I know quite a few people in New York City who came here to become successful professional singers and who, after long years of striving, did not actually accomplish that goal. Some of them left the city, some of them became other things (mostly therapists or teachers), some of them kept trying, off and on, in smaller ways, to sing here and there, mostly for free.
It’s hard to give up a dream. It’s hard to understand how to let go of something you want so badly. It’s like having a strong memory of and desire for your favorite dessert that your mom made when you lived at home but you can’t get anymore – you just can’t get rid of that longing. When you are young and convince yourself that you can “make it”, that you have what it takes to be a success, and you invest in that dream time, money and emotional commitment, you gather a dam of energy in your psyche. In some ways, it’s then harder to give up than to keep going, even if keeping going is murderously difficult.
It takes a whole lot to succeed at anything anywhere but it takes something really special to succeed in the performing arts here in New York City. First of all, there are very few jobs that pay well enough for an individual to make a living. The ones that pay best — daytime soap dramas and Broadway shows — employ a fraction of the people here who are qualified for those jobs. Other things that pay decently, depending, such as TV commercials and radio voiceovers, print work in advertising, and work in touring companies or church jobs are also not particularly abundant. If you are a jazz vocalist, there are few places that pay anything at all even for one gig. There are cruise ship jobs and work in the corporate world of private parties if you play piano or guitar and also sing, or perhaps do karaoke or DJ-ing, but even those are hard to find. In fact, almost everyone who doesn’t quickly “get lucky” or have some connection in show business that will help boost him or her into a higher level of work ends up having to do something else “on the side” to stay alive. Teaching is the most popular alternative because at least it allows you to stay in touch with your heart’s desire, your training and your life experience. It can be rewarding but also very draining. That’s the reality.
The “job jobs” are working in an office like a law firm (they pay decently), working as a cater waiter, tutoring, computer graphics freelancing, dog walking, and perhaps, working as a nanny or in some other place you can fit yourself in. Some jobs offer flexible hours, some are part time. Patching together enough hours in various kinds of employment such that you can survive is a job in itself. It doesn’t leave much time for auditions or classes (which are necessary in order to keep up your skills against the tough competition) or for photos, phones and those other natty little things like clothing, food and shelter. Since the cost of living here is so high, without financial help, it is nearly impossible to sustain this for more than two years without being so burned out that you just fold, even if you are energetic and young. Some people make it to year three, but hardly anyone goes beyond that without outside help or a minimum level of sustained success.
Facing these things after you are here is psychologically trying. After all, people come to New York City to throw down their gauntlet and run the race. No one likes “a quitter”. No one looks up to someone who “throws in the towel”. What does it mean if you didn’t succeed? Does it mean you weren’t good enough? Does it mean you didn’t try hard enough? Does it mean something significant that you were not able to beat out the competition?
Actually, it doesn’t automatically mean any of those things, although any of them could be true, along with others. It means that you get to a point where you want to stop struggling and have a bit of comfort. Most people who are talented are talented in more than one way. Figuring out that you can make a very nice life without being a star on Broadway or a celebrity on reality TV isn’t the end of the world. Not figuring out that you have little chance of real success is a much bigger issue, especially in the long haul, and is in its own way more damaging to avoid.
Sadly, I have known people who never did grapple with this issue in a way that worked for their lives. They hang on, at the fringe, getting a few crumbs here and there, trying to stay with “being an artist” or “being a singer, musician, dancer, choreographer, etc.” long after everyone else has concluded that their dreams are now foolhardy at best. Twenty, thirty, even forty years into the process, they eek out a meager existence rather than admit failure. Some of them also get married and have children and then other people have to join in the suffering. It’s hard to watch.
Hold on to your dreams with all your heart but know that you can revise your dream into another kind of creation when and if the time comes. Understand that who you are isn’t going to be measured by some pre-arranged agreement of external success. Who you are is always the sum of your entire experience and you are never limited if you refuse to accept limits. Recognize that having a good life is not hinged upon “getting somewhere”, it is anchored in being your deepest, most authentic self. No one can give that to you and, absolutely, no one can take it away.