Prior to my 20-year high school reunion last fall, I pulled out my high school scrapbook. I found an interview of me in the school newspaper as a senior, about to graduate and pursue a career in the performing arts…
I see the picture of myself clearly: A lanky young woman with a brilliant smile and shoulder length brown hair, straight like the A’s on her report card. She has spent four years hyper-focused on building a resume to get into a good music school, thinking that was the ticket to her future as a professional singer. She did it wholeheartedly. Time outside of school was devoted to voice lessons, piano lessons, dance lessons, rehearsals for countless performances and even competing in a beauty pageant!
The interviewer asked, “Why did you choose to become involved and pursue this as a career?”
“Performing gives me joy and gives joy to others. What could be a better reason?”
That joy fueled me, but I was ambitious, too. Film, media, and magazines showed me the shiny lives of celebrities as well as the starving-artist-to-success story.
Even though I intellectually understood only a few artists reached that level, I was confident I would be one of them.
Little did I know what the biggest cost would be….
I pursued a career in music as I think many of us do. I had talent, a love for music, and a dream.
I was lucky enough to have people who believed in me, who saw my potential and supported me. They wanted to see my name in lights, too. My parents paid for all kinds of lessons and my basic needs, which provided the gift of time for all these pursuits. Like most kids, I didn’t have any real concept of what that all actually cost or what a gift that was. Again, I was (naively) convinced just getting into a good music school was my shoe-in for a professional career.
When I was in college at USC’s Thornton School of Music studying opera, I did not learn much of the business side of music. The course of study was very technique focused to make us into the best possible performers, how to audition well, and be prepared when we were cast in opera roles.
How the music industry worked wasn’t part of the general curriculum for my major, so I didn’t think it was necessary.
The underlying belief was: If you’re good enough, talented enough, and work hard enough, then you’ll get discovered and everything will fall into place.
Tactically, I was taught a narrow prescribed path: first you do this, then you do that, then with a dash of luck, a lot of hard work, you’ll have a career… but there are no guarantees. We did have masterclasses with working professional singers who would provide a little more insight into the lifestyle, but the advice felt very piecemeal.
I remember at the time thinking, “Geez, that doesn’t sound very good. I’m not sure I really want to do that.” Immediately the whirlwind of internal commentary started: After investing so much time, effort and money, how could I possibly choose anything different? How could I disappoint everyone who’s believed in me and invested in me? It would be like betraying my own dream!
When I graduated, it felt like a great accomplishment, but I honestly had no idea what to do next.
I experienced a full-blown identity crisis post-college. My school support structure was gone. It was clear to me now a good music school wasn’t a guarantee for work or a career. I wasn’t even sure what kind of music career I wanted any more.
I knew I still loved to sing. I knew I needed to audition to get work, but how do I find that? What did they say about agents again?
All the standard young-adult-launching-into-the-real-world anxiety was really hitting me. I got an office job which paid my bills, but not much else. I learned my creativity tanked when I felt stressed about the rent.
Then I had the brilliant idea to start a business that would pay for all my needs and give me plenty of time to do my music. Easy, right?
I consumed a crazy amount of information and training on entrepreneurship. All along the way, I was pitched more and more programs and services: Get more clients! Earn your first $100K from home! Passive income! Sales, sales, sales!!
Not to say that all these folks were selling snake oil; many I found very helpful in some way or another.
Was there ever a conversation about return on investment (ROI)? No. Was there anyone who sat me down and said, “Do you have a solid idea for a business? Do you know how you’ll get capital?” No.
When I focused on following the steps to “do it right,” it gave me a (false) sense of progress and purpose, but the success I envisioned always felt out of reach.
Unknowingly, I had transferred my same mental habits and belief system about pursuing music to pursuing entrepreneurship.
I felt disempowered and out of control. There were so many gatekeepers. Paying clients felt like ephemeral creatures.
As the inevitable pile of rejections grew, I started doubting, thinking it was something wrong with me. I turned against myself when things didn’t turn out the way I thought they should.
I kept searching for answers and solutions. Did I need a new domain name, a different tactic, or another $1,000 program on marketing? If I could just find the linchpin! Maybe if I contorted myself or my content just so, the right people would take notice and my dream would be fulfilled.
It’s hard to admit, but I was an artist-consumer. I had an ambitious dream that fueled many of my purchasing decisions, but I didn’t feel like I had real authority over my own career trajectory.
It was so much work and I was hustling so hard to start a business that would pay for my life, so I could finally do the thing that brought me joy in the first place.
The biggest cost: I didn’t even notice the joy of performing started slipping away.
I fully bought into my own judgment that whatever achievements I had in my career thus far, didn’t amount to “making it” in the eyes of the world (which seems to be nothing less than celebrity). This made me incredibly sad and unhappy.
It wasn’t until several years later that I truly started to understand the general music ecosystem and the many, many options to participate in the music world. It didn’t have to look just one way.
With the help of a career coach, I slowly started reframing what I judged as my past “failures” as meaningful experiences. I started to take a step back, to really think about what I wanted and why, to untangle my identity from my career. I started to think about my life as a whole and put my career in its proper place. For the first time, I gave myself permission to start exploring what success would look like and feel like for me, as I chose to define it.
I wanted to feel joy from my singing again and I knew this healing work around my career was an important step. When I mentioned to my coach that I was feeling shut down to my own singing even though part of me really wanted to, he said he could understand exactly why….
“Because you are afraid of hating music.”
I was shocked at his calm clarity about something that had evaded me for so long.
“When you engage with music, it triggers those bad experiences, and you’re afraid if you keep going down that road, you’ll end up hating music and you couldn’t bear that. Work on uncoupling those bad experiences by saying to yourself ‘Yes, I have had painful experiences AND I love, love, love music.’”
I immediately started crying. I do love music; I just hadn’t let myself feel it. I had built a wall up inside me to protect myself for all those years in an extremely tough industry. I had forgotten my response from that school paper interview: Performing gives me joy and gives joy to others.
From that point forward, I started to take baby action steps to allow that love to flow again, reclaiming my music for myself.
I chose to move in a direction career-wise where I felt more empowered, finally embracing ALL the entrepreneurial skills I’ve built over the years, while still serving the music and arts community I love.
I don’t share this story to get sympathy.
I share it to illustrate that the multitude of courses and programs teaching the how to’s of a creative career, don’t teach us tools to work *with* our artist nature.
Those of us who pursue careers in the arts are probably sensitive people, otherwise we wouldn’t be effective artists.
We’re told the moment we hit a bump in the road, “you need thick skin if you’re going to survive this industry.”
But thick skin can cut us off the very sensitivity and joy that connect us to our creativity and move our audiences.
I suspect many of us just become really good at numbing, ignoring, or hiding that it still stings.
Instead, I believe we need to learn to become resilient—to have practical tools and support systems in place, so we can handle our big emotions in a healthy way, especially as we walk along a career path that is often uncertain and uncomfortable.
And if you’ve moved away from a creative career because it felt too hard, because your priorities changed, the season of your life changed, or it just happened gradually, all of those are choices that don’t often get acknowledged as valid. Maybe it stopped being fun. Maybe when you saw the realities of the industry, you changed your mind. That’s okay, too.
I see so many incredible artists doing good and contributing to their communities who, in deeper conversations, reveal they are unhappy because their career didn’t turn out the way they wanted—their dream unresolved inside of them.
Let’s start to normalize the creative hero’s that keep their joy alive as the conductor of their church’s children’s choir, or start a nonprofit to improve access to the arts in their area, or the touring musician who now fights for music-friendly policy in their city.
Success doesn’t have to look just one way. As an artist-business owner (vs. artist-consumer), you can choose what that means for you.
Joy is now one of my business success metrics. And that joy is a much more sustainable fuel to move through the music world, at least for me.
We don't have to suffer for our art. That's an old story.
The experience of your music career internally is just as important as the external. When you reclaim your power and joy, your career will also be transformed.
Cheri Jamison is an Arts & Nonprofit Management Professional with over 10 years of experience in strategic planning, streamlining operations and community outreach. As a Renaissance woman with a diverse skill-set, Cheri is known for her ability to spearhead new initiatives and bring visionary projects to life.
Each "moments to share" monthly(ish) email is like grabbing a warm mug of coffee together at a cozy cafe. We'll catch up with the latest personal stories, adventures, and thoughtful reflections.