There's No Money in Indie Music: Cat Power Is Broke

The Atlantic
There's No Money in Indie Music: Cat Power Is Broke
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There's No Money in Indie Music: Cat Power Is Broke

You know times are tough for indie musicians when even Chan Marshall—who released a Top 10 Billboard album and played sold-out concerts this year—is bankrupt. The singer known as Cat Power announced a likely cancellation of her upcoming European tour because of financial and health problems. Before taking the stage in Minneapolis last night, Marshall broke the news on Instagram with the following message: 

I MAY HAVE TO CANCEL MY EUROPEAN TOUR DUE TO BANKRUPTCY & MY HEALTH STRUGGLE WITH ANGIOEDEMA. I HAVE NOT THROWN IN ANY TOWEL, I AM TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT BEST I CAN DO ...

It's no shock that musicians earn slim salaries at best, but the thought of an artist as big as Cat Power going broke is particularly disheartening. The album Marshall released last month was as successful as any indie product could hope to be in 2012. Sun broke the Bilboard Top 10 and made a splash in Europe, peaking at No. 6 in France. It went over just as well with the critics, with reviewers calling the album "honest, accomplished, and pretty much just beautiful." Then she did what's required of every songstress who wants to put bread on her table these days—she went out and played, selling out a number of clubs. If that's not enough to turn a profit in indie music, then all the artists who didn't make it onto the Juno soundtrack must be deep in the red. 

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Marshall's bankruptcy resonates with the angle Nitsuh Abebe took in his recent New York cover story on Grizzly Bear. Abebe showed that "hitting the big time" for today's musicians at best means having enough to pay the bills, feed yourself, and buy a few vinyl records now and then. Health insurance remains a huge concern for musicians. Some Grizzly Bear members admitted to being uninsured. Marshall hasn't publicly disclosed her insurance status, or whether health costs led to her bankruptcy. But let's hope she has a plan, because she's been something of a fixture at Miami's Mt. Sinai Medical Center lately. In 2006, she checked in for alcohol addiction, and last month she was back in one of their hospital beds for undisclosed reasons. Her admission that she suffers from angioedema—a serious condition that causes swelling in the face, tongue, and throat, sometimes leading to suffocation—is scary. With or without coverage, these kinds of persistent medical issues can spell the end of a musician's career. Or at least force them to put in on the back-burner, while they work a day job that provides insurance.

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Everyone knows that artists go on out on a financial limb by committing to creativity as a career. But it's starting to look like even the most successful musicians—the ones that grace magazine covers and inspire bloggers to pour out 2,000-word think-pieces—soon won't be able to eke out a living from their craft. In retrospect, Sun's closing track "Peace And Love" was full of clues about Marshall's flagging financial health. Her angry lyrics referenced the 99 percent, Wall Street, and the paltry sums artists accrue in the post-Spotify marketplace.  

A hundred-thousand hits on the internet  But that don't mean shit  Even if you're legitimate.

Now we know Marshall wasn't just channeling generalized, post-recession frustration through her music. She was singing very specifically about her own diminished economic prospects.

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