Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Trials and Tribulation of a Professional Musician

There's been a series of postings on discussing the business aspects of playing live music in the city of Chicago.   The fervor of the discussions got me thinking about my own views of the show business in general; how the arts holds very little compensatory value in society.  For the sake of my discussion, Ill be using the words "band", "performer", and "artist" interchangeably to represent the talent, and "bar", "club", "venue" and "promoter" to represent parties interested in having talent perform in their establishment.   Here's a summary of the points people have made:
  1. Bars/clubs/promoters don't compensate performers well
    Typically, bands get a percentage of the money taken in at the door.  This percentage varies from night to night/bill to bill/owner to owner.  Sometimes performers share the pot equally regardless of who brings the most of the people in.  Other times its based on a per capita tally.  Many times bands don't get paid at all.

    The idea is that these establishments are using bands to exploit their fan base to come in, pay for admission into the venue, pay for expensive drinks (of which they get to keep completely and not share with the performers), and spend wads of cash while the artist gets a pittance for everything they've done.  Some are clamoring for elevated compensation.

  2. Performers should get an agreed upon level of compensation and it should be done in writing
    Many contracts between booking agents and performers are done on a verbal "handshake", i.e., no formal contracts are written up and signed on by all parties involved.  This arrangement allows bars to engage in unfair practices against performers when it comes to compensating them at the end of the night.  The belief here is that this can be combated by placing all the terms in writing, thus, giving artists a recourse in the case they get screwed over.

  3. People willing to submit the the whim of these venues are hurting "real" artists by diluting their bargaining power. 
    This is an interesting collective bargaining argument.  If the individual artists do not band together with others to disallow predatory business practices to continue, then they hurt every artist out there trying achieve their "worth".

  4. Bands with followings deserve fair compensation.  Those without, shouldn't be performing.
    This sort of relates to point #3 above.  Some people feel that bands that can draw well should receive top choice as they are able to provide the conditions to the venues that owners/operators are looking for. As they are able to bring the people, so should they be able to "name their price" accordingly.  Those without followings have no bargaining power as they won't be able to bring favorable cash-making conditions to a venue; thus, shouldn't be playing with other bands that can thus disenfranchising them from making money. 

My thoughts on these points are:
  1.  Bars/clubs/promoters don't compensate performers well.

    Value of Music to Society
    This is true.  They don't.  They never have and probably never truly will.  Artistry has never been a glamorous, well-paying profession in most societies.  If it was, we'd all be writing songs and making sculptures.   Perhaps if society placed a higher value on music and the arts, perhaps there would be more equal compensation as a whole.

    Take a look at the payment musicians receive from record sales.  The statutory rate for mechanical royalties is $.08 for songs five minutes or less in length or $.0155 per minute for songs that are over five minutes long. So, for example, a song that is eight minutes long would earn $.124 for each recording sold.  8 cents?  Wow.  That's a whopper.  Then that can be split up between publishers and songwriters (typically 50/50).  Artists get royalties anywhere between 8%-25% of the suggested retail price for a recording depending on the amount of clout they have (the newer the artist, typically, the less clout they have).  With additional trickery by record companies (free goods, return privileges, and the 90% rule) along with recoupment clauses for record companies to recover the costs of videos, touring support, and promotion costs via the band's royalty rate, artists are basically earning jack shite.  Do we hear any outrage coming from consumer groups, the media, or cultural preservation groups?  No.  People accept that these gawd-forsaken practices are part of the deal when being part of the arts scene.

    Also, look at how so many schools have lost their music programs due to budget cuts in education and questionable academic standards imposed by government.  If there was really a value placed on music, these programs wouldn't be the first things cut every time there's a budget crisis.

    Expect to Get Ripped Off
    The road to a financially successful career in music is full of bumps, potholes, and detours.  music venue owners can be considered as the gatekeepers along that road that can easily be bribed into being more fair to get through the gate if they see financial incentive to do so.  When first starting out, expect to get ripped off and be as professional as you can be to set up conditions to be favorable to your situation .  One may need to network and grease a lot of palms be able to do so.

  2. Performers should get an agreed upon level of compensation and it should be done in writing

    Good Luck Getting It In Writing
    Try this if you can but I haven't reached a level of success where this is possible.  There are thousands of other bands trying to get into the same club you are.  It's my opinion that this is a level of formality you can achieve when:

    a)  A performer has a consistent, high-grossing draw and the bookie is aware of it.  This is effectively leverage one can use to further their finances for each show.

    b)  A performer is working through a third-party such as a reputable manager or agency.  When working with more corporate-minded people, contracts seem to be an easier selling point.

    Being a "niche" act
    Most bands I've seen are still going with the regular "percentage of the door" rate as it's difficult to get an agreed upon rate.  It seems that acts that have some kind of niche like being a jazz band, a wedding band, a karaoke host, or being a classic music trio are able to negotiate their rates.  There seems to be a decent amount of disrespect for rock bands/music by the general populace; almost as if since many a rock band don't take themselves, their music, and/or their music seriously, nobody else does either; thus, they get thrust into a situation where they're playing for less than what they're worth.  I'm not excusing nor condoning the behavior.  I'm just delving into the possible social aspects as to why some musicians can name their price and others can't.

  3. People willing to submit the the whim of these venues are hurting "real" artists by diluting their bargaining power. 

    Forming a Union?
    As I started writing this blog, this assertion jumped out at me as being frakin' ludicrous.  However, I thought about it a bit more and what people are truly saying is that they want to unionize the talent pool in the city!  Effectively, by unionizing, in theory, bands could demand more compensation if they had the power to establish a work stoppage and hurt the businesses employing live music.  It's a grand idea but I feel that it's more of a pipe dream than a practical solution.

    If bands agreed to unionize, who would speak on their behalf?  What would be the requirements of being part of this union?  Who would facilitate the contracts between bands and bars, make sure they were enforced, keep track of monies exchanging hands, etc.?  I could continue with 45 more rhetorical questions trying to put bands into the same area as labor unions.  The answers are "I don't know" and "Nobody".  Labor unions are incredibly political and cost-hungry beasts to maintain.  I just don't think the music scene has the infrastructure to create and maintain a viable bargaining agent to promote their interests.

    With that said, I do agree that it's hard to move away from the current model to a new payment model when people continue the old practices.  These "scabs" (like me) would be undermining any future efforts to make things more fair.  The bad news is that we're called scabs.  The good news is that there is no union or "League of Musicians" or "Uptight Citizens Brigade" to contend with :).  I also don't feel that everyone of these dealings with booking agents are bad or undermine everyone else.  Some of them could serve other purposes such as providing exposure, experience, or opportunity to new people trying to beak into the scene.

  4. Bands with followings deserve fair compensation.  Those without, shouldn't be performing.

    What's a "Following"?
    This is just a dumb statement.  A "following" doesn't really mean anything when you first start out.  It typically equates to the number of family and friends you had to beg to come out on an off-night to play just so you can get a better night to play on in the future.  Everyone has to start somewhere and sometimes you have to play in front of a complete group of strangers to get a following.

    Do Your Own Shows!
    Some of the support I've seen for this idea ask people to set up shows themselves in their basements or abandoned warehouses or on street corners (watch out for the crack dealer!)  first to make sure they have people to bring to club.  The problem with this logic is who the hell wants to go see their friend's band in a cramped, dingy basement playing way too loudly with no lights and no atmosphere?  It screams unprofessionalism to do it this way and can give people the impression you're not serious enough about your band to escape the clutches of a "safe" environment.

    Do Your Own Shows Part Two!!
    I've also seen people suggest to orchestrate shows in more legit areas like banquet halls, churches, or even theatres to build a buzz vs. playing in bars.   I find this to be more trouble than it's worth.  I have a lot of experience producing theatre shows in the city, and it's one of the hardest jobs to pull off successfully both artistically and financially.  If a band wanted to do this, here are all of the things they would need to consider having to pay for to pull it off:

    Unless they can get it for free, there's going to be a cost associated with getting a suitable environment for a show.

    It's funny how so many people don't think they don't need a liberal amount of liability insurance in the event some gets hurt at your event.  Some venues' insurance policies may cover your event but sometimes they won't.

    Regardless of what people think, this is actually a costly item.  Lights, amps, PAs, video, vending equipment, etc all require power.  Unless a band wants to haul a portable generator with them everywhere (which would require money as well to purchase one and for the gasoline needed to run it), this is a cost.  It's usually included in the rent but not always.

    In those cases where people want to serve alcohol, this could be a HUGE cost.  There are liquor laws to contend with.  You may have to lay money down for a liquor license, people to card patrons and ensure no laws are broken with under age drinking,  and the beverages themselves (which may need to be transported).

    Many clubs/bars have security there.  Granted, they're normally employees of the bar doing other things as well but their job may include bouncing fools out of the venue when need be.  This would need to be taken into consideration as well.

    While the show is going on and especially afterwards, the venue will probably require it to be left clean and in working order.  Depending on the situation, it may cost organizers money to hire outside help to keep the place in order while the function is going on and to help pick up after everyone's left.

    Miscellaneous Costs
    More things to think about:
    - Gas to get the production off the ground
    - Payment of any of the bands on the bill including yours
    - Payment of any staff helping out (merch, front door, beverage stand)
    -Ticketing fees - Unless the show is a cash-only endeavor, if you're going to sell tickets you may need to pay credit card processing fees.

    Now, factor in all of this stuff one would need to worry about just to put on their own shows and playing at an existing venue seems mighty more appealing :)).  Some people would argue that all of this stuff doesn't need to be accounted for.  I'll agree but the level of risk that something can go wrong increase the more these items aren't formally addressed.  These are the things legit establishments are thinking of when they are trying to justify the payment scheme with the bands.  I'm not saying it's a fair practice but these are things people take for granted that are being provided to the band (and ultimately, the bands are paying for in a way).
Ultimately, there are valid points to what people are saying on both sides of the relationship between bands and venues.  I honestly feel that if people spent more time forming a true dialogue between interested parties on these subjects, better practices could be put into place.  The more artists run their passion of music like a business, the easier it will be to deal with other businesses needed in order for them to become a successful act. 

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