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POSTCARDS FROM THE RECESSION

For artists, the picture is bleak

Self-employed writers, actors and musicians know how to get through lean times, but this crisis is forcing many to take dramatic steps.

March 10, 2009|Charles Fleming | Charles Fleming lives and works in Silver Lake. His last book was "My Lobotomy," written with Howard Dully.

Most of the people I know don't have regular jobs. They're writers, actors, musicians, artists, photographers and filmmakers. They also are middle-class taxpayers who carry mortgages and send their kids to public school.

They're used to hard times. They've always lived project to project, rather than paycheck to paycheck. They've learned how to cut costs, eliminate excess and wait out the dry spells. "I'm good at this," one actor friend said. "Between movies, I've been in a recession my whole life!"

But this is different. This is bad. Although no one I know is in foreclosure, my friends and neighbors are experiencing persistent economic erosion.

Census figures say that nearly 70,000 self-employed people work in the arts in Los Angeles. Their job losses won't show up in unemployment numbers because they don't have regular jobs to lose, but they're hurting.

One musician friend had to sell his mother's prized heirloom silver set to pay the rent in October, and since then has hocked all of his instruments but one. A film director friend has eliminated all "luxury" spending -- including his chiropractor and his psychiatrist. A writer friend has put off a medical procedure -- but that means no more walking on his bad foot until he can afford what his health plan calls "elective surgery." A music journalist is transferring his beloved vinyl collection to MP3s, selling one classic record at a time to pay the bills.

Some folks are still working but doing lesser jobs at lower rates. An actor who had a network TV series two years ago is writing "webisodes" for an online comedy show. An editor who was doing indie feature films last year is struggling to get hired for direct-to-video horror movies. Magazine writers aren't getting freelance assignments because that work is being done by staff editors. Book writers, like me, are experiencing an industrywide slowdown. My agent submitted a book proposal to 22 editors last November. Ten of them have been laid off since then -- and the proposal hasn't been sold.

Some friends are selling out -- or trying to. An actor friend took advantage of his union's offer of help in getting a census-taking job; so did, on the day the test was offered, hundreds of his SAG peers. A musician friend who couldn't make ends meet finally decided to look for a job with a catering company; he stood in line for several hours, one of 300 people vying for the same half a dozen positions, shamed, he said, by the "hushed, defeated looks on the other applicants' faces."

Other friends are pulling up stakes. One actor pal moved to Phoenix for a "real" job. A gifted writer has decided to leave the state for a tenured teaching post, though it means leaving her family here. "It's scary to consider making such a big change," she told me. "But it's scarier standing still and hoping things will get better." Another writer, who works as a counselor, thought this was the year he and his set-designer husband could quit their day jobs, cash out and leave California. Now, he says, they can't sell their house without taking a loss.

Still others have taken less dramatic steps. Some have fired gardeners, pool men or maids. They've saved money and gained new respect for the backbreaking work required to maintain their gardens and homes.

It's been more than a decade since I had a staff job and a salary. My wife has worked steadily. We've learned how to budget for the long haul, how to enjoy the fat years and eke out the lean. But we have one daughter just starting college and another just finishing high school. We're staring at a rising bottom line and wondering how long we can stay above it. For now, we're hanging on, grateful for all we've got, but mindful of all we have to lose.

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Charles Fleming lives and works in Silver Lake. His last book was "My Lobotomy," written with Howard Dully.

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latimes.com/postcard

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