Making a living as an artist is challenging. How do you stay true to your art, develop your career, and earn an income without quitting to ‘get a real job’? This is Josh’s story. He believes that not only can you survive as an artist, but that you can thrive. Josh is part of a colourful Afropop band, Fruit Vendor, who have recently reached a massive career milestone with the completion of their first full-length album. Josh has been hustling in the theatre and music industry for ten years now. It’s hard work, but his proactive and positive attitude is infectious. He shared his thoughts and ideas on how to make things happen despite challenges and curveballs, and how to work towards changing systems that aren’t working for you. If you don’t give it a try, he says, you might regret it for the rest of your life.
Josh always loved performing and studying theatre and acting was a natural fit for him. He gained valuable experience during his time as a drama student, but after graduating he felt unprepared to enter the world as an artist. To fill the gap in his knowledge, he did a post-graduate course in marketing after which he landed his first ‘real job’ in corporate marketing. With his creative background, he could add value with his ideas and concepts, but he often felt like he lacked the business language to effectively communicate these ideas. Unfortunately, he experienced first-hand how artists’ opinions are sometimes ignored simply because they aren’t equipped to hold their own in a business environment. ‘This was extremely frustrating and even then, I realised I had to do things differently.’ He quit his marketing job and decided to go into the arts full-time. Like many actors, he took the traditional route of working through an agent and attending castings. Apart from a very humbling experience in children’s theatre, all his theatre work was down to his own endeavours.
Something had to change. ‘There’s a perception that art can’t be monetised but it’s no different from the way business owners monetise a skill they have. I believe you can build a sustainable business with your skills as an artist. You need to understand the value of your art and that people are willing to pay for it.’ Thinking of himself as an entrepreneur required a huge mindset shift, but it enabled him to view opportunities and challenges differently. This shift towards becoming a business-minded artist required a whole new skill set. ‘One of the ways in which I’m educating myself is through my ferocious reading appetite.’ He reads loads of business and self-development books. He’s completed a business course and worked with a business coach to develop skills that are not solely relevant to the arts industry but that can be applied more broadly and provide him with a deeper understanding of the business world.
Josh notes the importance of working with like-minded individuals who are just as dedicated to their art and their journey as entrepreneurs as he is. This allowed him and his fellow band members to pull off a successful crowdfunding project for their album. This powerful model, where people give what they can, proved that fans are willing to put their money behind a product they believe in. ‘People who are buying into your product become co-conspirators. They want to be involved with your work and be part of the process. The crowdfund also helped us to build a loyal fanbase.’
Not everything is smooth sailing, of course. There were some bumps and obstacles on the way. A big challenge in South Africa is the lack of support systems for artists. ‘There’s been little change and development in this area over the past ten years. Another challenge is the divide between artists and entrepreneurs. New artists are trained by other artists and consequently gain little to no business skills.’
Initially, Josh also saw art and business as two separate entities. ‘When I was studying marketing, I did gigs at night to earn an income. I would often play until late at night and then had to show up early for class. It was hard to find a balance between the two.’ Now he doesn’t believe these things should be separated. ‘It’s all connected. Even experiences you don’t enjoy, like a crappy job, contribute to your skillset. Look at it as a season in your life that can later be utilized within your industry.’ As an example, he mentions the marketing job he worked in which developed his copywriting skills. His ability to write emotive copy contributed to the success of their crowdfunding project. ‘I didn’t realise it at the time, but you can be sitting on a goldmine of skills. You only have to change your mindset.’ Since Josh is no longer relying on an agent, he must do a lot of things himself, which can be time-consuming. ‘Learning to do everything from scratch can feel intimidating, especially when you compare yourself to people with experience in the field.’ The marketing and business world is ever-changing and he must constantly upskill himself. Another reality for many people in the art industries is negativity and nay-sayers. Josh has been told he doesn’t have the right look to make it in the South African music industry and that he can’t sing. By keeping his focus on his passion he’s been able to move beyond these remarks. In addition to singing in a band, he’s now also a vocal coach.
‘I love performing, especially with my band and I would love to do it all the time.’ But he recognises that to keep doing what he loves he has to work hard. He now works part-time, intentionally creating a flexible workweek. His mornings are dedicated to creative projects and the afternoons are spent on jobs that provide a steady flow of income, which include music lessons, editing and producing.
There are exciting things lined up for Josh and Fruit Vendor. They’re already working hard to bring their album to market. They’ve released a few singles on streaming platforms, but their main focus is on migrating die-hard fans to a platform where they can continue to have an ongoing dialogue. Instead of working from album to album, they are planning to release a new song each month. ‘With the world becoming so big, people quickly become numb and fatigued. It’s the artist’s role to provide focus.’ They want to connect with their fans on a human-level through these ongoing interactions and by telling the stories their fans have come to love.
Josh doesn’t buy into the idea of the ‘poor suffering artist’. He believes that with the right mentality and some business know-how artists have the potential to progress in their careers and to create the art they are passionate about. And what about the people who fall back on the ‘get-a-real-job’- cliché? ‘The world would be so much poorer if artists like The Beatles or Spielberg all decided to quit. The arts have a lot to offer society. The key is believing in its value, taking responsibility, and actively working towards ways which will enable you to live your dream.’
Fruit Vendor will put a smile on your face with their funky beats while their lyrics provide food for thought. Have a listen to one of their latest songs, Oliver Twist, and head over to their website to learn more about this dynamic group of musicians.
Thanks for sharing your journey on the Wild Library blog, Josh. You gave me plenty to think about and I’m inspired by your work ethic and go-getter attitude!