Musicians: The Haves and Have Nots

moneyI don’t believe that my editor was too happy with me this week as the deadline for this column approached and she opened my email to discover that there were no attachments, photos or video links included. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Pleading for just a one-day extension, I admitted to be having a hard time focusing on the latest singer-songwriter album or stringband tour. The main reason being that while I rarely get the dreaded writer’s block, my mind was racing, addled and fried with thoughts of gender dysmorphia, that devastating earthquake in Nepal, and images of riots, looting, and fires in the streets of Baltimore.

Kim first encouraged me to write and post articles more often at No Depression back in 2009, and through the years I assume she has come to trust me. I told her not only would I come up with a great topic, I would keep it simple. Nothing that requires significant proofreading or fact checking. Seriously, how hard would it be to sit down at lunch and whip up a 500-word essay on something fairly light? My inbox is full of solicitations from marketing people and band members all shouting “Me, me, me!” All I had to do was pick one and – shazam! – the Broadside could come alive.

I’m reminded of an obscure Philadelphia band from the ’60s named the Kit Kats who charted locally with a song titled “Let’s Get Lost on a Country Road.” As I looked around for my easy-to-assemble story, I got lost. A little click here, another click there, here’s a link, there’s a link, everywhere there’s a link. And so it was that I thought Aha! Taking on the topic of income disparity in music could be a simple task. It wasn’t.

Many of my friends and acquaintances are musicians, and for the sake of this discussion I define that to mean that they perform and tour, record and release albums, and try hard to make enough money to pay their bills. Sadly, many of them don’t pay their bills. So, in order to make up for their financial shortfalls, they take what we call a “day job.” If they’re lucky enough, it might actually come with a flexible schedule to accommodate their shows or studio time. And if they’re able to score things like medical and dental benefits, it’s as if they’ve hit the lottery.

It’s the sad, sad truth that the life of a musician, both before and since the digital evolution, has always been hard.

For most, that is, but not all.

Below is a list I found today that was published in Forbes magazine last December. Here are the world’s highest paid musicians, with the amount of money they earned in 2014. In order to be fair, I should note that Dr. Dre’s number is a little wacko – it includes his haul from selling Beats, the headphone company, to Apple. So, subtract a half-billion dollars for him.

Still, as I scanned the list, it became clear that there is simply a staggering amount of money in the hands of just a few. Take a look:

1. Dr. Dre ($620 million)
2. Beyoncé ($115 million)
3. The Eagles ($100 million)
4. Bon Jovi ($82 million)
5. Bruce Springsteen ($81 million)
6. Justin Bieber ($80 million)
7. One Direction ($75 million)
8. Paul McCartney ($71 million)
9. Calvin Harris ($66 million)
10. Toby Keith ($65 million)
11. Taylor Swift ($64 million)
12. Jay Z ($60 million)(tie)
12. Diddy ($60 million)(tie)
12. Bruno Mars ($60 million)(tie)
15. Justin Timberlake ($57 million)
16. Pink ($52 million)
17. Michael Bublé ($51 million)
18. Rihanna ($48 million)
19. Rolling Stones ($47 million)
20. Roger Waters ($46 million)
21. Elton John ($45 million)
22. Kenny Chesney ($44 million)
23. Katy Perry ($40 million)
24. Jason Aldean ($37 million)(tie)
24. Jennifer Lopez ($37 million)(tie)
26. Miley Cyrus ($36 million)(tie)
26. Celine Dion ($36 million)(tie)
28. Muse ($34 million)(tie)
28. Luke Bryan ($34 million)(tie)
30. Lady Gaga ($33 million)(tie)
30. Drake ($33 million)(tie)

The musicians I know just barely missed making the list by about $32,970,000. Many work at fast food restaurants, retail stores, or in other areas of the service industry for minimum wage or slightly above it. Others work in the creative fields as web designers, photographers, designers, or other artistic roles. If they are able to stay within their craft, they might offer music lessons, play at weddings and bar mitzvahs, do music therapy at a hospital, find studio work for an hour or two here and there. If they can actually manage to put together a route or circuit of dates at coffee houses, clubs, and maybe festivals to perform at, they often do so at the generosity of others who offer a couch to sleep on and a meal or two.

I know what you may be thinking. They choose to do what they do, so it is what it is. But I don’t think so.

Musicians add something to our lives that you really can’t put a dollar value on.  When I look at the list above, I wonder if there wasn’t something musicians could all do for one another. Just off the top of my head, what if NARAS, the organization that sponsors the Grammy awards show, was able to get each of those $33,000,000-plus-grossing artists to throw 20 percent of last year’s income into a fund? And what if that money was used to seed a subsidized group health-care plan that was open to all musicians? Just sayin’.

If I wasn’t way, way, way past my deadline, I could probably think of a dozen other ideas. Some might make sense, some not. I imagine this might seem a little off the wall and half-baked, but “redistributing the wealth” are three little words that make a lot of sense to me. And that list? Absolutely senseless.

This was originally published by No Depression, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.