Erin Barnes, a former Westword contributor, the subject of a recent 100 Colorado Creatives profile, and today the Illegal Pete's Burrito Fairy, offers an explainer/love letter to those who sacrifice for their music.
When I first heard about Illegal Pete’s Starving Artists program, I was working at a Boulder indie record label as a publicist, earning my chops doing tour press for a busy roster of bands. You need an angle to survive in the post-Napster music industry, and this label’s modus operandi was anti-gimmick: Don’t expect to win the “lottery” of breaking it big in the industry. Just work hard, tour relentlessly and build a steady career for yourself.
Touring is often the only guaranteed way to carve out a living for a musician these days. And touring is incredibly hard.
A 2015 survey published in the Guardian found that “60% of the musicians interviewed have suffered from depression or other mental disorders during or after a tour, and that 71% believe tours are problematic.”
So, what’s so problematic about the rock-and-roll lifestyle?
The touring lifestyle often provides no health care, increased health risks, crappy fast food, economic difficulties, depression and mental illness, instrument theft and even car crashes. It’s often hard to maintain a home base, relationships or support system when you’re homeless much of the year.
“So don’t be a musician,” some say. To this, I’ll paraphrase a Tweet I recently saw widely shared: If you think someone is foolish for trying to make a living doing art, you should be forced to go one month living without music, podcasts, TV shows, radio, literature, hold music, paintings, laptop screen savers and the list goes on.
Which is why I was attempting to start a touring musician’s hostel eight years ago, after learning how many times the indie bands on our label had to crash on floors. I probably should’ve waited to talk to Westword until I had the funds to get my program off the ground, because it never happened. But luckily, I heard about Illegal Pete’s and their Starving Artists program.
Founder Pete Turner’s business is burritos, but he’s also the biggest music fan you’ll meet. That’s why it made total sense for him to hire Virgil Dickerson, one of the most prominent figures in Colorado music (who’s still actually in touch with bands). Virgil started and ran Suburban Home Records for years, booked Club 156 and even licensed music for bands like Portugal. The Man. Virgil found himself on tour with one of his bands, the Fairlanes, and saw firsthand how tough the road can be. They stopped at a restaurant in Albuquerque called Fred’s Breads, which gave bands a 50% discount. It was a small gesture, and yet sometimes the smallest gestures are all you need. A nod that lets the other person know that you get it.
Virgil approached Pete, asking if they could do something similar at Illegal Pete’s, and Pete upped the ante. “Let’s just feed them for free,” he said.
The Starving Artists program has fed touring bands for free for eight years now, acting like a home away from home for road-weary bands; something familiar they can count on whenever they come through Colorado or Arizona.
A byproduct of the program: It’s really cool. I remember being an impressionable teen, poring through every image I could find of my musical idols, like Kurt Cobain. I noticed every T-shirt he wore — It’s how I discovered Daniel Johnston. With the Starving Artists program, how cool is it that someone’s favorite musician is circulating the globe, telling their friends and fans about Illegal Pete’s?
Our burritos have even made appearances in music videos, like "Dream On,” by Culture Abuse (crushing an Illegal Pete’s burrito at about 2:58). Frank Turner has incorporated Illegal Pete’s into his live performances. Bands like Lucero regularly recommend us to their friends. Virgil’s friends Portugal. The Man have been fed countless times through the program, before their breakout hit and Grammy, as well as Weezer, the Menzingers, Elton John, Morrissey and more.
It’s beyond word-of-mouth marketing: It’s rock-and-roll lore.
We’ve gotten our fair share of flack; When we advertised feeding artists like Kendrick Lamar, certain individuals in the community demanded, “Why aren’t you feeding local bands?” or “Why aren’t you feeding the homeless?” I’m sure we’ll get at least one naysayer yelling, “Do they really need the free beer?”
Ninety-nine percent of the bands we feed are far from being Elton John; they're garage bands, dusty troubadours and unknown road warriors. But we’re not interested in deciding which bands that fit within our criteria are more deserving.
Year-round, Illegal Pete’s hosts myriad fundraisers ranging from one-day events to month-long extravaganzas to fight homelessness and cancer, encourage youth literacy and school programs for at-risk youth. To help local artists, we’re also involved in the Colorado Creative Industries’ Career Advancement Grant, and Pete recently pledged $25k per year for three years to the Denver Music Advancement Fund. But, sorry, we can’t afford to feed bands for free who live here all the time.
And, yes, we believe in the great importance of free beer.
For my part, for the past six years, I’ve had the privilege of performing the best job anyone could ever ask for: Delivering on someone else’s generosity. As Burrito Fairy, I get to brighten the days of road-weary bands with a small gesture of love and welcome. Pete checks in with me from time to time and makes sure that I’m making them each feel special. It’s a natural antidepressant for me, the bands are always so appreciative, and I get the additional kick of chatting with some lead singer of a death-metal band I’ve never heard of, knowing that a million Facebook fans would kill to be me. I also have a deep understanding, across a wide cross section of genres, about band name trends (it’s getting wacky out there, folks). The job has seen me, a writer — starving artist in my own right — through raising two children, emailing bands while nursing a baby. My life can get strange, getting texts late at night from bands who didn’t plan ahead, having to rush my kids home from the library for a burrito emergency, or receiving all-caps emails from the Maxies begging for delicious food.
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What began as an underground, secret hookup now feeds an average of twelve bands per week (the average of all weeks in 2018). In 2017, we fed 556 bands for free — that’s about 2,426 starving artists. And 2018 and 2019 hold exciting things in store for the Starving Artists program. First, free beer for touring artists alongside their entrees! We’re excited to pair up with the most refreshing ale in existence, Dogfish Head’s SeaQuench Ale. We’ll be announcing additional perks in the near future and some really exciting partnerships. The Burrito Fairy will be making the rounds to more bands, trying to squeeze the most out of this rock-star program.
So until then, the Burrito Fairy will sign off with the words used to send our bands off into the golden queso sunset that is Illegal Pete’s: Enjoy the food and your time in Denver.
P.S.: There has yet to be written a song about the Burrito Fairy. Just sayin’.
Westword occasionally publishes essays on topics of interest to metro Denver. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to email@example.com.