Performing arts Finding your path


For most creatives, having at least one side hustle is the norm. Not only as an output for our creativity, or a way to develop our craft, but often to secure a more consistent income. From TGI Fridays to producing royalty-free music, Owen Whitelaw has done them all. But Owen ponders, does the side-hustle risk putting those that specialise at risk?

20 February 2023 • 4 min read

@pikisuperstar | Freepik

F**k off,” I yell, slamming a platter of barbecue glazed ribs down onto the table. I stare into a set of bewildered eyes. “The ribs,” I say. “Not you!” I pick up the plate again, which is a mistake. “Ah, f**k it!” I scream. “You see? These plates, they’re just too bloody hot.”

It’s the summer of 2010 and I’m about to get fired from TGI Fridays, Leicester Square.

I’d been working as an actor in Scotland for a few years before making the move down to London. Up until then I’d found day to day living to be relatively cheap, and it had been possible to live in Glasgow solely on my theatre wages. But London was different. It was a shock. From the rent to the beer, everything was so much more of a financial drain. So getting let go from TGI Fridays, after just eight days was, well, a bit of a problem. But at least I had learned a valuable lesson. My hands were way too delicate to be a waiter, and If I was going to have a side job here in London, it was vitally important that it didn’t involve carrying plates that were hotter than the sun.

So, I got to thinking, and then to trying, various different money-making schemes. Some more fruitful than others; I had a stall in Greenwich Market selling framed antique book prints. Then there was the promo work – handing out flyers for various events in ever more humiliating costumes. After that I turned my attention to TaskRabbit, an app where you get hired to build flat pack furniture all across London. I tried my hand at producing royalty free music for a bit too, flogging it on online platforms such as Pond5. Then I found out you could do the same with photographs. So I got into that as well. Creating a catalogue of bland yet commercial friendly pics and uploading them to Shutterstock and Getty Images, and anywhere else that would host them, before eventually landing on writing and finding work in theatre and radio.

Now, I’ve always been rather proud of my side hustling, maybe even a little smug – I had escaped the grind of the restaurant trade and ploughed my own path. Even when I was being chased by a mob of gobby kids through the ExCeL Centre while dressed as a giant bunny promoting a new video game, I still felt like I was sticking it to TGI Fridays somehow.

But I have to say there was always something nagging at the back of my head. I couldn’t help wondering, was I was getting in the way a bit? Not with the promo work (no one wanted to do that). But with the music, the photography and the writing. Was I just a tourist traveling through, seeing what money could be made before heading off on the next theatre tour? Was it wrong to be adding to the noise?

So, I thought I’d find out if other creatives out there had an opinion on it. Does it have an impact on them, when artists migrate from the craft they trained in, and into another?

I phone my friend Oliver Emanual. Oliver has won pretty much every award there is to win in the world of radio drama, so I thought he’d be a good person to ask whether actors becoming radio writers (which seems to have become a trend in recent years) has caused a flood in the market.

“You can’t think of it in terms of, if someone else succeeds, I fail. I don’t think that’s how art works.”

That was unexpectedly positive.

Oliver went on “Many playwrights have been other things. Some of the most famous writers from the British cannon: John Osborne, Shakespeare, Pinter, they were all at some point in their careers actors too.”

So, the side hustle is no new phenomenon. This is why it’s good to have well-read friends.

Next, I phone Danny Krass, an Australian musician and sound designer.

“It’s the Wild West out there, and it has been for a long time. So, no. There’s no problem selling your music.”

What a let-down. More positivity.

“Is the music any good though?” he asks. “That’s really the question.”

And I suppose it is, and for full transparency, I have to tell you, the music was not good, not good at all. In fact, my greatest hit on Pond5 was a real banger of a track called Award Winner (Long), and it got the sum total of… three sales.

Both Oliver and Danny have been very good natured about my dabbling in their artistic fields. I mean, perhaps they just don’t feel very threatened. Perhaps Danny has heard Award Winner (Long). But the truth is, the more saturated a market, the quicker the money tends to fall. I would hate to think my hustling was part of the problem.

The world of Voice Over is a great example of a market who’s seen its financial rewards crumble over the past decade because of a huge influx of new talent. The advent of affordable kit and high-speed internet has meant that most actors now have a home studio set up at their disposal, whereas at one time it was a fairly niche profession. There is of course an Equity rates card, which should keep payment at an industry standard, but you just have to go onto some of the platforms out there to see that this is rarely adhered to.

I guess the fact of the matter is, if there was enough work in everyone’s chosen field, especially in something like acting, we wouldn’t be looking to do anything else at all. But there isn’t, and if we want to keep working creatively, it sometimes means having to pivot from the comfort of our original specialties. And this is something every one us may soon need to learn to do. The rise of AI, for instance, has created some very interesting and sometimes scary questions about where we will all fit in.

But as everyone turns their heads to see if the robots are coming for their jobs, perhaps it’s still worth keeping half an eye on that out-of-work-actor in the corner and his probing questions:

“How did you get into that then, mate?”

“Much money in it, is there?”

You have been warned.

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