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  • Writer's pictureStephen Tracey

Why the Term “Starving Artist” Needs to Change

The term "starving artist" isn’t one that you have to look up to know what it's in the friggen' dictionary. The term has long been used as a deterrent by parents/educators for young folks from pursuing a career in the arts and to describe what it’s like to juggle believing in yourself while struggling financially. Often sacrificing one's own basic needs. And unless you were born into the Jolie/Pitt/Smith Family, everyone committed to an artistic field has to go through it. It’s a stereotype for a reason. Just look around. The musician busking at the train station, finding out your server was in one of your favorite tv shows, and even myself was on a hit Netflix show and working at a taco joint (more on this to come, don’t worry) at the same time. While it may seem romantic or even admirable to some, the reality is that the concept of the starving artist is deeply problematic and needs to be reevaluated because the way the industry is operating now, it’s only getting harder.

Not long ago, whether you were an aspiring actor, screenwriter, or filmmaker, it possible to live a comfortably middle class life. Managing a budget with a few jobs a year and royalties, you could live well and depend on your art to survive. It wasn’t necessary to become an A-lister to live off of your work. This also allowed for better art to be created. Speaking from the perspective I’m most familiar with...acting, I know I do a better job performing when I’m not desperate for the job. I tell stories for a living, but it’s difficult to throw yourself fully into the circumstances of the part you’re auditioning for when you know in the back of your mind that if you book this, you won’t have to think about food, bills, and rent...for a while. You’ll be safe.

It’s unrealistic to approach a future in the entertainment industry without considering a side income. The trouble is finding a job that's flexible enough to let you audition during 9-5 hours and that will bring you back should you book a stint on a project. Most major cities that have a booming film industry also have insane housing rates: (Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, London…it goes on), grocery prices have spiked since the pandemic and a lot of studios are changing their policies. Now, most productions buy you out before signing the contract, so you make a bit more money on the front end but lose big the long run.

In Canada, the majority of Commercial Productions Houses have stopped using Union (ACTRA) performers as a way to cut costs. And we’re talking major corporations like McDonalds & CocaCola. Agencies don’t even send their unionized talent to commercial calls anymore because it’s so widely known. These powerhouse companies are refusing to pay the fairly low standard scale rate of 851.50 (for the DAY) despite airing the spot countless times via internet, tv, and streaming. From a business standpoint, they are making a much greater return on their investment, but are abusing the likeness, talent, and passion of these storytellers.

Additionally, the term "starving artist" reinforces the notion that artists should be willing to sacrifice their own well-being for their art, which is unhealthy and unsustainable. No one should have to choose between a roof over their head and their creative pursuits, and it is important for artists to be able to support themselves and their families while still pursuing their passions. Circling back, as promised, to the tacos, there was a time when I had a late serving shift the night before a shoot day for my Netflix job (a show that was in the top 10 most watched shows for the years it aired) and I fully ate untouched (and it was untouched...RELAX...) tacos because I couldn’t afford spending money on the staff meal. I then arrived to set the next day to have a lovely conversation with a castmate who had just gotten back from being a nominee at the Golden Globes. I’m stealing tacos and they were stealing trophies.

It blows my mind that we could be working on the same project and be having such different experiences. This is not to say that Netflix doesn't pay their actors well, but that moment in time was an accumulation of serving, penny pinching and scratching to get by. So when I did land that job, and was waiting the standard 21 business days (A MONTH) to get paid, I had to maintain a full time serving position while working an insane shooting schedule.

I was over the moon to be finally getting to do what my soul is called to do. I had been putting my heart on the line endlessly through dead-end auditions, so when I finally got to do the thing I’ve been longing to do, ACT, I didn’t think twice about how I was bending over backwards. And as I reflect on it now, I can’t help but wonder how much greater my art and particularly that performance could have been had I the time and support to fully explore the scope and possibilities of how far that character could go.

Beyond myself in those circumstances, I think about all the art, stories, and creators that have been lost because of the way our society structures a career in the arts. How many people, with insane abilities, have quit because their sense of self worth was tied to their ability to survive rather than just perform the scene in the audition? Treating those auditions like life and death, rather than the joy of make believe. It’s no wonder so many people throw in the towel.

Our post secondary programs and private acting classes should really be teaching how to juggle a job and a passion more than anything because this isn't going anywhere any time soon. Even A-List Hollywood celebrities are required to not just be an acting star but also a producer/writer/showrunner to increase their monetary value so that the agencies/management companies can make the greatest profit. And we should be reminding all the young and upcoming creatives that you are not a failure for having a “joe job”. That it's actually responsible and realistic to have one. We live in a world where the arts are often underfunded and undervalued, and where artists struggle to get the recognition and support they deserve, so be prepared to set yourself up for success by having one.

I know the acting union in Canada is working to stop what's happening with commercials and that there are new film companies out there working to protect artists rights, like KINO, and who are preventing the death of royalties, but I hope for a movement that shifts our cultures ability to value storytelling. We need art. Art changes minds and the world. To see a story with someone like us, reminds us that there is someone out there feeling what we are feeling. That we aren’t alone. And let’s face it. Art is what got most of us through the last 2 years. Why then do we as a whole care so little about it?

When it comes to film/tv, I think the real problem is inside the structure of filmmaking. The term “starving artist” is really born from the term “Hollywood Accounting" - this is the true villain of this story.

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