Work Without Pay: 7 Songs By Austin Bands About Work

by Nick Hanover

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Seemingly everyone in Austin arts works a handful of meaningless jobs to fund whatever artistic pursuits they’re more passionate about. So what better way to celebrate Labor Day than rounding up seven of the best songs by Austin artists about the drudgery of workaday life? And be sure to let us know about your favorites in the comments!

 Big Boys “Work Without Pay”

As one of the pioneering Austin punk acts, Big Boys were used to the grind of shitty work conditions and thankless jobs you have to take just to get by. But in their case, that grind was a little more confrontational than normal. Their sophomore effort Where’s My Towel/Industry Standard detailed their frustrations with Steve Hayden, the owner of legendary Austin punk club Raoul’s and the financer of their seminal split LP with the DicksLive at Raoul’sillustrating the changes in the punk scene that Hayden symbolized. Over an especially dreamy Tim Kerr bassline and disconnected Randy “Biscuit” Turner vocal, “Work Without Pay” directly confronts the feelings of monotony and enslavement the band felt under Hayden’s control, and the sense that their band job had stalled out and their only choices were to “quit or stay forever.” That feeling of being trapped hasn’t changed much as Austin has grown and bands struggle to break out, working countless minimum wage jobs to fund musical aspirations that seem to be going nowhere.

Space Camp Death Squad “Fuck Sallie May”

Though it’s more generally a song about the burden of student loan debt, Space Camp Death Squad’s “Fuck Sallie May” specifically targets the torturous work loop millennials are in, stuck in jobs “In the food service industry/Where everyone I know has got a college degree” while student loan debt collectors blow up their phones. Curbside Jones’ happy-go-lucky beat for the track works serves as a clever juxaposition with Space Camp’s doomsday view of the economic climate, like a 21st century satirical spin on the Seven Dwarves’ “whistle while you work” anthem. Space Camp doesn’t have any real answers or even much in the way of hope, but in “Fuck Sallie May” at least they’ve provided a perfect mantra to get you through the next four years of depressing service shifts.

Joe Ely “You’re Working for the Man”

Texas troubadour Joe Ely is known for his intense musical work ethic, with constant touring and a steady steam of album releases marking him as one of the most driven performers in Texas. But on “You’re Working for the Man” he sings about the darker side of a strong work ethic, particularly when it’s for ruthless employers who want to keep you down. The song mixes a mechanical rhythm with Ely’s standard twang and has enough rock breaking imagery to make Sisyphus groan in sympathy, with its core theme being that hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off and if you don’t aim a little higher, you’re likely to work yourself out of a love life and a will to live.

Big Bill “Two Weeks”

If Big Bill is to be believed, getting out of a terrible dead end job isn’t necessarily a guarantee of happiness. In their twisted resignation anthem “Two Weeks,” Eric Bill initially sings about a triumphant exit from the daily grind, repeating the parting line “I put in my two weeks” throughout the chorus while the band builds up a Roadrunners-like crescendo. But then things get weird as the anonymous protagonist leaves the city only to end up kidnapped by trees who peel off his skin and make them one of them, making all of his worst fears about being rooted in a bad position literal.

Crew54 “Labor”

On “Labor,” Central Texas hip hop collective Crew54 try to make the most of the struggle to make ends meet by crafting a banger that’s all about inspiring you to get through the day. The song essentially argues that a dedication to 9-5 discipline can only up your hip hop game and that lesser emcees who aren’t willing to put in effort and practice are never going to be anything other than wannabes and pretenders. The song’s exploitation flick beat and brassy attitude make it hard to resist no matter how bored your job makes you.

Shakey Graves “Business Lunch”

In contrast to Crew54’s belief that you have to put in the time to get anywhere, Shakey Graves calls on Austin’s nomadic spirit in “Business Lunch,” stating “Fuck getting by/Go quit your job” so you can go get drunk in the parking lot instead. Shakey Graves’ music is full of wandering mantras, but his assertion that “life is too short for business lunch” is pretty hard to argue with. And judging by Shakey Graves’ current success, maybe he’s on to something.

Sweet Spirit “Poor”

Opening with the line “Every day I go to work to pay my rent/But by the time I get the check my money’s spent,” Sweet Spirit’s “Poor” is a depressingly accurate illustration of the typical life of an Austin artist. With its glammy guitars and Sabrina Ellis’ strained, yearning vocals, “Poor” doesn’t glorify poverty, per se, but it doesn’t avoid romanticizing the broke artist life either, making clear that work is only a means to survive for artists like Sweet Spirit and they’d much rather be taking their money down a “scenic route” and “cruising down the freeway” in their swimming suits. Sure, they may be drowning in debt and too broke to go to all the shows they want to see, but they’re having far more fun than any office drone.

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover