When I dropped out of college the first time to go to California and be a full-time hippie, I joined a protest encampment of homeless people because I was, briefly, homeless, for the first time in my short life, but not the last. I could have left Indiana, where I was quickly spending my parents' savings attending a private liberal arts school, and headed east, back home, but this was out of the question, to my fiercely independent young mind. I wasn't dropping out of college to go back home to my parents, I was dropping out of college to really see the world, the world beyond a private college in a post-industrial, impoverished town in the midwest. But I quickly found myself living in a tent in a public park in Berkeley, and getting arrested for it. My father had convinced me that the fact that I could touch-type and had some familiarity with word processing programs was a marketable skill set, and I took his advice and looked for a job as a typist, which quickly led to a series of jobs, first working for a doctor who had written a book about a new exercise regimen, and then working for an Iranian refugee who had been an active member of the leftwing Iranian Student Association in the Sixties, and ran a printing business (still does).
I was a college dropout, but many of our clients at Fariborz's business across from Sproul Plaza and the University of California were college students. Back then even college students often didn't know how to type, but had to hand in typed papers, so they'd come to us for that. I quickly discovered that what we were doing, beyond typing their papers, was rewriting them. Not redoing them completely or anything, but just correcting each sentence so it made sense. The overall paper might still be gibberish, but at least it was grammatically correct gibberish, with words spelled in such a way that Mr. Webster might approve.
Within a few years, though, I had damaged the workings of my wrists from too much typing. I had long wanted to play music for a living, and had discovered I could make about as much playing music on the streets as I might stand to make working in a cafe or doing some other kind of minimal-wage service-industry job. As a college dropout with a solidly white collar upbringing, I don't think it ever even occurred to me to look for a job in a factory or something like that. So I started busking full-time in the streets and subways in Boston, where I was living when I lost my ability to type for a living.
I was proud that I made a living as a street musician. It was a marginal living, though, especially since I refused to play any songs that anybody might recognize, which are the sorts of songs I might have made some more money at. 100% of my daily set list were obscure leftwing songs. Not only had most people never heard the songs, but most people had never even heard of the artists who wrote them, either. (That is, I wasn't just doing the more obscure songs by popular artists, the ones that never became hits. I was doing obscure songs by obscure artists.)
I shared a room in a two-bedroom apartment with my girlfriend, and together we had to come up with half the rent for our one room each month, and each month it was a struggle. The idea of having health insurance was out of the question. When I needed dental work, I found a different dentist each time, and asked them to bill me. Then I proceeded to ignore the bill. Sometimes I felt guilty for doing that, but usually not too much, since dentists had what I found to be an outrageous habit of talking about their last trip overseas, or their membership at the golf club, while working on my teeth. To my struggling street musician mind, this sort of talk was all the justification I needed to not pay the bill, along with the fact that I wasn't making enough money to do that, eat, and pay rent in the same month. All of my clothing was old, faded, and mismatched. Grunge music and fashion was just becoming popular in Seattle, but not in Boston. I embraced my poverty like a good leftist, but I secretly dreamed of at least having the option of dressing a bit better.
I still don't play golf, but I travel more now than any of my dentists, and I wear clothing that isn't faded, because I like to and can afford it. Still can't afford health insurance. Unlike most of the kids I grew up with, I don't own a house, and the idea of buying one, or paying for health insurance, is a cruel joke. I do pay my dental bills now, just because I'm older now, and the dentists are sometimes younger than me, and I just have trouble justifying stiffing them for the bill, even though they all own their own houses in neighborhoods which I will never be able to afford to live in, and send their children to private colleges, like my parents tried to do, which I never will be able to do. Unless I win the lottery or have a hit song, neither of which is ever going to happen, since I don't buy lottery tickets and I'm not on a record label.
The gigs are indoors now, and all over the world, not on the streets of Boston. And looking at my non-faded jeans, my smartphone and my full set of teeth covered in bridges and gold crowns, my happy little trilingual daughter, I guess I'm doing better than I was when I was busking in the Park Street T Stop for the commuters. But I'm still living in a small two-bedroom apartment, this time in Portland, Oregon, where the rents are similar to what they used to be like in Boston, back when I lived there, before the new Republican governor got rid of rent control in the state of Massachusetts. My daughter, Leila, often says she hopes some day I'll make more money, and we can live in a big house. My partner and I laugh at her bourgeois fantasies. But they're poignant for me, as well. The fact is, not only is the idea of living in a big house out of the question, but the part-time job my partner, Reiko, got so we might have some savings, has mostly gone to pay down our spiralling credit card debt, not to save anything.
I joke about needing to get a day job to my friends, to my email list when begging for people to organize gigs for me and such. But it's actually not a joke – I just don't know what else to do for a living. So I just keep on running this little business, this music business, me, partly because I don't know what else to do. And I talk about it openly, publicly, too, because it's in my Jewish blood to talk about money. And I don't say that to be self-loathing or anti-Semitic or anything like that. I'm glad that unlike so many of my musician friends who don't have a petit bourgeois background like me, and are hopelessly unable to make ends meet as artists, I've been more or less able to manage it. We petit bourgeois types know that you don't go trying to find employment from someone else, you create it for yourself. The good Christian work ethic musician types continually bang their heads against the wall, always hoping for a record deal that will solve their problems, and in the meantime hoping that if they just work a little harder promoting their own gigs at venues that don't pay, they'll eventually make it, through sheer Calvinist determination. Of course it never works, except for the lucky few who land the record deals. But we petit bourgeois look at that model and see it doesn't work, and so we try to create one that does, or at least one that might. I don't want to get into the sticky business of naming names to more fully illustrate this point, but I've noticed over and over again that it's true. If you're into indy leftwing music, you might have noticed that a lot of the musicians you like are of petit bourgeois Jewish lineage. I'm pretty sure this isn't because the petit beourgeois Jews are better artists than people from other backgrounds, and it's definitely not because they come from families with more money (contrary to popular opinion, in modern America at least, they usually don't). It's because they're better at running a small business. (Jews have traditionally had to be good at that, because they were locked out of other professions in many anti-Semitic societies in Europe and North America for centuries. This is no longer the case, but old habits die hard.) A lot of people seem to think that the modern phenomenon known as the email list is a recent invention, and don't realize that there was something called a mailing list, where you put stamps on envelopes and hoped to get clients or students or gigs out of that procedure. I used to help my dad stuff envelopes for his mailing list when I was a small child.
But making a living this way is still very marginal, even for those of us who are making it more or less work. And I'm writing about it, because I'm not a secretive WASP who doesn't talk about money, and because I like to write, and maybe some people like to read this sort of soul-baring blog type stuff. Some. Not many, really, but what the heck, it's what I do. I write songs, I write blog entries, I tell stories, and then I hope there's enough of a way to monetize these activities so I can make some kind of a living at it. Weird pursuit, really. A day job would make more sense. You go to work, you get paid. That seems much more predictable and sensible than this silliness. The mystery is kind of lessened with the whole “view count” phenomenon. Back when you sold CDs, you might be humbled by the fact that you only sold two thousand CDs in a given year, but you could at least imagine that people might be playing them for their friends and copying them. Now, with Blogspot and Youtube, and everybody sitting in front of their own laptops or bent over their own smartphones, the view count tells you exactly who's not listening or not reading what you put out there. Usually these blog entries are read by a few hundred people, and that's it. There are ten thousand people on my email list, but you can see how many of them are clicking through to the blogs or Youtube videos. Usually not many. But then at least I have the sense to tell the folks who do click through and listen to a song or read a post, that if they want me to keep engaging in these practices they need to send me money now and then, or organize a gig for me now and then. I have a friend who runs a news website that gets a hundred thousand visitors every month, and there's no “donate” button on it. Even after I told him there should be one. But he's not Jewish. The proof is in the pudding. (I'm not sure what that means, but it seemed appropriate to throw that in.)
Approximately once a year I'll put a song up on Youtube that gets ten or twenty thousand views, and then I think I'm doing something worthwhile. Probably less than once a year I'll end up singing at a protest for a similar number of people. But the rest of the time, the songs I put up get viewed by around 5% of the number of people who are ostensibly on my email list, and the gigs are attended by far fewer. I burn out volunteers one after another all over the world, just so I can do a gig for a few dozen people. And I have to spend more than half of every year doing that in order to make ends meet. And then the ends don't quite meet, and I have to come up with a new way to make some extra money – exploit my partner's labor, or start up a campaign to get people to subscribe to me, and of course I can't even think of recording a CD without begging for money first.
Before I started this subscription campaign, we were about to hit critical mass. $17,000 in credit card debt, and I hadn't even bought plane tickets for the next tour yet. Meltdown was imminent. Then about 2% of the good people on my email list came through and sent me $50 for their subscriptions, and I was saved, for the time being at least. Disaster averted. Still back to $17,000 of credit card debt, which seems to be the magic number. But the plane tickets are paid for already for another tour, and now I'm sitting in a plane, en route from Honolulu to Hiroshima.
I don't know if I'm going to be deported from New Zealand when I get there. I never know if I'm going to be deported. If I got work permits in this business, there wouldn't be a business. So I hope for the best, the way I do with the lack of health insurance. I got banned from Canada for a year once because of that sort of thing, but so far I've avoided such problems with any other country. I often ask myself, what's the point of touring more than half the year if I always seem to have $17,000 in credit card debt and can't afford health insurance? (Last week I got an angry email from a guy in Switzerland, accusing me of charging too much for my gigs, saying had no right to complain when I don't get enough of them, if I'm going to be trying to make more than 200 euros to do a gig...) What's the point of spending all this time writing songs if usually only a few hundred people watch the video on Youtube? What's the point of writing blog posts that even fewer people read? Then I have to remind myself, I like to travel, I like to play music, and I like to write, and that just might have to do. Especially since I have no idea what else I'd do.
After getting strip-searched at the Trondheim airport a few months ago, I stopped smoking pot on a daily basis, and stopped traveling with it (even though they didn't find the pot I had on me in Trondheim). I rediscovered that when you don't smoke pot every day, you do this thing called dreaming. But dreaming, it seems, is really over-rated. Two nights ago I dreamed I was playing a gig for enlisted servicemen in the US military in a venue that was laid out in such a way that you couldn't see your audience, and the sound system was more like some kind of DJ system that you couldn't plug a guitar into, and the woman who was supposed to be doing the sound there had no idea what she was doing, and was more interested in playing her original songs for me so she could hear what I think of them. This is the kind of dream I have, most of the time. Sometimes I dream about sex and fun stuff like that, but mostly I dream about getting busted for drug possession, getting deported for trying to play a gig without a permit, crashing the rental car I'm driving in, my daughter getting hit by a car while I'm away on tour, stuff like that.
And then I think about finding a normal job, no joke. And then I remember I'm a college dropout with bad wrists, and I have no idea what else I could possibly do for a living. And then I thank the Visa Corporation for existing, and allowing me to have a constant $17,000 credit card debt. And I thank the immigration authorities in most countries for usually looking the other way. And I thank Reiko for having a job. And I thank those 120 or so people every year who figure they don't mind organizing another gig for me. And the few hundred people who watch my latest Youtube broadside, and the few dozen people who come to my gigs, when I'm lucky, and the 181 people who averted my imminent financial meltdown last spring and subscribed to me. And I think, I guess I'll just keep on having bad dreams at night about the job I do, and daydreams about day jobs, and not make any drastic changes, at least until I find myself living in a tent in a park somewhere again.