This spring marks the 20th anniversary of when I quit my day job and began building the company that would eventually launch as OnMilwaukee in September 1998. It honestly didn’t feel like such a dramatic decision when I was 23 years old. Only years later did I realize the effect that taking myself off the corporate track would have on my eventual career path. Once I became self-employed, I never looked back and never regretted it, either.
Lately, I’ve heard more and more stories from creative contemporaries of mine that are trying something different in their early forties. A right angle, a sea change, a second act – not so much abandoning what got them here but pivoting into a new creative space.
In talking with entrepreneurs, musicians and artists, we all share a common refrain: we love what we do and are thankful for how we got here – but we’re creatives and we are not done creating, either. Some call it a "midlife crisis," but really it’s crafting a midlife opportunity.
For this first column in an open-ended series, I spoke with Zia McCabe, the synth/bass/percussion player of the Dandy Warhols, a Portland-based band with 10 studio albums over its 23-year career. McCabe, a community activist, DJ and mom, recently added another title to her resume: full-time realtor.
At first glance, selling homes doesn’t seem like a very rock and roll job, but if you delve a little deeper, you start to understand McCabe’s motivation. In many ways, she sees this as a way to combine her passions with the unique skill set instilled in her from years on tour with plenty of disparate personalities. She loves Portland, and has always used her platform as an informal way to make her hometown better. In this way, I can relate, as my love for Milwaukee is what inspired OnMilwaukee. But combining your job and your art can make both suffer. Zia’s new career offers security, but also allows her to make music again on her own terms, not just for the paycheck.
In other words, McCabe, 42, hasn’t given up rock for real estate; rather, she’s challenged herself to learn something new and become more present during this next phase of her life.
"I see this as a long crossfade," McCabe told me. "I may be a Dandy Warhol for life but that doesn’t mean I will always be able to make a living doing so. I’m adding real estate to my repertoire to take some of the earning burden off music. Someday the money I earn from real estate will be my main source of income. I will always play music. It will always be my passion but I look forward to it not being a business, though. Making your art your business takes it toll."
Some of the pieces in this series will feature Milwaukeeans I admire, while others will highlight someone who is just interesting to this Milwaukee author. Here is Zia McCabe’s story.
OnMilwaukee: Do you feel like you're living a little bit of a double life right now?
Zia McCabe: Yeah, for sure. I mean, they're pretty different lifestyles. I DJ'ed a big party on Saturday and worked on the new record the day before that and, the week before that, all real estate stuff.
Is it hard to shift gears back and forth between these things?
It's hard to do a bunch of late-night stuff and then try to come in for branch meetings. The hours are so different for DJ’ing and rock and roll compared to real estate, so that's a little bit of a juggle. My daughter's in school, so I have to get up and take her to school, anyway. Once I'm up and have her to school, I just carry on to work.
This isn’t all about the money, right?
No, not at all. I mean, I guess, sure, there's an aspect of that because if and when the Dandys aren't my main source of income, I'll need to have something that can replace that. A minimum wage job isn't going to replace it, and I don't have a college degree. I was in a band while everyone was going to college. It's also got to be something that's going to make me happy. I really like serving my community.
(People should know) how big the philanthropy of (my agency) Windermere is. They've won some big corporate awards for their philanthropy. I really like getting to have that built-in to my career. Part of what I've been doing here is organizing an event called "Windermere's Got Talent." It's going to showcase the agents and staff and be a fundraiser for the foundation that helps with homelessness and abused children. That's part of why I chose Windermere of all the agencies to go with.
You didn't take the standard path to be a real estate agent, did you?
I don't know if there is a standard path for real estate. You have a lot of artists, musicians and athletes. Those aren't careers that typically span a lifetime. There's ex-golfers and writers. There's also a lot of people who got their law degrees and got into law and didn't like that game, but their aptitude for paperwork and contracts carries over really well.
I was thinking about all the conflict resolution that is involved in real estate. When you get to that part where you're negotiating on home inspections, it gets pretty scary. You need to have someone who can really walk you through that stuff. On the other hand, you've toured around the country in a van with a bunch of smelly dudes …
I just had a listing interview with a potential client who found me through (an article in a local weekly newspaper), so that was kind of cool. He's like, "I know you're new. How does this work for you?" That's one of the things that I've brought up, is there's so much that's important for a realtor to know that I learned by being in a rock and roll band for 23 years. That’s negotiation and people skills and conflict resolution, all of that. Then, the things that I don't have a lot of experience with, I have an office full of people that do the very real estate specific stuff, who I can get help from.
It's not necessarily an easy job, but neither is making music. When you started in the Dandy Warhols, you weren't a classically-trained musician. You kind of learned on the job, right?
Yeah. I had taken one beginning guitar class, that's it.
Obviously, persistence is your strong suit.
Yeah, I'm not scared to jump in. I'm a quick learner and I don't fear change. For a lot of people that's a real hangup, trying new things. I don't really hesitate in that department. That's definitely a strength for me, whatever career path I would choose. You have to be pretty self-made in art and music. In real estate, it's the same. You have support from your principal broker, but you have to take all the steps on your own. You create your own infrastructure. You build your own business.
That's not for everybody, and it's got its drawbacks. For me, the upside is all of the freedom of setting my own schedule. I wouldn't have fared very well with a 9 to 5. I can be here 9 to 5 by choice, but I can still travel and I can still take days off to record. I'm still my own boss, technically. To me, those are all advantages.
How much is your love for Portland reflected in this new career?
I’d like people to see the civic work that I've done and the activism and the things that I've done for Portland, like fighting to keep the fluoride out of the water, which I know is a divisive issue, but to me it was important, and fighting for GMO labeling and gay rights back in the day. I serve on the board of Rock and Roll Camp for Girls. To me, that was part of the picture. It wasn't just going from rock and roll to real estate. It was another way to be deeply involved in my community. I hope people see that.
Has anyone called you a sellout?
I don't know. We got accused of that in the band, too, because we made so much of our money from commercials and movies. I'm like, "Whatever." I had heard of that study where realtors are trusted as much as used car salesmen, so I kind of was already prepared for that. I do always remember that that was a national study and the standards are different from state to state and from agency to agency. I mean, I've definitely run into other agents that I would trust as much as a used car salesman, so I can see where that comes from. In my personal experience in my office, I haven't seen that at all. I've seen people that really care and bend over backwards for their clients and just want a really good outcome.
Are your clients sometimes fans? Or do some of them not know about your other life?
There's a combination. The thing that I was kind of surprised by is I thought that having such a big sphere, knowing so many people in Portland, that the transition would be really smooth, but there's two parts. There's one, just the rebranding, seeing a rocker as somebody that can do complicated transactions. The other part was that fans would reach out to me, maybe sooner than they would reach out to another agent. Of course, I'm giving them my full, undivided attention. How often does a fan get full, undivided attention from somebody that they look up to? I started to realize that there was some time-wasting.
Like, people just calling you to hang out?
People just want to talk. I was like, "OK. I didn't see that coming, but now that it's happening, I probably should have." I'm pretty down to earth and pretty accessible. Right now, while I'm not crazy busy, I can give those people the time they're looking for, but I'm not always going to be that available.
As I'm working on this series, and I'm sure you're hearing this also, the phrase "midlife crisis" keeps being thrown around. I don't know if I really like that phrase, because it seems like there's a better way to explain to people why we would be shaking up what's perceived as the best jobs in the world.
Well, I'm describing it that way for a lack of a better term. I think a midlife crisis indicates that you're not handling it skillfully. I think that there is something that happens in midlife. I think one of the things that occurs to people in midlife is, rather than having this infinite bucket list of things that you want to achieve in your lifetime because you feel like you have all the time in the world to get to them, at some point in midlife, the end is a little more tangible.
You have to come to terms with the fact that you're not going to do everything on this list. Are you going to learn piano or Spanish? You're probably not going to get to both. I think that there's this reconciling of that list to fit into your mortality what you can actually achieve. I think that there's also a moment where you look back on what have you achieved so far and most people feel like it's not enough. You get into this panic of, "I should have accomplished more by now. I only have X amount of time to accomplish the things that I want to," and there's this sense of pressure.
I think that that's where people can go into crisis. It's also where you start to make some bold decisions, like, "Why am I still married to this person? I only have this much time left in my life, I want to be happier than I am now," or "Why am I still doing this job that I don't absolutely love? I'm going to change careers. I'm going to go back to school. I'm going to buy the sports car," whatever. I think that that is where midlife crisis comes from.
Am I having a midlife crisis? I guess sort of by definition, but I feel like I'm handling it skillfully. I just don't know what word to put in as a substitute for crisis. There should be a healthier term for that.
You sound really present about it, which is something that we're all striving to be at this point in our lives.
Totally. Yeah, I do feel present about it. Does that mean that I don't freak out and get overwhelmed? No. I still freak out and get overwhelmed, but I do have a place to come back to where I can cope.
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you one music question. I was listening to Live Sonic Disruption. It’s great, because it takes me to this happy place, inside a Dandy Warhols concert, which is a great place to be. What I noticed is that it seems like you guys, at this point in your career, are playing what you feel like playing, not what you have to. Is that a good spot to be in as a band?
Yeah. I think that's the privilege of a band that's been around for a couple of decades. Also, one of the major decisions that we made was we're not going to do month-long tours anymore. We've cut a lot of our overhead, which means that we have more time at home, which is why it's the perfect time to bring in a second career.
Also, we're just being really choosy about where we play. We can take more creative, avant-garde festival options and stuff, because we're not having to go for the biggest paycheck possible because a huge percentage of it isn't going to various managers. That does give us an opportunity to play more what we want to play. Also, yeah, f*ck it.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.