drafts:
I came across this story on [T.S. Eliot working full-time as a clerk at Lloyd’s bank], through poet Dana Gioia’s paper for The Hudson Review, entitled, “Business and Poetry,” which made a set of observations about poets with careers. Gioia himself started a business career at General Foods, where he eventually became vice president of marketing….
If he were writing the paper today, Gioia might’ve also added recording artist John Legend (who worked as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group, before Ye discovered his musical work and provided him with a record deal), illustrator and author Gene Luen Yang who worked as a high school teacher, Dilbert author Scott Adams who worked at Pacific Bell, businesswoman and YouTube personality Cristine Rotenberg works a full-time job at Statistics Canada.
I recently also came across Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton menswear designer Virgil Abloh saying, “Before I met [Kanye], I wasn’t even interested in being creative. I thought I was just going to work some regular job. My background is in architecture, so I was really going to be that.”
When money isn’t a constant worry, it’s easier to enjoy the ride that will be your creative journey. Whether you drive up to the top of a mountain, or climb it from the bottom, the view is the same at the top—but the journey makes the whole difference.