By Howie Stier
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in Howie Stier’s Lost Generation series. The first can be found here. We will soon collect Howie’s work in a Dig for your pleasure and convenience.
Only upon seeing the freight train, a stretch of container cars miles long—actually taking in the sight of those container cars each emblazoned with Chinese characters and Chinese factory names and meandering across the Nevada desert like a monstrous parasitic tape worm, did the enormity of America’s dependency on imported goods strike home. Sometimes we’ve got to go out and see things firsthand to confirm for ourselves what is known widely as fact. What is now not widely known is that just like all the Wal-Mart and 99 Cent Store-bound brand-name disposable crap in those containers was manufactured by underpaid Chinese labor, and unpaid prisoners, a lot of U.S. entertainment—which, alongside weapons of mass destruction, remains one of our nation’s top exports—is produced by underpaid and, increasingly, totally unpaid talent.
“There’s plenty of coolie labor around town,” Raymond Chandler’s pulp fiction detective Philip Marlowe quipped in negotiating a day rate in the Hollywood of the 1930s. That rings just as true in Hollywood today. A pall has been cast over the creative capital of the planet as the recession has blurred the distinction between emerging artist and mid-career artist, both willing to work on projects for little or no pay, scrambling for dwindling gigs with a carrot called “exposure” dangled before them, hoping their efforts will lead to a big payoff. But these days, when it does come around, the big payoff ain’t that big and the glam jobs have lost their glam. So Hollywood will churn out another season of “The Biggest Loser” and a slew of other reality shows and a ready supply of Americans eager to debase themselves for fame, and, like the desperate marathon dancers of Horace McCoy’s Hollywood Depression novel “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” they will get that exposure, and little else. Meanwhile, creative professionals in comedy, animation and the pop music biz find their dues-paying period now extended indefinitely and they remain earnest and joyless. Here are the voices of a few willing to talk about it.
* * *
“I figured a way to make money,” the clear but anxious voice message began. This coming on a day when headlines blare “the recession is over” and we’re of a mind that perhaps we have no reason to further pursue this line of storytelling. “I can’t explain, you’ve got to come over and see,” the message continued, and since our a posteriori knowledge diverges from the headlines—and we’re fortunately still getting paid to go out and see things—we step to it.
In the living room of the modest Hollywood apartment, a queen-size bed sits neatly made. “Well, what do you think? I’ve rented out my bedroom,” says Buddy Hickerson, smiling broadly and seemingly satisfied at this development, but his tone betrays despair, and bitterness that things have come to this. He evokes the actor Jack Lemmon in one of his comic-anguish roles, but badly needing a haircut and wearing a T-shirt that might not survive another washing. Hickerson is a cartoonist and, short of “The Simpson’s” creator Matt Groening, as established as they come. Once the staff artist with The Denver Post, his name is on the spines of three books, and his syndicated daily cartoon strip “The Quigmans” at one point ran in 75 daily newspapers nationwide. When papers began trimming budgets, Hickerson transitioned into animation and quickly made it to the winner’s circle after walking into a dot-com convention at the Roosevelt Hotel in 2000, portfolio in hand, and walking out with a quarter-million-dollar contract to produce a Web series of his character Swamp Baby. “I got my head stuck in the Hollywood honey pot,” he says of the deal, which led him to invest in equipment and software. He completed all of two episodes before the producers backed out. “At the time they were screaming for content and they were paying. That ended.” An NBC show he worked on was canceled before airing, but he got in half a year’s work before joining the ranks of the self-unemployed—those uncounted millions who never figure in the unemployment stats—and got used to feast or famine. Only the past few years haven’t churned out many feasts for Hickerson.
No one is paying for the curiously named webisodes any longer, Hickerson explains, as artists striving for that exposure are posting shows gratis. “My big hope is to sell a TV show, that’s where the money is.” But demand is uncertain. The Cartoon Network is switching to cheaper live action shows—no more cartoons, he hears. “Ideally I’ll land a job as a character designer with an animation company.” Those companies, however, want workers skilled in a litany of computer programs which freshly minted art school graduates are highly proficient at, and those recent grads will work for nothing to build a portfolio.
“They used to ship off the design drawings to Korea to be animated. Now, using Flash [an animation program], they hire someone here to do the work of six Koreans. “You have to be a techie—these people are machines. I’m an artist. ... I feel sorry for those bastards,” he says of the young cartoonists he’s competing with for work. Cartoon syndicates now solicit drawings from artists without pay to post on their websites. Should a particular cartoon attract interest, they will do some promotion. “The upside is you’re in the on-deck circle, plying your trade.” Hickerson quickly edits himself. “What am I saying? It’s pathetic. There’s nothing good about it.”
He’s spent a good part of this year working on a stop-motion animation project which went to DVD and for which he was paid $50 a day. He was also given one of discs, which is now on the pile with 30 years of accomplishment. The day a reporter visits, he’s got folding money for a burrito and is elated to have a coupon for a free one. He’s working on a custom painting, made to order for a Craigslist advertiser for $100. A similar work of his hanging in L.A. graphic art gallery Wacko sells for $800. Hickerson looks across his bed out the living room window. “Tomorrow? Tomorrow I’m looking for work. I don’t have a whole lot going on.”
* * *
“The future will be like that film ‘Children of Men,’ except instead of no babies, there’ll be no money,” says stand-up comic James Adomian, opening his set at Los Angeles eatery Taix. The old school French joint—all oak and damask upholstery and etched glass—is hanging in there serving a $9.99 chicken plate du jour and draws the young with nightly alt rock and comedy acts. “I just made a major purchase,” he goes on, flourishing a pair of eyeglasses. And that’s no joke. The comedian went some three months before scraping up enough cash—he’s got no credit cards—for lenses. And tonight, once again, his polished, high-energy act will not draw a dime. At 30, James Adomian is a vet of a Comedy Central tour, was featured on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” and used to pull down $2,000 per appearance at college comedy nights where his George W. Bush impression, the role he aced in “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” went over big. “Then it all kind of vanished like Cinderella. I knew it was coming and braced for it but it knocked me over pretty hard.”
Now he is shacked up with six roommates and had to rely on a Hollywood food pantry and a weekly care package of vegetables from his brother to make it through winter and spring. Adomian performs regularly at the improvisation comedy theater The Upright Citizens Brigade (where this writer learned a great deal), which celebrates an existential worldview, that the universe isn’t guided by reason, that it is absurd, and so Adomian is prepared for these days, almost reveling in the downturn. “The silver lining is I look better,” he says, having dropped 40 pounds to a lean 180 as a result of his forced diet, combined with walking around L.A. since giving up his car. “It got broken into, the starter died and it was all a matter of $400 to fix it all. I didn’t have it.”
He is ambivalent about the Internet and its paradox. “We’re all perpetually putting up material on Funny or Die and Atom.com and people are seeing you all the time, but never hiring you. Everybody is expected to work for free or very little.”
But the recession has also inspired Adomian, not just with material but also to undertake an ambitious cross-country, 11-city stand-up tour. “It’s the Breaking Even tour. I’m going to try and keep accounts and see if I end up with something extra in the end, but I doubt it.” He will be performing alongside local comedians at small clubs and bars and will earn a split of the door while shelling out neither agent fees nor for hotels, “except for one night in New Orleans, otherwise I’m on the couch. Being in comedy I’m lucky to know a lot people.”
Prepping for his quixotic tour, he has accepted as his duty the need to address the culprits of our economic malaise in his material. For example, he’s driven to speak of credit card debt and the threats of collection agents. “When the social contract is broken by rich and powerful people, the rest of us should reciprocate. Banks are pulling scams with the law behind them, so morally there’s nothing wrong with not paying debts. Now, that will be disguised in layers of humor, or you’re just preaching.”
And most heartening, Adomian eschews cynicism. “I want to encourage people facing a bleak future to hold their head up high. And if I get a big pile of money, I’ll fix my teeth.”
* * *
“I worked at the largest, oldest talent agency in the world. I was getting fast-tracked when I quit,” a former music biz agent says. “I saw how unstable the music business became.” Within the small milieu of agents who book musical acts at arenas and theaters across the country, everyone knows everyone, and to avoid future conflicts, the agent gets anonymity here. “No one will tell you there’s no money being made. But that’s the case.” Lean and alert, he looks like any other Los Angeles hipster rocker in skinny jeans, and on a recent late afternoon, when talent agents are suited up in offices, he’s at a cafe with the newspaper. Before heading to his restaurant gig to prep for the dinner crowd, he explains to a reporter how the pop music business, from the bands that make the music to the agents who book them, is in disarray.
After putting in his time as an assistant—the lowest rung in the biz—for a couple years, he scored a Hollywood dream job as a junior agent with William Morris. Regularly he put in 10- and 12-hour days booking acts from Christopher Cross to Alice in Chains at colleges and clubs, never breaking for lunch, working phones in his office and spending the evening networking, making connections in order to succeed.
“This isn’t ‘Entourage.’ All these young people think the music business is what they see on TV, what they read in books. Well, no one has written about the past two years.”
The former agent, whose colleagues were attorneys and MBAs, explains that a base salary of 35-40k would be supplemented by an annual bonus. “You make your money beating the final numbers of the previous years, that could equal your salary and to keep your contract with the agency you need to make more money than the year before. If you brought in $1.5 million, next year you have to bring in $2 million or you’re out. It’s not an easy gig, recession or not.”
But a seasoned agent in his 40s could expect to take in $250,000 a year.
Now, no one is going to make that money, and probably never will again. “Now agents are working twice as hard for half as much,” he says.
“He could get lucky, they could get the next Gaga, the next Britney Spears, but just booking the agency roster that won’t happen.”
Selling albums doesn’t earn money, live acts do, and there are more acts touring the country than ever. But in this recession, smaller venues can’t afford to spend money, and the acts can’t fill the bigger venues. “When Endeavor merged with William Morris, they promised no firings [in the music division]. Gradually they started letting agents go.”
Our source saw a lot of veteran agents fired because they weren’t bringing in the money.
“And in a better economy that would be an ideal situation for a young agent.”
When a reporter points to all the ads for shows, the former agent points out, “In L.A., things are different. People are going out to shows. But you can’t sell out a room in Topeka, Kan.
“I saw career agents spending half their life in the biz being let go? I rather work in a restaurant.”
Now he’s trying to figure out life again, reconciled to lower earnings in a routine job where the occasional burger goes up in smoke, like his glam job dreams.
“[Being an agent] was something I always wanted to do. I was booking shows in high school in my town. But how the hell am I going to get a career position at 35? I’d rather stay in the service industry, live a modest life. Maybe I’ll get lucky with something else.”
AP / Amy Sancetta
A giant Oscar waits in plastic wrapping for someone to find him useful.