22 things you don’t want to hear about working in the arts

22 things you don’t want to hear about working in the arts

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 23/06/14

I hate to go all bad cop on your ass, but there are one or two things about life in the arts that you probably should know. Bad things. Sad things. Frustrating and utterly mad things. Because to be forewarned is forearmed. And we’re all in the same boat...

A career in the arts can be a wonderful, glorious, compelling thing, full of rewards beyond money and measure. But, I don’t want you to have any unrealistic expectations about those knotty little details like security, rejection and health. So, here are a few things you could learn here, or learn the hard way. It’s up to you...


There will always be people your age, doing way better than you. What’s worse, there will always be younger people doing way better than you. While that can rankle like a thorn under your eyelid, it’s also none of your business. The only thing you can be responsible for is you: how hard you work, how much you sacrifice, how much effort you put in and how much you’re willing to risk. Everyone else’s success – whatever their age – is like the colour of their nipples: entirely their business.

You may never own your own home. On the plus side, that is an entirely normal state of affairs in much of mainland Europe and large American cities like New York and Washington. If, however, you would like to buy some bricks and mortar, there are schemes that can help. Look into local housing associations like the Peabody Trust, or maybe try property guardianship to free up some of your income to save for a deposit.

Some people really hate your work. Some people hate tea. And hot weather. And pizza, cats, soul music, ice in their drinks, fruit and going to bed. It doesn’t mean those things are intrinsically bad. So, just because someone doesn’t like your work doesn’t mean you should stop. Although, if everyone does, you might want to have a bit of a think. 

Print media is probably dying. Yeah, sorry about that. But, you know, until you’re willing to pay for newspapers, books and magazines, it’s not going to get any better. 

You will have to work during your holidays. Yup. If you want to break through you will have to make some sacrifices. Quite major sacrifices, actually. The first of which is time. It is entirely normal for people to take a day’s holiday from their job to concentrate on their freelance and extracurricular work. I can’t remember a single holiday in the last three years where I didn’t take my laptop.

Record deals used to be much, much better 20 years ago. So maybe focus your energy on live performance – it’s about the only part of the industry that has any money left. 

You will probably have to work for free. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get paid. It just means that, occasionally, you’ll do things that are brilliant for your career and terrible for your bank balance. Budget for it. And, when you’re in a position to do so, try to pay everyone you can for everything they do.

A lot of people in the arts drink too much. A lot of them also take drugs. If that’s not your bag, then don’t ever be made to feel guilty, silly or boring: what you ingest is your decision. If you are concerned, have a look at our article on addiction in the arts.

People don't want to pay for things on the internet. Music, films, books, articles, information – you name it. Which is a pisser if you’re the person producing it. But, before you start complaining too much, think about your own internet habits. Are you paying for your downloads? Are you investing in new authors, bands, directors and artists? Let’s hope so.

Sometimes, the only people who will come and see your work are your mates and your mum. If you’re lucky enough to have either. So make the most of them and show that you appreciate the support.

Nepotism is everywhere. It’s what you do with it that counts.

Working in the arts doesn't mean that your day job will be interesting. Sometimes admin is just admin; marketing is just marketing; finance is just finance. So make sure you’re dedicating time and energy to your own projects, out of work hours. Otherwise you’ll end up wanting to go and live in a bin.

You may never be able to afford children. Then again, my parents couldn’t afford children; they did it anyway.

There is no such thing as a pension. See also: there is no such thing as sick pay. If you’re freelance and not financially-savvy, that is. So, get your shit together. Either get a day job or set up some serious savings system. Now.

You will probably at some point have to exploit yourself or be exploited to get what you want. So know your limits. Draw your lines in the sand before you reach them. Think about what you’re willing to do and what you’re not and don’t weaken. People will respect you for the things you don’t do as much as they respect the things you do.

You will miss important family or friend events. The birthdays, parties, dinners, lunches, days out and holidays I’ve missed because of that all-important job I felt I just couldn’t turn down are enough to fill a calendar. But, just because you can’t go to everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to anything. Be a host, have people over when you’re skint, invite people along to the work things and make the effort when you’re less busy. 

You will be rejected. A lot. Whatever your industry, whatever your discipline, life in the arts is about 70% rejection. I pitched ten article ideas last week – two of them got commissioned. And that’s a good week – sometimes they all get rejected. So, make like a pig rolling in shit and thicken your skin. It’s the only way.

Being charming helps. Being good looking also helps, but you can do a surprisingly good job of making people think you’re attractive by simply being pleasant to be around. I should know – I look like an egg-faced man wearing a hoover bag wig.

You will spend a lot of time answering emails. And I mean a lot of time. More time than you spend actually doing the thing that you’re emailing about. So, to prevent yourself getting fist-gnawing, screen-punching desperate, keep your emails polite, friendly, concise and useful.

The arts are depressingly London-centric. Either fight it - do something amazing where you are - or move here. They are, literally, your only choices.

Hobbyists are your competitors now. They will do what you do for free, just for the recognition. They may not be as good as you, but if their work is good enough, they will take work from under your nose. So, hustle. Make yourself more attractive, more employable and easier to use than the free alternative.

It’s always been like this. The arts have never been a well-paid, high-status, morally-admirable bastion of happiness, health and justice. But people have been doing it for centuries, if not millennia. So, there must be something in it.



What are the hard lessons life has taught you? And how can you make them better? Let us know in the comments section below...

Image by Nate Grigg via Flickr under a creative commons license.

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