Making Art Pay

This story is part of a series profiling working artists as they try to make a living in the Triangle. We’ll talk to musicians, dancers, performers, painters and poets about the state of the Triangle arts scene and the possibilities for its future. 

In a Tough Climate for Artists, A Musician Strives for Balance

Standing on the sidewalk in front of the Local 506 after her set, Sarah Ward–S. E. Ward onstage–is of two minds about the Chapel Hill music scene. On the one hand, it’s a great place to make music.

“There are so many venues, there are so many different musicians, and a really large, healthy diverse scene,” she opines. “But at the same time, I feel like people here take music for granted. Like it will always just be here.”

Not that she’s complaining. Ward, 27, moved to Chapel Hill three years ago from Burlington, VT, where, she says, it was difficult to book a show anywhere outside of a coffee shop.

“In Vermont, everyone liked the same thing,” Ward notes. “If you didn’t look and sound like you were into jam bands, you weren’t going to get a show.”

Her music fits squarely into the “shoe-gazer” genre -dreamy, fuzzy, and sometimes disjointed rock and roll set against plaintive, melancholy vocals.The band consists of her fiance Mark Conner on bass, Paul Siebert on drums, and Mike Wallace on guitar. It’s a sound that fits well into the aural constellation of indie, punk, and folk that Chapel Hill is known for.

And indeed, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area has much to offer musicians and creatives of all types. The cost of living is low, housing is (for now) relatively cheap, and there’s lots of part-time and service industry work. And, as Ward points point, there’s an array of venues that support all kinds of music.

But there are factors working against local artists as well. According to a recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts, the median income for North Carolina artists during the most recent year where data is available, 2014, was just $20,691. That’s compared to an average of $46,693 for all occupations in the state. The report attributes the disparity to several factors, including chronic low wages and grant programs that “aren’t responsive to the new ways artists are creating.”

Budget constraints within governments and businesses since the Great Recession have also reduced the amount of capital available to artists, and put a chill on less commercially viable or easily marketable art. Without sustained support from the commercial, nonprofit, and government sectors, the potential for professional artists to make money from their crafts quickly plateaus.

Many try to make up the disparity in income by juggling several jobs on top of their creative work. Sarah, for example, is also the talent booker at The Cave, a venue in Chapel Hill and picks up shifts waiting tables.

“I think, generally speaking, the balancing act is a fact of life for artists,” she says. “You can’t expect to become a band and all of a sudden just be self-sustaining. That’s not the system that we work in.”

And if the system is one where being an artist means working in the service industry to make ends meet and getting paid less for your art than you think it’s worth, so be it. That’s the way it will have to be, for now, while the system, as Ward puts it, “figures out how to value creative people as regular members of society.”

Not the most encouraging of diagnoses, but at least one that implies a clear path forward.

“Play shows, build support, find fans, and be good at your marketing,” says Ward. “The Triangle is a good breeding ground for bands to pick up a lot of traction -if they want to. But you’ve got to do it right.”

Here’s S.E. Ward in action: SEWard_A

You can listen to more of S. E. Ward here.

Next Week:

Ginger Wagg is a dancer and performance artist based in Carrboro, and one of the organizers of “Articulating Values,” a Triangle-wide community meeting series dedicated to identifying the needs of Triangle artists and creating opportunities for sharing resources.