Artists and the Free Market: The Snuzz Story

Just over a week ago, I had the good fortune of attending Snuzzfest at Local 506 in Chapel Hill. Snuzz, a.k.a Britt Harper Uzzell, is a beloved North Carolina singer/songwriter/guitarist. I first saw him perform some time around the turn of the millenium at a small venue in the bustling town of Elon (I was home from god knows where for a visit) and he immediately won my respect by deftly and politely deflecting the moronic heckling of an inebriated good old boy (GOB) who had wandered in by accident. Snuzz was wearing his signature flat cap, and the very clever GOB remarked, quite loudly, that he wanted to “take a shit in it.” Why I remember these types of things and not which day the recycling truck comes is anybody’s guess. But that’s neither here nor there. Snuzz inhaled deeply — a breath filled with what I was sure would be a venomous burst of microphoned and amplified remarks about Mr. Shit-in-hat’s dirty sleeveless t-shirt, too-tight, knee-length jean shorts, and feathered mullet. That’s what I would have done. But Snuzz exhaled his venomless breath, smiled, quietly explained that the situation wasn’t worth the effort, and cranked out another wonderful tune.

It goes almost without saying that he’s an amazing talent. Great performer, unique delivery, brilliant guitar tone (sorry geeking out on you), and his musical resume really boggles my scrotum: played in Bus Stop, toured with Ben Folds, and was in International Orange with Django Haskins and Robert Sledge. That’s not casual name-dropping; he’s worked with and is respected by some of the most engaging, prolific and dang purty sounding musicians to come out of Cackalack.

Snuzzfest was a quickly organized affair to raise money for Mr. Uzzell, who has lymphoma and no health insurance. The event was incredibly pedigreed, with members or former members of some very well-known NC bands. I won’t get into all that: It’s already been written, and written better, at some of the the links provided in this post.  Better yet, listen here to Snuzz on the State of Things along with Tom Maxwell and Django Haskins.

The show was great. It began with a few quiet solo, duo and trio versions of some Snuzz standards by a few of his very gifted friends. The excellence of the songwriting was apparent: Each song carried a certain gravitational force around which the various interpretations revolved.  All of the performances were remarkable in some way, but Caitlin Cary signing “Like it Matters,” a song about the disconnect between the lonely inspiration of songwriting and the tedium of playing dive after dive after dive, nearly caused me to cry in public. I came so close to tears, in fact, that my “mildly” intoxicated friend and B & G consultant KP from over at My Blog Ate Your Blog asked me if I had swine flu. True story.

Things heated up as bigger ensembles got on stage.  Greg Humphreys played an infectious old Bus Stop number, Snuzz’s old bands Big Kids and International Orange reunited and rocked it after extended dormancies, and Snuzz’s current band, the Numbers, left me cursing the cosmos that I am destined to be such a mediocre musician.

Aside from all that, and aside from healthcare reform — that sumo belly slap of a political discussion that we could easily find ourselves in the middle of — Snuzzfest got me thinking about something in broader terms. Namely, the artist and his or her relative value in our society. Granted, healthcare and Snuzz’s lack of coverage is a big part of that, but it’s only one aspect of a greater question, at least for me.  But for a moment, let’s talk about healthcare. To get started, listen to this, NPR’s Rose Hoban interviewing first Snuzz and then Lynn Blakey of Tres Chicas about the question of musicians and healthcare.  Hoban notes that only 55 percent of professional musicians in the U.S. have health insurance with only 5 percent of those receiving coverage through their work as musicians; the remaining 95 percent are covered either through a spouse, a day job, or out of pocket. It was also noted in the story that Snuzzfest raised about $6,000 for Snuzz, while one diagnostic test alone cost approximately $7,000.

I find it appalling that the U.S. ranks so poorly with other developed (and some not-so-developed) countries in healthcare. Having a sudden illness or a quite commonplace and fixable accident can drive you to bankruptcy and ruin your life in this country, and it just shouldn’t be that way. Not only is it bad for the person, it’s bad for society.  I would ask those water cooler (and tractor) pundits out there who demonize other countries’ systems if they have ever been to, much less lived in, another country. This may be anecdotal and the sample size small, but I assure you that the people I’ve worked with around the world don’t want our current system. They can’t even fathom the idea. The very conservative Australian I worked with?  Nope, he’s quite happy that Australia has full access for everyone. The even more conservative Italian?  Ditto, he’ll take Italy’s system over ours any day. The Brits, the Portuguese? All the same story. Granted, the system in Mozambique, where I worked recently, was terrible, but you could have guessed that, right? Here’s a great slogan:  “U.S. Healthcare, Better than Mozambique.” Take that to your town hall meeting and wear it on a t-shirt.

I’ll also say that I don’t think the bill currently in question goes far enough.  It has some good things in it, but I’m just not sure if the American public has the collective stomach for even these small changes, which, as my good friend and respectable insurance advisor over at Chip Millard’s Weblog has noted, may raise a lot of people’s premiums in the short run.  And as far as broader reform is concerned, I’m pessimistic.  What we’re talking about is an interest group political economy smackdown with a 24-hour media cycle / public opinion tag team.  It ain’t pretty.

Now back to my original thought: the value of artists in society. I can already feel it coming, and it’s a good thing that nobody reads this blog because before I even get started I can sense the ignoble nonplussitude brewing in the anonymity of the internet. Someone named jackmioff69 is going to call me a socialist, which means that thoughtful discourse is over before it starts and that I am obliged to retort by calling him names, and on and on ad infinitum. But here we go anyway.

Let’s say, for example, a youngster decides to attend an art school, or to pursue some sort of fine arts degree at a liberal arts college. He has some talent, and art, music, drama, etc… is something he loves. He comes from a family with little means — which fuels the body of work he will later produce — so he has to rely in part on loans to get himself through school. He comes out with a substantial burden of debt. On the other hand, someone else who lives down the block with a similarly humble upbringing decides to get a degree in business or computer science or some such thing. This person ends up with the same amount of debt, but actually finds a financially lucrative career path just out of school and is able to very quickly eradicate that debt. Meanwhile, the musician (we’ll go with a musician here) plays in a few area bands, gives some lessons on the side, and works in a coffee shop. He struggles to pay his debts  (much less his rent) while living in the same community as the business major, who wears a tie during the day and visits the musician’s coffee shop because the musician is also an excellent barista. The business major also enjoys the brilliant and thriving local music scene on the weekends and sends his child to get guitar lessons from the musician, who, by the way, is still barely getting by. These two people have skill sets that cost the same to acquire but carry very different market values.

What I’m getting at is this. Artists contribute a great deal to society, while most get paid very little for their work, and the rest of us get a whole lot for next to nothing. The places artists tend to live have music and galleries and small theaters and great restaurants. These places are more aesthetically pleasing. They are cool. And advertisers, administrators, computer programmers, and building contractors all like living there. Because it’s pleasant. Because there’s entertainment. Because those musicians are funky and beautiful when they bring out that salad and glass of wine. Artists add a tremendous amount of real property value to an area, but most get very little in return.

Of course I don’t have a solution for this, but I promise to work on it. I’m a big proponent of free market economics for things like mp3 players or running shoes, but in this situation, the system breaks down. If you don’t believe me, then don’t support arts or artists at all, wait until they starve or move, and then go listen to a band full of bankers. Hope you like it.

 

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About kimetime

Kimetime has lived some of his life in motion, some of it sedentary, all of it in hiding. Some people call him Jonny.
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4 Responses to Artists and the Free Market: The Snuzz Story

  1. Great blog, Snuzz is amazing. One of the good ones for sure, he deserves much more recognition than he’s gotten. But would he want it? I wonder with some artists where the balance point is? Could they be happy dealing with the business side of art, and still make art? It’s tough, I find myself in the middle of this debate all the time. I am the rare case of an artist that HAS a Marketing Degree! For me it works perfectly, I enjoy making music and money, but to most artists that is a tough call and the credibility always comes into play. I think you have to have a balanced vision of art and business to become really successful, unless, of course, luck comes into the picture.

    I am trying to find the balance; make enough money to move forward and be a financially supportive husband, but not lose my soul to the almighty dollar. The key is to love what you do, do what you love. I know that’s played out, but it’s true. My motto, Moderation is the Key to Life.

    Have fun, make art, but take care of your business as well. Yes, I pay for my own health insurance, but would love to see a better plan for people who can’t. I’m trying to do my part to climb the ladder with the skills I have to help give back to the artists in my community……we’ll see what difference I can make while I’m still upright!!!!! much love redbone,,,,,,jerm

  2. kimetime says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments to my rambling mess of a blog entry, Jerm. I forgot that you have a marketing degree 🙂 I was just trying to think of something that can be generally pretty lucrative right out of undergrad. It all depends on the person, of course. And I realize that you don’t wear a tie to work. I also know that most of the songwriters I like don’t have a degree in music. I was just up late and laying out a scenario that came to mind.

    Not many people toe the line like you do Jerm. You’ve done very well, and I applaud you for going after the things you’re passionate about. You’re definitely an inspiration. I suppose, what I’m thinking in terms of an artist like Snuzz is the real value of his most personal art, which I’m guessing would be songwriting and performing his own music. I would bet that he’s made a lot more money playing other people’s music — for example when he was on the road with B. Folds.

    My main concern is that the vast majority of what local artists produce is tremendously undervalued on the market. And I think that’s not always a question of how the artist is being marketed. There are lots of well-known artists (on the local level) who can’t make a living. That’s not the case with other professions. For example, you wouldn’t expect an attorney to only be able to make a living once she hits the big time and becomes a nationally known attorney. Is it that we simply need more attorneys than we need artists? Is there something about the inherent supply and demand of it that I’m not getting?

    Anywho, keep playing. And all the best with Right Hook Records. Artist-friendly labels like yours are a hopeful start to correcting these market imbalances.
    Cheers! Jonny

  3. Hey Jonny, I definitely did not take offense to your first post. I know I’m not in the “norm” for what I do. I totally agree that most artists are undervalued in this society, but I’m sure it’s always been that way. How many wonderful painters scraped by their whole lives, only to have people make millions on their masterpieces now?

    For musicians, playing other people’s music is one of the few ways to make a decent living if you don’t want a normal 9 to 5, and that isn’t fair. Snuzz has unmeasurable talent, and he should be able to make a living off of it, but that’s not the reality for most musicians. People like you and I will keep going to shows and keep appreciating what happens in a club, that sharing of joy between the maker and the consumer of music. I feel sorry for people who mostly sit at home and watch shows in high-def and surround sound. It’s great, but not at all the same.

    I feel so blessed that my dad and uncle snuck me in to see soundchecks at clubs when I was 7! It enabled me to see musicians in a different light from the start. I saw them working at it, and having fun with their friends, before I saw a ton of “famous” musicians. So I have always loved the “behind the scenes” more than most.

    Thanks for the kind words Jonny, you hold a special place in my heart. Keep observing and writing, you do it well.

  4. Mike says:

    Thanks for the link to the State of Things airing. Sounds like a fine cause for a fine man. I’ll definitely check out these other musicians too, most of whom I’ve never heard of before. Thanks for endeavoring to keep me current. Artists are the lifeblood of any community, big or small, gentrified or authentic. I toss a 5-spot into their collective hat.

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