I was feeling very San Francisco, frighteningly SoHo, awfully hipsterish. The multi-act show was packed, the fashionable audience sat in rapt attention. An aerialist was suspended above the band at one point. Later, a singer-songwriter told stories while a slide show splashed art up on the stage backdrop. I’d been hired to perform with one of the bands and had a great time.

After the show, I was chatting with a fellow (sister) singer. She’s beautiful, young (early 30s?), has a nice music degree and a voice sweet and pure. Yet she has a soul-crushing day job. OK, I don’t know that it’s soul-crushing, but she said it takes up most of her time. She fantasizes about leaving it and dedicating herself more to music, but then says that her position is evolving and as her responsibilities grow and change she has to commit a lot of energy to the learning that goes with it. I’m paraphrasing, and I don’t want to mischaracterize her relationship to her job. For all I know, she was just having a bad day.

But I saw in her eyes a futile, sad sense of responsibility that I recognized completely. I felt that way myself when I had a corporate job. Working in an organization is like being on that TV show Survivor. You must constantly fight both the external fight of getting your work done/product designed/magazine published and the internal fight of being the squeaky wheel/protecting your ass/fending off gossip/defending your budget or staff/not getting laid off.

Worst of all, your day job is lying to you — and you believe it.

Alexa After Camouflage

Lie No. 1: There aren’t any other jobs for you.

This is the scarcity mindset. Like people looking for a mate, people who are employed may cling to the belief that this job is the only one out there for them.

Did you know that if you make US$30,000 a year, you are in the top 1% of income earners in the world? Did you know that even without your job, if you can read this you’re incredibly rich by global standards? Even in my worst financial moments, I’ve told my children that we’re wealthy because we’re healthy.

It’s true that unemployment sucks once your unemployment checks run out, and self-employment is not for everyone. It’s true that in this economy you should really try to hold on to your job, if you have one. It’s a lie that no other job would have you, however, just as it’s a lie if your partner says no other man/woman would have you. Own your value.

Lie No. 2: Good workers have no boundaries.

If you are a person who naturally cares about the quality of your work, it is very hard to detach yourself from the drama of work. It’s also hard to ignore society’s conformist voices, as they whisper — or say straight to your face — that you aren’t a hard worker unless you’re eating and sleeping your job. This is bullshit. As you get better at your job, you should be able to do it faster. That’s a good metric for improvement: What used to take 80 or 60 hours a week now takes 35. When you get to the point of knowing how to do your job in less time, don’t feel guilty. And don’t be afraid to set boundaries, even if others in your workplace won’t.

Lie No. 3: You can’t make great art while having a day job.

Read Gaping Void cartoonist Hugh MacLeod’s great books on this topic. Every artist needs a day gig, even if they work full-time making their art. Think of movie stars, making a silly blockbuster action flick so they can make an indie film no one will see and they won’t get paid much for. You need gigs to make money so you can do the gigs you really love too. If you have a good corporate gig, or any job with benefits, anything full-time with a nice salary, stop with the angst.

I know, I know, I did it too. The thing is, even while I lamented my day job and felt that same sense that I’d never be a real artist until I was self-employed and weaned from the corporate teat, I DID do my art. I ignored what others said.

But I would never have been able to produce my first albums with a Grammy-nominated producer, and ultimately sung on his Grammy-nominated album, if I hadn’t had that job to pay for it all.

Perhaps I eventually paid the price, by getting laid off when my magazine folded instead of being re-deployed to another magazine, because they perceived me as not being committed to my editorial niche (seven years later, my writing client list shows that some pretty important people still think I know what I’m doing). But I would never have been able to produce my first albums with a Grammy-nominated producer, and ultimately sung on his Grammy-nominated album, if I hadn’t had that job to pay for it all. (2014 update: We won a GRAMMY!)

Lie No. 4: Spending your salary and free time to produce art is foolish.

There may come a time when your art takes up too much time for you to work a 9-5. But until then, if you are lucky enough to have a 9-5, you need to start carving out time for your art. As little as 15 minutes a day. Make it happen.

Because you have one thing I really miss, now that I’m self-employed, running both a music company and a writing company and mothering two children:


Every month or every two weeks, BAM! There it is, in your account or on your desk. As we all know (see lie number 1), there is no guarantee that your monthly salaried gig will last. Enjoy it. You put in the hours and endured the BS for it. Why is spending the money you make on creating art somehow less intelligent than spending it on flashy consumer products? Invest in yourself. That’s not foolish, egotistical, wasteful or futile.

Lie No. 5: Artists are poor. Rich artists are sellouts. Working in a cubicle is noble.

While you are in a company working a full-time job, you are learning valuable skills: How to get shit done. How to be reliable. What resources are available to get your job done: tools, people, service providers. How to work in a group setting.

If and when you do your art full-time, you will need to put this knowledge to use and treat your art as a business. Contrary to popular belief, this does not “make your hobby your job” or take the joy out of it. It’s simply called being a pro. If you love it, you want to do it well, and in order to do your art well, you need to spend a lot of time doing it. Eventually, you will want to finance your mastery.

If and when you do your art full-time, you will need to put this knowledge to use and treat your art as a business. Contrary to popular belief, this does not “make your hobby your job” or take the joy out of it. It’s simply called being a pro.

I’m still reprogramming myself on this. I read a lot of books and blogs that help me counteract the prevailing mentality that clocking in and out of a job is the only legitimate way to make money. Now, being self-employed is not for everyone. But, as blogger Steve Pavlina put it in his brilliant article, 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job ), “Getting a job is like enrolling in a human domestication program. You learn how to be a good pet.” He makes a compelling case that a job is not the best way to earn money.

Making the mind-shift

Perhaps in another post I’ll explain the mind-shift I’ve been trying to make in running my own businesses. But in a nutshell, I believe that eventually I’ll be able to make with music what I make with writing.

Because the funny thing is, when I tell people that I am a writer, they immediately think I mean a struggling one. In fact, I’m paid quite well to be a writer. I could make a lot more money at it if I spent more time working as a writer, but I also want to work as a musician.Alexa Butterfly Morales

People ask, “How do I break into writing? Is $50 for an article a fair fee to be paid? Or should I get some clips published for free?” That’s like asking “How do I break into music? Should I play for free?” Sure, at the start, maybe. I’ve NEVER written an article for free and have NEVER paid to play music at a club (though I have played a few free gigs!). So my vision, the carrot I dangle in front of my own eyes, is that eventually I’ll be paid for music performance and composition at a similar rate (no, better!) to what I’m paid in writing.

I know it’s possible. Ironically, my writing work cuts into the time I could use to market my music. I haven’t achieved the balance I’m seeking. Maybe I never will, but I won’t stop trying.

Stop being your job’s bitch

So we’re back full circle: Even though I am a full-time artist, I still have a “day job.” But I’m not its bitch anymore. Because my writing work isn’t telling me the lies your job tells you. My writing isn’t saying “You’ll never make it without me” or “If you were a real writer you wouldn’t waste your time playing piano” or “You don’t deserve good gear, unless it’s an expensive briefcase or a BMW.”

Stop with the sad eyes. Make some music.