Like millions of American workers, Kalu James lives paycheck to paycheck, he can barely pay his bills and he just got health insurance for the first time. But unlike his fellow laborers, James is a full-time musician living in Austin, the live music capital of the world.
Sounds like a good gig, but this actually means James is not guaranteed a decent paycheck. Gig after gig, barroom after barroom, James sweats it out on stage, playing his guitar, but most nights he walks away broke.
Blaming James for choosing such a lifestyle seems reasonable, but he isn’t a stereotypical starving musician. Rather, he’s a small business owner trying to sell the service of entertainment. So before one self-righteous finger gets pointed at his work ethic, let’s aim a spotlight on his listeners’ lack of support.
It might be hard to remember (and surely some youngsters won’t even understand this concept), but people used to pay for music. They used to tip the musicians at their local watering hole. In today’s musical market though, struggling musicians are being starved by their fans.
A survey conducted for Neilsen’s 2015 EDMbiz Conference & Expo shows that 95 percent of Spotify and Pandora users don’t pay for the streaming services. If these media giants can only get a handful of people to fork over some dough, then musicians like James don’t have a fighting chance.
Because these streaming sites (plus Bandcamp and YouTube) are so giving, people have actually started to believe that music is intrinsically free. Like water or air, music is just there and it’s ours for the taking.
Meanwhile, NPR points out that cities like Austin are making big bucks off the constant flow of entertainment that local musicians provide — an estimated $1.6 billion to be exact.
Advocating for musicians, the Titan Music Group conducted the Austin Music Census last summer. It shows that many Austin musicians are living below the federal poverty level. Half qualify for federal housing subsidies and close to 19 percent don’t have proper health insurance.
As founder and CEO of Titan Music Group Nikki Rowling says, it’s a “dire” situation that many citizens and tourists of Austin don’t understand. The brightside is that musicians are finally -getting a helping hand.
In 2005, a number of community leaders, musicians and business owners came together to create the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, a rockin’ organization that gives artists affordable health care by supplementing the costs of premiums.
Through the alliance, James was able to narrow down his insurance costs to $22 a month. It’s still a lot considering he only makes $15,000 a year, but at least he’s covered. So far the alliance has helped 300 other musicians, including James. By next year, they hope to triple that number through fundraisers and donations.
Hopefully before then the city of Austin, just like its music fans, will realize that they must invest to keep hearing live music on any given night. Because let’s face it: A Spotify playlist just doesn’t cut it.