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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written March 1998




A couple of years back at the Midwest Regional Folk Alliance Conference I was part of a panel entitled "This Ain't No Day Job." A look into the mundane aspects of maintaining a career in folk music. With me were Peter & Lou Berryman and Phil Cooper & Margaret Nelson. Margaret had some interesting perspectives on day jobs, as she has held her share of them while steadfastly pursuing her music. I asked her to write down some of her experiences concerning the fine art of finding and holding a full-time day job which leaves you free to be a traveling performing artist.

For those of you to whom Margaret Nelson is an unfamiliar name, she and music partner Phil Cooper have performed traditional music peppered with trad-based contemporary songs since they formed their duo in 1982. Cooper & Nelson travel the North American continent from their home base in Chicago; they have played large & small festivals, major venues and humble house concerts. With their own label, Porcupine Records, they have released a number of albums, both solo and group efforts -- featuring some of the best of Chicago area traditional music players. From l986 to l992, Margaret took on a full-time job on top of her active performing and recording career. What follows is her experience and the lessons learned:

"In May of l986, I walked into Rainbow Distributing, a natural foods wholesaler, looking for a warehouse job. My work history included stints as a secretary, office manager, freelance editor, artists' model, clerk and manager in health food stores, and warehouse worker. Rainbow had a full crew in their warehouse, but badly needed an ordertaker & customer service rep. I already had broad knowledge of natural foods, knew how health food stores operated, and was available immediately -- all of which made me a strong candidate for the ordertaker's job. I realized during the job interview that I actually had a little leverage; got up my nerve; and explained to the Rainbow interviewer that I was a professional musician with tour dates on my calendar, and would have to be gone sometimes.

"I would be able to give my supervisor a three month notice of any days I needed off. I would use vacation days as much as I could to cover tours, but would need the occasional day or half-day off beyond Rainbow's normal vacation allotment. Customer Service had been looking at minimally qualified applicants (the starting wage for the position was low) and were eager to hire me. The company decided it could live with my scheduling needs. I committed to working two years for Rainbow, and ended up staying six.

"Much of what made the arrangement work was my realization that Rainbow was doing me a considerable favor by allowing me to come and go on Cooper & Nelson business. The immediate return I could make for that favor was to be both reliable and hardworking when I was at Rainbow. I would be flexible about working the schedule that the order department needed -- this translated into many 6 o'clock mornings. As my position developed, I continued to trade for the right to come and go by taking on specialized tasks: The finicky job of entering and figuring discounts on presold orders was one; writing out procedures for the department handbook was another. At the request of the purchasing department, I also wrote a column of recipes and essays on nutrition for the Rainbow monthly flyer. While doing these tasks I was working for the same wage as the other ordertakers, which meant the company was getting very good value from me, overall.

"The Rainbow staff in 1982 included several retread hippies besides me, so the news that I had a life apart from my day job hadn't shocked anyone (the Head Buyer had actually toured as drummer with an R&B band for several years). Soon after I took the job, I nevertheless made a point of inviting every "middle-level" person in the company to a local Cooper & Nelson performance, so it was clear to everyone that I wasn't lying or making excuses: I really was a professional musician. I also tried to make it clear to my colleagues in the order department that I appreciated the extra work they had to do when I left early on Fridays to go out on the road. Thanks to them often took the form of food: a ripe Michigan peach, or a fresh homemade muffin, on everyone's desk Monday morning.

"Leaving Chicago Friday noon, Phil and I could be 300 miles out for a Friday booking, another 400 miles out for our Saturday performance. We'd then drive all day Sunday getting home, and I'd be back at Rainbow Monday morning. We managed to do a couple of longer tours each year, but for the most part Cooper & Nelson were weekend warriors, traveling and performing anywhere within 15 hours driving time of Chicago, 45 weekends a year. I was working or traveling seven days of most weeks, but I was making money on both ends and actually putting some of it away.

"This generally satisfactory condition lasted through two reshufflings of management. It fell apart when Rainbow was bought by a person whose background was in banking rather than in '60's "counter culture". Management suddenly couldn't see why some nobody down in the order department should have a peculiarly privileged schedule. For my part, I was so used to having the right to determine my own schedule that I didn't realize that I needed to negotiate for it again with the new owner. (I also didn't develop the corporate skills of looking humble, keeping my opinions to myself, and making requests only through approved channels.) Things came apart over a rocky year and a half, and ended abruptly, with rather a lot of shouting. I went back to scratching a living from music plus various part-time jobs, with the transition definitely eased by the bit of money I'd saved while working at Rainbow.

"There are, I think, at least five useful conclusions which can be drawn from this history: First, it is sometimes possible to negotiate for a full-time job that is compatible with performing. Second, if you are trying to negotiate that kind of arrangement you are most likely to be successful if you come to the table with good salable skills. (A willingness to sell those skills at somewhat below market price may make the negotiations easier.) Third, if you do get an employer to agree to give you the scheduling freedom you want, you should return the favor by taking your day job as seriously as you take your music. Fourth, as long as the job lasts, keep thinking of ways to make your bosses figure they're getting a good deal employing you, even though you are a scheduling pain. Do what you can to make your coworkers happy with you, too. Fifth, don't assume the arrangement will last forever. Put aside some money to help you survive if and when the steady job goes away.

"And there you have it!"

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