MUSICIAN: FREE TO A GOOD HOME
Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2000
Just about everyone, at one point or another, has wanted to be a rock musician; it's fun to daydream about riding around in limos, playing sold-out shows and having unlimited artistic freedom. But the day-to-day life of the average working musician isn't exactly a non-stop party, and scrambling to pay the bills often doesn't leave much time for creating art. Sure, lots of people work hard for low pay, but in the arts, there has been a long history of well-to-do patrons supporting artists with infusions of cash. It worked for Bach, why not rock? Here Sally Timms, a solo artist and a member of the Mekons, makes a modest proposal for rock patronage.
Ever been to a rock show and wondered what it would be like to spend quality time with your favorite underground band . . . even thought about taking them home after the show? How about feeding and watering them for a few days, giving them pocket money and possibly having them live in a shed at the bottom of your garden?
If any of these ideas actually appeal to you, you may be on your way to becoming one of the first rock 'n' roll patrons ever.
Patronage of the arts is nothing new, of course. For centuries painters and musicians have relied on wealthy benefactors to come up with funds so they can dedicate themselves to producing their art. Without corporate and government funding arts such as opera or theater would be out of business. But rock music is still considered too rude, loud and contemporary to qualify as high art, leaving musicians to live or die on their commercial appeal.
Take me for instance. I'm 40 years old and I've given the best years of my life to rock 'n' roll. I sing in the Mekons, a band with an admittedly minuscule audience. Last year I made $6,000 from music, and a substantial portion of a recent concert with the Waco Brothers went toward paying off an unexpected debt. Few musicians can afford things like health insurance, and when unexpected financial problems strike, we often have to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers.
Of course it's easy to assume that the endless round of free drinks and wild parties more than compensate for any financial hardship, but it's not quite the glamorous life many people imagine.
For one thing, the hours are long, the pay in most cases is negligible and let's face it, liver transplants are expensive nowadays. Even making money can bring its own problems: the Mekons recently abandoned the practice of begging from the stage, because of rifts within the band over how to divide the tiny spoils. It's not that I think music owes me a living, but when you consider that an artist sees $2 maximum from a CD that retails at $16-$18, you can see why musicians always feel they're the last to get paid.
Things are getting tougher for marginal bands. Gone are the opportunities to get your hands on major label money by being some major-label executive's pet project, and independent labels are finding it harder to gain access to mainstream radio and press and sell records. Artists like 'N Sync and Britney Spears clean up by selling in bulk quantities, making our releases seem like very limited editions. I've wondered if the price of CDs should reflect that-- after all, you don't expect to pay the same for a Big Mac as you do for a fancy meal.
And when an audience can shell out a ticket price of $180 to see Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the dead zone of the United Center, it makes $10 seem like a small price to pay for, say, a Waco Brothers show at FitzGerald's. And if we want to avoid a world where we are subjected to a constant diet of Shania Twain's pseudo-country and Andrew Lloyd Webber productions, we need to do something now!
This is where rock patronage comes in. It's obviously too problematic to price CDs differently for different kinds of artists, but they could include information telling buyers how to make a direct contribution to the artist concerned, bypassing labels and retailers and getting the cash directly to someone who can really use it. How about establishing an "endangered" list for musicians in need where patrons could offer whatever help they could? To a certain extent it's already been done. Bonnie Raitt started a high-profile charity to aid old blues musicians. Friends of singer Victoria Williams recorded "Sweet Relief" to pay her medical bills for multiple sclerosis.
But why not take that idea further, letting patrons step in before we need help with the real emergencies. And in return the patron gets, at the very least, a personal thanks on the CD sleeve and that warm fuzzy feeling that accompanies acts of philanthropy.
So, what can you do to help right now, you're hopefully asking yourselves?
Well, consider opening up your purses and homes for the sake of our art. Think about adopting a musician; they're almost cleaner than pets, many are house-trained and they can be almost as entertaining and self-reliant as children.
Worrying about the rent plays havoc with the creative process: by giving your chosen artist a comfortable place to live you may actually improve the quality of their work.
Bjork was recently given a whole island courtesy of the Icelandic government.
All I need is a plot of land large enough for a garden shed. And maybe room for a 4-track recorder and a practice amp. Is that so much to ask?