Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paying musicians: a modified Facebook rant.

New York Times : Rockers Playing for Beer: Fair Play?

I've been behind Amanda Palmer on a lot of things, but I don't agree with her here.

I'm not saying this as a sad-sack loser musician whining for more money or someone pathetically jealous of her success. Performing for others hasn't been a big part of my musical existence for years. I was (am) fully behind her amazing Kickstarter and everything that she has done to advance the post-label model of music business.

No, I'm saying this as someone who hires musicians to perform my music.
I'm saying this as, if you like, a "job creator."
I may not be Amanda Palmer's equal, career-wise, but I'm in something of the same role as her in this situation.

I always try to make a point of paying musicians whom I ask to play my music. If I can't afford it, I don't ask. I do this despite the fact that I'm not high profile, and I'm certainly not wealthy.

I've done some recordings. I've put on a couple shows. I may not pay my musicians a helluva lot, but I consider it a moral choice for me to pay them whatever I can, and I've done that right from the beginning. I will pay them out of my credit card and personal savings if I have to, hoping that I'll at least make my money back (and thankfully, so far, I have been able to do that). I paid myself way, way less than minimum wage out of the Gonzales Cantata takings - even though I was composer, director, producer, promoter, and conductor - so I could cut all thirty of my performing musicians three-figure checks for singing in three shows. As some of them have attested, many of them wouldn't have cared if I didn't pay them, accepting the catered lunches we provided and the spot on Rachel Maddow as compensation enough (and, hopefully, the fun of playing my music). They would have played for free. But I won't let them. That's a moral choice for me.

"Isn't it the choice of the musician whether they want to play for beer or not?"

Actually, no: it is the choice of the person hiring the musician whether they want to pay them or not, and I think it's pretty clear that this is the moral choice to which I am referring.

Here's what I saw when I lived in Sydney (I moved to the USA in 2003). When electronic music became a big thing in the 90's, lots of clubs and bars discovered that it was cheaper to pay a DJ for the night than to pay a live band or three. So many clubs became DJ-only that there were only a few venues left willing to host live bands. Gradually, they began paying the bands less and less to play. Then most of them said, fuck it, there are so many bands that will play for free now, we won't pay any bands. The bands should feel grateful that they get to play at all, right? If a band demanded payment, the venue would shrug and instead hire a band that would play for free. Some venues started charging bands to play. You had to fucking pay to play. This was the status quo, and there were no real alternatives.

The end result of this? A lot of bands and musicians couldn't afford to be active any more. And the only people who were active were the people who could afford to play for free. In other words, you could afford to be in a working band if and only if you were already socioeconomically privileged.

Music is already an expensive enterprise. You have to buy expensive equipment. If you want to be able to actually play your instrument, you need expensive training. You need to have ample spare time to practice, alone or with other people. It's a far more rigorous and expensive discipline than acting, for example, and I say this as someone who has done a lot of theater. There's already enough of a barrier to people with no money getting into music. As someone who is in a position to hire musicians, I will not be party to the kind of exploitation that perpetuates this situation. I will not say to a worker: well, it was your choice to accept this shitty pay job, and you'd better like it, or you can fuck off, because otherwise I'll just find some wealthier musician out there that can afford to earn peanuts. And by peanuts, I mean nothing. And by nothing, I mean you're actually making a loss because you paid for gas.

And before anyone goes talking to me about supply and demand and what the free market can bear: no, fuck you. Just because it was possible during the Industrial Revolution to pay children practically nothing to work in awful environments that frequently led to their deaths, it isn't right. Just because supply and demand make it possible to have thousands of sweatshop workers in Asia living as indentured servants who will never be able to make a better life for themselves in order that Americans can buy cheap clothes and electronics, it isn't right. Just because colleges can get away with increasingly only hiring instructors part time so they can never give them any kind of benefits or job security, it isn't right. Oh, but all those people wanted to work! They were so much better off than they would be without the job! In the case of adjunct professors, they may even love their job because they have a calling to education! No. It's still. Not. Right. This is a moral choice for me. This is a philosophical choice. And I don't agree with the moral/philosophical choice Amanda has made here, perhaps unwittingly. She paid all the visual artists, even though I'm sure many of them would have done the work for free. That's admirable. Why shouldn't professional musicians get the same treatment?

Here's the saddest part of it for me: saying that everything is above board when you don't properly compensate musicians because they LOVE to play and LOVE their boss and LOVE the exposure and CHOSE their own path ... I have heard these exact, I mean these *EXACT* words directly from representatives of the predatory record labels that Amanda excoriates, justifying their treatment of musicians they've signed. I understand that this was not some evil malicious plan on Amanda Palmer's part. The problem is systemic, and for all the amazing things that she has done, I understand that it's hard to completely leave behind an entrenched system, with all its entrenched exploitative problems.

But, at least in my view, we have a moral obligation to make things better if we can. And if I can, I'm pretty sure she can too.


demure said...

Exactly right, Melissa. On her page I pointed out that if the concert tickets were free, or being donated to charity, I could understand it, but she has moved now from being a small cult band to being a very well-paid professional performer and the relationship to her fans has changed because of that. This is one of those things that probably seemed like a good idea at the time but just went wrong because it wasn't thought out properly. As they say "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions".

Steve said...

Very well said.

musician said...

Thank you for voicing your keen observations

Ernesto Schnack said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I definitely agree that one should pay their musicians when possible, but in this case I think things have been blown out of proportion.

Asking ones fans for "professional-ish" musicians to join her on stage for a few songs is different from hiring professional musicians for a gig (which she does with her band, and the strings and horns as well in certain dates).

I don't see anything immoral about it, and Amanda has never been shy about asking for things. Ultimately though, I think it's up to her fans to decide if she over-stepped her bounds.