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For Love, Not Money

Four local musicians who are in it for the right reasons


Maybe there are still people who join a band as a get-rich-quick scheme. There are those mid-pubescent Mouseketeers who populate that fat guy's boy-band factory in Florida. And those sick-of-being-poor rappers trying to get theirs the honest way. It used to be the American Dream--start a band, get a record deal and cash in.

But that's all changed. If you wanna get rich these days, you ought to hop on the latest Internet startup because trying to get a piece of the pie from a bloated, nearly obsolete music industry is like trying to draw blood from the Tin Man. The cruel reality? While record executives, booking agents, managers and lawyers sit in plush offices counting their proverbial 10 percent, most musicians are busy pacifying day-job bosses and trying to figure out how they're going to make their next rent check.

Here's the story of four local musicians who have dedicated their lives to their art, whatever the cost.

Ron Liberti has worked every day-job you could imagine. He's washed dishes and tended bar, hawked used books and manned a cigarette stand. He's sold plasma for money and been a human guinea pig for medical researchers. And he's even worked as a garbage man at Myrtle Beach.

Liberti long ago chose to pursue his two loves--music and art--and that meant saying goodbye to inflexible nine-to-fives. His day jobs have gradually improved--in recent years, he's gotten steady work on film projects--but Liberti still lives very much hand-to-mouth. "I don't really feel like I've made sacrifices," he says bluntly. "It's more like a tradeoff. I traded the solace and the sleep I could get if I had financial security for something I really want to do. It's just something I've learned to live with."

Probably best-known as the former lead singer for Chapel Hill punk-rock champions Pipe, Liberti also came to local prominence in the '90s by raising the previously crude craft of making band flyers to high art. He was honored last summer with a retrospective--and successful sale--of his 250-300 posters at Carrboro's Bronwyn Merritt Gallery.

Lately, he's spent lots of time in his garage doing wood cuts and screen-printing custom posters in his distinctive collage style. After a brief retirement from music, Liberti has returned with three new bands, two of which--Clok-Lok and The Ghost of (the British Soldier Who Loved to) Rock--have new records coming out soon. "I never really gave up on music," Liberti says. "I was doing film work, going away for three months at a time so it was hard to practice and do normal band things."

"I may not have money in my back pocket but I've got a year of my life that I can put my finger on. If I'd had a lot of money, I guess I'd be making some stupid car payment or something. But this is something I've made and that's the shit that helps me sleep at night."

"If I couldn't do music, I would shrivel up and die," Melissa Swingle says without a trace of hyperbole. Swingle and her band Trailer Bride have been sharing their gothic swamp blues with local audiences since 1994. The band's just back from a weekend recording jaunt to Richmond. Why so fast? Well, the boys in Trailer Bride do carpentry work during the week and, Swingle candidly admits, "I've gotta be back to cook breakfast." She's worked as a waitress and hostess; now, with a husband and young daughter, she humbly says she's "just a housewife." She's full of crap, of course.

Trailer Bride plays roughly 60 to 70 shows a year, with Swingle taking care of the booking herself. They usually break even on tour--"We don't come home rich," she drawls--and if they sell enough CDs along the way, as they did on a recent West Coast swing, maybe there's even a little profit to be had.

Swingle's last two royalty checks were for $58 and $150, enviable amounts for many musicians. She also gets occasional payouts from Trailer Bride's label, Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. The band had a song on a television show called Freaky Links. "It was a takeoff on The Blair Witch Project," she winces. "It wasn't very good. We were supposed to get $500 but we haven't seen a penny of it yet."

None of this seems to portend a large house in the hills; Swingle says she's thankful for her husband's share of the rent. "Quite honestly, if we lived on what I make, we'd be on welfare.

"But it's great being a musician. I know this sounds hokey but it's a calling--it's what I'm meant to do. It's the first thing I've ever done in my life that's really made me feel good about myself and sacrifice is just a part of it. Plus, when it's something you love, it doesn't feel like sacrifice."

Margaret White is a wise but undeniably fresh-faced 25-year-old who plays bass and violin with Regina Hexaphone and The Comas. The Winston-Salem native worked a day-job at UNC-Chapel Hill for a spell and now serves up coffee and pastries at Caffé Driade.

White concedes she'd love to make a living from her music, but she acknowledges that the financial side of it is secondary to other things. Like the joy of getting fan-mail from Japan, the thrill of traveling to new places or the warmth of the local music community. "I think once you get into the music scene in this area, everyone is so supportive. There are some rivalries, but it seems like all the bands are friends. I go support my friends that are playing and they do the same for me."

The Comas had $100 guarantees at most venues on their last tour, affording each band member a whopping $10 per diem with the remainder going toward gas money. They rarely stayed in hotels, opting instead for the couches and floors of friends and relatives--or even the kindness of strangers. "We would meet people at the show and they would take pity on us," she laughs.

Unlike Swingle, White has never received a royalty check and admits she hasn't done her part to affiliate with a music publisher. "A couple of Comas songs have been on [MTV's] Real World. I got phone calls from my friends saying they heard us on there. And I went, 'Oh really? I don't have cable.'"

One unexpected benefit of White's exposure with The Comas? She'll travel to Europe this spring as a guest member of the like-minded Virginia band Sparklehorse, receiving a weekly salary and per diem. "It's one of those things that sort of fell into my lap," White says. "I don't know how much I'll get, but I figure I'm used to doing this stuff pretty much for free anyway."

Nnenna Freelon may live eight miles and a musical world away from her Chapel Hill rock counterparts, but the recurring themes of her life are much the same. When the Durham-based jazz singer isn't on-stage channeling the spirit of Sarah Vaughan, she's at home with her husband and three children.

Freelon gave up a career in the health care field to pursue her dreams in music. "I could have been making a pretty decent salary and a regular paycheck," she says, "but I had to find a way to weave my art into my life. I had to be creative. Having rehearsals at my house, feeding the musicians after the rehearsal, taking my kids to gigs with me, rehearsing after they were asleep. I had to improvise big-time."

She plays about 100 shows a year, everything from anti-death penalty benefits to corporate functions, as well as nightclubs and festivals. "You have to love it," Freelon says. "The love is the fuel and the energy that keeps you rolling. At the same time, money is energy too--and we need both. I don't believe in poverty, but I really don't believe in poverty of the spirit. And I've known people who have really gotten over in a financial sense in this business and they're miserable."

Despite having six acclaimed albums and five Grammy nominations under her belt, Freelon says she still can't make a living from music alone. So she teaches and serves as the national spokesperson for a school/community partnership program called Partners In Education. She also recently made her acting debut in the film What Women Want.

"You can't name one person who's at the top of the jazz profession who only sings," Freelon laments. "Nancy Wilson does radio, she does television commercials, she does all these other things to supplement her income. She's not just playing the 10 jazz clubs that exist in this country."

She urges aspiring musicians to barter for whatever they can get and not to undervalue themselves. "We're so invested in being creative in our art that we forget to be creative in our lives. So if somebody wants you to play for them and they don't have any money, barter! If I'm doing a benefit for a computer company, give me a damn computer!"

"We're making this a better place to live because we are artists. There are benefits that roll off our backs and into the wellspring of the community. I think we tend to overlook that. If we decided today's a no-art day--that means musicians are silent, singers are silent, painters put down their paintbrushes, violinists put away their bows--this would be a very different place."

The Ghost of Rock plays Go! Studios on Friday, Feb. 16. The Comas play Cat's Cradle on Friday, Feb. 16 and Local 506 on Sunday, Feb. 18. Trailer Bride plays Local 506 on Thursday, Feb. 22. Clok-Lok plays The Cave on Thursday, March 1. Nnenna Freelon's latest album, Soulcall (Concord), is available through her Web site at EndBlock

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