Bar pianist Phillip Sais at Willy D’s. Photo by Andrew Epperson

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Financial support from parents is a key element of many University of Arkansas students’ educational and professional success. For one former student, a fight led to a new appreciation of self-reliance and frugality to make ends meet.

Phillip Sais, 21, was born in India before he was adopted by parents in Arkansas when he was 1 1/2 years old. Shortly after he began attending college, he and his parents got into an argument. The dispute resulted in agreement that seemed simple at the time: he’d pay for his own responsibilities, including rent, utilities, food, school and lifestyle. Essentially, he was off his parents’ payroll.

An avid musician from a young age, a talent picked up from his mother, Sais started searching for a job in Fayetteville to make ends meet. He searched “dueling piano bars” and found an establishment named Willy D’s. He was worried about potentially being turned down because he was not at the legal drinking age at the time. Despite his doubts, he was offered a tryout and ultimately a role as a food runner and pianist.

“It was scary going around on Dickson Street and asking for a job,” Sais said. Unaccustomed to the bar scene, the prospect of playing music around intoxicated patrons frightened him. “It was so scary, but I did it, and I absolutely love the job,” he said.

Sais soon began to struggle with managing his student loans. He needed to take out more loans to pay off old ones and soon the financial pressures forced him to drop out of college with less than a year remaining before he could earn his degree. Still, he’s paying off student loans and hopes to repair his finances so he can enroll in school again.

As of March 28, Sais’ weekly schedule goes from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He declined to disclose his salary, but generally speaking, the hourly salary for a musician in an employer listed under “Drinking Places (Alcoholic Beverages)” on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment data was $24.09 in 2016. Based off his schedule, when calculated on a yearly scale, his yearly salary is around $22,584.24, which hovers around the median income for workers of much-less specialized jobs.
Sais purchased a motorized scooter to get from place to place in the area, as gas prices and car insurance made it unfeasible for him to purchase a four-wheeled vehicle. He pays a “roadie fee” to his friends who have cars and can help him transfer his equipment from gig to gig.
During football season, business booms and Sais sees an increased number of tips. During the summer, on the other hand, the lack of students and fans coming to Dickson Street makes business a little scarce. During a really tight period, Sais said he was forced to resort to ask his family for money.
To stay afloat, “you have to be willing to do what it takes to make ends meet, even asking family for money sometimes,” Sais said. “The important thing is to never stop, never stop working, and make sure you’re willing to do what it takes to earn an adequate living.”

In the future, Sais plans to enroll in school again to finish his bachelors degree in music performance, he said. If everything works out, he will continue working at Willy D’s while attending classes.