Izzy Reidy

The People Issue

The touring musician

Izzy Reidy leads the band Izzy True and plays bass in Tenci. He’s lived in Chicago on and off for around 12 years and teaches guitar, bass, and ukulele in public schools through Music House. He joined the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers in spring 2020, becoming part of its steering committee and abolition subcommittee, and in fall 2020 he helped launch UMAW’s Chicago chapter with Monoculture multi-instrumentalist Olan Mijana and Izzy True bandmate Curtis Oren. 

The Chicago chapter held a gear drive, raised money to award microgrants to small DIY artists, and protested at Spotify’s local offices in March 2021 to help UMAW present its demands to the streaming giant. Reidy remains a member of the national union but is no longer active, and the Chicago chapter dissolved in late 2021. He’s still more than happy, though, to talk about the material conditions of indie musicians’ lives and the potential for organizing in the industry. 

Interview by Philip Montoro

Photos by Carolina Sanchez

If you want to tour, it’s very hard to have a job. The only reason I’m able to tour is because I have a supportive family. That’s not to say that I don’t work, because I do, but I know that my resources have allowed me to do this as a career. A lot of people can’t, and that’s disturbing in the long term. 

When COVID hit, the reason that people were so quick to mobilize is—it’s not just the musicians, but all the support staff. I was a venue worker up until really recently. I worked at the Hideout for five years. Door people, sound people, people who work front-of-house engineering, people on crews—all of your work is gone, and there’s no support. You’re not getting unemployment from your music job. 

A lot of people don’t even get to the point of touring, because they’ve encountered that reality beforehand and it’s not workable for them. It’s like, “Holy shit, I’ve built my life in such a way that there’s nothing for me.” So a lot of people had to contend with that really directly after the pandemic hit. There’s no safety net. 

Most people are scraping by on whatever health care they can get. Myself and a lot of people I know are on Medicaid, where it gets complicated if you actually start making more money from your music—you lose your health insurance. To me, it’s difficult to feel good about any of my accomplishments in the field, knowing that it doesn’t really have anything to do with your skill or your talent. It has to do with the fact that you can take these risks. 

And that’s not right. Everybody should be able to play music if they want to. A lot of people have been talking about economics in the industry, and for me it boils down to universal health care and affordable housing. The thing that makes music such an interesting place to organize from is that what a lot of people basically need is a public safety net. That’s a powerful place to organize from—it would improve the lives of so many people. 

Izzy Reidy leads the band Izzy True and plays bass in Tenci.

Locally, I and some other union members were doing organizer training with the Industrial Workers of the World [IWW]. We were taking that whole-shop approach—everybody involved. The venue workers, the bartenders, sound people, you know, the people in the record plants—those were the people we wanted to work with. We wanted to have it be a cross-industry union. 

We wanted to get more information to people about how a deal for a show works, and what the different deals at the different venues are, and create a standard. One benefit of being a musician is you can be like, “Hey, fuck this place, we don’t want to play here because they don’t pay people,” and fans will respond to that. They won’t go. That was kind of the idea, in terms of direct strategy. 

And then the indirect strategy for me was building coalition with people who were working for the people, basically. There was a hunger strike, the General Iron stuff—we did a solidarity hunger strike to raise awareness around the pollution. If you approach musicians as typically members of the working poor, all that stuff affects musicians too. And you have a platform. 

Everybody should be able to play music if they want to.

Izzy Reidy

I feel very lucky to be in a position to make a little money on tour. The things that you need to get on the road—like, you need a car. Do you have the money to maintain the car and keep it on the road? Then gas, which is obviously a whole other cost that can fluctuate wildly. And then everybody has to eat. Also everybody’s taking time off of work, losing income, and you’re probably not going to make that money back. 

For the vast majority of people who tour, it’s a net loss every time. You make your money playing shows, but if you’re a smaller band, you’re lucky if you get 100 bucks a night from the venue. That’s, like, good. Honestly, we make most of our money selling merch on tour. At the level that I’m touring now, we’re getting more money. But I’ve been touring since the week I turned 18, and I’m 30 now.

I’ve been on three tours this year so far. I’m going on a fourth one. Tours are usually around two weeks long. You’re basically leaving for at least one and a half, two months, and a lot of people tour harder than that. So you need to take a job that’s flexible. I teach in school. So you know, I’m gone two months—that’s a problem for the kids. I’ve definitely had to quit jobs to go on tour. 

The other piece of it now is COVID. The first tour we did, once live music started to happen again, we camped a lot of the time. We made a rule that we weren’t comfortable sleeping with strangers every night, because it just didn’t seem safe. And obviously we can’t afford hotels. 

You’re driving, like, three to six hours every day. And then on top of that, now we’re scheduling in, OK, we’re gonna get a COVID PCR test every other day. Buying rapid tests is an expense now, and buying high-quality masks. Then if one of us gets COVID, we’re going home. So all that lost income, all that lost work, and nothing on the other side of it. 

That’s just one new thing that can happen. The whole host of regular things that can happen still do happen. In spring of last year, we were on a cross-country tour, and we were driving back through Colorado, and we got hit by a semitruck and almost died. And the car was totaled. 

Venues aren’t really making that much money either. I mean, they’re making more money than musicians. But things that are concrete that could change now—I would love people to start focusing on, like, musicians taking responsibility for the things that they have control over. The going rate for a supporting band right now is $250, on a big tour. That’s what you would get per night—not a lot of money, considering all the up-front costs for a four- or five-person band traveling in this economy. There are things that we can do to sort of build a culture of accountability to each other, not buying into the ways in which musicians are sort of forced to take advantage of each other. 

To me the issue is, how do we give artists the time and space to make art? We have the resources and the technology. So I guess what I’m saying is . . . massive global wealth distribution? 

The system is broken beyond repair. It can’t work. There’s a really awesome initiative that the UMAW national is doing right now—they’re working with [U.S. House representative] Rashida Tlaib on a bill that would add a separate royalty, a streaming royalty, that streaming services would be charged, that would pay out directly to the artists. I think everybody should go out and sign that petition right now. Those companies are not designed to pay artists. They wouldn’t make money if they were paying artists what they should be paid.

My hope is that somebody will read this and think, “Wow, I really wish that [Chicago] chapter was still happening. Let’s make it happen again.” There’s so many incredible activists across Chicago, doing amazing work in the defund-the-police movement, and all the union efforts that are happening. 

The other major issue with organizing musicians is that it gets people right in the most tender part of their egos. There’s a lot of mistrust of more successful musicians. People have an outsize idea of what somebody who is quote-unquote succeeding is actually—like, their material life conditions. It’s like, “Oh, you got some free shoes from Vans, you’re living high on the hog.” And well, no. That’s, like, it. I don’t have health insurance. Neither of us has health insurance, and we’re arguing about shoes.

The People Issue 2022

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