Survival Jobs For Artists

There’s one question on the lips of every aspiring actor, writer, painter, musician, and director—-

“How do I pay the damn bills?”

Because no matter how talented you are, how driven you are, or how great you are to work with—you can’t continue without money coming in. So here are a few ideas on ways to make money without having to give up your dream.

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Jobs I’ve Done And Hated

Waiting Tables

This is the classic actor job, so much so that it’s a cliche. The reason? The hours are flexible and you’ll be able to work evenings, keeping your days free for classes or auditions. If you’re at a nice restaurant in a big city, you can make great money.

The downside? You get paid in cash, which tends to burn a hole in your pocket. Especially when you get out of work with your friends at midnight. Plus, unless you plan on having a career in the restaurant industry, you’re not learning any skills that you can take with you.

Office Temping

This is another one of those weird cliche actor jobs that make little sense. Theoretically, temping is great because you can quit a moment’s notice for a big audition or gig.

The downside? Pretty much everything. The money sucks, you don’t get company health insurance, and you don’t get any sick/vacation days. Plus, you’re usually spending your days doing the work that no one else wants to do. Have fun making copies and filing papers for 8 hours a day.

The only real advantage here is that if you’re temping at a company you like, you can hopefully transition to a full-time job. (But then you’re not a temp anymore, are you?)

Jobs I’ve Done and Liked

Commercial Acting

I am a little hesitant to call this a “job”, since even very successful commercial actors work maybe 2-3 weeks a year. More likely, you’ll work 2-3 days if you’re lucky. The rest of the time you’ll be auditioning, driving to auditions, or waiting for auditions.

The upside: Obvious. You make a ton of money (over $30,000 for a network national commercial), the actual work is easy, and a great way to join SAG-AFTRA.

The downside: Everyone wants to do the same thing. So you’re competing with dozens of people for every job. Plus, a lot of commercials are non-union these days, so if you book a non-union gig, it’s 1/10th the money. (Still a very good salary for one day’s work, but still.)

Plus, it’s unreliable as hell. Even if you had booked a few big spots and had a great year, next year you could get nothing.

Freelancing

“Freelancing” is a catch-all term for any sort of work you can do on a contract basis. In my case, it has been freelance copywriting. But you can just as easily be a freelance graphic designer, video editor, photographer, or a million other different things.

The upside: It’s pretty fun and the money can be solid. I’ve done treatments for reality shows, corporate blog posts,

The downside:  It’s also unreliable. Unless you have some steady clients, you will spend a lot of your time hustling for new business. The freelancing sites (Elance, Odesk, etc) tend to pay pretty poorly. So you’re better off finding clients directly.

Plus, you’ll be classified as 1099 contractor

Sales

Obviously, there are a million different types of sales jobs. From the guy selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door to an investment banker brokering a billion-dollar merger, salespeople are all doing the same thing: convincing someone to buy a good or service.

The upside: You can make A LOT of money in a short amount of time. Much more than you would in almost any other gig. Particularly jobs that don’t require specialized education and 60+ hour workweeks.

The downside: It’s stressful. You can also make NO money for an extended period of time.

But if you’re good with people, have a thick skin, and can handle HUGE amounts of rejection, you will do well. (Incidentally, successful arts have the same traits. Go figure.)

Here’s what you want in a sales day job:

  • Shorter hours
  • Ability to leave for gigs/auditions
  • Someone to handle your deals while you are away

Sound impossible? I’ve done it numerous times. The biggest key to getting this kind of setup is simple: Make them A LOT of money. If you’re one of the top salespeople in your company, you have MUCH more leeway than if you are brand new or at the bottom of the barrel. Prove your worth first, then negotiate your arrangement later.

Oh, another thing: You’ll want to focus on business-to-business (B2B) sales, most likely. Technology, advertising, and big-ticket items are what you want to focus on.

Business-to-consumer (B2C) sales is where most of the sales horror stories come from—scammy telemarketers for fake charities, interrupting people at dinner, etc. Obviously that’s not always true, but it’s a good general rule.

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I’ve also polled some friends and acquaintances for some other gigs.

Jobs My Friends Have Done And Liked

Uber/Lyft Driver

A favorite among the comedian/actor crowd, being a ride-sharer driver gives the ultimate in flexibility. Work when you want, for as long as you want.

The upside: Work that fits around your schedule. Bonus pay for high-demand times, prompt payment, and if you like to drive, you get to do a hell of a lot of it.

The downside: You’re classified as a 1099 contractor, which means you pay a lot more in taxes than you would as a regular W-2 employee. You also pay for your own gas, car maintenance, and car insurance (which will undoubtedly be higher with the miles you drive). Uber/Lyft have insurance policies for when you’re carrying a fare, I believe, but not for the rest of the time.

You know, I’m not convinced this is actually a good idea. In the next couple months, maybe I’ll do a test-run and see if it’s worth it.

Dog-Walker

Another popular one with the performers and writers. You can start a dog-walking business with a couple of fliers and a cell phone.

The upside: If you love animals, you get to kill two birds with one stone. (Hmm, maybe an awkward an analogy there). Get paid while walking dogs in the fresh air. Plus you have the flexibility to schedule your walks around other gigs and auditions.

The downside: The poop. The barking. The smell of dogs in your car.

I’m not sure how the money people make walking dogs, but it must be enough to live on. I know a couple television writers who walked dogs before getting staffed on a show.

Voice Actor

Normally, I’d classify this under the Commercial Acting section, but you can go out an get Voice Over jobs without an agent, completely on your own.

The upside: You get to submit for projects directly on sites like Voices.com or Voice123. You can work from home and get paid directly from clients, without having to bother with an agent.

The downside: Significant upfront costs—the VO sites are hundreds of dollars. And until you have a solid track record, you will be a total commodity. Plus you’ll need a demo, a microphone, and some practice before you’re ready to charge for your services.

Starting out, you can get some practice by doing lower-cost jobs on sites like Elance and Upwork.

Other “Industry” Jobs

A great way to gain experience and develop your skill set is to work in your industry, in a related role to the one you really want.

An actor works in a casting office. A director works as a film editor. A composer works as a sound mixer.

The upside: Steady pay, connections, and rounding out your skills.

The downside: The hours can be long and take you away from what your main passion is. But that’s the case with any of these jobs.