Heard the one about the standup lawyer? Why even top artists now need a side job


German band Trigger Cut should have been touring the UK this month, but they never reached the country. The musicians were turned away by border guards, apparently because they have day jobs. While it might be unthinkable to the Home Office, for many artists the notion of a second job is no surprise.

“I know very few musicians who only are musicians,” says Glaswegian guitarist Kevin Cahill. “Almost everyone has a second job and it’s mainly teaching. The ones who don’t are either really rich or really poor.” Cahill knew he wanted to be a musician when, as a teenager, he first heard the White Stripes’ album Elephant. Now, he’s a classically trained guitarist and one half of ambient duo Cahill//Costello, who have just recorded their second album.

This, live performance and working as a session musician are where his passion lies, but he’s also a music teacher. “I love teaching, but it pays for me to do all these other things,” he says. “It’s a balancing act.”

It’s a similar story for Kit Fan, who works as full-time governance manager at Hull York Medical School. He’s also a poet, novelist and recipient of two Northern writers’ awards for his first novel Diamond Hill and latest poetry collection The Ink Cloud Reader. “Most writers I know have a second job,” he says. “A lot of poets in particular have second jobs in academia.”

Musician and teacher Kevin Cahill.
‘Get a trade, son’ … musician and teacher Kevin Cahill. Photograph: Ben Glasgow

Fan completed a poetry related PhD in York, but his writing career “wasn’t planned”. He says: “I was much more keen to have a full-time job, I feel I need economic stability. I was born in Hong Kong and brought up in what you would describe as a working-class family. The idea that I would just work as a writer didn’t occur to me.”

He now writes on weekends and evenings, rejecting “self-blame” if he can’t write as much as hoped: “The frustration of finding time to write is much more productive than the frustration of having too much time and not being able to write.”

Standup comedian Sikisa Bostwick-Barnes has appeared on Live at the Apollo and performs several times per week, but says: “It’s common for people to have a second job in comedy, especially when they’re starting out, unless you’re lucky enough financially to just enjoy your dreams.” She’s in high demand on the comedy circuit – but four days per week, she’s an immigration lawyer. Working in legal aid, the salary is “decent” but not high, and she also helps support family members. “There’s a backstory people don’t see,” she says.

Second jobs are “a very important aspect of creative work,” says Orian Brook, from the University of Edinburgh, co-author of Culture Is Bad for You – a book investigating inequality in creative industries – with Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor. Now they, with researcher Giuliana Giuliani, are studying second jobs in the arts.

From 2015–21, people with a main creative job such as actors, musicians and artists were more than twice as likely to have a second job than people in other occupations. The numbers could even be higher, says Brook, as full-time freelancers weren’t counted.

Cahill, Fan and Bostwick-Barnes are all successful in their fields – why do they need second jobs? “The vast majority of writers don’t earn a lot of money,” says Fan. “I certainly cannot sustain any viable economic life from my writing alone. It’s a question of survival.” The ALCS reported last year that median earnings for authors have fallen to £7,000 per year. Only 19% of the authors said they write full-time.

Kit Fan.
‘It’s a question of survival’ … poet and author Kit Fan. Photograph: Hugh Haughton

Surveying around 100 people in the public arts sector, Artist Leaks found a median hourly wage of £2.60 – far below the £10.42 National Living Wage. Meanwhile, the Live Comedy Association found 60% of people working in the industry earn less than the median UK wage.

“Comedy, especially when you’re starting out, doesn’t pay,” says Bostwick-Barnes. Comedians fork out for travel, accommodation and publicity materials, plus fees for freelance work are often late. “I need a reliable, sustainable income to feel safe.”

The Culture Is Bad for You researchers discovered “an expectation that everybody works for low pay, and everybody has to do a bit of unpaid work,” says O’Brien, with people receiving low hourly pay or working many hours for small fixed sums. In performing arts and music, he says this appears to have worsened since the pandemic.

While wealthier creatives can take the hit, furthering their careers with loss-making Edinburgh shows, funding films and exhibitions or doing unpaid internships, their poorer contemporaries struggle.

This is something charity Arts Emergency, which helps young people from underrepresented backgrounds access arts careers through mentoring, contends with. “We constantly equivocate over the ethics of helping people into these industries because we know that although it’s societally important, individually it can be a massive struggle,” says Neil Griffiths, who co-founded the organisation with comedian Josie Long.

The charity’s network of creative professionals explains the reality of precarious work, long hours and low pay to mentees. “It’s unsustainable as a standalone career unless you have some other source of wealth,” says Griffiths. “We call it the ‘glass floor’. Some of the best people drop out because they can no longer justify it. It is absolutely a disadvantage if you can’t dedicate your full time and energy to your practice and must struggle to survive.”

The issue of pay has long been absent from conversations in the arts, Griffiths says: “We can’t complain that there are no artists of colour, journalism is super elite and everyone’s privately educated, then not talk about money.”

If we don’t look at who’s working second jobs, it can paint false pictures about talent, says O’Brien. If there are two actors, one with time to prepare for and attend auditions, and another who’s working, who’s more likely to land a role? “It’s not only about how good you are at the job, or if you work hard enough you’ll succeed,” Brook adds.

While studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Cahill felt part-time working – something he had to do – was discouraged. One route to success for classical musicians is competitions, but “most people who do these practise all day, every day and don’t have a job.”

The necessity for Bostwick-Barnes to work as a lawyer “put me back a couple of years”. She took her debut show to the Edinburgh festival fringe last year, after seven years doing standup: “I debuted later than I probably should have, because I didn’t have the time and energy to really trust my comedy.” While she thinks there’s now less stigma around second jobs, it can limit opportunities: “I remember being like, ‘I would love to do this TV job but I’ve run out of annual leave.’”

Turned away for having day jobs … German band Trigger Cut.
Turned away for having day jobs … German band Trigger Cut. Photograph: Trigger Cut/Facebook

Yet all three find positives in their day jobs. After experiencing a lack of support to pursue music when he was younger, Cahill is determined to show his students it’s a real prospect. “When I was wanting to do it, it was like, ‘Get a real job. Get a trade, son’,” he says. “Teaching kids how to play an instrument is such a humbling thing because you’re constantly reminding yourself why you love it. If you can show the importance of your art through teaching, that’s the way to change things.”

For Bostwick-Barnes, being an immigration lawyer is consuming, but important: “My day job is something I’m passionate about because it does help people. The work is full-on, I’m always worried about my clients.”

Fan feels his two careers are symbiotic. Writing makes him a better manager; managing offers “insight into other people’s lives”. He says: “There’s an economic reason, but also an artistic reason – I want to be in touch with the world.”

This is echoed by Griffiths. “Without romanticising it, if you don’t have much friction economically or socially, maybe your work is less relevant to people. If you’re living real life, your work has more vitality, it’s more socially and politically important. It’s not a reason to make people struggle, but it’s one of the advantages.”

Bostwick-Barnes has comedy ambitions that require more free time, but that will have a financial cost. “I sacrifice a lot to do something that makes me happy. I enjoy what I do, but I know I can’t sustain this. I wish there was two of me!”

Fan is happy with his current situation: “I’m part of the life of work, of people’s challenges, messiness, gossip, and all of these things help me write.”

Cahill decided during the pandemic to spend more time playing and recording, and hopes to do so for years to come, but says: “I think I would always teach. I’ve always seen being a musician as a lifelong work.”

Artists will continue needing second jobs until the culture of low-paid, unstable work is addressed. With the cost-of-living crisis, it’s more pressing than ever, Griffiths says: “If you want a world-leading creative sector, you’ve got to pay artists to survive – start making it somewhere people can thrive.”

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( With inputs from : )


TheNewsCaravan News Desk

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