2.21.2011

Dispatches from the gray collar

Years ago I wrote an essay that I never published. Probably about ten years ago, but I'm not going to go dig up the original. This was in the days before blogs, so I didn't really have an outlet for it anyway. I titled it "The Gray Collar" (I'm going to stick with the American spelling here). It was an attempt at the the time to figure out where I fit in America's class structure. I knew I wasn't white collar, yet I didn't feel blue collar either. These years later, as I watch the current events in my home state of Wisconsin, I can't say that anything has changed for me. I'm really no better off than I was, and I still don't know where people like me fit in.

Collars in general refer more to the type of work you do, not directly to the money you make, though the two are usually connected. Wikipedia has a number of entries on classes, including the gray collar. I didn't even know that was a real thing when I titled my essay. There are several definitions, but one list includes skilled trades and technicians. I guess that's pretty much what I do. I can call myself gray collar. It's a decent catch-all for those not white or blue collar (there are also green, pink, and gold collar workers... I'm not any of those either). I am college educated, technically skilled with my instrument, a knowledgeable specialist in the software I use, but except for hauling gear and the occasional 3 hour gig, I don't work a physically demanding job.

Another element of class definitions is based on how much money you make. From 2006 to 2010 I had a regular job in an office, with good benefits. For seven years before that I was mostly self employed and part time. I am fully self employed again, and can't ever picture myself not being self employed again. So let's call that 4 years with built in benefits an anomaly. As a contractor, I currently average $30,000 per year. I say average with a caveat. Being a contractor in the music industry leaves you open to wild swings. I've seen as little as $20,000 and as much as $40,000. There's no predictability here. One of the biggest hurdles in my profession is that there's no built in increase of pay over time. There's no raise for what I do. There's no growth, no "moving up the ladder" as there is in most jobs. Gradually over time rates for private lessons, hourly rates for music engraving, charges for artwork and the like can go up, but I have to stay competitive with everyone else out there. I can't really predict any regular increase in my income.

The only real way I can make more money is to work more. Yeah, me and what time machine are going to find the hours for that? Ok, I can find some time, but I can't squeeze more out of the same clients. I could teach private lessons again, but I can attest to the burnout one gets from doing that full time. It's like a second shift babysitting job, 45 kids a week, one at a time. More work as a contractor is not like getting more hours at a regular job. It's more like getting a second (or third or fourth) job. And, that $30,000 isn't far off from what I was making ten years ago. The arts are hurting and have been for years, another reason growth is slow, if there at all. That much income is decent for an unmarried guy with no kids and I get by fine. Reasonably comfortable. But that's it. I get by, and that's all I can ever see doing. It gets really tricky when I try to think of how I'm going to manage retirement. That might not be in the cards for me.

By various definitions, that pay level makes me working class,  just barely low middle class depending on what definitions you're looking at. As the numbers break down, the median income of a male, over 25, with a bachelor's degree is over $52,000/year. Glad to do my part to drag those numbers down. Bwahahahahaha! If I didn't laugh I'd cry. Maybe I should have picked a different major in college. I followed my dreams. Sorry mom and dad, but in hindsight maybe you should have encouraged me to be practical instead. I love my parents, but because they encouraged me to follow my dreams, I'll never even come close to making what they do. I want to support my teacher friends, but I also want to remind them that you do have it better than me, and a lot of other people, even if it gets a little worse.

I want to be clear on this: I love music and art and can't imagine doing anything else. I've been an office drone and a warehouse 9-5 guy. There's no joy for me there, just a paycheck. And sometimes those jobs can be such a drag I don't have the energy for the things I really like to do. The idea of getting a haircut and getting a "real job" makes me cringe. Sometimes I wish it could be easier. Punch out and go home, leave the work at work. I just don't seem to be wired that way. But don't you dare call me lazy. That's not how music is. I'm on 24/7. Whether it's practicing, writing down an idea that popped into my head, or schlepping an hour each way to play in a pit band, 9-5 Monday through Friday does not exist in my world. You might see a cd for $10 and think it isn't worth it. I see the hundreds of hours that went into making it. Perhaps I can leave you with this friendly reminder that art isn't a career for the lucky. I have the skill I have because I worked my ass off, and I make your world a little less dark whether you realize it or not. This gray collar seems to fit just fine.

/bitchmoan