Arts and Music Diversity Career Stories

Singer-songwriter Mike Droho – I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, don’t know anything else.


Coral: Hi everyone.  We are talking to Mike Droho today.  Thank you, Mike, for taking the time to talk to us.

Mike: Yeah, it’s no problem.

Coral: What is your job title and what industry do you work in?

Mike: I am a singer/songwriter, and I work in the music business.

Coral: And how many years of experience do you have in this industry?

Mike: I have been doing this for 11 years.

Coral: How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

Mike: Resilient, stupid, awesome.

Coral: Good ones!  Alright, what is your ethnicity and gender?

Mike: I am white and I’m a guy.

Coral: Has it helped or hurt you at all in your industry?

Mike: Yes and no, I would say in a lot of ways it doesn’t actually play much of a role.  But certain types of music that we venture into sometimes have, or are predominately known to be connotated towards one ethnic group.  Hip hop music is traditionally driven by African Americans so when I venture into hip hop, I feel a little bit like I’m venturing into a ground that, traditionally, I’m not used to.

So I’ve played shows out East with tough crowds and whatnot and being heckled early on in the set and then maybe winning them over by the end of the set.  So I think maybe sometimes when we venture into those fields, we don’t get taken seriously, but, as a whole, I would say not really.  It’s more about your talent and where you come from, I think.

Coral: You kind of answered this a little bit already, but if you have experienced discrimination, how have you responded to it, and what has worked best?

Mike: I guess just have confidence in who you are, and let that override the stigma, or let that override the stereotype.

Coral: Okay, how would you describe what you do, and what does your work entail?

Mike: I write songs and make albums, and then I market and sell them to as many people as I possibly can. There’s a lot going on, and I try to prioritize at least a few hours every morning to work on music, which pretty much entails me sitting at a desk where I have stations set up.  There’s a vocal microphone set up, another microphone for a guitar and a couple keyboards that connect into my computer through a converter, and, it depends on the kind of music I am working on.

I work on all different type of music for all different types of regions, slotted for fun and for my personal growth and gain, and some of it is for commercial purposes, for licensing of commercials, for licensing on websites.  It entails spending some time everyday working on music, and then there’s a lot of time I spend booking shows.  That’s really where I make a lot of my money, is through the guarantees or from the money I procure from ticket sales, or from concerts.

And then, you kind of want to stay current in your field, so as much as I can, as much time as I can spend absorbing new music, staying on top of trends, staying relevant.  I’m always thinking about, trying to add new things to my repertoire in terms of production, getting new equipment in the studio so I can do more things with it, or becoming better at a certain instrument so I can add that to my repertoire.  It’s pretty much as long as I want to go all day long.

It’s tough because it’s kind of a sales job in that the more you do, the more you get out of it, and so I never turn it off.  I pretty much work the whole day on business stuff, working on merchandise design stuff.  It’s a lot of things.  You think that it’s just sitting around and playing a guitar and going to a show, and even though I have help from a manager and an agent, I have a lot to do, a lot of hats to wear doing it as independently as I am.

Coral: Are there any common misunderstandings that you want to correct about what you do?

Mike: I mean, I love what I do, but I think everyone comes to a show and they don’t see all the work that goes on behind it.  It’s not all fun and games.  People think I have a dream job and in many ways I do, but there are definitely ups and downs to it, and there are parts of it that equate themselves to work, just like anyone else’s job. Not to be negative, I’m just saying it’s not all bells and whistles all the time.

Coral: Sure, okay.  If this job moves your heart, how so?  And do you feel like this is your calling in life?

Mike: I think being an artist is definitely my calling.  I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, I don’t know anything else.  At certain times, I feel like I’m really great at it, and then that kind of reaffirms the fact that I should be doing it, or the idea that I should be doing it.  It is my calling; I think I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

Coral: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

Mike: Everyone has their path when it comes to their career.  Maybe this isn’t unique, but it could be encouraging to other people that it definitely takes a long time to, I don’t want to say make it, but establish yourself.  In my case, it has taken many years before I could really take a breath and not worry so much about paying my bills or this and that.  So, there’s definitely been times that I wanted to quit, and I’m like, ‘why don’t I just get a normal job?’ and take the stress out of making money.  But, I’m glad I stuck it out.  I am proud of myself for going into a field that a lot of people fail at.

Coral: Well, you kind of hinted at this a little bit in the last one, but how did you get started in this line of work? And, if you could go back and do it differently, what would you change, if anything?

Mike: I got started just as a kid, pretty much like anyone else when you find yourself in high school and you are starting to identify with certain things, and music was definitely one thing from an early age through that point that I really identified with, and I always admired actors and musicians and people in the art field.  It never occurred to me that I could actually do that until a little bit later on.

I think I had a girlfriend that dumped me, it was like my first serious love, so serious seeing as I was, like, 17 or whatever.  So we broke up and it was like a desperate attempt to get her back.  I wrote this really awful song using two chords I had learned from a buddy the previous summer.  I think I started out of desperation to reach somebody.  And then I realized I kind of kept with it, I was 17 or so, and some of these bad songs I started putting together, they got a little bit better, a little more polished, and I had a friend’s band that was doing really well.

They were a group of four going around and I was traveling with them to help out, not performing or even thinking of performing, but seeing them do it really inspired me.  So it was at probably 18 or 19 that I got my first show together and then realized you can make a living at this if you were good at it and you worked hard at it.  So many things you learn – I made so many mistakes I wish I could do over.  I put so much, all my eggs into one basket early on, into one band, which is probably why I was successful.

Us four guys were really working hard at one common goal, which was brilliant, it was a great situation and we had a lot of success, we shot up really quickly.  We were touring the country before we knew it and had sold-out shows and selling lots of records.  I just wish I had put a little more of something else on the side and not put all my eggs in that one basket because when that came crashing down, I had nothing to fall back on.  It took me a very long time to get myself re-established, and I lost a lot of time in a very crucial period.  I wish I could have done that differently, but there are all kinds of mistakes you make.

When the economy shifts and trends happen and change, you hope you can be at the front of it, the trend, and not at the back of it.  I don’t know how many times we have gone out on tours that were maybe just a little too ambitious.  I mean, without risks there would be no reward, I would say, but you have to find that fine line between a safe growth, a little bit of risk, and too much risk.  But I’m kind of proud of myself.

Sometimes people are afraid to go after things because of the risk, and I’ve definitely taken a whole bunch of risks.  I think I’ve failed five times profoundly, with different projects.  So my persistence is one thing I am proud of.  Maybe if I had to do it all over again I would be a little more calculated, maybe seek a little bit of help.  You know, it never hurts to have someone else helping out.

Coral: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

Mike: People are so receptive to being treated well, and it feels so good to treat people well.  When you take the time, the respect comes back to you, and it comes back in positive ways for your business, for yourself emotionally, for you as a whole.  What I’ve learned outside of school is just that you should just treat people the way they want to be treated and it really comes back to you and, for that reason, I’ve built a lot of bridges and not burned so many.

I’ve worked with other artists in the past and friends that have burnt a lot of bridges and now they’re kind of in a corner, whereas I feel like I can go back to any person I’ve ever crossed and be able to call on them for a favor or work with them.  The quality of your relationships is maybe one of the most important things.

Coral: What is the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

Mike: I think a really profound thing that happened to me is when I was touring, and I had a truck with all my gear and all my guitars and my amps and my hard drive and my truck was stolen, so literally everything, like my toothbrush and my clothes and my CD player.  I was traveling and I had everything I owned, pretty much, and literally everything was stolen, even my car.

It was the most humbling moment I can remember in my life.  It was surreal for the first couple of days.  I went through this stage of life where it wasn’t going to keep me down, but eventually it got me down.  But, overall, that was a great experience.  I feel like it made me a much stronger person, and smarter person maybe.

Coral: Why do you get up and go to work each day?  Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

Mike: Yeah, I mean, there is this palpable feeling you get when you’re on stage and it’s a great show and you’re connected with someone; it’s the highest feeling you can have.  I feel like I’m kind of chasing that every day.  I don’t get that every day; I might get a taste of it through doing some recording and constructing a chord in the song that when I play it back it just seems to slam really great and connect with me.

I get little bits of it, but I am really, really into the performance and the entertainment of people and the connection you can create when you make great artwork and get people in front of you.  I can’t really think of anything else I could do that I find as gratifying as performing for people.  I guess every day is in pursuit of making it better.

Coral: What kind of challenges do you face, and what makes you want to just quit?

Mike: Well, the economy is tough right now, it’s hard to tour: so costly for gasoline, the clubs seem to be giving out less and less guarantees, there’s less opportunity.  It seems to be a world flooded with imposters and people that are trying to make it or are trying to do something with their career, which is great, but there’s just so many people out there fighting for so few spots.

There are challenges: a lot of competition and costs.  Costs can be a huge deterrent, too.  Making an album is a really costly endeavor, or it can be, and finding funding for those things is just not really available either.  It’s tough; it’s a tough time to make money.  Luckily, that’s not really what drives us completely.  Luckily, we can find a way to make some quality art, and to make a living doing that is pretty great.

Coral: Well then, this one goes right along with that, but how stressful is your job?  Are you able to maintain a healthy work-life balance?

Mike: Yeah, you know, it goes up and down but for the most part, I think, not dreading to go to work, I know what that feeling is.  I remember the last time I had a normal job.  It was really tough, the anxiety that kind of crawls up on you before you have to go and then while you’re there, you’re looking at the clock.  That sucks.

I don’t want to do that, and I don’t have that feeling ever with music.  Sometimes I get anxious or nervous for performances, and those things can be frustrating, but it doesn’t at all deter me from getting up and doing it the next day.  I feel like I can always grow with my job.  I like my job, and I definitely have a healthy relationship with it.

Coral: So this one may be a little difficult to answer because I feel like it varies, but what is a rough salary range for the position you hold, and do you feel you are paid enough?

Mike: The band probably grosses between $60,000 and $80,000 a year, but so much of that is eaten up with tour costs to reestablish or to develop new markets.  And I take about as little as I can to pay my bills and to have a lifestyle that I can live with and am comfortable with.  It is not, by any means, extravagant.  I don’t know if I get paid enough.  Some negotiations I have to battle with people to get money that I know I am worth.  And sometimes, I probably get overpaid, but that definitely doesn’t happen as much.

I would say I’m maybe a little underpaid, but you basically make what you need to make, I think.  I think it’s fine, I think it’s a fair playing field.  I have a lot of advantages, and there are a lot of disadvantages to what I am doing, but I have faith that my effort will be returned.  It’s just like I said, it’s been 10 years and I’m still developing markets and as we’re developing, we’re spending lots of money.  But we’re also making more money by establishing ourselves.  So, in time, those numbers will shift in terms of our costs and expenditures.

Coral: How much vacation do you take?

Mike: Not a lot.  It’s something I am going to take, planning some vacations this year.  But, the one thing I’ll say is that I will definitely take time every day to give myself what I need to feel relaxed or at ease or like I’ve been on vacation.  And that’s one great benefit of my job.  Some people, if they’re stressed at their job, can’t necessarily leave work, whereas if I’m not feeling the song, I can just turn my computer off and go read a book on the porch or just go for a run or go outside and chill out.

But, I do believe it is important to have some vacation time.  You’ve got to get away from it and let it go, especially artistically with me; I can’t just demand creativity of myself all the time and expect it to always be there.  Sometimes I have to cultivate it, and that means relaxing or getting healthy and taking a break every once in a while.  But not as much vacation as I’d like.

Coral: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

Mike: None, none at all.  No, I think you need to be able to make music or art in some fashion that is good enough that people will buy.  That’s a pretty wide range.  People buy all kinds of stuff in the music world.  I don’t know how you can really quantify skill level now.  I would imagine the more education you have, if you know more about the music world and music business, the better off you’ll be.

But, I think the beautiful thing is you don’t have to have the knowledge at first, you just have to have the inspiration and the ability to play an instrument and the ability to get across to people.  It’s one of those qualities that people have, artists, I guess.  You either have it or you cultivate it through education.  I kind of educated myself through learning other people’s songs, through reading books.

So there is a minimal amount of education I would imagine.  You need to be competent with an instrument, competent in the craft of songs, and then you need to, either yourself or find people to help you, market it and get it out to the world.  To answer your question, I guess, little to none to a lot.

Coral: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

Mike: That if it was easy everyone would do it, but the challenge is what makes it so gratifying.

Coral: Okay, last one.  If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

Mike: I would like to have a more established, more idealistic musical act touring around the county.  We could sell 100,000 records a year and be able to have a great presence throughout the country without having to be under the strong arm of the label and be able to call your own shots.  I would like to be able to be a diversified artist in terms of me having an interest in film and I have an interest in other forms of art that I would like to explore more.

Maybe someday find myself in a position to run a label and help cultivate younger artists and help reaffirm the quality of music into the world, quality art into the world versus the commercial portion of it that seems so disheartening that we’re all subject to and seems to be what drives the industry.  I think I’d like to be someone at the front of that, helping reestablish independent music and independent art.

Coral: Great, well those are all the questions that I have for you, thank you so much!

Arts and Music Diversity Career Stories

Circus performer reinvents her big top career after a major injury

Have you ever dreamed of running away and joining the circus? If so, you may be surprised to read about what a professional and lucrative career path can be had in the circus arts! Along with physical strength and agility, individuals entering this field should have marketing experience, business savvy, and computer skills. Read on to hear how this individual didn’t pursue her circus dreams until she was in her 20’s, and has still found herself soaring through the industry with the greatest of ease.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
I am a Circus Artist, which for me consists of being an Aerialist, Acrobat, Dancer, Yoga instructor, Personal trainer, Coach, Costume designer/fabricator and Makeup and Hair Artist. I work in the Circus industry full time and I have been in this industry professionally for 8 years. I would describe myself as empowered, inspiring, and abundant.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
There is so much to being a circus artist. Its a broad term, because it can entail many aspects of the industry. I co-owned a company for 5 years in WA state. We had a circus tent, box truck, tour bus, 30 subcontracted performers, and a warehouse to train in and hold classes in. In this particular setting I worked as a performer, administrator, artist director/costume designer and aerial coach. When running a full scale production company, one can only imagine that most of my work went into administration and business management. The company was U & I Productions and one of the shows we produced was Dream Science Circus (

After selling out my half of the company I moved to Vermont to pursue a higher level of professionalism in the industry. At the age of 28, and already 5 years into making my living as a professional, I wanted to train my body harder and put administration aside for awhile. A typical week of me training at the school consisted of 9 hours of dance (Ballet and Jazz,) and 25 hours of training acrobatics, aerials and conditioning, (that’s physical training 5 hours a day.) I did this full time for one year.

I then performed and taught on both the east and west coast. I toured with a company out of LA for a month before becoming injured. To be more specific about what performing and touring looks like, you do a lot of packing. Packing is a huge part of being in this industry. Packing includes, equipment, makeup, costumes, and clothes for the road. I spend a lot of time in airports. When I toured with a company out of Dallas, we flew to a different city every weekend for almost an entire year year. This was a lot of packing and unpacking, cleaning costumes, repacking and then back to the airport. When I was touring with Dream Science Circus for that five years I would joke with people and tell them I was a professional mover or packer. We had puppets, stilts, aerial rigs, circus tent and loads of costumes, a stage, lights, sound system. This is a lot to be packing and unpacking.

Right now my job description varies a bit from the past because I am healing from a severe injury. Currently I am not touring or training. I am working as a coach teaching aerials and acrobatics at the New England Circus Center. I also am working as a costume designer. I have made over ten costumes for other performers in the past 6 months. In the past two months I have done four stilt walking gigs which includes, packing, traveling, hair and makeup and of course entertaining the masses.

The greatest misunderstanding that I want to correct about this industry is the assumption that it is neither a lucrative, professional or serious industry. I understand that people see clowns and artist dressed up in crazy costumes, living gypsy lifestyles, but I hope people can start to see that this industry takes an immense amount of discipline, dedication and persistence. My own family confuses the circus industry with the carnival industry. These are two VERY different industries. Circus artists are trained athletes. Every day we watch what we do and what we put into our bodies. In order to make it as an artist you have to have business skills in order to promote, produce and book your artistry. The last misunderstanding I would like to clear up is that there is no money in it. On the contrary, there is a constant demand for circus artists, coaches etc.

What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?

I am a white Caucasian female. My race and gender have helped me. I speak conversational Spanish, a little Japanese and American Sign Language. Knowing other languages is very helpful in my career because I travel a lot.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
Definitely a 10! I am so satisfied in this career. I get to travel the world, create beautiful art, inspire and teach others, and master my physicality.

If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
I love training. I love pushing beyond my fears and trusting those I’m working with. When I’m training partner acrobatics I have to stay focused and push beyond fear and doubt. To step into someone’s hands and get tossed into the air takes absolute trust. This job moves my heart because it is really about being your best. When I coach I work with kids and adults on trusting themselves and each other, balance, coordination, confidence and strength. I love empowering others. I love being on stage and inspiring people to follow their own dreams. I love creating a beautiful costume pieces for fellow performers, knowing that they are going to look great and feel confidant!

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
My situation is unique because I am an island child. Raised in the Pacific North West in the San Juan islands. I wanted to be a dancer and acrobat so much as a child. I begged my parents to take me to classes. Living on an island with the last ferry being 6 pm, it was impossible for them to sign me up in any classes. I would watch the girls at school and mimic them. I would spend hours trying to stand on my hands and work on my cartwheels and splits in the yard with no help. I would simply pretend I was a professional.

Then, when I was an early teen and we moved to the mainland, I was able to check out a few classes. At the vulnerable and insecure age of 13 I went to the classes to find mean girls who had been training together since a young age. It wasn’t supportive or safe for me as a beginner. That’s also why I love circus. Its a non competitive industry to the degree that if you are just starting out, people are there to support and share with you. I quit before I began and at the age of 19 I thought I was too old to ever succeed. At 23 I met a profession aerialist who told me I wasn’t too old to start. I realized that it would be almost impossible to get hired without the experience, or skill level I needed. So, the best thing to do was to start producing my own shows. That’s when my best friend and I co-founded the company. We learned as we went and at the end of the 5 years we had grown so much that we couldn’t be ourselves anymore and decided to take a break.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I called my best friend and asked him if he wanted to start a company. I had just discovered aerials at the Boulder Dance Festival and I was IN LOVE!

If I could go back I would have treated myself as a young person more lovingly. I wanted to be a dancer so badly that I suffered from anorexia. In making that choice on and off through out my teenage years I lost my muscle. When I fell in love with aerials it took me years to gain strength to learn skills. I stayed focused on the management and business side of things during those years. That really helped us get started, but I wish I had taken care of myself as a young person so that I could have progressed faster.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
When I get injured it is because I don’t take enough time off. I push myself too hard. Too many hours of training and my body can’t handle it. It’s a tough lesson to learn, that taking time off means that you may not have to take so much time off to heal from an injury!

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
If you want to do it. Then do it! Find it, research it and begin to practice it. Study, train and involve yourself in the industry. You will succeed!

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
I love this job because it is just strange. Being backstage is the best. You are immersed in another world. Backstage, people are running around, half dressed, fully dressed, undressed, re-dressing. Then you have the conversations such as “has anyone seen my eyelashes” Or the routine layout which sounds like, “So we pike up, to straddle, birds nest, split, shoulder to shoulder, slide down and finish with a double.” Another person needs help stretching and asks for someone to sit on them Someone might be standing right next to you getting ready to go out on stage and warming up by chirping, or shaking or grunting. I was in this number where I was a tiger, so back stage I warmed up by acting like a tiger.

I love seeing people get ready back stage, the transformation from normal to extraordinary.

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
I do this everyday because it’s my life. It’s not just a job. I live as a circus artist. I wake up everyday and try to be my best. When I’m training full time, it takes discipline to get to the studio. I remind myself on the days when I’m feeling uninspired to train what a privilege it is and how grateful I am that this is my life!

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?

Injury! Injuries for anyone can be devastating. When you use your body for your work it can be really devastating when you get injured.

In 8 years I have torn my Sacroiliac joint, broken bones in both feet, was on crutches for two weeks due to a very sprained ankle, and the most recent is a severely pinched nerve in my neck. It is really hard to be injured when I have to sit back and refuse job opportunities. Sometimes I think I might like to be in an industry for which I’m not so dependent on my body. Recently I have just been focused on another aspect of the industry such as coaching and costuming and I am really happy!

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
It can be very stressful. A lot of times you are just learning a new routine with a choreographer that you need to perform for an audience the next day, at 12:00 am and after flying (practicing) for 6 hours. There was one show where I was finishing and sewing our costumes 20 minutes before we were about to be on.

When you are doing risky, dangerous skills in front of 3000 people you can be so nervous behind stage before you go out, that you feel you’re going to throw up. One of the most stressful experiences I remember is when we set our tent up at a festival in the mountains. There were 50 mile per hour winds. It was dangerous setting up the tent and then upon setting it up a half hour before call time, the winds ripped a 25 foot seam in our tent. That was stressful.

Traveling can be stressful to. Bad food, airports, sleeping on the tour bus, and being in close quarters with other company members. Also, doing a trick for the first time out of safety lines is always scary and stressful for me! I remain healthy and clam remembering that “The show must go on”. I eat as healthy as I can when I travel and I swear by emergency and immune boosters when flying a lot. I also receive a lot of massages, go to chiropractors, and spend regular time in physical therapy!

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
When I had my company I was making about 1500-4000 a month, from producing shows, teaching and doing gigs.
A coach earns 15-75 an hour. As a performer it is reasonable to expect 150 – 1000.00 per show or event, though contracts really do vary. I have worked for very little money for organizations I believe in, that do not have a big budget and I have performed for 4 minutes in Tokyo and was paid a 1000.00 dollars for it. Like I said earlier, it is a misconception that you cannot make a living in this industry. A friend of mine is making 700 every weekend on a 2 month contract. Another friend is making 1200.00 a week on a 3 month contract. It varies but the draw back is that its usually not consistent. It’s likely that a circus artist will make a bunch of money and then have a lull in work. That’s why many of us teach or do other aspects of the industry, such as my costuming which I make 25-35.00 an hour per costume, and most of them take between 10 -20 hours, (300 -600 for a costume.) There are rough months though. I have survived through dry months because I made money the month before. I am happy with how much I make. I would not want the responsibilities of a family on an income that fluctuates so much, but as an individual it’s perfect!

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Because of the type of lifestyle that I have as a circus artist, I feel like I get a lot of vacation time. I think it’s due to traveling and staying in hotels or performing a lot in Mexico or exotic places, but on the other hand no taking time off means getting behind. I have had to take off for five months now from an injury, and I know that when I start training again I am going to have to work that much harder to get back in shape. This was the type of vacation I didn’t want to take.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
Dance, gymnastics, acrobatics, aerial training, theater, computer skills for administration jobs, marketing and booking. You need to know how to sell yourself.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

Get started right away! It’s a long road, and as an athlete we have short careers. People in the circus industry perform well into their mid and late 40’s! Its high time, go for it and have fun!

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

In five years I hope I have enjoyed working for other companies, touring and performing. I would be about to venture again toward the growth of my own company. The company would be a platform for community offerings; aerial yoga, circus therapy classes, circus classes for all ages, and would have the ability to produce shows regularly.

I hope to have a long successful life in this career and I hope to help others realize their dreams in this industry or another through the empowerment of circus arts!

Arts and Music Diversity Career Stories

Graphic Artist loves the work, not the business

I am a graphic artist and the owner of a full service advertising agency. I have well over twenty years of experience in that field. That is a long time in a vastly changing field, and it has been difficult to impossible to keep up at times. I’ve adopted several strategies to keep current. Usually I can just buy a new computer program, fiddle with it and learn how to use it well enough, but other times I have no idea what I am doing, even after messing with it a while.

One great strategy I use when that happens is to sub myself out to other companies. By doing overflow work for artists in related, but non competitive businesses I can learn their techniques for doing certain things that I’d be lost in otherwise. I can learn about the equipment and computer programs I need, and learn it on their equipment, while helping out. I get on the job training and pocket money, in exchange for helping them out when they are snowed under and have deadlines to meet. I’ve learned a lot working for print shops, publishing companies, and T-shirt designers in my area. I also get referrals to my company from most of the businesses I have subbed out to. It’s a great way to network and help out fellow artists, publishers and printers.

Another strategy I use is taking courses on different software at the local community college. I remember learning Page Maker and Microsoft Word back in the days of green screen. Community Colleges are a great way to stay current in your field, but I really had to beg to get them to allow me to register for Page Maker. It was a second year course in a curriculum, they were sure I’d be lost, but I aced it. I had 7 years experience in paste up at the time. I was just learning to do with a computer, what I’d been doing by hand for my entire career.

I love my job, most of the time, but there is no typical day. Every day is different and new. That is one thing I love about this business, and at times it is the thing I hate most as well. It all depends on how the day goes. Over the years my business has evolved and changed. I’ve always been the local go to gal “for all your advertising needs,” as my slogan goes. My career depends on my ability to adapt, and learn new skills.

I started out selling business cards, and quickly expanded to stationary packages. I’d design a logo, and put it on cards, letterhead, envelopes and personal sized stationary for local companies and non profits. I’ve also done tons of flyer designs, and created promotional materials for numerous non-profit organizations. I expanded to sign painting and then architectural renderings for local architects. I’ve done a lot of illustrations, including a contract for which I cataloged all the animals at a local drive through zoo. I started doing typesetting for publishers and finally went into publishing myself with a local “things to do” paper. I have clients, and I do whatever they ask me to. I get new clients who demand more skills and I pick them up.

Almost everything I learned in college is completely out of date. Nothing in the publishing field is done the same way it was 30 years ago. Even advertising principles have changed. My field has changed, and I stay hard pressed to keep up with the new technology and the new philosophies and techniques of modern advertising.

As a woman, when I was younger, it got pretty rough a few times. Selling business cards to used car salesmen was tough, and I had to flirt enough to sell without ending up “going for a ride in one of the new demo cars.” It was a tight rope, but I learned to handle that sort of thing as I got older. I’ve had clients make moves on me, and had to turn them down without loosing work. It isn’t easy but it can usually be done. Making a good excuse such as “I’m seeing someone” usually works. I learned to always tell them I was engaged, even if I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time. Now, since I am older and married, it isn’t an issue anymore.

I took Latin in high school, and it has served me well. I can usually read in any Latin based language, at least well enough to glean the general idea. I’ve never needed a foreign language directly for work though. The closest would be reading the directions on a set of French art pens. I can read in French, Italian, and Spanish at least to a degree, but I can’t understand those languages when they are spoken.

If I had to rate my profession on a scale of one to ten, I’d have to give it a 10 and a 1. It’s all or nothing in this field. If I have work, and I know what I am doing that day, my work is a 10 plus. If no one has called, and I have to go out and beat the bushes to find work, then it’s still a 10. If I call my regular clients, go out on cold calls, and come home without work, then it becomes a 1. My business is both seasonal, and very sensitive to the economy. Needless to say things have been slow for a while, and I am using the time to become more tech savvy. Even in good times, the months between January and April are dead. I usually just hibernate, career wise. I plan my year so that I just budget to spend very little, and cut the business to bare bones in January and February. I start gearing up again in March.

I think the toughest thing about my job is negotiation. I’ve had to learn the hard way not to let clients barter me out of house and home. Collections can be tough after it becomes an issue, as well. One thing I have learned is to access the risk of getting stuck with the last job and having to eat it. If I sense they are going to leave me stuck, once they get what they want, I charge a 15 percent higher rate. I’ve never been wrong on this instinct, but when it happens, I still walk away with enough to cover that last job. Most people will take about six or eight jobs before they leave you stuck. I always said that if I misjudged someone, I’d make it up once they proved themselves with some free work, but I’ve never had to do that.

When it comes to striking a deal, I have learned that even though I try to fit any budget, if I get a client who makes money and still tries to get something for nothing the best thing to do is to stick to my price, and not compromise quality so they can save money. I had a nasty altercation with a woman who hired me to paint a $100 dollar sign for $40. I let her take advantage of me really. Then she wouldn’t pay, and kicked the tires on my work. She was trying to get out for $20. I still get angry when I think of it, but I did learn not to do business with people who think I should work for free. Now I stick to my rates. If they don’t like my rate I walk away.

Going to college is just the beginning of a career. Every business does things a little differently. Office procedures vary from one company to another. Printers have different requirements for the format of artwork and type set. If artists and publishers cannot adapt to each and every circumstance or requirement they loose money. I’ve gathered that most fields are the same way. When people get a job, they can’t expect the standard to be the same as what they turned in for school projects.

I was always an artist. From the time I was twelve I was having shows, and selling my work, but I considered going into social work, or becoming a veterinarian as a career. I often wish I had become a veterinarian, because of the money. The pay has never been great. I’ve gotten a lot of local attention and popularity, but popularity and a sense of accomplishment do not pay the bills. On bad days, I wish I was a veterinarian. On good days, I am very proud of what I do.

Every day is a strange day when you are an artist. Our perceptions are different, and we tend to see even common objects in new ways, as if they were alien. It gets even stranger when uncommon things happen though. I remember once, I made a cold call to try to get work from a local architect. He was gruff with me, and I understood why. The artist who formerly did his architectural renderings had recently gone blind, and was dying. I hadn’t known that when I went to him, but I had felt led to visit him on that day. I was driving by and my inner voice had said, “Stop there!” My inner voice is almost never wrong. I was saddened by his story, and when I saw this man’s work, I knew that my style was so different that this architect would never be satisfied. I am a photo realist, and his former artist was an impressionist. I’ve never done impressionist work before, and it was mostly out of fashion at the time. I still made my pitch, but I didn’t stand a chance because of this old architect’s love for his previous artist’s impressionist work. I could not sell him on photo realism. He seemed irritated that I tried.

There was no way I could do the kind of work this man wanted, even though I am versatile. The old guy was a master in his style. I had to bow my head in awe of his talent. There was so much emotion in his work, which screamed what my paintings could only whisper, because of the difference in style. The architect was in a very bad mood, feeling he would never find another artist like his friend the impressionist, and he was sad. I was sad to loose a great talent in the field as well.

As I was leaving, the old architect called me back. He had a strange look on his face and his tone was almost robotic. His eyes looked strangely blank. He gave me the phone number and address of someone who needed my services. He even called ahead for me and set up an appointment for me to go over there immediately. From that I landed one of the biggest contracts of my career.

I’ve always been puzzled by that strange shift in his demeanor, and the fact that he helped me, even though he seemed irritated and angered by my mere existence moments before. That gruff old man truly did me a good turn, but it was very strange how he became so robotic in his voice and manner. It was if he were temporarily under the control of something other than himself.

There are many things that make me happy about my job. The moment I get a new client order is thrilling, as is the moment I get paid, but the most thrilling moment is hard to describe. When I am working at my art table, and I suddenly realize that I am creating something I love, it is just an amazing experience. I have perhaps been in autopilot working on details and just doing what I have done so many times before, and suddenly I say, “Wow, look what I just did!” Later when I turn it in to my client and he feels the same way, that’s just magic too.

As an artist I want my own brand of chaos and my own work environment. I do not like to rush. I actually work faster when I do not rush. Still I have to go into other offices and work occasionally, and the one thing I cannot stand is someone standing over my shoulder wanting me to hurry up. The other thing I hate is being interrupted. For that reason I prefer my own office to going into other people’s zones. I especially dislike sharing workspace with people who move things when you walk away for a moment. In general though, I do enjoy working with fellow artists from time to time, and to have someone to chat with while I work. The best situations I have found are the ones where I can work at work, and then take stuff home to work on as well.

As an artist, ad copy writer, and publisher, I have a terrible work balance. I am a natural sixty hour a week worker. I am easily obsessed with my work, and tend to become so absorbed that it’s hard to even say I am conscious, except in my own little world where I work. I have also been a home school mother, a wife, and the daughter of elderly parents, while trying to manage this all consuming career. I’ve had to take time off completely before, and I’ve had to cut back on hours as well at times, just to manage the rest of my life. It often seems that, other than the things I am passionate about, like my kids, my family, and my work, I am constantly putting out fires. I am terrible with book keeping and housework, and everything else that is boring. I have no self discipline when it comes to drudgery.

It is hard to calculate how much money I make. It is for most self employed people. I try to keep my rates at about twice what I’d make working for someone else doing the same job. This is because of all the time I spend cultivating clients, and looking for work. I generally try to make $20 to $30 an hour when I can find work. Sometimes I’ll work for less, if I am desperate, and it is something I want to do. Many times though in print or web publishing it is a gamble. You put up a site and hope to get advertisers. Things are slow this year and I’ll be lucky to get $20,000 over expenses. If I worked for someone else, I’d probably get $35K if I could get such a job. From a monetary standpoint I should have been a veterinarian.

I thought that I had reached the height of my career when I designed the logo for our city’s retail business sector. I was thrilled when a local artisan asked my advice before casting it in gold for limited edition lockets.

All that was nothing though, compared to giving birth to my first publication. I was later stunned to hear that a prestigious four year college was using my little monthly newspaper to teach journalism. These students actually studied my writing style for weeks. I never took journalism, even at a community college, yet this professor with a PhD. thought my work was something these students should know. My paper was written in a tongue and cheek folksy style, which played up my being a local country gal, welcoming newcomers and visitors to our area. I saw people reading my paper, and that felt good. My advertising clients were also thrilled because their sales increased exponentially from my advertising. Often business doubled or tripled for them, and I was very happy about that.

In my line of work, I’ve done business with all sorts of people, from the most reputable and upstanding business people, and the millionaire philanthropists of our city to the absolute dredges. If their money is green, and they need artwork I take the job. Collections on some of those were somewhat challenging. I once did work, for a shady guy at my 15 percent increased rate. He was involved in some sort of organized gambling, but I have no idea of the details, nor did I want to know. Sure enough he left me stuck with $300 worth of work. I called to collect, and he informed me that he owed certain debts, and that the mafia had driven a truck through his home. He said, “Don’t you think if I had a dime, I’d have already paid it to them. All I have is my soon to be dead body.” I verified by driving by, that a truck had indeed rammed his brick ranch style home, and that it was quite a mess. I wrote off the debt, and I’d just as soon forget about it. The money was good while it lasted. While I didn’t anticipate his end to be so dramatic, I knew he’d eventually leave me hooked, and had charged accordingly.

I have a two year degree in advertising design. That was good enough when I was twenty, but today people need a masters to get anything out of life and they might as well go for their doctorate. If I had a bachelor’s degree I could teach art in a high school or community college, during hard times like this. More education might be nice, even for me, but my technical training is so out of date, I’d have to start all over at age 50.

In order to truly succeed in my field, you need a lot more than an education, or even a good drawing hand, although that may be helpful. What you need is good business sense, and sales skills. If I were a bit more capable of conning people into paying me more than a living wage, I’d be making a lot more money. I know some advertising agents make really good money. They know how to sell to the rich and powerful, and get them to spend a lot of money. I’ve spent my career listening to people tell me I should help by trimming my price.

Business can be better in large cities. Personally I found a ready market in our smaller city. The work was steady, considering the field I’m in. I got more local recognition, but less money. Overall advertising agencies are lucky to survive the first year of business. In my case I hung on by keeping my overhead down, and cutting my rates when I had to.

I do not recommend my field to anyone. If people are passionate, and this is truly what they want to do, then nothing anyone says will stop them. Encouraging someone who is not passionate, or who needs a lot of money isn’t fair. I can’t say it’s a good field. It is very unpredictable, subject to constant change, and the money is not really worth the effort required. Successful people in the field are constantly expanding their skill set, but unless they have the skills of a top salesman, a strong dose of street sense, mad tech skills, and also happen to be an extremely talented artist and writer. I don’t think they will make it big in the business. If you want money, be a doctor, don’t be an artist.

There are times in this field when I could take a three or even six month vacation, and no one would notice. There are other times when I stay up all night for days on end meeting deadlines. You can’t take a vacation when you’ve got clients to serve, unless you can get them caught up.

I lost a client while my father was in intensive care, because after months of meetings, canceled meetings, keeping me waiting, and changing his mind on what he wanted, the client set a deadline, without previously informing me and wanted to meet with me immediately. He said he wanted the work in three days, completed and executed, and he’d been yanking my chain for months. He was an awful jerk about it, and I sent him a bill for more than I’d have charged him if he’d taken the work. He said he’d pay me for my time, and I charged him for every minute of it, even driving time to our many meetings. I’d have cut him a deal ordinarily. As a result, the logo he is using looks like a first grader did it. Maybe he hired his kid. I know the artist was not a professional. I got nearly $800, when I’d have only asked $600 for a finished logo. Still I felt awful about it. From an artist’s standpoint, that was an utter failure, even though I got paid more. I get depressed every time I think of it.

If I enjoyed winter holidays I could take them, right after Christmas until spring, without pay of course. With the economy like it is, I could probably take a vacation even in June, but I can’t afford it right now. The economy has put my career on the skids, and while it has improved a bit recently it isn’t good.

Some people think that artists just paint or draw. Some do, but I find that painting and drawing doesn’t pay the bills. I have to write, paint, publish, and come up with all sorts of schemes, and advertising work. Marketing is a large part of it, and not just marketing your client’s work, but marketing yourself, always finding different angles, and different types of niches that you can fit into. This kind of work requires your whole heart, your whole mind, and at least half of your soul, every day, in order to make it work. It takes passion, and when your passion slips, you feel it immediately, right in the wallet.

My five year plan is to finally figure out how to use the internet to broaden my work in a big way. I am struggling with that currently. I am currently looking for the right angle to use all my skills to make money on line. Local business is a thing of the past, at least for the most part. I have struggled to keep small business afloat for years, but I am not going down with the ship. The internet is a place where anyone can use their skills to get ahead, and my current research should help me put together a plan soon.

I don’t have to draw anymore. Computer programs do that, and I am struggling with the feeling that I don’t really do anything in order to create artwork. I do of course. Adobe Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, and Corel Draw don’t really just produce images by themselves, but it doesn’t feel like taking an art pen, or a brush full of ink and really drawing. Still, strangely I do not miss it. I have become more interested in copy writing, and selling over the years, because when it all comes down those are the skills that pay the bills. I can always produce art one way or another. That part is easy.

Over the years my field has broadened. I am no longer just a graphic artist. I write, I sell ad space, I cook up schemes for business promotions, and I mostly just do whatever works to earn a dollar for my clients so they can pay me. I have an incredibly flexible mind, and that is the main tool I use to make a living.

Arts and Music Diversity Career Stories

Young starlet learns being an actress is not as glamorous as it may seem

Emily B., a member of the Actors’ Equity Association, shares what a difficult road her dream of being an actress in New York City has been. When times are tough, she leans on the support of her family to make it through.

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
Actress – 5 years in NYC.

Would you describe what you do on a typical day?
I get up early to sign up for a convenient audition time that coordinates with my schedule that day. From there, I work one (or sometimes two) of my survival jobs that range from marketing to waiting tables. Most nights I do end up working at the restaurant so I am usually home around 1 am.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?
I would rate my job satisfaction as a 1. Surviving as an actor living in the city is no easy task. Getting booked for an acting job would help my satisfaction greatly.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and how did that happen?
I have spent thousands of dollars on coaches and classes all promising to find me an agent or hook me up with a casting director, but in the end, I ended up making most of my contacts on my own.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
They don’t teach that being an actress is sort of like running a business. You are a product and you have to sell yourself. Think of yourself as a one-person marketing campaign that never ends.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I did my first musical in grade school and was hooked for life. I wish I had taken more classes when I was younger; especially dance classes.

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
I just had an interesting audition for Laura in The Glass Menagerie, where the director pulled me into the room before the audition started, and asked me how I saw the character. He said he liked my look but thought I would ultimately be too tall for the role.

On a good day, when things are going well, what’s happening and what do you like about it?
On a great day, I have just gotten word that I am being called back for a role, and the restaurant is slammed early, I make a ton of money in tips, and everyone leaves by 11 pm.

When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most? How do you cope?
The worst days are when I blow an audition. When I do that, I usually call my mom and vent. From there, I try to forget about it because it is over and there is nothing more I can do. Hopefully I can learn from whatever mistakes I made. At work with difficult tables, I try to stay upbeat and friendly. If people really get to me though, sometimes I get short with them. I hate it when people are super demanding or rude. I also really dislike indecisiveness. It is a menu item not rocket science; pick something!

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
This lifestyle is very stressful, and I am too stressed most of the time to keep a healthy work-life balance. Welcome to life in New York.

Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
HAHAHAHAHA! No, I’m not paid enough.

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?
I booked an Actors’ Equity tour, so I got to go around the country acting and I was able to join the Stage Actors’ Union.

What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
There was one dance audition where I totally forgot the combo and stood there like an idiot in the middle of the floor. It was mortifying.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
A strong background in voice and dance, as well as some kind of acting method. (Continuing study in these disciplines is also very important.)

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
Be very sure that you are ready to handle the rejection and the hardships in this line of work. It is not glamorous in the least.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
I usually take a week and a half at Christmas, and then a few days around Thanksgiving. I also take occasional weekend trips home to West Virginia, or my family will come visit me for a few days. It seems like it is never enough time away though.

Are there any common myths you want to correct about what you do?
Acting is NOT a glamorous field for 99.9% of us out there struggling to make it.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I would be part of the aforementioned .1%!

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
Laymen do not understand how truly difficult this field is. How often do you have to deal with daily personal rejection in any other field?