Don’t Quit Your Day Job
by Alexandra Molotkow
When I was a teenager, I told people that all I wanted when I grew up was to “have a day job in a record store and work really hard on my thing,” which was, at the time, a zine. Back then it wasn’t such a bad life: you could live in a city like Toronto on a retail salary, and besides, working in a record store wasn’t totally unfulfilling. You had knowledge your customers didn’t, and you provided a service. I grew up with the dregs of the ’90s Theory of Creative Accomplishment, borne out of Gen-X defeatism: creative and conventional success were mutually exclusive.
At the record store I ended up in, we used to complain about yuppies — we actually called them “yuppies” — people with well-paying jobs in finance or PR who outsourced their taste. They bought Stars albums and Metric tickets and talked on their cell phones at the counter, and they saw shows uncritically at the Drake, the newly opened boutique hotel on gentrifying Queen West, a cheesy but foreboding entity that signaled the alloy of Toronto “DIY culture” with Toronto new wealth. It seemed anathema to host decent music while serving cocktails.
A few months into the job, the Arcade Fire released Funeral, which we played constantly. A few weeks after that, a coworker arrived in a disgusted huff. “I just heard Funeral playing at a restaurant I could never afford to eat at,” they said. “I guess that’s the end of it.” It was the end of something, and the beginning of something else — a creative middle class that seemed, for a hot minute, totally accessible.
By the time I graduated from university, there no longer seemed to be any binary between creative good work and conventional success. Partly it was the example of bands like the Arcade Fire, independent acts that had managed to bankroll themselves on the strength of talent and hard work; partly it was the newness of the Internet and the self-promotional possibilities it offered; but it was largely a rejection of that ’90s ethos, which forced you to choose. All of a sudden you didn’t have to be Troy Dyer or Michael Grates.
You could have a fulfilling creative life, and still do well for yourself. You’d have to hustle, and work some 16-hour days, but that was nothing if it meant really succeeding on your own terms. I felt snug in my cohort, and my peers seemed kinder, more industrious, and more adaptive than the twenty-somethings I’d known as a teenager: we worked hard and we loved new ideas and we wanted the best for ourselves and each other; we didn’t dismiss as much.
That was six years ago. Times have changed, and so have attitudes. The cost of living in cities has risen far beyond my starting salary at the magazine job I was lucky to land out of university, which had confirmed my ideals of an achievable creative middle ground. And it’s increasingly obvious that dream jobs don’t last forever; you might be well set for a year or two, but, at least in media, the entities that pay the most tend to be the most precarious.
Jobs come in booms and busts but, of course, paid slots for creative people are more and more coveted, and more and more limited; then there’s the completely unignorable reality that such jobs are traditionally hoarded by those with a head start. The internship debate that raged a few years back was important, but the issue of who gets to work for free is as important as the issue of unpaid labor. Even a shitty unpaid internship can give you a leg up, but a lot of huge talents can’t afford one. Too many people want too few jobs, and too many employers exploit that, because why be a starving artist when you could be a creative?
The idea of a creative middle class now seems as idealistic as anything the Boomers, or their resentful successors, ever dreamed up. What’s happened in music seems representative of creative work on the whole: it’s not like the ’80s, when a weird band could make an unlikely splash, or the early aughts, when it seemed possible for mid-sized independent groups to sustain themselves. The huge are increasingly huge, and the rest get less as a result.
If you do manage to land a prestige job, you are very lucky. But there’s a good chance you’re also miserable — because the company you work for barely pays you but expects to be your everything, or it does pay you, but expects to be your everything, and it’s not, and there’s always someone willing to give up more to be where you are.
At the moment there’s a less-than-hopeless amount of paying nooks for smart, enterprising writers, but no one knows how much they’ll be working in a year, or who they’ll be working for — an advertorial gig might pay 2 dollars a word, your confessional about the time you got sexually pied in the face might buy you a new pair of boots, or you might go in the red for an 8,000-word feature you spent several months researching. In other words, the link between creative and financial achievement is just as mythical as we were always warned. In dry spells — or very creative spells — you might have to live like a starving artist.
The difference now is that creative people, I think, are a lot more ambitious — more ambitious than they were in the ’90s, and more ambitious than they were back when a middle ground seemed viable. Ambition guarantees failure, which can breed compassion: when I was a kid, to become an art teacher meant you had tried and lost; now, it means you’ve found a pretty great way to fund your art. I mean, you have a job.
I’m despairing of some things — the sustainability of a freelance hustle, an equitable labor market, our kids’ career prospects, our chances of not being destitute in old or even middle age — but I’m not despairing of art, because we’re living in desperate times with boundless creative potential. There are so many good people, which means less financial security for the artist, but more better art.
Compromises are the hallmark of a working freelancer, but Compromise, in the grand scheme, makes no sense at all. Aiming for greatness produces better work on the whole, but as a practical measure I’m partial to my initial teenage goal: a daytime gig that pays enough, but doesn’t drain the energy required for the thing you love most.