Hey Freedom Fighters! I have a guest post for you today, from my good friend Brent, who blogs over at Debt Files. This is Brent’s second time guest posting here at MMM, and he’s back with another story I know you’ll enjoy. This one is about a friend of his, a fellow musician who has seen his share of ups and downs. Brent explains how his friends journey to debt freedom finally allowed him to create a lifestyle he’d always dreamed of. Enjoy!
This story was originally intended for publication on the WFL Project as part of the series, Debt Solutions For Serious People (The Mad Hatter Method), but I thought it might have a better home here at MMM, because it’s mostly about freedom, and not just catastrophic debt.
I’ve always wanted to tell this musician’s story. His absolute dedication to freedom is inspiring.
To protect the privacy of all concerned I’ve changing the names of the bands, band members, and record companies.
As per normal I’m doing this partially in storyteller mode for entertainment purposes, but the chronological order of events is accurate.
“Hey Jules, how’s it going?”, I whispered in her ear as she was bent over inspecting a fresh head of lettuce.
Startled, Jules snapped around, “Oh hey Brent, doing well. Just getting some groceries for tonight. He’s coming home around seven o’clock.”
“Great news! How long for this time?” I asked, expecting him to be home for two weeks tops. That’s usually how long Keith stayed home before he had to go on the road again.
He had been on a world tour this last year backing up AC/DC, and promoting their most recent album.
I always felt sorry for Jules when Keith was on the road. She’s a true introvert, and it’s not in her nature to seek out buddies to spend time with.
And introverts get lonely too.
So when Keith was on the road for many months at a time, she stayed home with their dog, working on her paintings, watching her comedy shows, and waiting for her nightly calls from Keith. Some nights he couldn’t get to a phone (this was before texts or smart phones) and it intensified her loneliness.
On the odd occasion, my first wife and I would have her over for dinner, or meet her at the neighborhood pub for drinks. But it wasn’t long before she would escape back into her solitude.
Her eyes widened, “Actually he’s staying home for good!”, she said with a smile I hadn’t seen since the last time Keith was home.
“That’s awesome Jules!”, I exclaimed, “You must be pretty happy about that!”
“Yeah, we have lots of plans. I’m going to start a photography business like I’ve always want to do, and Keith is going to build a studio in the basement and start recording local acts”, Jules explained, as she was carefully inspecting an avocado. “You’ll have to come by sometime next week and hang out. Keith is excited to see you guys again.”
“For sure, give us a buzz when your ready, and we’ll set up a time. Bye for now Jules”, I said as I pushed my grocery cart past the apples and oranges towards the checkout counter.
I heard the phone ring as I was getting out of the shower. I grabbed a towel and jumped on the bed, simultaneously snapping up the phone, “Speak now or forever keep the piece”, I answered.
“What’s burning?”, the voice asked.
“Hey man! Glad you’re back in town!”, I said, without answering the question.
I was always excited to hear from Keith. Even more excited to spend time with him.
We had a lot in common. We both loved the same kind of music (folk rock circa Neil Young), and we were both deeply obsessed with writing and recording music.
But I confess, at the time my young ego was pathetically in swell mode knowing that a professional musician in a successful rock & roll band was my friend (and yes, I admit my old ego is too).
“Let’s get together this Friday buddy, we’ll listen to some music and do some writing”, he suggested.
“Sounds great, I’ll bring over my acoustic and we’ll run some ideas,” I responded.
He paused for a moment, and added, “Oh and Jules wants Andrea to come.”
“I’m sure she’ll be in, she’s not working that night”, I assured him, before we hung up the call.
Rock & Roll Debt
When Andrea and I got to their place on Friday we settled in around their tiny dining room table. Keith lit up a joint, took a puff, and passed it around.
As we all began to fall into a “deep bake”, Keith started telling us about his adventures.
He told us what it was like to hang out with AD/DC on the road, and what it was like to play in front of thousands of people all over the world.
I was in awe, but my wife Andrea not so much. She was sick of hearing about music and she was never one to be all that impressed with celebrity. Being raised on a farm probably had something to do with her outlook, but for whatever the reason, she was wary of the ego fire that burns so bright in the music business.
But she perked up when Keith started telling us about the financial realities of their journey.
The contract their band signed with EMI Records had a lot of fine print in it.
In short, Keith and the members of the band were all financially screwed.
“Whaaaaaat!” I said, surprised and disappointed.
“Yeah”, he continued, “We didn’t sell enough units on the last two albums to pay what we owed EMI”
My lips pursed tight, and my eyebrows furled, “That’s ridiculous man…you guys had three hit songs on the radio, Much Music, and MTV these last three years. How could this be possible!”
“Well it is possible buddy, and I am officially in personal bankruptcy as we speak – good thing Jules still has a good credit rating”, he said, shaking his head with a grimace.
“Even worse, anything I write or record is property of EMI unless they decide to pass on it”, he added casually, as he re-lit the joint for another pass around the table.
He continued, “Yeah, so the way it works for the record labels is this. The record company takes the financial risk of paying for all costs associated with the release and promotion of our albums. That includes recording, production, mastering, album artwork, photography, marketing, travel expenses, stage hands, equipment rental, roadies, you name it…and then we have to make enough money touring and selling albums to pay it all back. If we don’t make enough money then we are on the hook for it all. This is why new bands often declare bankruptcy if their music isn’t wildly successful.”
“Wow!” I blurted, “So unless you’re as big as Elton John or Bruce Springsteen, you’re likely going to be in debt, bankruptcy, or lucky to be making just a little bit of profit?”
He lifted his vodka and orange juice to his lips, winked, and answered, “Yip, you got it buddy….it’s a big debt trap, unless you really get big – like Bryan Adams would be big enough to be doing fine.”
On the walk back home (Andrea and I lived just down the block), I was fairly quiet. Hearing the financial reality of the music business shook me up.
Since I was ten years old I wanted to be a successful musician and do what I loved the most for a living. Now I realized that it was a real sucker play, unless you were exceptionally talented and exceptionally lucky.
It was a turning point in my life. No longer did I believe in my rock & roll dream. From now on I would have to simply enjoy music for sake of doing it, and not for the hope of financial freedom and/or fame.
I would have to keep working at my job as a mechanic and obey “the man”.
Cash From Creativity
That year Keith and I had a lot of fun. We recorded an album together with some local musicians and released it independently.
EMI had to hear it first and pass on it before we we’re allowed to 100% own it and release it. We got on Much Music, and some radio stations in a few Canadian Provinces played it that summer. We even backed up some notable acts like Blue Rodeo, and The Tragically Hip. It was the peak of my experience in the music business, and it was a real head trip.
For Keith is was sort of “meh”.
But during that time I had a full time job to fall back on, and so did Andrea. Our risk factor was zero.
For Keith and Jules it was another story. They were hard-core freedom lovers and they were NOT going to go work for someone else. The word JOB was not in their vocabulary.
Over the next three years I witnessed their efforts to make money just doing the creative things they loved.
No sick days, no pension, no dental, no glasses baby!
Jules used her passion for photography to make money shooting events, and that led to picture framing. Keith recorded local musicians and that developed into video production as well.
They lived tight. I’ve never met anyone quite as frugal as Keith, and Jules followed his lead.
They had too!
And this is why I get pissed off when some people call other people “cheap”. Some folks choose a lifestyle that doesn’t allow for any kind of excess in any form. They just can’t spend money on ANY extras, or they risk falling into debt, and possibility risking their homes.
But even with all their hard work and dedication to entrepreneurship, they were falling short. They had a sizable mortgage, and a small vehicle to make payments on.
Something had to give.
I think if they were making enough money, they never would have left the city. They loved their unique house (which they had built themselves from scratch) they had lots of friends, and Keith’s daughter from his first marriage was living here.
But there was no way they would except so-called “day gigs”, and not be free to make money doing what they loved.
So they sold the house and the music studio with it. They bought a small plot of land on a lake way up north in the Province (for real cheap) and they built another home from scratch. No basic blueprints to go from – original from the foundation up.
It was so cool. Went up there is see them and it was brilliant. They wiped most of their debt with the proceeds from their house sale in the city, and were left with a small payment on their car, and debt from their new house build. Keith’s daughter would go up north and stay with them from time to time.
Jules started doing photo shoots for events up there and expanded her service with Keith’s video recording and editing.
Keith made money recording and mixing Canadian First Nation bands (not rock bands 😉 when they had their events, and he still did some production work for musicians from time to time.
Even with all that, money was still super tight. They ended up selling their house again, bought a used fifth-wheel, and started living in it full time.
“What’s it like being a couple of filthy gypsies!”, I used to tease them.
“It’s the only way to live brother”, Keith would fire back.
They had some adventures living in Arizona, and Southern California in the winter, and except for an email every Christmas I lost touch with them.
But one day the phone rang, “Hey buddy, what’s burning?”, the voice on the other end asked.
“Keith! What’s happening? Where are you?”, I said in rapid fire.
“We’re in town! Are you around for a quick visit?”, he asked.
“Yeah, come on by!”, I exclaimed.
I gave him my address and within a half hour I heard the door bell ring.
I ran to the door and flung it open to see them both smiling back at me.
I had so many questions to ask them, and they of me. It was fantastic reunion of good friends.
Before they left, I had to ask Keith a couple of questions that had remained unanswered all these years.
“I’ve always wondered why you raged against a typical lifestyle from such an early age, and still go to any lengths to stay free. Even if it means not knowing how you’re going to make ends meet the next month. There’s no pension, dental, or vision care in rock & roll right?”, I asked him with the least offensive tone of voice possible. I mean, that’s a very personal question.
Keith laughed, “Ha! Good question buddy! My family has been asking that same question my whole life.”
He put his hand firmly on my shoulder and gave it a shake and said, “You just have to ask yourself what you really want in this life buddy. If you do something you don’t want with your time, just out of fear, you’re going to regret it.”
I released his hand from my shoulder, and with a more subdued and serious tone, he said, “My father worked crazy hours his whole life, and all he ever talked about was being free and owning a house on a lake. When he wasn’t dreaming about that, he was dreaming about buying a motor-home and traveling through the States. When he was 42 years old he was diagnosed with cancer and when he was 44 he died. He never got a chance to live out and of his dreams. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.”
“Yeah, but what about a pension, and health care? What about security in your old age?, I asked.
“Ah, there’s no security in this world. So I’m going to work away the best years of my life at some job because I’m worried about a pension and getting my medications for half price when I’m old? Not a chance brother. Not for us”, he answered.
I asked him another question, “And Keith, you’ve always greeted people with a question – What’s Burning? – Why is that?”
“Desire buddy! It’s gotta burn or you ain’t alive!”, he smiled broadly.
Rock & Roll Never Forgets
I haven’t seen Keith or Jules since that reunion, but we’ve been in contact via email a few times a year.
He ended up reuniting the band and recording again. They’re on the road in a few months of year now, and he’s actually making some money finally because they get ALL the proceeds from their work now. They own the recordings and they own their own fate.
It was Keith who inspired me to finally quit my job and follow my dream as an Internet Marketer.
The journey has been amazing, with huge valleys and huge peaks. Not a life for the faint of heart, but ever morning I get up I can unequivocally answer the question, “What’s burning?!”