In 2013 I moved to Charleston without a job. In two years I worked as a barista, a caterer, a poolside towel girl, a doggie daycare counselor, an unpaid intern, and a secretary at a finance company. I've always considered myself to be a young creative, specifically, a writer, and after two really tough years and lots of Three Buck Chuck I landed a job at the City Paper.
It can suck to be a so-called creative. First, the word itself, tossed around in inspirational Buzzfeed listicles, loses meaning after a while. For clarity's sake we'll say that creatives are people who seek to sustain themselves through their creations — writing, painting, singing, photographing, and yes, 2016, coding — often taking part time jobs on the side as an additional source of income. It's what our economist and financial types these days call gigs. A recent Wall Street Journal article, "As The Gig Economy Changes Work, So Should Rules," discusses the economic shift created by today's gig economy, i.e. part-time workers piecing their lives together through side jobs like driving an Uber while also working as a nanny and a barista.
It was incredibly hard for me to find a fulfilling job in Charleston — financially and emotionally, because damn if I ever want to see an excel spreadsheet of stocks again — and as you'll see, everyone we talked to struggled, and continues to struggle to define what work is and what it means to them. But surprisingly, despite the hustle and late nights, most young creatives are optimistic about the future.
"When you meet someone it's helpful to say, 'What are you working on?'" says Henry Riggs, a local comedian who performs with his girlfriend, Maari Suorsa in their improv duo Nameless Numberhead. "Not, 'How are you? What do you do?'"
Riggs and Suorsa moved to Charleston last year after five years in Chicago. Riggs hails from Charleston, Suorsa from Massachusetts, and they met in the Windy City at the New Colony, a theater co-founded by CofC grad Evan Linder. One day they hope to make enough money from their comedy to travel, even if it's just the kind of travel that pays for itself.
"We're broke," says Suorsa, "but we're in a good spot." She waitresses at Circa 1886 and bartends at the Charleston Music Hall (CMH), with occasional babysitting gigs on the side. Riggs also bartends, proudly announcing that he recently became CMH's bar manager. The two are funny, realistic, and appear to be pretty happy. At ages 28 and 29, they are not alone.
Six years ago City Paper published "Generation Vexed," an article that addressed the fallout of 2008's recession and its effects on recent CofC and Citadel grads. The interviewees were anxious and even embarrassed that they were having trouble finding and keeping jobs. While the job economy has improved — a 2014 MSU report projected hiring rates to leap 16 percent last year — the idea about what constitutes a job has changed. Or at least, I think it has.
"Creatives are on a different schedule," says Riggs. "It's about how late you stayed up the night before." Riggs and Suorsa like their late-night schedule, tending bar and performing improv, laughing at what appears to them to be the absurdity of 9-5 workdays. "I don't know about sick days and days off," says Suorsa. "Our goal is to sustain," Riggs says. "And slowly transition so that our art takes the place of the job."
But is Charleston the right fit for that transition? While Riggs and Suorsa are here for the long haul, Riggs says that the city isn't as supportive of the arts as it pretends be. "Charleston wholeheartedly supports Stephen Colbert and Bill Murray, who haven't done any work here — they're just from here. They don't celebrate their local artists as much as famous people."
Riggs thinks there needs to be a shift in people's perceptions. "People think, 'We have this big thing, Spoleto. We know what arts are.' They don't want to support things that don't pack the Gaillard," he says.
And yet Riggs feels hopeful, especially looking at this year's Comedy Fest lineup. "It was so cool to see a decent number of local groups. There's an idea that Charleston comedy has worth on a national level," he says.
"I bought a longboard and then I thought, 'If I broke my hand, I can't work,'" says Mac Kilduff, a 27-year-old photographer who lives with his girlfriend and their many pets on Seabrook. A Philadelphia native, Kilduff spent his childhood visiting the Lowcountry and he and his girlfriend live in his mom's vacation home. He shrugs and laughs about this stroke of good fortune, adding that if rent were a factor in his life, he may not be able to swing living in Charleston.
"You need to make an effort," says Kilduff of his photography gigs. "It's a hustle." He moved to Charleston in 2013 to work as an intern for Charleston Mag, where he worked for a year, and currently contributes to the magazine's blog, Charleston Grit. Talking to Kilduff, you get the sense that you're playing Legos with a wide-eyed kid trying to create the next spaceship. "I recently moved into drones," he says.
Investing two grand in something that flies very high above the ground seems like a risky move, but that's what Kilduff is going for, trying to set himself apart from the city's other photographers. He plans on using the drone at music festivals and however else it can be implemented, catering to markets like real estate companies who would benefit from aerial shots.
The grand plan hasn't been all unicorns and rainbows though. "The drone crashed and it was like watching my future crash," he says. The drone is back in action, but Kilduff's being a little more careful.
How does a photographer bankroll a drone, and then pay for a broken one? The ol' parent loan gig: His dad bought it for him and he's paying him back. Managing money is admittedly not his strong point, with Kilduff chuckling about his credit card spiral, optimistically adding that because of his newfound debt, "I have a good TV now."
Kilduff's dream job is to be the staff photographer for a company or publication. "I'd like to sit behind a desk at a certain point," he says, quickly adding, "But it's daunting to me. I want a fun 9-5."
When Lindsey Harris, a 25-year-old Clemson grad, moved to Charleston two and a half years ago, she knew that she wanted to pursue photography. But upon arrival she says, "I was instantly paralyzed."
Comparing herself to already-successful Charleston photogs, Harris was at a loss for how to find gigs in the city. That changed when she spent what she calls "the best $60 ever," on a baking workshop at the now-defunct Farmbar.
Connecting with Farmbar's Tara Derr, Harris worked on the pop-up aistream Derr managed, serving food and selling local goods in the lot next to 1630 Meeting Street. During her time with Farmbar, Harris learned that Charleston is all about collaboration. "Artists here are really gracious," she says. It was through these connections, generally with people at least a decade older than herself, that Harris has had good luck in finding work in Charleston, the first being a hostess gig at the Ordinary.
Harris currently works for ReWined Candles which recently joined the brand collective Formatical, comprised of local companies like Produce Candles, Candlefish, and J. Stark. "I had to figure out how you shoot products," says Harris, who calls this work her "bread and butter." She also makes money on the sets of commercial companies traveling through Charleston — she offers Orvis and Wrangler as examples — who need people to style and assist during photo shoots.
"There's a good bit of work if you're willing to learn. I'd be an idiot to leave Charleston right now," she says. Calling herself a hard worker who's "willing to go the extra mile," Harris shows the same strong, surprisingly cool, calm, and collected optimism of many of her peers. She shrugs saying, "It's always going to work out."
Matt Dobie is both a writer and a musician which means that he is both doing what he loves and, of course, broke. "I have to have my hand in a lot of things," says 29-year-old Dobie, who currently plays in a jazz quartet and writes theater reviews for Art Mag. "If you're a quality enough player, you can get paid well," he says, adding that he could probably make a living off of his music if he played every day of the week. He doesn't want that lifestyle, though — he got out of food and bev a couple years ago and while this departure led to a "massive pay cut," Dobie is no longer interested in late nights.
"I don't mind the juggling right now," he adds, placing an emphasis on "right now." Dobie's wife, Chambers Austelle, is also a creative, a contemporary artist who teaches and serves as an outreach coordinator at Redux. "Life as artists is tight on our pockets," admits Dobie, who says that he often pieces together over 40 hours of work a week.
Dobie ended up in Charleston because his sister lived here and he was drawn to what he saw as a strong arts community. Since then he has found an even stronger jazz community. With nonprofits like the Jazz Artists of Charleston actively curating and creating a community of like-minded musicians, the jazz populace in Charleston sets an example of a strong network of creatives. Perhaps this highly organized group sets an example for other demographics of young creatives?
Looking toward the future, Dobie hopes to make money off a novel. Fat chance? Sure, but at least he knows it. "Writers don't get paid well," he says. Amen, brother.
If he were to give advice to younger kids, he would tell them to work harder. "I worry that they [college kids] think it will work out even if you don't have that drive," he says. As for Dobie's own drive? Well, it's gotten him this far. He says, "When it keeps getting better and better, why wouldn't it continue?"
I'll go ahead and call Marcus Amaker a stalwart in the Lowcountry's creative community. At 39 he tops the list as the oldest creative I interviewed, happily settled into a life of graphic design, poetry, and twice-a-day naps. "You have to define what making it means," says Amaker, sipping a gin and ginger at Moe's Crosstown, his neighborhood haunt of choice. "It used to be about money. Now, I need to be able to take two naps a day and not be stressed," he laughs, adding, "And also doing good work."
Amaker moved to Charleston for a job at the Post and Courier in 2003, and after five years as both an editor and graphic designer, he left with a lot of skills. "I felt like I could make a living for myself," he says. And so he did, now calling himself a one-stop shop for anyone's creative needs.
"I'm not the best graphic designer or videographer in town," Amaker says, pointing out that a fine balance exists between the skill of creating and the skill of interacting with people. "It's all about relationships. If you have good relationships in town, it's easier to 'make it,'" he says.
A visibly calm and collected guy — must be those naps — with a frequent laugh, it's easy to see why Amaker has made so many friends in town. "I've been really lucky with the number of clients," he says.
Despite his relative job stability, Amaker says that he still has a lot to learn about, you know, money. "Taxes," he says, shaking his head. He's still confused about last year's return. Recently married to Jordan Amaker, Lowcountry Local First's marketing director, Marcus says that the couple's whole lives are about making Charleston a better city. "I don't have any fear about the future," says Amaker, who calls his current life "so different" than it was a decade ago. One big difference, he says, is subject matter, fondly recalling, "I used to write poems about ex-girlfriends. Now I write poems about the mayor."
A native of Daphne, Ala., 23-year-old Sarah Mosteller taught herself how to knit when she was a junior in college. After breaking her back in a rafting accident in August 2013, Mosteller was on bed rest for four months when she realized that she needed a way to cope with the stillness, "It was kind of the worst having to just lay there." But out of the worst came some good. Mosteller returned to school and to a professor who encouraged her to create whatever kind of art she wanted, which ended up being a mix of knitting and sculpture.
A part-timer at Artist & Craftsman, Mosteller admits that Charleston is a difficult place to support yourself. Despite this, she's been pleasantly surprised by how well the creative community advocates for one another. "It's kind of strange," she says. "People are like, 'I want to do well, so I want you to do well.'"
She says that she didn't know if she wanted to stay in Charleston after college, but now that she's established herself — she's had a studio at Redux for four months now and currently has two pieces on display at the Vendue — she realizes that she couldn't live this way in another city.
Mosteller is perhaps most comfortable in the midst of her fellow Redux residents — of the 20 studio artists, 17 are women. "Seeing ambitious creative females in one space is rare," she says.
Every artist has to market herself and Mosteller admits that she could work on self-promotion. A lot of times, though, she simply doesn't have time to update her Instagram, saying, "I'm pre-occupied. I'm using both of my hands."
I'm listening to an orchestral track called "Anna E." as I write about Alex Collier, the 29-year-old Berklee grad responsible for a music library of over 300 original tunes, and one of the guys behind music house and band managing companies Sunday Entertainment/ Eastward Music. "Anna E." is described as cinematic and successful while the next song, "Bursting," lends itself to a subject matter that's more thoughtful and reflective. Why the two-word definitions? Collier and his business partner, long time friend and fellow Berklee grad Josh Smoak, create music for advertising film trailers, brand films, and documentaries.
Along with Sunday Entertainment, Collier's a manager for Bedlam Music Management, which has offices in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Nashville. He's responsible for managing five artists, including local acts Faline and Heyrocco.
"We started getting a lot of work while in school so we said, 'Let's go back and see what happens,'" says Collier of his return to Charleston. He and Smoak are both from the Lowcountry and while the Boston cold drove them away, they also missed home — they love the slow and steady pace of Charleston. "You don't get overwhelmed here. The pace allows you to think," he says.
It wasn't always good times, though. When Collier and Smoak first moved back to Charleston he says, "all odds were against us." It was around the time of the writers strike of 2007-2008 — Hollywood's longest work halt since 1988 — and, of course, 2008's market collapse. "The economy went to shit and music was further devalued," says Collier. "We just kept our heads down and wrote a lot of music."
This tactic seemed to work — Sunday Entertainment can claim a spot in the coveted lineup of Super Bowl ads, both last year, and again this year with a Microsoft commercial.
"It's gonna take time to develop a sound creative force in Charleston, but we're on the right track," says Collier.
Collier works hard. After I leave he plans on hanging posters around town for an upcoming Royal American show, Allan Rayman with Faline. This is the first time someone from Communion Music, a company founded in 2006 by Mumford & Sons' Ben Lovett and several other musicians, has come to Charleston and Collier's excited about the implication of their presence in the city. And yet, he's also hanging his own posters, officially cementing his position as a humble success story.
I decided to end my young creatives journey at a co-working space, the Charleston Digital Corridor (CDC) on East Bay Street. Comprised of Flagship 1, Flagship 2, and an in-the-works Flagship 3, the community of startups and entrepreneurs had befuddled me for months, years even — what are they doing in there? — so I figured that it was worth investigating. With an increase in co-working spaces in the area — everything from the recently launched Holy City Collective on Daniel Island to Harbor Entrepreneur Center's five locations — the future of Charleston could look a lot more like these open offices and collaborative spaces.
I talked to one of Flagship's workers — 27-year-old app developer Pat Kelly, who quit his job at Sparc last year, and taught himself a new programming language in two and a half months. "I didn't know anything about mobile development," he says. He created an app, Crowdless, a social media platform that lets users check in at restaurants, bars, and music venues to rate service, parking, and how crowded the spot may be.
"A lot of my savings are dumped into this," says Kelly, who is ready to take any aspect of the app and run with it, depending on user response. Walking down the hallway of Flagship he points at the plaques lining the wall, admitting that he hasn't heard of a lot of the companies who have graduated from the co-working space. Have they gone on to bigger or better things? Or back to the safer bet of a 9-5?
Originally a $120,000 city experiment, the Digital Corridor has grown to two office spaces and is currently planning to build an 85-foot co-working space on Morrison, set to open in 2017. Inspired by the design of the MIT Media Lab, Flagship 3 will include a coffee shop and an apartment for visiting clients.
Six years ago "Generation Vexed" closed with a toast to the class of 2010, "May neighbors respect you, trouble neglect you, the angels protect you, and an entry-level position with benefits, vacation, and 401(k) — accept you." Today, I think values have changed, and so I offer creatives the words of Henry Riggs, a guy who's determined to make Charleston a better place for everyone out there hustling, creating, and Instagramming the shit out of their work. Riggs says, "Charleston is starting to feel like less of a transition city, but it starts with the artist. If the artist doubles down, the audience will catch on. People will catch up. Do your thing and do it well."