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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why LA LA Land is Dystopian, and what the National Endowment for the Arts and Ending the "Gig Ecomony" can do to fix it

Like many of you, I went to the movie theaters a few months ago to see the movie "La La Land" because of all the rave reviews it was receiving from critics. As you can imagine if you've also seen the film and are a working Performing Artist, I was pretty angry at the predictability of the movie's plot, and their insensitive and narrow-minded presentation of an Artist's life and options they have. And, then coincidentally, my issues with La La Land were summed up, in a masterful blog post that I happened to stumble upon last week written by Linda Essig, who is the Director of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Programs at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and if you're curious to read her thoughtful words, you can click here to see her post.

Basically, what she says is what I was feeling right after seeing the film. Why does life's trajectory always get over simplified to two distinct and different choices for an Artist in people's minds (and sometimes, sadly, due to societal pressures, also in the mind of the Artist)? Those choices are either 1.) pursue your career and individual artistic goals but thereby forfeit all other things (like: a fulfilling relationship with a significant other, having your own children, keeping in touch with your family and close friends, or even keeping a handle on your individuality as an Artist) or option 2.) choose to have a "life" (in this case meaning where you do normal things like live in one place for long periods of time, get married, have children, have pets, spend time with your family and friends, and do things for fun that aren't related to your individual artistic goals) but then sacrifice something else (like the love of your life) simply because you can't have choice #1 and #2 at the same time.

Does this seem reductionist to you too?!? Well, good. That's because it is.

Why are we constantly told by society that Artists cannot have both option #1 and #2? And why do people believe that!? I'll tell you why. My theory is two pronged. One, because the majority of people who aren't Artists don't know what we do all day and can't fathom it. So they think that we Artists are just having fun all the time (because we love what we do so much) and since our work is just 100% fun, it doesn't merit the rewards that a person receives when they work a "normal job". (And why is being an Artist not considered a normal job!? More on that later....) So why should we Artists deserve to have things like full-time employment, job security, health care, pension plans, maternity leave or paid sick days? We shouldn't, in their minds. Because we're just goofing around all day creating our "Art".

News flash!!! We are working just as hard as people who have jobs which others can easily understand from their job title (HR Manager, IT-Specialist, Public Relations Coordinator, Chief Executive Officer), and oftentimes we are working harder! Why? Because we are forging new pathways. And those don't come with a road map or warnings of possible danger. We are forced to create something new and develop it all on our own (without high-tech factories and teams of Research and Development Engineers) and that takes time, full concentration and dedication and ultimately...money--which means also that you've found someone who is willing to exhibit, or hire you to perform, the art that you've created and developed.

And Two, because we Artists find ourselves in a system which was created to punish us (by not offering us adequate pay, full-time employment, health care--basically everything on the list in the previous paragraph) for choosing to pursue our Art, and eventually we become so beaten-down by struggling to create our Art in this impossible system that we are duped into accepting our fate as being a choice much like what we find in La La Land. Either create Art (which is actually a basic need for Artists, woven into the fibre of our very beings) or have a life where you can live like a normal human being with financial security and surrounded by those who love you in a safe and nurturing environment, but therefore have to sacrifice your Art and your dreams. It's kind of like a choice between having your heart in your body but being dead, or being a zombie but having no heart.

I'd like to argue that there is a third alternative. Many of you know that I've lived in Germany for 6 years now. But I've got to start at the beginning for this story to make sense.

I'm originally from Pennsylvania and went to school in Princeton, New Jersey and New York City for my Undergraduate and Master's Degrees. I grew up in a small-town in Pennsylvania and was a straight-A student all through school, as well as a successful musician, playing the Oboe, Piano and Singing. When I went to Undergrad things got more difficult because the workload increased and to help pay for school expenses I got a few part-time jobs. I also was introduced into the world of Young Artist Programs and what that all meant. (Basically applying year-round for various training programs, oftentimes taking place in the summers, which would cost anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 and which I "needed" to do in order to supplement my education with practical performance experience and networking opportunities with notable, more experienced conductors and big-name teachers.)

Then, once I was finished my Undergrad I applied for my Master's which included application fees (back then in 2006 they were $100 each for Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music and Mannes), and I didn't just apply to 3 schools, because I knew that'd be risky, so I applied to SUNY Purchase, Eastman and a few others too. Anyway, after all the traveling for the auditions and the application fees were paid, I had spent at least $1,000 total. Then once audition time rolled around I didn't get accepted to Eastman, SUNY Purchase accepted me but didn't give me any scholarship money, and then Juilliard, MSM and Mannes were all happening on 3 days back-to-back in NYC and I got Bronchitis a few days prior and had no voice. Stupidly they don't allow you to reschedule because of illness, even if you have a doctor's note, so I missed those auditions and consequently didn't get accepted to those schools either. 

At any rate, my student loans were piling up (because I was taking Federal Loans as well as Private Loans to pay for my education which was around $29,000 per year) and I couldn't take a year off until I applied again to my Master's program because I'd be swallowed alive by monthly loan payments and wouldn't be eligible for any new loans for a second degree, so I did what anyone would do, and asked around to see if there were still schools in NYC accepting applications with voice degree programs. Lo and behold, I found out that Hunter College had a Master's in Voice, and you didn't even have to study with the professor on faculty- you could find your own private teacher for your degree lessons, and they were accepting applications. So, I applied, was accepted, got a half scholarship, which was a huge help, and started my Master's the following year.

Again, I was in a financial pinch, because I needed money to live, so I found a Nannying job which was 30 hours a week which paid my rent and my food expenses just barely. But I didn't have health insurance. I couldn't. It was $237 a month and I simply didn't have the money to afford it.

To give you an idea of my schedule back then: I'd go to classes every night of the week (Hunter offers night classes for their Master's Degrees since it's a reality that many of their students have to have a job concurrently while going to school) and then I'd work all day long before that at my Nannying job, then I'd grocery shop late at night or early in the morning and do my homework on the bus or on the weekends in advance of due dates or whenever I had a spare moment. As you can imagine, I was living in a constant struggle just to survive.

I was living on Chinese take out when I didn't have time to cook, or microwaveable noodles, or street vendor hot dogs or whatever was on sale that week at the grocery store (which we all know isn't always the healthy food!), and I was working myself to the bone every day so that I could accomplish it all. At the end I managed to emerge with a 3.8 GPA and a Master's Degree. But I didn't have a singing job, and I didn't have any sort of job.

So I began working as a Temp after graduating, while still taking private voice lessons once a week (which cost $150 an hour, and for NYC that's relatively reasonable. I know teachers who charge $250 an hour nowadays!) and applying for as many Young Artist Programs as I could, hoping I'd get my 'big break' and be heard by someone who would help me take the next step and become a Professional Singer. Luckily, I was able to land a full-time position through the Temp agency as an Administrative Assistant in a Law firm in Midtown NYC, in the Labor & Employment Department. I was working there about 38 hours a week and in my free time was practicing my singing and preparing for auditions which I scheduled in my lunch break and then walked or took cabs to, since most of them were also in Midtown Manhattan. Normally I'd eat the food that was leftover in the Firm's Conference Rooms for lunch and dinner and go home exhausted. And I did that for 2 years while spending thousands of dollars on application and participation fees for Young Artist Programs which inevitably always improved my singing (because let's face it, I wasn't forced to work a day job answering phones all day and sitting at a computer for 7 hours before trying to sing, which is only obvious that that would improve my singing), but career-wise they got me nowhere. So I was in a rut that I didn't know how to get out of except keep hoping that it was because I hadn't had the lucky moment where that important person heard me.

So I took a chance and quit my job in NYC and moved back home with my Mom to Pennsylvania because I was accepted to a year-long Apprentice Program with a company in Philadelphia. They didn't pay any money, but I didn't have to pay them to participate, so I figured it was at least not putting me further in debt. After that year, where I performed a ton of operas and covered a lot of roles, I also was singing better than ever, but still hadn't entered the realm of Professional Singing where I'd get paid to perform. It was a never ending cycle that all centered around money. Not having any, not making any, and never getting paid gigs.

Ah, right. Money and gigs. That brings me to the next article that I read recently in the New Yorker which made me seething mad, because it is so true and highlights a serious problem in the way we pay and treat our Artists, and I suggest you read it here so that you know what I'm talking about. It was explaining a concept that has become an everyday reality in the fabric of USA's business dealings with Artists, something known as the "gig". The article was titled "The Gig Economy celebrates Working Yourself to Death" and examined an ad released by the Internet company Fiverr which showed a woman whom they termed "a Doer" but who apparently, according to the ad, "...ate coffee for lunch...", followed through on her follow through and had sleep-deprivation as a drug of choice. She goes on to argue that Americans value self-reliance above all else and thereby see a person working themselves to death as a commendable act, rather than evidence of the system they're operating in having failed them. And I would go a step further. We haven't yet fully come to the understanding as a Society that the Arts are a vitally important part of life and that we have to support them (monetarily, in creating jobs and opportunities which are sustaining and reliable for Artists, and not just keeping them teetering above the poverty line, hanging onto their existence by a thread) and that the Art that they create is just as important as anything else in our lives. And until our entire Society comes to that conclusion, which must be encouraged through education and outreach programs and NOT continually espousing a romanticized but tortured version of their only being two options for Artists (a.k.a. "La La Land-dystopia"), then we will continue to suffer from all sorts of societal maladies like general discontentment, never being satisfied with anything, having a baseline level of stress in our lives, being overcome with greed and envy, and not fully appreciating what we have in our lives. Art gives you perspective. It allows you to examine your perceptions in a playful way and determine if they're still serving you. It gives you insight into the depths of the human soul. It urges you to be brave and gentle, understanding and open. It shows you different ways of thinking about your problems. It helps you to process your emotions in a cathartic way. It mirrors your life experience outside of yourself so that you can look objectively at how you might change for the better. It gives you a opening to give yourself a second chance. It makes you whole when you didn't know something was missing. It broadens your horizons and unlocks your imagination. It is essential.

And Germany and the German Government know this. Thus, the culmination of my Third Option for Artists- and no, it's not move to Germany- but rather, you have to fashion your life into what you want it to be and don't accept society's ideological limitations as actual limitations. Okay, what do I mean by that? Well, here in Germany I have been performing my own concerts in various venues for free. I don't get paid for my performances, but I am okay with that because I've decided that music is something that belongs to everyone and not just those who can afford to pay for it. Plus, I feel somehow that Art is not something which can be properly defined by a monetary value, so I don't want to place one on it. I know that this solution is not for everyone, but what I'm trying to say is that, I took my idea of what "success as a Professional Singer" meant to me, evaluated it, and looked at my situation (I am very lucky to have found a loving Husband who supports my Artistic goals and doesn't force me to get a job just to make money), and then tried to find a model which worked for what I wanted out of my life. I have found someone whom I love and want to share my life with. I don't like traveling all over the place for auditions, so I don't. I don't apply to programs that I know are just training programs but won't bring me to a place of fulfillment for myself. I don't sing Arias that I don't like. I don't let myself be defined by a specific 'Aria Package' of 5 pieces in 4 different languages. I sing what I want at my concerts and I choose the venues and the collaborative musical partners myself. I create the promotional materials and my website myself. I do it all myself. And I don't have a huge following of 'fans' or have made thousands of dollars with this, but I do have a deep sense of self-worth and have found a sense of calm and safety that I never before experienced when I was trying to become a "Professional Singer" in my earlier education. What I ultimately learned from my education is nothing that I was taught in a classroom. Instead, I realized that creating Art is something that needs a feeling of safety so that I can be vulnerable enough to expose my innermost yearnings and make them audible and visible to the audience members with whom I take that journey. And that feeling of safety forced me to throw out the Option #1 or #2 model and create my own Option #3, where the first two options where combined, shaken up a little, and then pared down to what I needed, individually.

Oh, and apropos- education and outreach programs- let me introduce you to the National Endowment for the Arts (or the NEA, for short)! Here's a cool article that tells you about just a few of the many projects that the NEA has helped to realize which have made a large positive impact on our culture and society and helped to build a cultural legacy that we can look back upon and be proud to have future generations discover.

Let's look at this idea of Education and Outreach and what it can do. For example, let's take Major League Soccer. They didn't leave it to chance that soccer fans would just automatically appear in the USA so that they'd have people coming to their games, buying their merchandise, paying for their players' salaries, and ultimately loving Soccer. No, Sir! What they did was started putting their marketing efforts and money into sponsoring teams for school-age children all over the nation so that once those kids grow up, they automatically become life-long soccer fans. Voila! They actually have developed 6 Official MLS Youth Soccer Partners (America SCORES, AYSO, NSCAA, SAY Soccer, US Youth Soccer, US Club Soccer), and there are programs organized by these partners throughout the entire USA. Talk about a successful outreach program!!

And the National Endowment for the Arts does that too- the only difference is that it takes Taxpayer money to finance this outreach effort. However, when you consider that it is only $0.46 cents per person that it costs to continue the NEA's important work, I think you will admit that that is a minuscule amount of money to pay in exchange for something so worthwhile. In fact, the USA spends only a small fraction of its money on supporting the Arts in comparison to other countries like Germany, Northern Ireland and France, like this article explains.

So perhaps next time you see any one of these complex facets of the issue of understanding the Arts and Artists who create it, please keep in mind that in order to change our society into a place where the Arts are appreciated and available for all we have to continue to financially support individual artists and their projects through organizations like the NEA. This way, the outcome of these projects and educational efforts will be rewarded with a Society that is more humane and generous in its understanding and acceptance of itself as a whole and also of the billions of unique individuals that it comprises.

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