Mothers of Invention
By Greg Beets
MAY 10, 1999: To some dime-store pundits, successfully marrying the rock & roll lifestyle with traditional motherhood is a diametric proposition right up there with Johnny Rotten and Debbie Boone shacking up. After all, isn't rock & roll supposed to be the province of rebellious youth bent on annoying their elders? And isn't parenthood the time to put away so-called childish things and "settle down" into a life of docile role-modeling?
You don't need to discuss music and motherhood with Annie Melvin for long to discover the futility of conventional notions surrounding these subjects. Melvin is the founding director of Mother Rock Star, a national network of music-related businesses owned by moms. Radio promotion, tour publicity, desktop publishing, Web site design, and publishing/copyright consulting are just a few of the services provided by Mother Rock Star and its affiliate companies. Mother Rock Star, which Melvin runs with former Horsies singer/clarinetist Julia Austin, recently produced the "Women in Music Symposium" held last month at the LMNOP Music Conference in New Orleans.
But Mother Rock Star is more than just a group of businesses that happen to be run by moms. It also serves as a support network for mothers working in the music industry -- a support network that's part of a growing number of music-related entities that address larger social issues in a manner unique to the music community. Much like Austin's SIMS Foundation provides mental health services to musicians who otherwise might not get them, Mother Rock Star seeks to address some of the stumbling blocks that come with being a music industry mom.
In addition to Austin, Mother Rock Star has representatives based in New York, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans, Seattle, Tucson, and Amsterdam. These representatives cater to the needs of both the musician and the mother. "If you're a musician traveling and you need professional contacts, personal contacts, possible lodging or child care referral, that's what these people are in place for," says Melvin.
Another facet of Mother Rock Star is thenetwork's mini-zine and online community for moms in music within the HipMama parenting resource Web site (www.hipmama.com/mrs.html). "That's my little area of play," says Melvin. "It's a way for the moms to contribute with art or interviews. I'll have one mom interview another mom and then we'll feature art from each of their children."
In just over a year of existence, Melvin has received approximately 250 inquiries from people interested in learning more about the network. Some of the inquiries come from mothers asking for advice on parenting and/or music. "I feel kind of like Dear Abby in a way," says Melvin. "I get in contact with a lot of different moms from all over, so I'm conversing with them, but I'd like to set it up so that it's easier for them to talk to each other."
The founding of Mother Rock Star was inspired by Melvin's realization that she was not alone in her ongoing quest to balance music and motherhood. "I've been working in this business for 12 years now, so I have lots of contacts and friends in the industry," she says. "After a while, I started to notice that we were all reproducing at the same time. I really wanted to meld what my life had turned into with the only thing I knew how to do, which was meshing motherhood with the music industry."
Melvin had her first child in 1993 when she was working as showcase coordinator for South by Southwest and playing guitar and singing for Eleanor Plunge. Like many first-time parents, she quickly discovered that the reality of raising children didn't quite match up to what she'd imagined. "I was taking my daughter Exene to work almost every single day for her first year," Melvin relates. "It was great that I had her there, but I also had to struggle with worrying about keeping my job, not causing too much commotion, and not wanting to put her in day care. It was very hard."
Despite the impressive gains made by women in music during the past decade, it's still a male-dominated arena. Furthermore, the youthful skew of the music community often means that people with kids are the exception rather than the rule. Not surprisingly, then, it didn't take long before Melvin started noticing telltale signs that some people in the music community were viewing her differently because of her newfound motherhood. "I had trouble with people saying, 'Oh you have a child, you can't do this -- you can't go out enough,'" she says. "I think I do my job better than I ever have. I work harder and I'm more experienced than I've ever been.
"One time, I was at a party and I told some guy I was a mom. He said, 'Oh, well, you don't look it,' as though it's not something to be proud of. There's an image tag to it. You don't only have to break through being a woman, you also have to break through the barriers of being a mother."
Melvin also felt guilty for continuing to play music after work when she could be spending time with her daughter. The temporal overload of working, parenting, and playing music eventually compelled Melvin to leave the band grind. "You don't have a choice about work, but you do have a choice about going to practice," she explains. "You do both and your day is gone. I wrestled with that a lot. I'm totally for any mom who is true to her creativity and can handle motherhood, but I chose not to do it."
After her stint at South by Southwest, Melvin started doing music promotion and publicity on her own from home. The emergence of the Internet enabled Melvin to continue working without sacrificing time spent with her children. "When my son Gus came along (in 1996), I'd be breastfeeding at the computer while talking to labels," she relates. "I was trying to keep the baby quiet to give them the impression that it's completely professional. My work is professional, but I'm still trying to be mom and not send him away to day care."
Fortunately, Mother Rock Star's clients don't mind the occasional parental-duty interruption. "Your child can walk in and there's a whoop or holler, or their toy fire truck siren goes off, and you're not freaking out," says Melvin. "It's so nice to do business with people who have the same common issues going on at their feet."
Melvin's insistence on keeping her kids at home shares many of the same philosophical underpinnings being voiced by the family-values camp in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting. She's concerned by the potential ill effects of not taking the time to really know your children. And even though she's against censorship, she constantly monitors and sometimes censors her own kids' media intake. For Melvin, though, the biggest obstacle facing contemporary parents is a socioeconomic structure that practically demands two full-time wage earners per family. "Parents aren't even allowed to know their kids," she asserts. "They miss everything about them."
Another significant issue for many music industry moms is a health care system that often forces the self-employed and their families to choose between paying outrageous health insurance premiums or not having coverage at all. "I have been in jobs that I hated, but I kept them because I was in that insurance-fear trap," says Melvin. "For me, I don't think it's worth it. I want insurance, but I don't want to do something I hate just to get it."
In the future, Melvin's dream would be for Mother Rock Star to offer affordable health insurance to all the mothers in the network. "I have one mom in New Orleans who has a 13-year-old and a 12-year-old and they both have muscular dystrophy," she says. "They were just diagnosed last year and they're just plummeting. They don't have health insurance. I have another mom here whose 30-year-old daughter has skin cancer, but she's been misdiagnosed for the past six years. The musician's community in New Orleans helps them tremendously, but it just wrenches at me."
Melvin would like to see the network start sponsoring shows featuring women's music, particularly music made by moms. One notable musician mom already supporting the network is former Throwing Muses leader Kristin Hersh. Hersh's forthcoming album, Sky Motel (4AD), will feature the Mother Rock Star logo.
Eventually, Melvin also hopes to establish a "Mother Rock Star House" in Austin for moms in the music business. "I'd like to have an office where other independent companies can office out of that has on-site child care," says Melvin. "It would be a safe atmosphere where you could have your kids there and run your business the way you want. We could help each other. If I could get it perfected in Austin, I'd love to see it duplicated in other cities."
By focusing on the common denominator of motherhood, Mother Rock Star has the potential to bring women in the music industry together in a manner that transcends velvet ropes and corporate hierarchy. "All of the sudden, it doesn't even matter whether you're just starting out or you're the president of a company," says Melvin. "If you're a mom, you're still having the same issues. It's great because it knocks down those barriers and then you start talking about real life."
Mother Rock Star, c/o Annie Melvin, 13302 Waverly Court #A, Austin, TX 78729; email@example.com
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