Suffering And Surviving In The Music Industry
Photo by Lance Bangs
After ten years, six albums, and widespread critical acclaim, Screaming Females are still as hard working and viciously independent as when they began in New Brunswick’s basements in 2005. Such staying power is no small feat in a music industry where independent artists make less and less each year as the stars on the top absorb more and more of the entertainment dollar. Yet here’s a band that has found a way to make a small living while consistently creating meaningful music and never sacrificing their ethical grounding. It hasn’t been easy, of course. As with most jobs, achieving sustainability has meant constant struggles for health care, decent wages, and respect. We talked with the band about how they’ve taken on these obstacles, and what needs to happen to improve conditions for artist-workers across the industry.
JOEY LA NEVE DeFRANCESCO: Marissa, you’ve stated that much of your latest record Rose Mountain focuses on your struggles with chronic illness and learning to deal with a body that’s causing you so much pain. I imagine your illness has been exasperated by navigating the healthcare system as a self-employed musician. Can you tell us a little about the trials of finding heath care as an artist?
MARISSA PATERNOSTER: My dad works for the state, so I was luckily covered until my mid 20s, but I continued to be ill well after that. A lot of the reason I stopped going to doctors was because I got sick of dealing with the bureaucracy. Like, I wouldn’t having access to recommended doctors because my lack of a health care plan. And especially anything homeopathic or any kind of non-western medicine–that definitely wasn’t covered. A lot of that is highly recommended for what I have. This was all deeply frustrating and made a lot of things difficult for me. And after having seven different specialists tell me I should see a psychiatrist instead of a doctor, I was like, “Fuck this. I’m done.” I don’t need to pay $500 after insurance to have people tell me I’m mentally ill.
Things were so bad that you gave up on treatment? You didn’t resolve anything through our healthcare system?
MP: No, not in the least. There was one doctor who was practicing something called osteopathy who actually saw me in exchange for bartered artwork. And he was a nice guy. But he was the only professional I saw who had any empathy at all. I had a bunch of doctors make me cry they were so mean.
I’m self employed, so once I stopped having coverage it wasn’t worth it to continue seeking treatment. It wasn’t worth it and I couldn’t afford it anyway so it was completely out of the question. And even now I have some coverage and it’s still pretty much out of the question in terms of money. So I just deal with it, and I’m sure a lot of people do.
Some states are lucky enough to have fairly good expanded medicaid under Obamacare, but I know that’s not the case in a lot of places.
MP: Yea it was so hard to sign up for the exchange in New Jersey. They couldn’t confirm my identity. It took weeks and weeks just to have my identity confirmed. Which is crazy because I pay taxes and have bank accounts and everything. It’s like, “What’s going on on your end? I’m in pain now.”
Your solo project Noun just put out a new record called “Throw Your Body On The Gears And Stop The Machine With Your Blood.” The title is pretty self-explanatory, and is a good description of how anyone feels who’s trying to do the grueling work of creating different world. Was there any specific motivation behind the intense title?
MP: It’s from a Mario Savio speech during a protest of policies at UC Berkeley. It’s not particularly pertinent to the record, necessarily. What it’s specifically in reference to for me is that they use that speech in an episode of Battlestar Galactica which I really enjoyed. My friend Mark and I made that Noun record for fun while I was sick because he lived down the block, and we watched a lot of Battlestar Galactica and we were just enjoying ourselves. Maybe I shouldn’t have placed it on the record out of context, but we were having fun. But yea it is from a real speech. And I highly recommend Battlestar Galactica
I understand it’s not about the specific context of the speech, but it sounds like it relates to the record maybe more broadly in how you were feeling so incredibly frustrated at the time you were recording it two years ago. Your body was literally fighting this brutal health care system.
MP: I supposed to could be applicable to all sorts of life situations, like what we were just talking about. Yeah, the frustrations of navigating the bureaucracy of a very poorly structured health care system. When it’s kind of just like, “This machine is inoperable. it doesn’t work. Nobody benefits and a lot of people suffer. People who live in poverty suffer, and people who are flourishing get to reap all the benefits.” I think a lot of the songs on the album are about chronic pain and dealing with that frustration, so yes from that angle the title and the quote are definitely applicable. But yeah, I don’t want people to think I put a lot of thought into it, but in retrospect I can definitely interpret it in a great many ways.
You’ve been a band for 10 years, and it’s notable that for that entire time you’ve stayed with one independent label, Don Giovanni Records. Has the decision to continue putting out your records there been mainly ethical, economic, artistic, or all of the above?
MP: It would be naive to live as musicians and need to make money to eat and have housing without considering the business aspect of being in a band. So that definitely comes into play when we make collective decisions. We operate kind of by general consensus. So unfortunately we do talk about money once in a while, but a larger facet of it is that we trust Joe [head of Don Giovanni Records]. We’ve developed a strong relationship with him as a business partner and as a friend over a great many years. We feel comfortable discussing things we him we wouldn’t really discuss with people who are essentially strangers or people who weren’t interested in our career but were just interested in money, which is not our primary concern. But we’re not so naive to think that money isn’t something we need to consider. We all need to eat and live, unfortunately. And buy stuff.
MIKE ABBATE: Definitely, Joe would do anything for us. It’s good to have people support you that way. If some big time label came and offered Downtown Boys some money you’d have to consider it, but you have to weigh that against your own morals. But our situation with Joe is just a really strong friendship and we try to support each other the best we can.
So Don Giovanni’s been able to bridge maintaining ethical practices while still making enough money to keep things moving?
MP: Yea, like he has the same kind of perspective on our concerns. He wants to foster community, but he also wants to make sure his label is self-sufficient and can continue to put out records. He doesn’t want it to just infinitely grow larger. We don’t want Screaming Females to just infinitely grow larger. We want it to be sustaining and gratifying. And I think that’s what we all value. It’s not just about climbing to some utopian top tier. That place doesn’t exist.
It’s not just about climbing to some utopian top tier. That place doesn’t exist.
There’s a lot of the business side that’s well beyond what any one label can change. How do we make the music more sustainable for those of us operating in some kind of DIY framework? Jarrett, we had talked in the past about how to make a musicians union work–what kind of ideas would you have on this?
JARRETT DOUGHERTY: The first thing I should mention is that I was part of the AFM (American Federation of Musicians) for a while. It was a very frustrating experience. I was trying very hard to get involved and explain this whole world of more independent musicians they weren’t representing. I had a bunch of ideas of things they could do, because they had this name and over a hundred years of history and had done a lot of work to back up musicians. They specialized in orchestras and Broadway performers and a lot of TV and film industry composers. They didn’t receive my ideas well.
The thing that capped it off for me was their stance on the difficulty of musicians getting into Canada. This was recently largely resolved, but before if you were a small band or artist who wasn’t drawing thousands of people, you were considered a worker and were supposed to have all this paperwork, but if you were a huge artist you were considered a cultural ambassador and were able to cross without a problem. So someone in the Canadian parliament decided that was ridiculous and began trying to change the law, and the AFM actually lobbied against changing the law. They were more worried about losing the jobs of film industry people who might go to other countries to get music made. So they wanted to lobby against it to protect US film industry jobs. They had no concern for smaller artists. That was the final straw for me and I tried to explain it to an AFM rep, but he didn’t understand or didn’t care. That was my experience with them unfortunately.
But I think mainly a sort of artists and musicians run network would be a powerful thing. Where it was more focused on a collaborative industry where you don’t have promoters and booking agents competing against each other, but rather have people who are also musicians running shows, owning clubs, running collective ventures like music stores and record stores. This is a very old thought for a worker controlled industry. But we’re getting further away from that currently. Most bands are less able to take care of their own affairs and seem to think they need other people to do these things to be a legitimate band, such as PR and agents and record labels and things. Not that these things are necessarily bad, but if you feel like you can’t be a legitimate artist without all these people, it seems like we’re going in the wrong direction. Being a manager can be sustainable if you have a successful artist each year, but being a musician requires more than one successful year to have a sustainable career, to be sustainable as a worker. It can be frustrating and damaging to some who see themselves get popular on the internet and then a year later no one seems to care. That kind of mentality and turnover is beneficial to a lot of these people who leech off musicians, but detrimental to musicians themselves. We’re sadly going more in that direction, in a more corporate direction.
You envision more intentionally creating our own network as opposed to, say, taking on Spotify?
JD: Yeah, it’s necessary to change it. Right now so many bands have to quit their jobs to go on tour to make money, but then you don’t make enough money on tour so when you get home to have to get another job to make money before the next tour, and of course you can’t tell your new boss you’ll be leaving in two months. What if instead we had cooperative venues that could hire those musicians when they aren’t on the road? And could teach people the other skills involved in the industry like running sound, lighting, managing a venue, bartending, etc. But we need it to be intentional, with the explicit purpose of supporting artists.
Mike, do you have any thoughts on what needs to happen to make it more sustainable for artists at your level?
MA: You’ve got to work really, really hard. You can’t expect things to happen you’ve got to do it for yourself. There isn’t going to be much support financially here for artists and musicians. But I think if you’re willing to bust your ass you can help build something. And in your bad years you have to get some shitty job where you don’t get paid enough and your boss treats you like shit. But that’s a whole other problem. We’re fortunate enough to be able to support ourselves playing music. We are still busting our asses and we work very hard at what we do. Keeping your operations small is important. Not having a team of managers and consultants is a good way to keep costs down and allows you to maybe scrape by and make a meager living. We just vertically integrated and I started printing all our own t-shirts so that’s helped us a little bit.
Jarret, I know you’re a huge fan of Rage Against the Machine. Could you tell me a bit about their influence? They’re your favorite band?
JD: Haha well I wouldn’t say they’re my favorite band. Brad Wilk is my favorite drummer and they are one of my favorite bands. They’re amazing to me in a whole bunch of different respects. When I was growing up, I was in a lot of ways a stereotypical white suburban male who’s angry at the world but not sure exactly why. I had trouble making friends and was picked on a lot. Having a band like Rage, even if I didn’t understand all the messages, I was able to see other perspectives that weren’t just promoting this vicious anger in my head. They had an anger that was directed toward something. The idea that everything doesn’t come down to you and that there are structural issues you might not be able to totally control yourself. And how other people’s lives can be completely different and much more intense situations than my little microcosm.
And plus their music is amazing. Their second album “Evil Empire” is just one of the most impressive sounding albums I’ve ever heard. It’s so intimate and kind of scary. Not because it’s shock rock, but because you listen to that album and it seems the level of intensity coming out the band is almost out of their hands. And Brad is one of the most underrated and underutilized drummers. Unbelievable creativity between a bass drum, snare drum, and high hat.
And you saw him once at a gym?
JD: No! I saw Zack at a gym once in LA. We went to the YMCA and there are boutique gyms all over the city, so we were in the YMCA in the middle of the day and it was mostly older people on treadmills but I’m looking in the mirror and Mike is standing next to me. And I said, “Mike that’s Zach from Rage Against the Machine” and he said, “Are you sure” and I said, “Yes, definitely.” I didn’t want to bug him because I knew he wasn’t going to the YMCA in the middle of the day to be seen. He was trying to hide. But I snuck up on him a little bit but I heard him say to his trainer, “Are you serious? Brad can lift this?” and then I knew it was him.
Does anyone else like Rage or just Jarrett?
MA: It’s mostly just Jarrett.
Are you against them or you just don’t care?
MA: I just don’t care.
Mike, the band started in New Jersey but you’re the only member who lives in New Jersey right now. How do you think the scene has changed in the past 10 years?
MA: Well it’s a college town, so things come in waves. Students are always coming in and out. And a lot of college towns have some sort funding to support the arts, but Rutgers doesn’t do that and there are no venues in town, so it’s always been a very community driven scene with people having house shows. Honesty, I’m a bit out of touch right now. My buddy just opened a venue and recording studio and show place that’s pretty fucking cool. We played there once. I should spend more time there. There are a lot of cool bands but I can’t speak too much to the current affairs.
The main thing with New Brunswick is that it’s been and continues to be such a strong DIY scene. Kids come and go but people manage to keep that whole community alive just by giving a damn. And that’s the main thing that matters.