Gig Economy: Sami Martasian

"At no point do I wish I was only playing music."

Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, Sami Martasian of Puppy Problems talks about balancing their teaching gig with their music career.
—Annie Fell, associate editor, Talkhouse

When I was a sophomore in college, I saw a Kathleen Hanna interview in which she responds to the classic question, “What’s your advice to young people wanting to be successful artists?” with, simply, “have rich parents.”

It probably still sticks in my mind six years later because it made me feel so defeated. I was young and had a pretty naive view of the art world. At no point did I believe success was a guarantee, but in my 19-year-old pea brain it seemed to be something you either got or you didn’t. You were supposed to work your ass off and if your stuff was good, eventually it became your only job, and if it was bad you receded to the realm of outsider art history and gave up. I wanted to believe it worked like that because I knew if it came down to rich parents, I was screwed.

I don’t want to jump around here too much, but I’m going to let you know that the end of this story isn’t that Kathleen Hanna is wrong. As I’ve grown up in the Boston DIY community, I’ve had to learn that financial privilege is often an unseen partner in many musicians’ lives. That privilege looks different for different people. Maybe it’s having supportive parents who can float your rent while you go on your first tiny, tiny tours that don’t break even. It can be as big as being able to work with a manager or as small as getting those sweet high school guitar lessons to help you rise above the general hum of us mediocre self-taught folks.

I didn’t have those systems in place.

I was extremely lucky to be accepted to the only college I applied to on a full tuition scholarship, but even then, student loans for two years of housing and other miscellaneous fees were staggering for me and for my mom, who has helped me as much as she possibly could by borrowing small amounts of money from many friends to patch together a quilt of finite resources that I still feel guilty for needing. I’m lucky for that support, but because of how I grew up, I knew I needed to graduate and find a job that would not only cover all of my own living expenses and loans, but also be able to help my family. Throwing myself head first into aspirations of being a full-time artist seemed irresponsible.

I ended up getting a job at a small private school where I’ve done everything you can imagine—running after-school programing, substitute teaching, special needs work, and teaching everything from art to PE. I have loved every moment of it. At no point do I wish I was only playing music. At no point do I wish I was only working at the school.

For sure, there are times I look at bands younger than me doing bigger, more exciting things with their music careers and feel bummed I’m still eons behind, but I’m also grateful to have the independence of a little fish in a big ocean. I think in the pressing jaws of capitalism, it’s hard to be a full-time artist and not feel the need to make money impact your ability to create. If your next album is the difference between being able to afford braces for your kid, how do you not just want to make something that will sell well? For the most part, no one can blame a young artist for needing to squeeze every ounce of financial benefit or comfort from their work when we live in a system that does little to help those who exist in it. Personally though, I feel more inclined to have another job that I love, that gets me out of my personal and artistic process to do tangible things. I don’t want to sit around constantly ruminating on my own shit and become a cliched, self-obsessed art jerk.

By a lot of standards, I’ve done this whole music thing totally wrong. Even though my band has existed for a number of years, our first album isn’t coming out until this September. Finding time while often working 60 hours a week, and the setback of catching every virus that made its way through the school I work at in the last three years has made recording a challenge. Money and time limits make touring nearly impossible. Even if I wanted to hire a manager or a publicist, I could never dream of affording one. But somehow, more than I ever thought I would be, I’m happy. Each month, I piece together rent by teaching, working at an art center, illustration commissions, and odd jobs. Often I work 16 hours a day between schools and nannying and then attempt to have band practice or go home and finish drawing projects. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s great.

On my most bitter days, I agree with Kathleen Hanna—it sure would help to have rich parents. But when everything feels in balance, I have moments of feeling like it’s all working out. No matter what kind of artist you are, being successful means deciding for yourself what success is. For me, it’s having a reason to draw and paint, to feel like I’m moving forward as a musician even if by incalculable baby steps. It means having a “day job” that doesn’t feel like a waste of time. Maybe I’ll die still playing basement shows. Probably my music will never be wildly popular. There are no sponsorships, managers, or late-night TV performances in my future. But it’s cool. I’m happy, and I found a way to keep doing things I love. That’s good enough for me.

Sami Martasian is a freelance illustrator and teacher in Boston, MA. They are the front person of Puppy Problems, whose album Sunday Feeling is out on Sleeper Records, and are one-half of Rose, Water, Fountain, which just self-released an album this past summer. They can be reached at [email protected].