Dispelling the myth that celebrity equates to wealth
November 12, 2012
Imagine me at a cocktail party and the conversation comes around to my job and what I do. I explain that I help musicians who are low-income and uninsured get access to health care. About 50% of the time the person who I’m talking with replies, “Why? I buy CDs and go see (insert band name here) play all the time. Surely he/she makes enough money to afford healthcare.” “Actually,” I reply, “It may surprise you but most local musicians earn around $16,000 year and often struggle to make ends meet. Affordable health care has not been something available to many musicians in Austin until HAAM was started.” The reality that celebrity does not equate to wealth is so real in the music industry and so misunderstood by so many outside the industry. This article by Nitsuh Abebe about Grizzly Bear gives some really interesting insight into the life and choices many musicians make. I encourage you to check out the whole article but here’s a couple quotes that jumped out at me:
“For much of the late-twentieth century, you might have assumed that musicians with a top-twenty sales week and a Radio City show—say, the U2 tour in 1984, after The Unforgettable Fire—made at least as much as their dentists. Those days are long and irretrievably gone, but some of the mental habits linger. ‘People probably have an inflated idea of what we make,’ says Droste. ‘Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records. But they’ll go to giant shows.’ Grizzly Bear tours for the bulk of its income, like most bands; licensing a song might provide each member with ‘a nice little ‘Yay, I don’t have to pay rent for two months.’ ’ They don’t all have health insurance. Droste’s covered via his husband, Chad, an interior designer; they live in the same 450-square-foot Williamsburg apartment he occupied before Yellow House. When the band tours, it can afford a bus, an extra keyboard player, and sound and lighting engineers. (That U2 tour had a wardrobe manager.) After covering expenses like recording, publicity, and all the other machinery of a successful act (‘Agents, lawyers, tour managers, the merch girl, the venues take a merch cut; Ticketmaster takes their cut; the manager gets a percentage; publishers get a percentage’), Grizzly Bear’s members bring home … well, they’d rather not get into it. ‘I just think it’s inappropriate,’ says Droste. ‘Obviously we’re surviving. Some of us have health insurance, some of us don’t, we basically all live in the same places, no one’s renting private jets. Come to your own conclusions.’
“The band’s hesitant to talk about money at all. And after I talk to solo artist and former Hold Steady sideman Franz Nicolay about the rigors of his job—constant low-level panic over never having more than a couple of months’ worth of cash, rarely having health insurance, having to tour so often that you can’t take a break to write and record another album to tour for—he sends a quick explanatory e-mail: ‘I want to make clear,’ he says, ‘because a lot of the response musicians get when they talk about the difficulty of the lifestyle, especially touring lifestyle, is of the ‘oh, boo-hoo’ variety, that I’m not complaining about any of it in any way that anyone wouldn’t grouse about their job. The smart lifer musician goes into it with eyes wide open, assuming it’s going to be a rewarding but difficult way to make a living.’ When I go to a Williamsburg bar to meet Frankie Rose, veteran of a string of much-discussed rock bands, she’s just back from touring a solo album—her first stint without a day job—and already talking to the bartender about finding work. ‘I feel like if you’re in this at all to make money,’ she says, ‘then you’re crazy. Unless you’re Lana Del Rey or something, it’s a moot point. You’d better be doing it for the love of it, because nobody’s making real money.’
I’m thinking I should print this article and have it ready when I go to cocktail parties. I am proud of our work at HAAM and grateful that Austin has embraced the importance of our critical mission.