🍵 The Problem with Entertainment
It's worse than you think.
🎉 Happy Hump Day. Word count: 1,164 ... 6 min read.
Getting oat milk from the office kitchen at the Tonight Show used to give me anxiety. And it showed. My boss told me that I made them nervous when they asked me to go on a production run.
They said, “you're an intern. This is where you're supposed to make mistakes. If you want to succeed, just be hardworking, competent, and enthusiastic."
I internalized these words as my recipe for success in the entertainment industry. I've been lucky to work at some cool places, but this romanticized view of my career didn't last.
This is why I left the industry (kind of).
After I graduated college as a non-rich kid without family already in the industry, I realized that the value of my degree ($250,000+) will likely never reach the value of my labor in entertainment.
By the numbers: For the majority of production creatives, the first 5-10 years of their career will be marked by constantly looking for new gigs, making lateral moves, and maybe one promotion with a meager pay raise every 3-5 years.
Very few will make it to that coveted producer-writer-director position that actually pays a decent wage. But even then, that's a contract gig with a firm end date.
Their 20s will be spent earning the rates below:
Production assistant: $15/hr
Writers’ assistant: $16/hr
Assistant production coordinator: $15.66/hr
Art department coordinator: $16.82/hr
Script coordinator: $17.64/hr
Nearly 80 percent of industry assistants and other support staffers made less than $50,000 in 2020 and over one-third made less than $30,000.
Now imagine living on that salary within these conditions:
The median rent in NYC in January 2022 was $2,895
… And in LA: $3,000
Gas prices are currently averaging at $4.17 per gallon
18.4% of American homes were sold to investors in Q4 of 2021. That’s symptomatic of the larger issue of soaring home prices.
Annual inflation is up 7.5%, while average hourly earnings increased just 0.1% in February when accounting for inflation.
What this meant for me: I picked a highly-demanding, low-paying career with little opportunity to build wealth in an era marked by a shrinking middle class surrounded by economic pain points that aren’t letting up anytime soon.
At first, I was okay with this. My career started before Covid. The Great Resignation hadn't begun yet.
I romanticized getting by on minimum wage in NYC. I listened to The Daily on the L train during my hourlong commute; I worked in Manhattan on 57th St between 9th and 10th Aves, a storied block in TV history where billions of dollars' worth of content has been produced by underpaid crews; I proudly wore wrap gift hoodies.
🍵 TBBH (to be brutally honest): All this manufactured glamor paid me about $650/wk. I rarely ate at restaurants, never went out or shopped, and skipped several meals a week. Meanwhile, the talent I worked for made $8 million per year.
In a twisted way, my passion enabled me to settle for meager working conditions. But I knew that thousands of eager folks my age wanted my spot, so I sucked it up and kept my head down.
Then Covid hit. NYC shut down. I moved back home to California and produced a few shows remotely, while reassessing whether I wanted to keep working in TV.
It took me 6 months of severe burnout to admit this truth about working in entertainment:
You can make a high-value product, but share in none of the wealth that it generates. Only a few at the top massively benefit from your labor.
Sexy jobs don't pay well precisely because they're sexy. Scott Galloway put it nicely, saying:
Sectors are asset classes—the cool ones are over invested, driving down returns on human capital (compensation for working there)... rent due can drive you to desperation, and you'll neither have a career, a stable future, nor recognized genius.🤯
In simple terms: A career in entertainment, presently, is not a viable solution for building meaningful wealth in the US over the next four decades.
I recently started to think about my career in terms of how it could serve my life's goals, not the other way around.
A few of my life goals include:
Be debt-free ASAP (those student loan interest rates will kill ya)
Own a home & start a family in California
Create generational wealth
Get a Shiba Inu
The problem: 12+ hour workdays, mediocre pay, lack of stability (every gig is a fixed contract), zero paid time off, and lack of financial equity in the asset I’m producing.
I can't wager my quality of life on the hope that the industry will change for the better or that I'll make it big.
Significant wealth creation in entertainment is always tied to exceptional talent and nepotism. 99% of us aren't the 1% that is exceptionally talented. And, just-okay wealth creation that demands 60+ hour workweeks throughout my entire career won't cut it for me.
The industry has zero incentive to change because cheap human capital is profitable and easily replaceable. Tough pill to swallow.
I don’t want to rent my human capital (my most valuable asset) to an industry that withholds all equity, upward mobility, reasonable rest, and living wages from its workers. My tolerance for exploitation has evaporated.
I chose to value my financial and mental wellbeing over a dream I fell in love with at 18. Now I'm opening myself up to new creative challenges, while pursuing financial stability.
I don't have the luxury of a subsidized entertainment career. And yes, I know it's technically possible to get by on low pay—I've done it. But if I can help it, I don't want to opt into zero financial margin.
Put another way: I'm an asset to the company I work for, and if they're undervaluing me, then it's time for me to leave. In this case, it happens to be an entire industry.
I recognize that you need perseverance to make it big in entertainment. I admire anyone pursuing their dreams in the industry. More power to you.
The thing is, I persevered for a while. But I realized that I'd rather put that perseverance towards something that paid me better along the way, because I changed my priorities to serve my life’s goals instead.
So, last summer I started thinking about how I could invest my skills as a producer in an industry that pays me well in cash, equity, and benefits.
That's when the pivot to a career in tech began. 🥬
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P.S. I'm still producing comedy with my creative partner, Matt Friend. We’ve always got exciting stuff in the pipeline, so give him a follow for a good laugh.
P.P.S. Check out this thread by an up-and-coming TV writer. It brutally indicts one slice of the industry that’s deeply broken. 👇