Alyssa Bowlby is 30 years old. After graduating with a master's in music from the Peabody Institute nearly seven years ago, and relying on a handful of secondary jobs to earn a living in New York, she now defines herself as an opera singer, tutor, web designer and burgeoning life coach. Alyssa, like many young artists and creative professionals, has learned firsthand that success in college doesn't always guarantee a prosperous career.
Many graduates this year will have to come to terms with a similar reality. As more students obtain degrees in fashion design, photography, writing and other artistic concentrations, the likelihood of finding long-term employment in those fields becomes more complicated. And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national unemployment rate at 9.3 percent in June 2011, there is a 15.2 percent unemployment rate for workers aging from 20 to 24, and 10.5 percent for 25- to 29-year-olds. These figures may be even higher because they don't take into account young workers who are limited by the recession to part-time jobs, and others who dropped out of the work force to go back to school for another degree. And when fields like music continue to shift or shrink, the abyss between college and the work force becomes even greater.
Difficult choices between art and stability
As a student, Alyssa got a perfect score on the verbal section of the SATs, was valedictorian of her high school and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Haverford. But as a professional, she has been unable to find enough work as an opera singer to sustain herself. In 2010, she was only hired for two contracts with Opera in the Heights, a regional opera house in Houston, Texas, which paid her approximately $4,000. While she has filed for an extension on her taxes this year, she calculates that she has spent nearly $21,000 in 2010 to promote and train for her career as an opera singer. She relies on part-time jobs as a certified tutor for the Board of Education, and high-end SAT/ACT clients, to pay for her living and opera singing expenses in New York.
Every year, the bulk of Alyssa's opera expenses are spent on headshots, auditions, recordings, teachers, coaches and agents. She needs to practice and prepare for auditions at least 30 hours each week, and then work another 35 hours to pay her bills. She trains exhaustively to hit every soprano note, sometimes overexerting her vocal cords to the point of pain. And it is during these moments that she becomes most frustrated, comparing herself to friends and colleagues, and wondering whether she has made the right decision for her career.
Some young artists have made different decisions. One of Alyssa's closest friends and colleagues is the lyric soprano Sun Young Chang, 32, from South Korea. While they both share the same passion for singing, their circumstances and academic formation have pushed them on separate paths. Studying western music in Seoul, it was necessary for Sun Young to immigrate to countries like Germany, Italy or the United States to experience firsthand the culture, study and performance of opera singing. She moved to New York in the summer of 2001 to pursue a master's in music at Mannes College, at The New School.
After completing the degree, Sun Young felt that she needed something more tangible, and enrolled in a professional degree program to further develop her performance and compositional skills. This degree not only enabled her to perform at different venues, but intern as a music teacher. And that experience has motivated her to complement her singing career with teaching.
But unlike Alyssa, Sun Young now dedicates herself more to teaching than rehearsing for her weekly performances, and admits that she would have to commit a lot more time and money to become a professional soprano.
As Sun Young prepares to get married in September, it seems highly unlikely that she will sacrifice her quality of life and financial stability. Currently, she lives debt free, earning enough money to pay for housing costs, insurance and utilities. This is not the case for many recent graduates.
Artistic aspirations, real-world challenges
Rebecca Gordon, 33, said that unexpected expenses motivated her to choose a full-time career in human resources over opera singing. In 2007, doctors found fluid in her heart and an elevated sedimentation rate—which measures inflammation in the body and could reveal the progress of cancers like lymphoma—but were unable to give her a conclusive diagnosis. Rebecca had to undergo two months of testing, averaging between three and four medical appointments per week. By the time it was determined that her health was stable, she had accrued $40,000 in medical expenses. Luckily, she worked as a full-time recruiter for a software company, while still auditioning as a soprano for different opera venues. The company provided her with a comprehensive health plan that covered all of her medical expenses. This experience made her realize that she could not afford such a plan through her singing alone, and it compelled her to seek more long-term employment with stable health benefits.
Artists and performers like Alyssa, who sustain themselves with part-time independent work, often have problems gaining access to affordable health insurance. According to a 2009 survey by America's Health Insurance Plans, insurance premiums in the individual market cost an annual average of $6,630 per person and $13,296 per family.
Many creative workers also lack unemployment benefits, and have no protection from unpaid wages. This insecurity has forced them to drain their savings and rack up more credit card debt. According to the Freelancers Union, companies affected by the economy frequently pay independent workers 90 days late, with 42 percent of New York's freelance contractors losing an average of $8,000 in 2009, and getting paid late an average of $12,000 that same year.