You know times are tough for indie musicians when even Chan Marshall—who released a Top 10 Billboard album and played sold-out concerts this year—is bankrupt. The singer known as Cat Power has announced a likely cancellation of her upcoming European tour because of financial and health problems. Before taking the stage in Minneapolis last night, Marshall broke the news on Instagram with the following message:
I MAY HAVE TO CANCEL MY EUROPEAN TOUR DUE TO BANKRUPTCY & MY HEALTH STRUGGLE WITH ANGIOEDEMA. I HAVE NOT THROWN IN ANY TOWEL, I AM TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT BEST I CAN DO ...
It's no shock to learn that musicians lead financially precarious lives, but the thought of an artist as big as Cat Power going broke is particularly disheartening. The album Marshall released last month was as successful as any indie product could hope to be in 2012. Sun broke the Bilboard Top 10 and made a splash in Europe, peaking at No. 6 in France. It went over just as well with the critics, with reviewers calling the album "honest, accomplished, and pretty much just beautiful." Then she did what's required of every modern day songstress wanting to put bread on her table—she went out and played, selling out a number of clubs. If that's not enough to turn a profit in indie music, then who knows how deep in the red all the artists who didn't make it onto the Juno soundtrack must be.
Marshall's bankruptcy resonates with the angle Nitsuh Abebe took in his recent New York cover story on Grizzly Bear. Abebe showed that "hitting the big time" for today's musicians means having enough to pay the bills, feed yourself, and maybe buy a few vinyl records now and then. Health insurance remains a huge concern. Some Grizzly Bear members admitted to being uninsured. Marshall hasn't publicly disclosed her insurance status or commented on whether health costs led to her bankruptcy. But let's hope she has a health plan, because she's been something of a fixture at Miami's Mt. Sinai Medical Center lately. In 2006, she checked in for alcohol addiction, and last month she was back in one of their hospital beds for undisclosed reasons. Her admission that she suffers from angioedema—a serious condition that causes swelling in the face, tongue, and throat, sometimes leading to life-threatening suffocation—is scary. With or without coverage, these kinds of persistent medical issues can put the brakes on a musician's career. Or at least force them to put music on the back-burner while working a day job for the health benefits.
Everyone knows that artists go out on a financial limb by committing to creativity as a career. But it's beginning to look like even the most successful musicians—the ones that grace magazine covers and inspire bloggers to gush out 2,000-word think-pieces—will soon struggle to eke out a living from their craft. In retrospect, Sun's closing track "Peace And Love" was full of clues about Marshall's flagging financial health. Her angry lyrics referenced the 99 percent, Wall Street, and the paltry sums artists accrue in the post-Spotify marketplace.
A hundred-thousand hits on the internet
But that don't mean shit
Even if you're legitimate.
Now we know Marshall wasn't just channeling generalized, post-recession frustration through her music. She was singing very specifically about her own diminished economic prospects.