I am so lucky that I have been able to create art and music and fulfill my passions through my job for the past 11 years. But I'm stupid enough to have put all my eggs in one basket. It is now the only thing I can do to make money. I'm 33 years old and I can't make coffee. I don't know how to use Excel, or bartend, or wait tables, and I'm officially too old to join the police force. I've lost the confidence to go back to school and feel stressed out about impending debt when I think about further education for even one second.
I have several jobs within the music industry as of now: bands, DJing, remixing and even writing music for other artists. I'm a workaholic and have my hands in a bunch of different places. But, all these jobs have unstable incomes. I don't get a salary; I don't know how much money I will make next month, next year or five years from now. I don't have health insurance. And I live with the stress of not knowing, not planning and not understanding whether or not I will ever be able to reach my goals of having a family and feeling safe financially. When I say "safe," I mean safe. I mean basics. I mean health insurance that is good enough for me to take care of myself, not just if I need a $10,000-dollar, life-threatening procedure. I mean dental care. I mean saving money in a retirement fund so that I can take care of myself when I'm 80 years old. Clearly, there is a difference between survival and luxury.
Like so many teenagers, I believed in the "American Dream," that I could move to New York from the Midwest and become an artist. I would achieve both fame and success, and I would never have to think about money. The first half was true. I made art and lived activism, and I achieved amazing amounts of success that I feel incredibly proud of. The second half, not so much. I have been able to live well, eat well, invest in my arts and make my own schedule, but I forgot to save money and think about my future.
This summer I tried to rent an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The process sent me into an emotional crisis and awakened me into a whole new realization of our economy, the music industry at large and, more specifically, what it means to be a queer artist in 2011.
I spent days trolling around Williamsburg, looking at shitty apartments with cockroaches lining the doorways, fighting neighbors, rats in the ceiling, bedbugs infesting the linoleum floors, fifth-floor walk-ups and cat-pee-soaked carpets. The rent was exorbitant, availability was scarce, and I was turned down by two different landlords for being "freelance." To be honest, I don't blame them. Not only am I freelance, but I'm lesbian freelance. Double whammy. What was the reason they turned me down? Because it was easier to rent to a rich, trust-fund, straight-guy banker who wants to live in the coolest borough in the world? Because when he met me he saw a tattooed gender outlaw who makes "queer electronic punk music" and isn't sure when the next check is going to come in? Yeah, I don't blame him. He doesn't give a shit about how kids email me all the time thanking me for keeping them from committing suicide. It's not part of his capitalist business practice.
I surround myself with amazing and talented people, people who have made it in every sense of those words. They buy apartments, invest in their futures successfully, have children, save money. How do they do it? How can I keep up with them?
So I have to ask myself: where did I go wrong? And I can only guess that the answer lies in a combinations of three things: 1) my family is not rich, 2) I am a queer woman, and 3) I am trying so desperately to keep up with my peers that I am living beyond my means.
And as I am a productive, workaholic, processing lesbian, I am the only one responsible for change and growth and my own future. So I consider:
- My family will never be rich; in fact, as they get older, they will use up their supply, perhaps even leaving me with their debts. Now, don't get me wrong, I am so lucky to have the incredible health and support of every member of my family. I never forget how blessed I am to have such an incredible group of people in my life. In fact, our mutual understanding about how frustrating it can be to try to support yourself with your art is something we can all relate to as a family. And our own personal class struggles are not insular but truly a family affair. Now I understand why they supported my dreams but continually suggested having other interests or skills. My dad, a wood sculptor, turned sand and gravel miner. And my mother, a silversmith, turned elementary-school art teacher.
- I will always be a queer woman, a woman who makes 77 cents to the man's dollar, and a queer who makes 23 percent less than the heterosexual. Does that mean that I make 54 cents to the straight male dollar? Wow.
- OK, so here's the emotional part: I'm trying to keep up with artists who have had a similar amount of success as I have had, buying expensive meals, expensive jeans, expensive drinks, and trying my hardest to appear to be making the same amount of money as they are. I'm not them, for whatever above-mentioned reasons, but I just can't pretend anymore. This is my coming out. I'm done feeling bad about myself. I wish I could afford a personal meeting with Suze Orman. She's a lesbian. Maybe she could help me reestablish my financial security.
I'm so lucky to have gained so much from my life and my amazing career, but I'm ready to feel secure. I'm ready to build my future and save money so that I can have a family, so that I can enjoy making art and not trying to create a product out of it, so that I can spend more time being present and less time being a workaholic, frantically searching for the profitable answer. And if I need to, I'm ready to get a job, go to work in the morning, get a paycheck once a week, go to the dentist, get a check-up, bottom out to a boss and appreciate music without being worried that I can't keep up.
We live in a society where people equate success with money. They see me on the pages of Vogue. They see me playing to an adoring crowd. They see me flying to gigs all across the world. And I'm not sure what people imagine, but I'm struggling, too. Over the past couple of weeks, I have realized how many other artists and musicians are in my position, people who are proud of their success but feel unable to continue, based on financial strain. Artists such as Spank Rock, Das Racist and the Drums have featured lyrics on their new records about struggling financially. My band MEN put out a record in February with similar tones. I know the economy is failing, but I think it is important to remember that it is failing for everyone. Even the people you think might have money. So here we go. Another reason to come together. Another reason to occupy Wall Street. Another reason for change.