Courtesy of Rachel Bresnahan
Whether you pursued higher education or you're a self-trained musician, the phrase "starving artist" finds its way into every musician's life – maybe even into our own vocabularies. It’s a phrase that is generally discouraging more than anything else.
"Starving artist" is a stale and overused phrase for a career path that can be much more promising than starvation – and that goes not only for musicians, but also for dancers, actors, visual artists, or any other creatives. Yes, it’s difficult to pursue dreams in any field, but it's not impossible. There are ways to be a musician and still be financially stable, independent, and comfortable.
The life of a musician is definitely different than it was even 20 years ago. We've still got a long way to go (I'm looking at you, streaming services), but the idea that musicians are, by default, "starving" is a ridiculous claim to make.
The phrase "starving artist" is pretty loosely defined, and it's not exactly clear how or why it started being thrown around, but the all-knowing scribes of Wikipedia describe a starving artist as “an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. They typically live on minimum expenses, either for a lack of business or because all their disposable income goes toward art projects.” As stated, the phrase refers generally to the unfortunate struggles of the dedicated artist and relates these struggles to a Bohemian lifestyle and ideals.
The lives of Bohemian artists became of interest after the French novelist and poet Henri Murger wrote Scènes de la Vie de Bohème in 1851, and after Giacomo Puccini's opera, La boheme, debuted in 1896, which was based on Murger's writing. These two representations romanticized the perceived lives of Bohemian artists and formulated caricatures for artists to follow: if you don't suffer for your art, you're not an artist. Suffering, in this case, is requisite for meaningful art.
In a modern context, the phrase can mean similar things. Artists chose a path in life that may not guarantee a steady income, a retirement fund, or even health care. The sacrifice that artists make today is less of malnutrition and more of living in far too expensive apartments in massive metropolitan cities, because those are the only places to even become an artist and possibly thrive as one. The "suffering" may look different, but the concept remains similar.
But these definitions certainly do not hold true for every artist. While there may be struggles for artists, it doesn't mean that there can't be a promising future in the industry. We see technologies evolving every day, and these technologies are changing the opportunities for modern artists.
Most people get into music because of great performers they love. We feel inspired by these great performers and want to lead a life like theirs, entertaining and moving people with our gifts. However, these same musicians may feel that the only way they can contribute with a career in the arts is through that perform-in-front-of-millions avenue. But there are many ways to have a career in music and still bring entertainment to people outside of filling giant 30,000 seat super-domes.
A career in music isn't just black and white; there are options in today's world for every type of musician. For example, there are different music-related fields you can explore like production, business, publishing, engineering, education, songwriting, music therapy, and so much more.
With technology rapidly evolving, it's difficult to say where the future of music will head, but there will always be people in the world who make and enjoy music. There's always a need for music. So even if you're not playing massive shows or setting goals to be the next big artist, there are still plenty of ways to pursue a career in music while maintaining finances.
As musicians, we know that this is a pretty competitive field, but we all do share a love and passion for our gift, and we want to share them with others. So keep challenging this tired, old stereotype of a "starving artist." Times are changing, and so are the careers of musicians.
Rachel Bresnahan is an editorial intern at Sonicbids.