For the last 15 years of my life, I’ve been self-employed. I always envisioned working for myself – the freedom doing so presents. But it does come with its own set of challenges. It’s a hustle. Unlike a salaried employee, who knows exactly what their weekly, monthly, or yearly earnings will be (typically), as someone who’s been self-employed for over a dozen years, I can say that the comfort just isn’t there. There’ve been times in the past, when I’ve gone months without earnings, often waiting for a client to pay up (I’ve been an independent graphic designer, a web designer/developer, a techie, a writer, a videographer, and now a blogger – although this was really an accident, and not something I saw myself doing for as long as I’ve been doing it).
But even when I’ve gone months without earnings, the bills still have to be paid during those periods – rent, electricity, food, transportation, etc. Thankfully, I’ve always been a stickler for saving and investing my earnings, something I’ve been doing since my post-college years, which has helped tremendously over the last decade that I’ve been working for myself. During those months when I’ve been without earnings (for whatever reason), I’ve been able to survive by reaching into the money I put away. Not that it’s something I prefer to do. I’d much rather not touch any of my savings and instead use the income I’m earning to cover expenses.
I was reminded of this after watching the below Sundance Film Festival video titled “The Risk of Being an Independent Artist,” in which film artists were asked if and when they were able to sustain their lives as independents. Each speaks of past periods during which they worked odd jobs they didn’t care for, but always with their goals of being in the entertainment industry, or storytellers, in their sights.
I’ll call myself a risk-taker to an extent in that, while I’ve taken a few risks in the past, I still like having some kind of safety net to catch me if I fall on hard times as an indie artist. But I know a few artists who have chosen to be artists, and nothing but. They live very simple lives, which reduces their monthly expenses, and earn coin by working odd jobs here and there, while funneling whatever money they earn into their art. As Denzel Washington once said, when asked what his “plan B” was if he failed to succeed as an actor, early in his career: “I didn’t have a ‘plan B.’ If I was planning to have a ‘plan B,’ then I wasn’t planning to be successful.” That isn’t the exact quote, but the gist is the same. Essentially, it was an all or nothing decision for him. Nothing to “fall back on” as the saying goes; you fall forward. Meaning, you HAVE to succeed, and you’re willing to do everything you can to ensure that it happened. Of course, success means different things to each of us. I don’t know if Denzel thought he’d be a $20 million per movie “A” list actor in his prime. Like so many others, success may have been just being able to work consistently as an actor (on stage, TV and film), earning enough of a living to take care of oneself and one’s family, and maybe even be able to save a little bit for later.
Denzel’s attitude is probably held by many independent artists. Although many haven’t, and many still will not achieve whatever success looks like for them – let alone what Denzel has been able to accomplish.
If you’re an independent artist, what’s your reality like today? Do you have a “day job,” or are you living on the so-called edge? Are you like Denzel (no “plan b”), or do you have a “safety net,” something to fall back on, like maybe another career of interest you’d pursue instead? Also, what does success mean to you as an artist?