Living the dream
Being artists, living in Portugal Suzy and I receive a lot of comments on social media about us 'Living the Dream'. This article is all about the pros and cons of living and dreaming as musicians.
Since the age of 16, I have been making music and in the beginning, there was no dream.
It was clear whilst attending an evangelical boarding school near Southport in northwest England, that the higher echelons of staff were more interested in saving souls, rather than saving its pupils from a life of drudgery in the professions. Art was for leisure - the promoted dream was to be a good Christian and make a living in a conventional way.
I started Scarisbrick Hall School at age 11 - it was 1969.
There was no escaping music, it was everywhere, but it took five years before I seriously picked up a guitar and then, from the age of 16 to 18 (1974-1976), things rapidly changed.
I went to loads of concerts, saw some amazing live bands and rapidly became an avid vinyl record collector - buying and vociferously consuming piles of really fabulous music. I was obsessed - and that’s when I had the dream [aspiration] to be a musician, or more accurately a rock star. Who wouldn’t want to be Jimmy Page or Richie Blackmore?
a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal.
a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person's mind during sleep.
The sixteen-year-old boy’s dream never became a reality, as however hard I tried, rock stardom was not to be. I did however become an artist and now, can’t imagine being anything else.
The question is of course can you ‘become’ an artist, or are you always an artist just waiting for the artist in you to come out? I don’t know…
I always smile when I hear the word ‘artist’ as when I was 18 and beating about around the Miners’ clubs in the northeast of England - sporting leather trousers with my Gibson Flying V and two Orange 120W amps on full shred - it’s the last term I would have used.
An artist is a person engaged in an activity related to creating art, practising the arts, or demonstrating an art - Wikipedia
So, looking at this definition and having written, recorded and performed music for over 48 years, I am probably an artist and certainly still practicing.
But, what is the purpose of art? Well, old Aristotle seemed to sum it up quite well:
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance”
Most artists are dreamers, both night and day. You have to be a dreamer to actually keep going - to remain positive, to come up with new shit, think beyond the obvious, take a situation and interpret it in a way so people ‘get it’ and challenge the status quo - and I don’t mean the Status Quo (you wouldn’t have wanted to take on those boys in a stand-up fight).
Regardless of your artistic discipline, dreaming and creating new work is cool, but the tricky bit is making a living from it.
an income sufficient to live on or the means of earning it.
the pursuit of a lifestyle of the specified type.
1. Making a living
It is indeed a privilege to be able to wake up in the morning and just do art, but unless you are very successful and/or have a team you can trust and pay of course, the work actually involves running a business. Marketing, sales, order processing, gear maintenance, tour management, web design, finance, basically everything - it’s almost a luxury to have time to be truly creative.
All over the world millions of valid, talented and successful artists have full and part-time jobs to support their creative endeavours, which is totally cool, but we have chosen the hard road to do everything ourselves and make it work. No backstop, no support, no pension - yes, we are fucking mad.
When Suzy, my wife and musical partner and I got together - over 10 years ago now - we sold everything we owned, except our Volkswagen Transporter (aka the van of ROCK) and ploughed everything into music and recording equipment.
After a lot of moving about we now have our semi-mobile analogue studio - Supertone Records - here in Samora Correia, which is 30 minutes from Lisboa airport in Portugal which, when we are not working on other stuff, we rent out as a commercial operation. I also do external sessions, production work and mixing, but other than this is all about our art.
The times they are a changin’
Last year, following the COVID epidemic, Suzy and I had a total rethink and decided to increase the scope of our art by going multimedia, resulting in the creation of Starlite.One, which encompasses writing, artworks, installations and podcasts - all tied together with music.
I wrote a piece about this a few months ago; if you are a musician and have a few minutes to spare, it’s probably worth a read.
The writing and podcast parts of what we do have been consolidated into this very publication, which is a reader-supported guide to life, culture, music and current affairs. Both free and paid subscriptions are available and if you want to support our work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
2. Pursuit of lifestyle
When Suzy and I got together we felt the need for a complete change away from the land of our birth and, apart from a brief stint back on the Isle of Man, have always lived together in continental Europe.
We love and intellectually feed off meeting new people, living in new cultures and having experiences that just can’t be achieved as a tourist. There is no doubt that moving countries enriches you as human being, driving home the fact that we are all the same, sharing our hopes, needs, dreams and fears. We also share the unfathomable ability to vote complete nobheads into power, but thats another story.
Following Brexit, we had to choose a country to become permanent residents and subsequently moved from Germany, where we had been for just 18 months, to Portugal. Suzy had never been and I had visited twice on holiday thirty five years ago.
There are a few good reasons for this location. Weather, the reputation for liberal, friendly and respectful people, high quality local produce (food and wine) and even though we work inside most of the time, the outdoor lifestyle. This is all cool but the principal drivers were economic, i.e. the cost of living and free, state-provided healthcare.
We were wrong, but kinda right…
This article was written three years ago and even to this day, we wonder how most people survive here.
The supermarkets and other basic costs are around the same as Germany and, from what we have discovered through experience, throughout most of Western Europe.
Let’s look at the comparative average monthly wages in 20231 (USD).
Germany - 4426
Portugal - 1127
Spain - 2296
UK - 2799
USA2 - 4952
No, I haven’t made a typo, that’s it and everything is taxed to the point of squeaking.
However, you can get by very economically if you live like a local, which taking all the above into account, we have to do.
Of course, the shocking events over the past couple of years have elevated the price of virtually everything, but unlike the UK and many European countries, utilities have not gone totally bonkers. Our rent has remained stable and relatively inexpensive as we live on the ‘other side of the tracks’.
In short we are just about keeping the wheels rolling on the Starlite & Campbell waggon.
Cheap is not always good
There are things here that are very cheap and I am convinced it’s engineered by the powers that be for an almost Orwellian purpose, to keep everyone slightly sedated and happy with their lot. I think this idea has legs and I will probably investigate further, making it the subject of a future article.
So, whats cheap?
Well, you can go to a bar and get a glass of quite acceptable wine for €0.80 - yep, eighty cents. A 25 cl bottle of Super Bock or Sagres lager for one Euro, a Prato do Dia (menu of the day) at a restaurant including wine for €10 each. There are a lot of free concerts with big names put on by the Municipalities and the hoi polloi are regularly fed free sardines, soup, bread and wine at the multitude (and mean multitude) of local festivals.
All this seems fantastic, but for British rock ‘n roll musicians it can spell real trouble as you can - and we have - hit it pretty hard. As a consequence we no longer drink in the house and treat ourselves to one meal out a week, with a reasonable amount of high-quality alcohol.
Just to finish on the living theme, working from home can make you very sedentary and I have always enjoyed taking our girls (Labrador’s Bobby and Hummock) walking for an hour every day. Suzy convinced me (kicking and screaming I have to add) to attend the Dream Gym three times a week for a two-hour workout session.
We have always eaten healthily and this, combined with low alcohol intake and intense exercise, has really changed our lives.
Here endeth the lesson…
Living so far south has its pros and cons. We have already looked at the pros, but there are pretty serious downsides.
Our biggest supporter bases are the UK and USA. The United States is always tricky due to work permits and visas and to tour with our band in the UK requires a three-day drive through Portugal, Spain and France which, if you don’t manage to string in dates on the way there and back, is a right royal and very expensive pain in the arse.
Even though we are British nationals residing in Europe, we are still required to have an ATA Carnet for all our equipment to enter and leave the UK. All this makes it very expensive and logistically difficult to tour our home country.
The final and hardest compromise is being away from family and friends, plus not being a part of the scene. In the UK we know hundreds of musicians and artists who when in town you can call, hang out with and talk shit.
Being a Stranger in a Strange Land (I love that book) it appears very difficult to be accepted by other musicians in Europe and don’t think that’s the case in the UK - but of course, I would say that wouldn’t I.
I am sure time is the secret and we have only been kicking around this country for three years with 18 months of that under COVID restrictions, so let’s see what the future holds.
Hopefully, this article goes some way to share a little of our lives and the practicalities and sacrifices made in order to live the life of an artist.
Living the Dream is about spending our ‘time coins’ (a wonderful Starlite-ism) as best we can because one day our hand will reach into the bag and find there are none left.
I would like to leave you with this quote which I have been using for many years as the footer in my emails: it still rings true.
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he's always doing both.” - James A. Michener (1907-1997)
I would love you to give me your stories and views on this article in the comments below.
See you next time!
Working on: the set for the tour - rehearsing guitar & keyboards, programming Ableton Live! to run all the sequencers and along with my fabulous wife, booking and arranging the carnet, accommodation, flights and ferries, building pedalboards, marketing the new album, sending out all the preorders etc etc and not getting too much sleep - you get the picture.
What’s cooking: Fresh Tuna salad with free-range eggs, spectacular Portuguese olive oil, Flor de Sal and beautiful white wine vinegar.
Listening to: Arvo PärtL Für Alina on vinyl.
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