Ep 100: Artistic Teen? Time to Get Creative…

Episode Summary

Bill Deresiewicz, bestselling author and our first ever guest on the show, re-joins us for our 100th episode to talk about his latest book The Death of the Artist. We discuss if art is even a worthy pursuit for young people today and if so, what can young people expect.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When our kid says they want to pursue art as a career, we can sometimes be hesitant to support them. We have no doubt that they’re talented: we’ve seen them receive standing ovations at the end of a musical theater performance, rack up trophies and medals for photography, maybe even have their creative writing featured in the local paper. But that’s now–pursuing work as an adult creative conjures up the image of the starving artists, of young people struggling financially and emotionally as they try desperately to make it big in the fast paced world of art and entertainment.

We want our kids to be financially stable, instead of living hand to mouth. Should we be encouraging our kids to pursue careers as bankers and programmers, even though it means they’re talent will go to waste?  Can our kids really make enough money from their art to live happy and healthy lives?

If only someone could tell us what it’s like to pursue a life as an artist in the modern age, so we could know if a stable future in the arts is truly possible. If only there was a person out there who knows exactly why it’s hard to make money as an artist, and whether or not we should encourage our kids to go after a career in art…

Luckily, our guest today, Bill Deresiewicz, knows a thing or two (and much more) about artists in today’s world. He interviewed almost 200 artists—-filmmakers, writers, illustrators, and more—-for his recent book, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech. In his book and our interview, Bill dives deep into the realities of being a modern creative. 

In today’s episode, he explains  why he thinks young people should continue to pursue careers in the arts, even though it’s harder than ever to break through. He talks about the serious obstacles facing artists today, but also  the important role art plays in our society and in the lives of young artists.

The Value of Art and Artists

Many kids spend their whole life thinking they’re unintelligent because they aren’t great in a traditional classroom setting, can’t solve equations or memorize dates–until they discover art.  Suddenly they find that they have a treasure trove of talent and buckets of passion. They may have been called lazy or stupid for not execlling in chemistry, but what they really needed was someone to hand them some sheet music or a camera.

Bill speaks on how our education often mistreats these kids, how they aren’t taught to foster their talents. Instead, they are put into certain boxes that they just don’t fit into, and are constantly being told they’re just not as capable as other kids. If we can give these kids a chance to flourish, they can become shining stars, instead of barely keeping up.

Ok, you might be saying to yourself, but what about that whole financial stability thing? Sure, some kids are better at art than math, but if we know there’s not a lot of money in art, wouldn’t it be more valuable to just find a better math tutor? What could they possibly gain from painting or dancing that could equate to time spent  doing calculus?

Actually, there’s a lot of incredible, widely applicable things our kids can learn from practicing in the arts. Bill tells a great anecdote that demonstrates this. He interviewed a professor of theater for his book, who talked all about an enlightening experience she had running into an old student. The student had studied theatrical lighting design, but had gone on to become a manager at a major electronics company. As she told the professor, the student got her start with the company through theater work. Not only that, she credited theater with giving her all the skills that made her qualified to be a manager: the ability  to meet a deadline, to finish projects under budget, and to collaborate with others towards a common goal.

We often overlook arts education, but it can be more valuable for our  teens than we might think. If kids are passionate about art and spend time perfecting their craft,  they’ll learn skills that transcend far beyond watercolors or improv. They’ll learn dedication, self efficacy, and grit. Then, even if they decide to branch away from the arts at some point in their life, they’ll be able to carry these skills into other roles and occupations.

It’s easy to dismiss young artists, but when it comes down to it, we all need a little art in our lives. Whether it’s the TV shows we watch to unwind after a stressful day or the tunes we listen to on the radio while driving to the grocery store, art makes life a little more enjoyable. This raises the question however: if we all need art, why is it so hard to make a living as an artist?

Why Modern Artists are Struggling

We know that creating works of art is never going to be as stable as crunching numbers or prescribing medication, but Bill says making money as an artist is even more difficult now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. Why?

Bill points to the fact that nowadays, a lot of music, film, and visual art is available for free or cheap online. Instead of paying $20 for a DVD copy of a movie, you can find it online at a free website where pirated films are bountiful. Instead of buying a book in hard copy, you can probably find a PDF online somewhere you can download at no cost.

It’s not just piracy driving this free-art society; there’s been a general cultural shift. People have gotten used to enjoying music and movies without being charged, whether that’s on Instagram, Spotify, or Youtube. These platforms make it easy for artists to upload—-no labels, publishers, or managers necessary—-but they also don’t provide an easy way for creators to make money.

Even if there is a wider audience online with more accessible materials and outlets, it doesn’t mean your teenager will be able to stand out against the millions of other people putting art online. Nowadays comercial book publishers publish about 75,000 books a year—-meanwhile, there are about 1 million books self published online in the same amount of time. With all that competition, it’s hard for your teen to stand out. This in turn makes it difficult to make any money.

So when it comes down to it,  is it a good idea for our kids to pursue a living in art? And how can we make art a more feasible career for young people?

In the Episode….

Bill answers these questions and many more in our conversation. He’s talked to working professionals from many different fields of artistic expression: film and television, visual art, writing and music–all with varying degrees of career success. His tips provide a lot of context for the parent of any teen hoping to make a career out of creativity. We talk about:

  • Why we expect artists to work for free–and why we think art should be free
  • How opting out of a creative career can be just as brave as pursuing it
  • What we can say to our teens about what to expect in career as an artists
  • Why only 1% of creators are making most of the money in the industry

Thanks for listening and supporting our “art” here at Talking to Teens! We know that helping your kids find their passion in life is difficult.  Excited to have Bill join us for our 100th episode and share his expertise on the realities of a career as a contemporary artist!


Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: It’s been a couple of years since we talked to you on the show, I think over two years ago now. A lot has happened and you have a new book out.

Bill: I have a new book out.

Andy: So, okay, so tell me about what inspired it and what you’ve been doing in the meantime?

Bill: Yeah, I’ve been working on this book actually four or five years. I think what inspired it was really me wondering how artists are making a living these days because it just seems so hard. And I’ve always really, really cared about the arts, I was an English professor, I was a dance critic before that, fun fact, actually while I was in graduate school studying English lit. But I think everybody cares about the arts. I think if you think about it, how much time in an average day do you spend listening to music or watching shows? That’s our two, narrative television, or books, or going to museums, or whatever.

Andy: Hours, yeah.

Bill: Hours, right. This is all incredibly important to us and yet I think we don’t spend very much time thinking about or, quite frankly, caring about the people who make this stuff and how it gets to us. And that’s become especially a problem in the last 20 years, mainly because of the internet. There are other factors that we can talk about, but everybody, I think people, basically, know at least that Napster came along, it was 1999 and suddenly music was free, and then texts became free and video… If not free, then the price of all these things has been driven down tremendously and it feels like this golden age for us, the audience. How are people supposed to make a living actually making it?

Bill: I don’t approach that as a rhetorical question, like how are you supposed to make a living? People are doing it. So I wanted to know how are they actually managing to do this? And how sustainable is it? And what does it look like? So I went and asked. I interviewed 140 people and I asked them, and read a lot of books, and articles, and blog posts, and blah, blah, blah. And I got a picture which I present in the book in a lot of really granular, specific detail. I really wanted to nail it down and not just kind of wave my hands around.

Andy: It’s a look at art and what art is right now, and the people who make it, and how they do it. And the all-important question of how they pay for life, how they support themselves while being artists, which people don’t seem to want to talk about enough that money and art need to happen in the same conversation. And so I think it’s refreshing.

Andy: One thing I thought was really interesting is you talk about this one of the first knee jerk responses when you start this conversation with people is this idea of, “Oh, just put stuff out. You just need to be… Just put content out there and put stuff out and people will find you.” And your book made me really think deeper about that, and just who actually is successful with that versus who’s not.

Bill: Yeah. This book in many ways is written against that idea that you just articulated, that’s been disseminated for about the last 20, 25 years by Silicon Valley and by journalists and academics, who’ve taken up this line that you can just put your stuff out there. Because for Silicon Valley it’s really great, they’re not actually funding any artists at all, they’re not supporting any artists at all. Unlike even the big, bad culture industry, the suits at the publishers in New York, or the labels, or the studios in Hollywood. Whatever you can say about those people they can’t survive without investing in the artists that they publish, or produce, or whatever. Silicon Valley is completely parasitic on this. With the exception of now they’re funding some streaming content, but by and large, they just sit back and they wait. Because every time you put something online and then people click on it, they’re making money from that because they’re counting the clicks, they’re aggregating the data, and they’re selling the data.

Bill: And in the case of Apple, they’d started this whole idea because they were selling us the tools, like why should you buy a computer that’s twice as expensive as another one? Well, because you’re an artist and this is a computer for artists, and so on and so forth. So I think that’s where this idea came from. A, we’re all artists. B, it’s never been easier. C, just put your stuff out there. D, you’ll have a wonderful life doing what you love. Not really, to say the least, not that simple. So I’m trying to fight against that story because yeah, actually you can put your stuff out there and that is often the beginning, but it’s really only the beginning.

Andy: A counterpoint is that artists shouldn’t be so concerned with money. Aren’t they supposed to do this for the passion? And aren’t they supposed to do this for the love? And aren’t we cheapening the entire idea of art by even bringing money into the conversation?

Bill: Right. I start the book by trying to knock down the two arguments that are standing in my way. And the one, the Silicon Valley one, that’s the second one I get to. And the first one I get to is the one that you just articulated, which I also had myself when I started this project. Like, man, if you think about money, you’re a sellout, and art and money should never touch, and art should just be about love, do it for love. And this is very naive. This is very childish. Yes, artists work from love. You would never do this if you didn’t love what you were doing. And they do it from a desire to communicate from a desire to tell the truth and from a desire to express what’s inside them. And all of that is true, but you can say a lot of the same things about, say, teachers. They do it for love. They do it because they care about kids because it’s important work. Would anybody suggest that teachers should not get paid? Quite frankly, they don’t get paid enough, but they-

Andy: They almost don’t.

Bill: They almost don’t. But even the stingiest state legislator who doesn’t give their public school teachers enough money, I don’t think even they would have the gall to say that they shouldn’t get any money at all. That’s the same thing with the artists, but there is this enormous taboo in the arts about talking about money. And that’s become a huge obstacle. Because, first of all, it creates the attitude among the audience that, no, we shouldn’t have to pay them, they shouldn’t ask what’s wrong with you. And it creates the attitude among artists that you should feel guilty for asking, or guilty for negotiating. When somebody asks you to do something for free, which is an increasing problem, you should say, “Yes.” Young artists need to know very early on that this is stuff that they have to think about, it’s stuff that they’re allowed to think about, they’re cheating themselves if they don’t, they’re hurting themselves if they don’t.

Andy: Yeah. And by the stuff, you mean how they’re actually going to make money if they want to do art, or how they’re going to support themselves.

Bill: Absolutely. And then in the age of the internet, all this stuff that that involves that it didn’t use to involve. Stuff that can be kind of icky, that’s icky for me like self-promotion and self-marketing. Or that’s just difficult and not fun, like self-management. I should also say though, a lot of people, a lot of the artists I talked to, also embrace the new freedom that the internet provides to manage your career without having to have an agent, a manager, publisher, label, intervening. And so a lot of them bring a great deal of creativity to their career itself. So instead of just seeing it as a burden, you can also see-

Andy: You have to figure it out, there’s not really a blueprint to make it work, to make all the ends meet. Like you talk about these… everyone’s finding a different way to cobble together income from various different sources using their art in order to survive.

Bill: Exactly. And I’m simply saying that a lot of people embrace that as a creative opportunity. Let’s play around with it see what we can do here. Yeah.

Andy: Totally. It’s a freedom but also it needs to be thought about, and it can’t be ignored.

Andy: You talk about this freedom that exists now and it’s definitely a good thing because it means that everybody can be an artist and everybody has the freedom to pursue art. But, as you point out, it’s also a bad thing that everyone can do it and everyone does. So why is that?

Bill: I know this may make me sound like a bad guy. Here’s what I’m saying with that. The story, again, the story that artists are sold, or potential artists are sold, is you can just put your stuff out there, you can build an audience, you can reach an audience, you can monetize an audience. Okay, that’s sort of true-

Andy: Just find a thousand fans and then you’ll be fine.

Bill: A thousand true fans, maybe it needs to be a little more than a thousand now. Exactly, right. And again, it’s not as easy as all that, but well, even just doing it yourself, it’s a lot of work, but you have to remember that you’re not the only person who’s heard this message. Everyone has heard this message. So for example, I think about 75,000 books are published each year by commercial publishers. And that’s, I don’t know, I don’t think that number has gone up tremendously in the last few decades. About 75,000. That’s a lot already obviously, to compete with. But at this point, the number of books that are self-published each year is over a million. Yeah. Yes.

Bill: So every year over a million people are self-publishing their books, assuming there’s no more than one book per person, and they all think that they’re going to reach this audience and have… This is the point. The numbers have multiplied and you could say, you could say the same kinds of things about music, or independent films, the numbers have multiplied tremendously to the point where success is like winning the lottery, as people have said to me.

Andy: And it’s become so global now, whereas there used to be different local markets that could support artists at the local level. Now everything is global so it’s so all or nothing where these people that have risen totally to the complete top, and then there’s everybody else in the vast majority of the population, I guess.

Bill: Well, that’s a big fact across the arts as well is what people call the blockbuster effect. Which is that because of the internet and because the world is globalized, as you just said, the people at the top are getting more than ever. So one number I cite in the book is that in the music business in the ’80s, the era of Michael Jackson’s Thriller which was the hugest blockbuster album, 80% of the money in music went to the top 20% of content. Now it goes to the top 1% of content.

Andy: Wow.

Bill: Exactly. This is why the middle tier is… That’s really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the middle, the survival of the middle. Because there’ve always been starving artists, usually young artists, or let’s say struggling artists, young artists, or artists who maybe they’re just not that good, or maybe their work is too weird, or maybe they’re just doing it part-time, whatever it is. There have always been plenty of artists “at the bottom”. That’s not a value judgment necessarily, that’s just reality.

Bill: But before the internet, if you were in that middle tier, which means you would establish yourself as a full-time working artist, people took you seriously in your field, your peers did, critics did, you had found an audience, people liked your work, you were working regularly publishing, releasing music. You could have a middle-class standard of living. You weren’t rich but you could afford a decent place to live, you could afford decent healthcare, maybe you could send your kids to college. That middle tier, which is the lifeblood of every art, the everyday working musician, the painter who sells in a gallery, but doesn’t have their work in a museum, indie filmmakers, that middle tier is getting decimated. And so you have the blockbuster successes at the top and lots of people at the bottom, even these full-time working artists who are basically, living working-class existences, hand to mouth, never mind sending your kids to college. Many of the people I spoke with feel they can’t even afford to have children at all.

Andy: There’s this strange idea you write about that artists are lazy or that it’s the burnouts who want to just kick back and be artists. That’s not the case today anymore?

Bill: Well, it was never the case. Again, we’re talking to teens here, so let me, first of all, say, because I know I’ve just laid out a lot of negativity and pessimism, but I’m trying to be real. And the reason that people, like I said, I talked to 140 people, I asked them really intimate details about their financial lives, things that you’re not supposed to talk about, things that you’re not supposed to ask about. And a lot of them said, “I’m going to tell you because I think it’s so important for young artists to hear the truth that I wasn’t told, I didn’t hear when I was young.” That’s why I’m saying all this stuff but I want to say, first of all, it is not my intention to discourage anyone.

Bill: In fact, if you think you have a calling, you have a passion for the arts, if when you were five or 10, you felt like, “I want to be a writer. I want to be a musician.” Because so many of the artists I talked to said, “I knew from a young age. I knew when I was 12 I wanted to be a filmmaker. And now I’m 35 and I’m a filmmaker and I don’t care how hard it is, I love doing it. This is what I’m meant to do.” If you’re one of those people, I think you should go for it. You should give yourself a chance knowing that at a certain point, maybe when you’re 30 or 35 because that’s typically when it happens, you might have to say to yourself, “This isn’t working out. I can’t support myself. I need a plan B.” But if you haven’t given yourself the shot, if you haven’t given yourself the chance, I think you’re going to feel like you’ve disappointed yourself, like you’ve cheated yourself. I think you might be bitter and resentful and regretful.

Bill: So, one of the things that almost all of the artists I talked to said was, “I knew from a very young age. I knew when I was two. I was writing books when I was three.” The other thing almost all of them said was, “I got no encouragement from my family. I got no encouragement from my school. I got a lot of discouragement.” This is a fact about… We say we value creativity, we say especially we value creativity in kids, we want kids to have arts education. In this country at least we have a hostility towards the young adult or the child who wants to be an artist. And we think they’re lazy, we think they’re undisciplined. Who is more disciplined than a musician?

Bill: And in terms of lazy, the artists I talked to I could not believe how hard they worked. They seem to work all the time. Artists are tough, they were resilient, they had grit, they had self-belief, they were focused, they were stubborn. And they had to be because they’ve been fighting their whole lives to do what they want to do against the resistance of everybody else. And your young child artist or young artist or artistically-inclined and your school thinks because maybe you’re not academically gifted in the traditional way, they don’t know how to see the talent that you have. A lot of artists, people said this to me, have ADD, that’s just how their brain works. And if you put them in a situation where they have to sit still and focus on a math problem, they’re going to look undisciplined and stupid and maybe lazy. But if you put them in a situation where they can thrive, they’re going to be the stars. But we don’t have an educational system that’s set up to recognize and nurture that.


About Bill Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic, a frequent speaker at colleges, high schools, and other venues, and the author of The Death of the Artist, Excellent Sheep, and  A Jane Austen Education. Excellent Sheep 

Bill has published more than 250 essays and reviews. He has won the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and a Sydney Award; he is also a three-time National Magazine Award nominee. His work, which has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The American Scholar, and many other publications, has been translated into 17 languages and anthologized in more than 30 college and scholastic readers.

Bill taught English at Yale and Columbia before becoming a full-time writer in 2008. He has spoken at over 100 educational and other venues and held visiting positions at Bard, Scripps, and Claremont McKenna Colleges as well as at the University of San Diego.

Bill is a member of the Board of Directors of Tivnu: Building Justice, a Jewish social-justice gap year in Portland, Oregon, and of the Advisory Council of Project Wayfinder, which runs purpose-learning programs in schools across the United States and beyond. 

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