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If You're Into the Arts, You Better Learn About the Gig Economy

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Woman walking several dogs on a leash in a beach town.

Doughnut shop cashier, waitress, ice cream scooper, calligrapher, messenger, carpenter. What do these have in common?

They’re all jobs that were held by world-famous performers before they became world famous. Jobs they held to pay for rent, food and life’s other expenses while trying to get the jobs they really wanted. Jobs with hours that gave them the freedom to attend a daily stream of auditions, callbacks, classes and lessons, while waiting to hear those precious words: “You got the part!”

Those are probably the words you’re hoping to hear too, preferably over and over again. You’ve trained and auditioned for years, and you know that the rest of your performing life will be filled with more of both.

At some point soon, you’ll transform from being a performing arts student, with financial and emotional support from your parents, into a citizen of the larger world, with the emotional and practical requirements of adulthood. And it’s not news that these requirements usually include some version of being able to pay your way in life.

Trying to build a career in the arts requires enormous self-awareness and discipline. Of course, you need talent and artistry. “You have to ‘get good’,” writes actor Jenna Fischer (“The Office”) in her memoir “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide.”

Alongside talent and skill, though, you will have to handle an unpredictable income, odd hours, and possibly managing your own business. The requirements of ongoing auditions, callbacks, lessons, classes and, if you do get cast in something, rigorous rehearsal and performance schedules, are likely to fill your hours. And, even when you land performance jobs, wages may be unpredictable and often low, and bills will always have to be paid.

How do you manage it all?

One answer is the gig economy, a working world of jobs, some of which you’ll be able to find, some of which you’ll have to create by offering goods or services. It is possible, however, to do this on your terms and your schedule, allowing you to handle the demanding job of pounding the pavement to find performing-arts jobs.

In the gig economy, people are freelancing – that is, being their own bosses, often doing multiple tasks to earn several streams of income at the same time. They may do something they are well-trained in, such as website design, tutoring, offering music lessons or customizing calligraphy. Or their work may require less skill, such as cleaning offices, doing pet care, running errands or babysitting.

The upside to freelancing is the ability to pick and choose the work that comes your way while maximizing your available time.

On the downside, you may have to be on a continual search to get hired, income streams may be uneven, and you may have to explore ways to obtain benefits such as health insurance. This particular issue inspired freelancers to organize into a national organization that offers health insurance and other benefits to fellow freelancers. Statistics show that about one-third of American workers are involved in a gig economy and now the Freelancers Union has over 300,000 members, according to its website.

Whether you call it freelancing, entrepreneurship, a day job or a side hustle, it’s all about finding ways to pay your way and continue your performing pursuits.

Sure, the performing life is filled with uncertainties, but if you truly “burn” for a career, and you’re taking all the steps towards building technique, growing as an artist, networking and acquiring experience in your field, surely this is the time in your life to give it your best shot.

Whether you are a barista, waiter, LYFT driver or a part-time roofer in your uncle’s business, gigging can get you to a crucial goal: a financial foundation. Financial stability will give you the means to live independently, if not extravagantly, while continuing to prepare for and pursue the dreams that remain center stage in your hopes and in your heart.

And, oh yes, here’s the world-famous list, before they were famous:

  • Doughnut shop cashier: Madonna

  • Waitress: Nicki Minaj

  • Ice cream scooper: Pink

  • Calligrapher: Meghan Markle

  • Bicycle messenger: Jennifer Aniston

  • Carpenter: Harrison Ford.

P.S. Here’s some recommended reading to give you inspiration:

  • “A Life in Art: Building Side-Hustles to Empower Your Life as an Artist” by A.S. Friedman

  • “A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love and Faith in Stages” by Kristin Chenoweth

  • “Around the Way Girl: a Memoir” by Taraji P. Henson

  • “How to Make It in the New Music Business” by Ari Herstand

  • “Making It Werk: A Dancer’s Guide to the Business of Professional Dance” by Michelle Loucadoux, Shelli Margheritis (a great book for ANYONE in any performing field!)

  • “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide” by Jenna Fischer

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