Don’t Quit Your Day Job—If You Have One

[13 July 2009]

By Ben Rubenstein

It’s the middle of a long week at work. I got home late after forcing myself through a half-hearted gym visit, and now sit in front of the TV, eating and trying not to fall asleep. There are plenty of things I’d rather do than write this column, such as … watch some more TV. I’m just about to give in to another lost evening, when I hear a familiar refrain:

“Meet Mickey Factz. He drives a Honda Accord. He’s a hip-hop artist. But he’s also a paralegal…”

Wait a second, I think. In the time it’s taken me to polish off this leftover pasta, Mr. Factz here has probably finished a few episodes of “Rhymes & Reasons,” his web show with good buddy Gomez Warren IV. And that’s after a full day of working on cases and driving a fuel-efficient car. Who am I to complain?

Though the ridiculousness of this commercial cannot be overstated (I especially like the voiceover guy’s emphasis of “hip-hop”), it does bring up a good point: many of the artists we admire and respect cannot afford to focus on their music full-time. Yet they still manage to produce quality work using the hours that most of us spend in the bar, the living room, or more than likely, asleep.

Over the past few years, I’ve met musicians who spend their days in all types of jobs. Some work in record stores or music clubs, or do publicity and promotion. A few are teachers, and even more, bartenders. Recently, while enjoying a set at the Chicago Blues Festival, I learned that the woman doing her best Koko Taylor (RIP) impression onstage, Ladykat, was also the driver of a city bus that I ride occasionally. And then there’s Psalm One, who describes in detail how she balanced her day job as a chemist with her burgeoning rapper career on “The Living” (the chorus: “Chemistry’s feeding me, ‘cause I charged much less for my two EPs”). 

Out of all those jobs, Ladykat’s sounds the least attractive (though if there’s any surefire way to get the authentic blues, it’s probably maneuvering a packed bus through Chicago rush-hour traffic). But according to (The Website for the Working Musician), artists who spend their days toiling for a record company may actually be holding back their careers. Sure, they’ll make some good connections, and learn the business from the inside out, but they’ll also likely spend long hours working on something that’s not their music – not to mention the fact that the pay’s going to be pretty low unless you’re high on the food chain (and how many record company executives do you know with viable music careers of their own?).

Full-time office jobs in any field (including, ahem, paralegal positions) are actually pretty bad, not only because they allow little flexibility, but they also allow you to get a little too comfortable. Those of us who work a 9-5 job know how easy it is to get sucked into the daily grind, and once you have things like a regular paycheck and health insurance, it’s pretty hard to give them up for a fleeting chance at musical success.

So what’s a good job for a musician? Basically anything that offers a lot of flexibility and little commitment: Temp positions, food service, freelance writing gigs … any kind of creative freelance work. In short, your best chance of becoming a successful musician is to be relatively poor, regularly stressed and, of course, at least in the US, learn to live without health insurance.

That last one appears to be the key, stateside. Check your local music calendar, and you’re likely to find at least one benefit show for an ailing artist who can’t afford to pay his or her hospital bills due to a lack of insurance. Typically, these shows are organized by the artist’s peers, as they know the same thing could happen to them at any time. But while these benefits may help in times of need, they don’t address the larger insurance issue; by some reports, the percentage of uninsured musicians triples the national average, due to both rising costs (musicians often are considered “high-risk” and pay higher premiums) and a general lack of knowledge about available options.

Thankfully, there are a number of organizations out there to help musicians secure insurance, whether they must buy it on their own or can take advantage of plans offered by various musician labor unions (like NARAS, BMI, ASCAP and the American Federation of Musicians) – though these typically do not cost much less than standard HMO plans. The most prominent of these is the Future of Music Coalition, whose Health Insurance Navigation Tool (HINT) launched in 2005 to provide basic information about available options as well as a free telephone advice service staffed by insurance experts.

The MusiCares Foundation, the social-outreach arm of The Recording Academy, also helps to provide medical screenings and services and engages in advocacy. Because coverage options vary from state to state, there are also some more local organizations working on this problem, including Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and Healthcare for Musicians in Louisiana. In light of her recent passing, I should also mention Koko Taylor’s Celebrity Aid Foundation, which mainly focuses on helping destitute blues musicians with everything from funeral planning to insurance.

Health care coverage, or rather, lack of it, is a major issue in the US for everyone, so I wouldn’t expect the general public to take up much of a fight for musicians (especially because a career in the arts is a choice). But as vocal as the music community is about other political issues, it’s surprising that we don’t hear more about this stuff – at least not until someone prominent dies or needs major financial assistance—like former Wilco member Jay Bennett, who died while putting off surgery, due to a lack of health insurance to at least help pay hospital costs.

Maybe musicians are just resigned to their fate, having dealt with the lose-lose situation of ‘health care’ in the US for so long. Or maybe living on the edge really is an important part of becoming a successful musician. But while creative work is always going to be less stable than other jobs, it doesn’t mean it has to be unsustainable. If it continues to be so difficult for musicians to survive while practicing their craft, we’re likely to see more and more talent lost to cubicles and corner offices. Because eventually, you have to decide whether you want to be comfortable or creative; because in America, you can’t have it both ways.

Unless you’re Mickey Factz, of course. That guy can do anything.

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