The MYnstrel Free Press: Economic Struggles, Meet Jazz


We prefer that The MYnstrel Free Press touches all people in the MYnstrel community. What could be more applicable to every single member than sharing ideas about how we all make it through the struggles of life?

Whether we’re talking about growing a successful band, keeping a roof over our heads, our loved ones fed, health issues, or personal struggles – we’re all in different boats as to how we can deal with these different challenges. But don’t we share things in common? Moreover, what if you were to look at organizations (such as startup companies) as a struggling person as well? Where can we get a general understanding of how to persevere? And what can a jazz musician teach us about this perseverance?

Different scenarios, same concepts

A gentleman whom I hold in very high regard approached me with a familiar concern a few weeks ago. We were discussing how a music organization with no money could afford technology and marketing services when they are so utterly broke. He said: “The ideas are great, but how will they pay for this?”

Now tell me, how many times in your life have you asked yourself the same question? You want something – an apartment, a house, a car, a surgery, a grocery store run, college tuition, clothes for your children; moreover, you have various choices which carry different prices.

A startup company has the same challenges. How will they pay their lease, opening-day inventory, government fees, licensing, lawyer bills, technology bills, accounting bills, and employees?

Any band faces the same challenges – how will they pay their personal bills while they’re spending so much time practicing, writing music, and playing local shows? How will they get money to record their albums? How will they get money to advertise, travel, and put their album through total production? What about paying their personal manager, business manager, and lawyer?

Even the government is not special in this regard. What if a government is broke and can no longer pay its bills? It considers raising taxes, borrowing money from other governments, or printing lots of money. This is like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean so you can pour it back in a mile down the beach. During a time when private companies have shed 13.2 million jobs, why isn’t the government (which only survives on taxes) forced to lay off people as well and tighten their own belt like everyone else, so that the private companies that drive our success in the world economy can hire more people? How can the government achieve what it wants to without just sweeping the dirt around the floor? When does the dustpan come into play?

What do all of these scenarios have in common, and what is wrong with the philosophy that is commonly used to solve the problems?

Trade, proxies, and Hawaiian breezes

Let’s go back to what money is. It’s a proxy for trade. It has no real value alone. If it’s backed by something stable (like gold), it still only has a dependable proxy value. We exchange money to represent a trade of real services and goods.

An employed chef goes to their restaurant to cook meals for customers. When the chef moves their hands and feet to prepare the meal, they’ve just created real value. In turn, the restaurant gives the chef money to represent that real value. In turn, the chef uses that money to buy groceries from a farmer. As the chef consumes the groceries, he has acquired and consumed real value. The money has nothing to do with that. It’s a proxy. This is trade.

Now I’ll speak for honest businesspeople (yes we exist). I guarantee you that when you look at your own efforts in this way, an entirely new world of opportunity opens up to you. You begin to find ways to take control of fulfilling these needs for yourself. You start to realize, you don’t need more money. You don’t want to borrow money. You want to acquire real value for less money. You want to increase your ability to generate more real value that is useful to other people and organizations. You will start to realize that exchanging real value is what people truly seek, and that many items in the marketplace just aren’t worth the dollar-value that people put on them.

I’ve known many people in my career who were getting paid too much or too little for the actual value they delivered to their employer. I once saw a government contractor pay $100,000 to a person living in Hawaii just to get their signature on a report and pretend like they had something to do with authoring the report. I don’t view that Hawaiian any differently than a massive thief – upwards of grand theft. They stole the taxpayer’s money for an exchange of zero real value. You feel that Hawaiian Breeze? It’s the sound of your hard earned tax money disappearing into an unscrupulous, legitimized crook’s pocket. Whoosh! All gone!

The economy is filled with similar booby traps. Dot-com bubble anyone? Housing market anyone? Financial market, anyone? Retirement funds?

Look out for the next seemingly innocuous scam and beware that whoosh sound. It is a seductively comforting breeze. The good news is that in a free market, at least we have the freedom to seek independent companies who will be fairer to us should we encounter issues. Fair employers get good reputations and people want to be part of those good teams.

The bartering entity lineup

Let’s make a pact to start avoiding the traps, by thinking outside of the box, being able to identify real value, and seeing what kind of real value we can generate to exchange for the things we need (or want). Let’s recap and expand upon our examples. I’ll call each one generically, “a bartering entity”:

  • The broke performing arts group seeking new technologies and marketing services
  • A self-reliant citizen requiring items of self-sustenance (housing, food)
  • A small-business startup company trying to get off the ground
  • A local band of musicians trying to make an album and grow their act
  • A defunct government that has made itself dependent on foreign lenders, tax games, and manipulation of currency
  • Tommy searching for houses in 2005
  • Tommy’s recent foot injury

For each bartering entity, the first step is to determine the current potential and limitations to generate real value that can be traded for the real value that the bartering entity seeks. In future publications, I may share my own statistical analyses with the MYnstrel community that will blow your mind, concerning nationwide labor activities. For now, we’re going to stick with concepts and see how these bartering entities can persevere. Bands, are you tuned in? This is your chance to turn a bad deal into a straight flush.

General advice for bartering entities

Please sit down on my couch, lay back and relax. I’ll play the role of fortune cookie, and we’ll see in the end what everyone can take away to improve their own circumstance. I’ll recount a few of my own experiences to illustrate.

Case: The insolvent performing arts group

So what did I tell the distinguished gentlemen when he asked me, “how can a broke organization pay for this?” I implored, “Let’s focus on an exchange of real value.” What does the organization really need done to achieve their goals, and what is the value of that. Secondly, what real value can the music organization generate in order to exchange for the things they want?

Their ultimate goal is simple. The music group is not greedy. They want a larger audience to share their art with, and they would like for the people who make the art to get paid fairly for their hard work. Ideally they’d like the money to come directly from eager buyers of the art (ticket buyers) instead of asking the taxpayer or wealthy fans for it. Self-sufficiency has a rewarding dignity and satisfaction that is natural for the human condition. The technology and marketing purchases are just stepping stones for that larger goal.

We could start by taking inventory of all the ways that other fine arts groups raise capital. Endowments are fine, but I bet if we expanded our options, we could find even more ways to do things efficiently and succeed in our mission – to deliver some of the best entertainment and finest culture to as many people as we can access, and get paid fairly for doing so.

Are the people in the organization multi-talented? Do they have access to knowledge and skills that can help to grow the organization? If so, can we develop a plan to reward them with cooperative ownership of the organization if they deliver results? This bartering requires no cash, and when we determine how we can expand our revenue channels, this technique can be used to execute the plans.

We might not be selling out arenas like the band Tool anytime soon, but I bet we can improve the situation of the group.

Case: Government economic blunders

Although I have my own thoughts on the matter, I’m not touching this with a ten foot pole. April fools!

Case: Tommy’s 2005 house search

At the height of the housing market bubble, I was in a position to think about getting my first house. I enlisted the help of a Real Estate Agent. This was my first experience in real estate, and I was on my own as usual.

As we were going house to house, nothing was adding up for me. I read that the traditional lending standards were to multiply your annual gross income by three, and this is the maximum house price you can afford. The Agent was trying to convince me to buy houses that were nearly twice the amount that I was supposed to be able to afford. Worse, those houses weren’t even average houses in the area (in terms of size and features). I knew something was not right.

I researched the median household income in the County that I was looking to buy in. My discovery was profound. I learned that the median household income could only afford a substandard house by traditional lending standards – a suburban condo at that time. In fact, the average resident of this County would have to max themselves out and double what they are supposed to spend to afford a suburban townhouse. When a median income can’t afford a median house, I immediately established the fact that the real estate market in DC was exorbitantly overpriced.

The Agent told me I was wrong. She gave me propaganda from realtors’ organizations to try and boost my confidence. I didn’t bite. I did more research. I found two things that were astounding – the historical trend of rent vs. housing expenditure ratio and the historical ratio of real estate ‘value’ to GDP. Both were immensely out of whack, starting in 1988. Next, I used the New York Times “Rent vs. Buy” calculator and discovered that by historical standards, I would never make back the money that I would have to spend to buy a house in 2005, in the Washington DC market.

In the face of all these facts, my Agent only had a single argument: “these aren’t traditional times, you’ll make out positive.” By contrast, one of my friends’ fathers was in the real estate business for years, and although he wasn’t giving me all the numbers that I drummed up for myself, he warned me that it was a terrible time to buy.

Now, I don’t know for sure if my Agent was maliciously lying and trying to swindle me for her commission, or whether she was just immensely uninformed about her own industry; but it was one or the other. Because as we all know now, four years later, I was correct and she was wrong. If I had listened to her, I would have lost all of my savings that took decades to earn. I know people who bought houses in the DC area between 2002 and 2008 who have lost all of the money they put into the house.

That’s not a funny joke. That would have been me if I listened to this Agent. What’s worse than that is, I would never expect the government (i.e. my taxpaying neighbor) to pay for my mistake. If there is any justice in the world, my real estate agent, her company, and the mortgage company that was trying to push the loans on me would have to pay for the mistake (if anyone); because it is their industry and services that pushed customers to buy defective products. I ask: what’s more defective than a house that eats up your life savings in a few years? This isn’t the stock market, and it’s not a casino. It’s the shelter over our heads, and the majority of home buyers out there were not treating it like a gamble.

The lesson is that I identified what real value was by understanding that a small townhouse in a suburb was not worth double of what the median income could afford, and I followed up by researching the irrefutable reasons that explain why it would be a bad barter.

Even in a situation where I was tempted by bad advisors and a real estate market that is out of my control, I used my head and improvised to get the best outcome. No I didn’t get a house. Yes I found a fantastic place to rent, made a nice home out of it, and I’m still financially stable and ahead of the game, unlike the rest of that Agent’s clients. Even if I rent for the next 30 years, the total money is less than the interest payments I would have thrown away on that mortgage. Mission accomplished, real value secured.

Case: Tommy’s injured foot

Have you ever tried operating a stick shift with an injured clutch-foot? That is a treat, let me tell you. This week, I injured my foot and it was swollen so badly that I could only hobble around on my left heel. The doctor said that I’ll be able to walk on it in about 4 days, but it’ll take 3 weeks to get back to normal. I only saw the doctor to make sure it wasn’t broken.

Now, this case involves no money. Here is the real value that I want:

  • I get immense satisfaction from running outside during the fall and spring. Because of this injury, I can’t run for these three weeks.
  • Although I could likely finagle my employer to allow me to work from home, I can’t stand not being around my team on a regular basis. Because of this injury, it’s difficult to drive and walk around all day.

In this case, there’s no money to exchange; I’m really bartering with nature itself. My options are limited. Let me improvise like a jazz musician to get the best outcome again.

What I’ll do is drive my car by turning my left foot sideways as I operate the clutch. I’ll ice my foot before going into work and put some tight ace bandages on to compress it. I’ll wear casual shoes that can expand to fit my swollen foot.

To still be able to enjoy the weather outside during this season, I’ll do my pushups and sit-ups out on the porch (I usually do them while watching the news at night). I’ll do leg-lift exercises instead of running for three weeks.

After bartering with nature itself, all of my issues are resolved, and I have a happy outcome.

The only alternatives in this scenario would have been to give up on the goals. As you can see, I arrived at a satisfactory compromise by improvising. I got most of the real value that I sought.

Improvising to create real value

One of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein is, “Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value.” Baked into that quote is the heart of this article. A person of success is usually defined in terms of money. As we’ve already established, money is just a proxy. The real value is measured by your own personal capacity to make a difference for other people. Success will most likely follow if you’ve made yourself into a valuable and industrious person.

If you look around today, many organizations (including the government), would like you to believe that you can’t produce or consume real value without their help, without machinations of the economy and currency, and without the worship of the paper we call money. The truth is that if I had not been able to identify the real value of a piece of real estate with a simple observation, in defiance of ‘experts’, in defiance of the entire government and market ‘valuation’, I would have been wrong (and poor). Turns out they were the ones who were wrong, and now they’re the ones who are poor.

My message is a message of hope that was chiseled into my being by my Grandmother when I was just a child. She constantly made me believe that “The world is my oyster” and “I can do anything I put my mind to.” She never discouraged me (although she might have disciplined me), and her love was always unconditional. This is coming from the wisest and smartest woman I know, a waitress by trade, and Great Depression survivor. What’s that gift worth? It’s priceless. That’s real value. You see, the spoils of industry are not always tangible, and do not always involve money.

I say, look at what you’re doing with yourself. Look at what you choose to spend your money on. Look at what you really want to do in life. Find your goals. Cut your costs. Spend less money. You’ll find real value and you’ll invent ways to make your real objectives happen.

For Music Fans, take pride in that album you bought for $12. You’ll listen to it for years, 100 times over while you drive, exercise, party, or just do things around the house. That only cost you $0.12 per hour. By contrast if you buy a DVD that you’ll likely watch 2 times every five years, that’s about $20 for 6 hours of entertainment, or $3.33 per hour. Looking at it this way in terms of total entertainment time, that music CD you bought is 27.8 times cheaper than the DVD you bought. Now that’s great value, thank you musicians!

For Artists, don’t sweat the fact that money is hard to come by to grow your bands. Find friends in your area, and other musicians. Pool your resources. Help each other out. And above all, stick with MYnstrel, because our entire mission is about helping you out.

For Music Biz Pros, don’t sweat the fact that the industry is tighter and more polarized than ever. Stick with MYnstrel because we are inventing solutions to all of these problems every single year.

And finally, to all, let’s not forget about the jazz musician. When I played jazz for four years, I walked on stage with just chord symbols in front of me. I had to improvise and pick the notes and expressions off the top of my head every time I played.

Life is a big pot of jazz. You can’t change the crowd or the song’s score, but you can be resourceful and improvise to mold it into something that you think is valuable. I bet you’ll find some other people who agree with you, and they’ll come see your show.

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