5 min read

No Sick Pay, No Security – How an Artist Gets by When Shit Flies

Welcome to the common plight of a professional artist. Here’s how to survive on a dime when you’re down and out and realise George Orwell already milked the topic so dry, you can’t earn a penny more off of it.
No Sick Pay, No Security – How an Artist Gets by When Shit Flies
Conor Kilkelly performing alongside Stephanie Hannon, Denise Dombrowski, and Mark Loughrey at his monthly show 'Gut and Gutter' in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Zahra Salah Uddin)

By Conor Kilkelly

So, the roof caved in, your dog caught syphilis – treatable but expensive, your guitar caught fire, and your internet provider doubled the price. Suffice to say, times are tough, the moths escaping your pocket are less than helpful, and you’re running on financial fumes.

Welcome to the common plight of the professional artist.

Unfortunately, unlike a regular job where there are social bridges - financial aid, securities put in place for those scurrying from one job to the next - for an artist, government support is in short supply until your untimely death wherein you’re instantly accredited as a cornerstone of culture and an integral part of the community.

In short, if you’re an artist, you’re on your own when money gets lean.

Yes, despite the fact that we know Mozart, Van Gogh, Billie Holiday and Tesla died pennilessly, the myth persists, ever-presently, that if you’re good enough, if you’re talented enough, the free market will look after you as an artist.

Well, rather than pick apart something inherently silly, a blatant tautology, let’s just grin and bear it, put down our paintbrushes, and pull up our sleeves.

#1 Learn to Cook

You know that stuff that cold ex-pats (if they’re white) and cold immigrants (if they’re non-white) carry in big coloured boxes on their backs and they cycle through city streets, being yelled at in all directions, delivering to door after door? That stuff is called food.

No, it shouldn’t cost 15 euros for food. And, no, it’s not okay you didn’t tip.

That stuff can be delicious, and despite what you may think – is not too hard to make. Youtube is your friend. Budget supermarkets are your mistresses. You don’t tell anyone about either. But, by God, a life without delving into either is a life wasted.

Did you know making tortillas from scratch takes about 30 minutes, tastes better than anything you’ve ever sampled in your life – and has about three ingredients? Well, it’s true. How do I know? Youtube. How much did it cost? I think they actually paid me. It’s insanity.

The same goes for Indian curries – look up Rajma, it’ll change your life. Make burritos from scratch. Beans are everything. They cost practically nothing and keep you going all week. If you like spice, and live in a country like Germany (like I do) where pepper is considered “scharf” (spicy)– you positively have to bribe your waiter to dab a tad of tabasco to taste your paprika laden lentil soup. Home cooking will reinvigorate your tastebuds and free you from the confines of your community’s collective pallet.

Be free! Be flavourful! Eat cheaply! You won’t go back, and you’ll balance your budget.

#2 Swallow Your Pride

If you’ve ever uttered something to the effect of “I’d never do a corporate gig” or “I’d only commission my work, if the idea was entirely my own” – then you’re excusing yourself from personal development.

I once found myself selling my wares for an ad company, a job for a Chinese company that specifically wanted me to write a song in the same vein as a certain Jose Gonzales song.

It became apparent by the end of the day, that by “in the same vein” they meant blatantly stealing the melody, the vocal style, the guitar style, and recording it identically to the record.

You have to draw the line somewhere. Stealing evidently was mine. But, I did learn something: struggling while doing something you don’t in any way want to do, so long as you’re struggling within the confines of your craft, is never time wasted.

You learn things from taking commissions. You stretch different creative muscles. Yes, a lot of the time what you're left with is something you wouldn’t enjoy, and can’t understand why anyone else would – but, you’ll sharpen your own focus, and become more adamant about your style of doing things. What’s more, when the time comes to create on your own terms, you’ll restore the sense of blissful playfulness you started off with. You feel like you broke out of jail, and all you want to do is eat that cheeseburger you’ve been fantasising about for years of confinement.

Freedom is something you lose sight of when it’s all you know. Restrictions, be it creative, or financial, can reacquaint you with yourself, and your reasons for creating in the first place.

So, if you’ve got to take a job, any job, and it’s in your craft – do it. Take the money and run. No one needs to know, and you’ll only grow from it.

#3 Be Honest With Yourself & Those Around You

Don’t suffer in silence. If you’re too embarrassed to let your friends know you can’t afford to go to the bar with them, are you sure they’re your friends?

Tell them. You’ll be surprised, I promise you. If they don’t offer to cover you for one or two, then fuck them. You need better friends. If falling out of financial sorts is rare for you, then they have no reason to judge.

It’s a lean job, creating. If you’re truly not delusional, your friends will know it, and they’ll understand. Tell them you’d love to come, but haven’t two pennies to scrape together to do so, and maybe they’ll cover you.

Better yet, tell them to come over. You got some rajma on the hob, and anyone who doesn’t come over with a bottle of red is just plain rude.

#4 Keep Going: Follow Your Gut, Never Fads

The go-to emotion, when faced with dismal financial options, is despondency. You’ll curse the craft and the day you gave up that law degree or marketing course to do it. The bed will lure you in and you’ll frown about the house until Netflix asks the darkest of all queries: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix… I sadly am.

This pitfall is inevitable, but, with time, it becomes surmountable. What’s more, you can lessen its impact. Expect to lose big fish. Expect what you rely on to fall through.

It sounds negative, but, I assure you it’s realistic.

It’s not just the creative-makers who fall victim to the odds against them, it’s the venues, the event-makers, the whole array of workers along the field of your craft that are utterly dependent on the whims and fancies of ever-changing tastes.

That’s why following a fad is the most ludicrous artistic choice of them all. It’s the equivalent of hedging all your bets on umbrella stocks after a freak rainstorm.

Do what you truly love from the sincerest depths of who you are, remind yourself why you felt compelled to create in the first place – and your people will emerge.

Despite what some odd, damaging people may say, no one is a snowflake. Everyone at their core is made of the same stuff. If you show off your innards as they truly are, warts and all, you’ll resonate. It takes guts, naturally. But, that’s the only path that leads to something resembling security.

You’ll never make it where you need to be without others. Ours is wholly a dependent field.

Embrace that. Be completely honest about it. You can’t go it alone. Anyone who’s ever supported you, whether emotionally, financially, or with a sandwich, is your patron.

There is no art without patronage. Be grateful. The storm will pass.

Now, get up, eat, and bring your dog for a walk… and, if possible, get them spayed.