Radical Folk Music: An Interview with David Rovics

Having just started a deadening temp job alphabetizing books that students had returned at the semester’s end, there was something comforting about hearing the triumphant chorus: “When all the minimum wage workers went on strike!” bouncing off the University of Wisconsin’s buildings. It was early May and rabble-rousing folk musician David Rovics was in Madison to celebrate the centennial of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). I had first heard him play “Minimum Wage Strike” six years before at a student activism conference in Boston. I’ve been drawn to David’s music ever since. He continues to leave his own unique mark on the radical folk tradition. I had the chance to sit down with him on a lovely spring day inside the Orton Park gazebo where we discussed his passion for playing music for the revolution as an antidote to crippling wage slavery.


When you’re in a social situation and people ask you: “What do you do?” how do you usually respond?

I just say I play music. It’s my sole source of income so it’s an easy answer. Presumably they’re asking, “What do you do for a living?” or “What do you do with most of your time?” Of course with most of my time I don’t play music-I stare at computer screen or drive a car or sit in a plane. [Laughs]

So what kind of follow up questions do you usually get to that response? Are people surprised that you can survive off your music and that that’s what you actually do for a living?

Yeah, sometimes they’re surprised. I guess it depends whether they already know me from shows or whether they’re just meeting me. I think when most people meet a musician and the musician says that he or she makes a living at it, usually the reaction would be one of at least mild surprise.

How long have you been able to do this as a full-time thing? And could you talk about what you were doing before this and how you used to get by? How did you make that transition? How did things change?

When I was younger-late teens, early twenties-I mostly worked doing word processing. Really horrible, mindless, menial shit: typing novels and resumes. Just looking at something that somebody had hand-written and then transcribing it essentially. And sometimes typing stuff that had already been typed because it wasn’t typed onto a computer. It was the age of typewriters where people would write shit on their typewriter and then give it to me to type again. It just always struck me as the most mindless task that I knew would be ultimately replaced, imminently replaced by computers and then eventually by voice recognition. An activity that would be one of these automatically antiquated things that you’re doing that you know is stupid and horribly boring. And then I got carpel tunnel syndrome. I always stuck to word processing because at the time-late ’80s, early ’90s-I could get paid like 12 bucks and hour, which for me was good money. The alternative was 6 bucks an hour in some café which seemed like a lot more fun kind of work to me, but I would get by just working 20 hours a week doing word processing. So I could spend the rest of the time doing stuff that was meaningful to me like playing music and doing drugs, going backpacking and whatever.

But then I got carpel tunnel so I had to stop typing. Then I got on worker’s comp and Etna Insurance Company accidentally sent me checks for a year and a half. They were only supposed to do it for 6 weeks. So they were sending me $160 bucks a week for a year and a half, which for me was like a gold mine. It wasn’t the lump sum settlement that I thought I would get before the law changed during the course of my case. They changed the law so that employers had to give permission to allow the insurance company to give the settlement, which is ridiculous. Of course they’re not going to admit that they caused you to get carpel tunnel even though it’s obviously true. So I didn’t get that, but the worker’s comp thing allowed me to really…I mean even working 20 hours a week I was always struck by somehow or other it was always the most energetic and creative time of the day-even though it was only four hours-that I was really squandering. I still had time for other stuff but not as much as I would have liked even back with that part-time schedule.

Getting worker’s comp was a real opportunity for me to do a lot of wood shedding, which I had never really done before: just practicing and learning songs. I went out about it very systematically, like learning songs that other people wrote for four hours a day. And I knew that I wanted to do music for some sort of living and I knew that I was not really that good at it. I felt strongly that advice of Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger and others that you really have to immerse yourself in the tradition as a way to move forward. So rather than trying to write bad songs and spending too much energy on that I just learned other songs and played in the Pike Place Market and stuff.

You were living in Seattle at the time?

Yeah. Well, I was living in Boston and then I moved to Seattle and continued getting worker’s comp during that time.

So that was pretty crucial getting that income and not having to work?

It was. It was really crucial. Yeah. And after that ran out I realized that I had to start playing out if I was to make any money playing music. I knew that I couldn’t go back to word processing, although I did that a little. My wrists were not liking that so I stopped doing it after a month or so. I got various jobs in cafés and I also played in the streets and realized, at the time, that I made almost as much money doing that as the minimal wage job at a café. It wasn’t enough-I could sing for four hours a day before my voice was gone and wait until the next day before it came back. It was a part-time job of necessity. So I was mixing and matching pulling espresso with playing in the streets in Seattle and then Boston. And I ran a couple of open mics which was fun and I got paid a little bit for it. Then I pretty much transitioned into playing music in the Boston subways full-time once I discovered that it worked a lot better than the streets. People would stop and listen because they had to. It’s the kind of music where if you’re just another white guy with a guitar you’re not very exotic. [Laughs] Unless you have some kind of really unusual voice or something people are not going to be paying attention if you’re playing in the street. They’ll just walk past you. But on the subway platform they have to hang out and listen. When I developed the art better I started making $10, 12 bucks an hour playing in the subway.

And you would play for four hours?

Yeah, only for four hours a day so it was a pretty tight living given the rent in Boston and everything, but I made a living out of it. Did it through two winters. One winter I kind of broke down and got another café job because it was just two cold and it was bothering my wrists. I had gone back to college and then dropped out after a few months, realizing that I just wanted to play music. Then after the street music stuff I transitioned into playing back up with a couple different bands and learning the ropes about touring and how that worked. I kind of built a little following just opening up.

And you were able to live off that?

I did three different tours with three different bands, each for about three months. They were all situations where I was making some kind of a living; not a good one necessarily but it was okay. With one of them it was very clear cut: as a sideman I was getting paid something like $120 bucks a week plus $15 a day for food. And I was also opening for them and selling CD’s. I had one CD out by then. After that I just started trying to book my own tours and that was in ’97, I think. Yeah. It was very hand to mouth for a couple years but then the network became a little more solid, at least to the point where now I’m making a living and not wondering where the next meal is coming from. But I don’t necessarily have the luxury of taking large amounts of time off or going on vacation to places other than staying with friends or something like that. But I am making a living.

It seems like you are mostly traveling around playing your music, but are kind of based in Boston. Do you have an apartment there that you pay for? How does that work geographically? How does constantly traveling affect your lifestyle in terms of how much money you have to make and things like that?

Well, I’m on tour maybe 80-90% of the time. Although I do have friends and lovers in different places so I’ll take a break here and there for a few days. And it’s a very expensive lifestyle. So for most gigs I’m getting paid several hundred dollars, which years ago certainly would’ve seemed like an outrageous amount of money to make in a day. I mean I’m only playing three or four gigs a week, so it’s not every day like that. But still, it seems like a hell of a lot of money-not being independently wealthy or anything-compared to working a $10-12 an hour job it seems like a lot. But you gotta factor in that I’m usually covering the cost of plane tickets and rental cars, which between the two of them sucks up most of the money. So I’m flying all over North America and Europe and back and forth, but it all pretty much gets sucked up.

So the actual travel costs of getting from one place to another, that’s basically your main expense? It seems like you don’t really pay for lodging at all.

Yeah, sometimes I pay for hotels but usually I just tell the people organizing the gig that if there’s a guest room that would be great or if they could cover the cost of a hotel that would be great. It kind of depends on who’s doing it, whether it’s a big effort for them to come up with a couple hundred bucks. Or if they have a budget and they can pay for a hotel and a plane ticket sometimes. Occasionally, I’ll go to a certain region because there will be a gig that actually pays for the plane fare and pays me, then I’ll try to line up other gigs around that. And other times I just figure, well it’s been long enough since I’ve been to California. I’m sure I could line up some gigs there if I told people I’m coming even though I don’t have a particular one that’s a really good one. Then I won’t ask anybody for travel I’ll just ask everyone for a few hundred bucks and together they’ll end up covering the travel expenses.

This whole international activist community is really a strong support network for you so you haven’t had to rely on any corporations or major labels to finance your music at all. That’s a pretty huge accomplishment. Did you ever think that would happen?

It seems like a mix of different things. One, probably just as important as any other factor, is the ability to be organized. And I don’t think I’m the most highly organized person in the world, but I’m able to regularly check and respond to e-mail and keep track of a database of addresses and e-mails and I have a cell phone. So basically being able to run a fairly rudimentary small business is necessary in order to do this. And I know people who are really good at it who make more money than me and totally suck, and this not even being subjective. Anybody would say, “Oh my god. This person cannot actually sing on pitch and cannot really play the guitar and is a loathsome songwriter.” Not that there’s that many people like that but I can think off hand-I’m not going to name them-of three who anybody would say are just awful. And I’m sure that all of them are making more money than I am. I’m sure that they’re not selling as many CD’s as I am and I’m sure that people aren’t downloading their stuff on the Internet and there’s certainly no buzz about them because they suck. But they’re making a good living because they know how to exploit those networks of institutional gigs-government gigs, union gigs, college gigs-where there’s really unbelievable amounts of money to be had if you’re good at getting it.

And I consider myself not all that good at getting it and I don’t really look hard enough for it, but I’m largely relying on the networks I’ve developed just by people downloading stuff and sending me an e-mail or signing my e-mail list or something. It’s really those networks that are 95% of what I’m relying on for gigs. So I’m not really looking for them much unless I hear about a protest that’s happening, then I’ll tell them I’d like to come and play. Otherwise, it’s not like I’m going around trying to find out if there’s a student group here that might want to hire me unless I hear from them first, although I did some of that early on fairly haphazardly and not very skillfully. So I guess you can do this work and make a good living at it if you suck and if you don’t suck then it’s also a matter of whether you can organize stuff and run a business, but also: is there a buzz about you and are people contacting you rather than the other way around? So that’s where the talent factor comes in but it’s only one of the factors.

What have you found are the main challenges of doing what you love for a living?

Mostly I really recognize that I am doing what I love for a living and it’s really great and I’m glad that I am able to this rather than some shit job because I’ve done that. And then, on the other hand, for some people their dream is to become a radical lawyer or a doctor, a teacher or whatever kind of profession and most other professions I can’t imagine ever wanting to do. They all seem kind of tedious to me and playing music is one of the few that doesn’t. But then again, the amount of time I spend traveling and doing e-mail I should really think twice about that. Actually what I’m doing is about as tedious as most tedious professions. For some reason it just really works for me and I’m really glad to be doing it. But one of the drawbacks for me is just wishing that the music industry wasn’t the way it is and I think partly it’s just my lack of professionalism around doing this kind of thing and not trying to make the right kinds of contacts with promoters and agents and stuff like that. As it is, I play a hell of a lot of gigs for very small audiences and I kind of have it worked out so that I’m getting guarantees for most of those gigs so it covers the living part. But it’s discouraging every time I play for a small audience and I don’t have enough of a Zen attitude about it, I guess, to just be happy in those situations. And all the traveling is kind of a drawback, all the time in cars and stuff…

Check out http://www.davidrovics.com for more info.


Matt Dineen is currently living in Northampton, MA after a one year affair with Madison, WI. He is struggling with the dilemma of following his passion for writing, music, and radical social change with the harsh reality of trying to get by and pay off debt. When he’s not filling out job applications at health food stores and restaurants Matt interns at Class Action, a non-profit organization working to bridge the class divide and create justice, equity, and sustainability for all. Email him at: passionsandsurvival@gmail.com

Photo credit: © www.arbejderen.dk / Jette Jacobsen

Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of interviews for TF which Matt will be conducting with people exploring the dilemma of following one’s passions while surviving in a capitalist society.