The Financial Harm of the Starving Artist Mentality
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Do you remember that time in high school when you were a senior and everyone started talking about the colleges they got accepted to and what they were going to major in?
What a totally weird experience.
I went to school in Northern Virginia at Yorktown High School, and I remember this time so vividly. It was weird because everyone was trying to one up each other by bragging about the school they got into and what they were going to study.
Everyone in my school definitely knew I played the flute. It might have been because I was a massive band geek and probably also the fact that I held 3 recitals during senior year which my friends heavily advertised for (I'm talking about very embarrassing posters hung all over school). So, it shouldn't have been a surprise to any of my peers that I was going to pursue music. But during this time of proclaiming your future college endeavors was the first big moment I realized the gravity of the starving artist mentality.
In case you're unsure what I'm talking about, the staving artist mentality has a couple different meanings. First, it is the idea that all artists struggle to make a living because there is no money in art. The second meaning is that artists don't want any sort of financial compensation for their work because that makes them a sellout (their struggle brings out their artistic nature).
I remember receiving nasty comments from my peers about pursuing music, "You're gonna study music? I hope you have a back up plan," "You do know that it's impossible to make a living as a musician, right?" "You're going to THAT school? To study music? Oh, that makes sense." I obviously knew what the starving artist idea was, but this was the first time I was confronted with it head on. And honestly, their comments did make me a little nervous. Was I making the wrong choice?
Looking back on this experience, I realize that the starving artist mentality only holds weight because society buys into it. We aren't born believing that artists struggle financially, we are taught that from the way artists are portrayed in movies, TV shows, and comments that are said to us by our trusted individuals. If artists were portrayed differently, would the mentality even exist? And if this mentality wasn't engrained in our society, how would society treat artists? Maybe the reason artists and art can be so undervalued is because so many people think artists struggle financially, so it's not worth compensating them what their value is.
I'm going off on a little bit of a tangent, but my point is the starving artist mentality is learned. If we are going to thrive as musicians in this world, it is time that we unlearn it.
The Starving Artist Mentality is Perpetuated by Academia
I had really fantastic experiences with my main professors throughout my career. I've been lucky enough to study with three powerhouse women who are all incredible flute players. And on top of that, each of them encouraged me to cultivate skills outside of just playing the flute which has allowed me to do many things with my career.
That being said, this has not been my experience with all mentors throughout my career. Over the course of my time in school and out of school I've encountered many instances when professors and mentors discuss the financial difficulties of this industry and the intense competitiveness of the job market. The majority of the time when these individuals would talk about this, they were coming from a good place. They were trying to prepare us young musicians for the realities of this industry.
However, this is the issue. Informing young musicians of the financial difficulties of this career field without any additional financial guidance doesn't really help them. It just fills them with worry and reinforces the starving artist mentality. I can't tell you how many times
circumstances like this leads young musicians to think, "well thanks for the warning but it's kind of too late now" as they sink deeper into student loan debt.
If we are to start unlearning the starving mentality, it first has to come from our trusted mentors and teachers guiding us along the way.
The Starving Artist Mentality Holds You Back Financially
The actual financial impact of believing in this mentality is high. I was one of the biggest believers in this mindset. And because I believed in it so much, I never took any steps to start getting my finances in order. I thought because I was a musician, I was suppose to be bad with money. So why would I take the time to create a budget?
Believing in this mindset warps the way you view this career field and drives you to take certain actions. Constantly thinking that you are never going to make any money as a musician may lead you to overbooking your schedule. Which, as we know, is a one way door to burnout. And even if you are able to manage a hectic schedule, holding onto this belief does not teach you how to adequately manage your money. So you end up working really hard, but still live paycheck to paycheck. How defeating is that? So many great musicians end up leaving this career field because of this exact circumstance.
On the other hand, this starving artist thought process can lead musicians to make poor financial decisions. If you follow me on social media, you know I talk about this a lot. There are so many stories of young musicians being coerced into investing thousands of dollars into summer festivals, masterclasses, new equipment, etc., and that investment crippling them financially. If these musicians are being told that this investment will allow them to "make it" in this industry, then of course they are going to invest that money regardless of the financial impact. That's not to say that these investments are not worth it or necessary, but these investments are being made out of fear of failure. Making a poor investment, once again, only reinforces this this idea.
This mentality isn't just something the laugh off. Ask any young musician if they feel like they will be able to sustain themselves financially in this career field. This belief is not only causing mental harm to musicians, but also financial harm. If we are to continue to grow as an industry and thrive in our modern society, we have to start rejecting the starving artist idea. And while trying to get all of society to discard this mentality will be a big undertaking, we can start by throwing out this belief in our own industry.
If you feel like the starving artist mentality is holding you back from your career and your financial wellbeing, schedule a free 30 minute call with me!