The Life Of A Struggling Artist: It's Tough, But Never Regretful

by Shannon Allen

I’m not exactly sure when I decided I wanted to be a performer. Perhaps, it was after all the adolescent hours I spent carrying around my hand-held tape recorder, singing Raffi tunes.

Or, maybe, it was my first moment on stage, in first grade, belting out Whitney Houston’s "Greatest Love of All" in front of an auditorium of parents with camcorders.

Maybe, it was ingrained in me from birth, something I could never fight, even if I tried.

The decision felt divine, like the Hogwarts sorting hat telling me I had all the tools to be great, but I had to choose for myself whether or not I wanted that life. And, I did.

Regardless of the point of inception, I did, indeed, decide to be a singer/songwriter/musician/actress/writer. (Apologies for the excessive black slashes; we creative types have a flair for the dramatic. The list could go on.)

I live in New York City, and the first thing people typically ask upon meeting someone new is, “What do you do for a living?”

In New York, the answer defines us; classifies us into a proverbial category so we may be defined as the “financial douchebag,” the “bleeding heart humanitarian,” the “career bartender,” the “bitchy fashion queen” or otherwise.

I fall under the classification of the “struggling musician/actor,” and people like me are often thought to be at the bottom of the New York City career pool. People often tell us how exciting our jobs sound, but no one wants to be one of us.

Why is that? Because choosing singing, acting, or anything creative as a career, for that matter, is tough.

We have next to no job security; our livelihood depends on our next gig, how well we did in a callback, our screen test, etc.

When we do get a gig, we may or may not get paid for our talents. And, when we do get paid, sometimes, it’s in the form of free drinks, IMDB credits or Equity points.

We spend all our money paying the unions that protect our best interests -- our next album, our acting reel, printing out headshots, singing lessons, acting masterclasses, improv practice groups -- and also paying for drinks with fellow musicians and actors when we need to commiserate.

We get survival jobs waiting tables, bartending, answering phones and working as background actors.

In our free time, you can find us pulling out our hair at our pianos, fretting over whether to use the lyric “love” or “lust” in the second verse of our song, throwing that Shakespeare script against the wall when we can’t get the monologue right (Is it thou, thee, thy or thine!?), or crying over that stupid casting director who said we didn’t “commit” to the character.

Our dating lives are non-existent. We can never plan a date more than a day or even hours before it happens because our schedules need to be open at all times for new opportunities.

Not to mention, when a decent dating prospect comes along, he or she either doesn’t want to deal with our schedule, our emotions or our incessant energy.

We don’t sleep, and when we do, we are kept awake by the fear that we may never reach our dreams.

But, we love. Yes, the creatives are perpetual lovers. We'll give our last dollar to the girl with the acoustic guitar in the subway.

We'll go to every single one of our friends’ shows, even though there is a two-drink minimum and we have $14 dollars left in our bank accounts.

We grab a bottle of wine, Chinese food and a pint of ice cream to cheer up a friend who just missed his Broadway debut by one callback.

We can’t stop our drive or our passion; they rule us. The very thought of getting a nine-to-five job scares us more than the pending threat of getting hit by a speeding taxicab.

The singers, the actors, the dancers, the comedians, the writers and the dreamers may be at the bottom of the career food chain by social standard. But to us, we are at the top.

To us, we are the lucky ones because we will never wake up when we’re 40, 50, 70 or 90 and regret the decision to perform.