Desert walk

Dying From Exposure

What is not problematic on an individual level can become catastrophic on a larger level, and I worry that we are rapidly ruling out pretty much every scenario that would allow a typical musician to make a living.

Written By

Isaac Schankler

Desert walk

You should play for free…you know, for the exposure.
Photo by Maarten van Maanen, via Flickr.

Recently I went to the Traverse City Film Festival, which in addition to showing a wide variety of independent movies, also features musical acts as pre-show entertainment–a nice way to pass the time during those interminable waiting periods before the movie begins. I discovered that many of the musicians were unpaid, or rather, they chose to volunteer their time, depending on how you want to phrase it. I found myself feeling very conflicted about this. On the one hand, the festival is a non-profit organization that depends heavily on volunteers from the community (1600 this year), and it almost certainly wouldn’t function without them. On the other hand, how hard would it have been to at least pay something, anything to each of the festival’s 100 musicians, as a gesture of respect for their time and talent? At an event with so many sponsors and donors, and an audience with a median income of $87,500, it didn’t quite sit right with me, especially considering the fact that founder and president Michael Moore just donated $250,000 to the festival. If each musician was paid $100 (not a huge fee, but not unheard of by any means), the total would represent a mere 4% of that quarter of a million dollars, and that’s not even including the festival’s usual annual budget.

That is not to say I blame any of the individual musicians for making the decision to play for free. Deciding whether or not to do an unpaid gig often involves a complicated calculus of factors, including the nature of the organization running it, the nature of the event, the kind of repertoire, the potential non-monetary benefits of doing it, etc. It’s easy enough to say that we should join a union and agree on standard rates, but unfortunately this one-size-fits-all approach is often out of touch with the reality of musicians’ daily lives, and doesn’t account for the vast diversity and disparity in various musicians’ circumstances. (For evidence of this, look no further than video game and film composer Austin Wintory’s recent difficulties with the American Federation of Musicians.)

It’s also true that these kinds of issues are not unique to music, and happen across the board in the arts (for example, performance artist Marina Abramovic’s questionable uses of unpaid labor). Heck, even musicians have to be goaded into begrudgingly paying other musicians sometimes. (Amanda Palmer is probably the canonical example here, though the recent fiasco with Chicago’s Beethoven Festival is another illustrative scenario.)

But what is not problematic on an individual level can become catastrophic on a larger level, and I worry that we are rapidly ruling out pretty much every scenario that would allow a typical musician to make a living. The logic seems to go something like this:
how musicians get payyyyed (2)
The extrapolated end result of this circular flowchart seems to be a world where there is only room for hobbyists and megastars, and the middle class musician is a thing of the past. Many people would probably be perfectly fine with this, but it sounds like hell on earth to me and most people I know.

How do we then extract ourselves from this seemingly unsustainable situation? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that arts entrepreneurship could be useful here.

There has been plenty of arguing back and forth about the merits of arts entrepreneurship lately, with Aaron Gervais and R. Andrew Lee questioning whether such a thing even truly exists. I think part of this is just semantic anxiety about the word itself, and I too find the word “entrepreneur” and its cousins (branding, marketing, etc.) to be kind of off-putting and skin-crawly and impersonal. But until better terminology comes along, we seem to be stuck with them.

There is also a fear, I think, that if everyone in the arts developed entrepreneurial skills, this would just make the competition for the same resources stiffer, and the net effect for all that extra expended effort would be zero. There are a few reasons why this reasoning is faulty. For one thing, one of the foundations of entrepreneurship in the arts is audience building, especially beyond the confines of the usual audiences. This kind of thing doesn’t just benefit one person or group; it benefits everyone in the field.
To their credit, both Gervais and Lee do acknowledge that all musicians could use some basic business savvy. What they object to is the use of entrepreneurship as a panacea or magic incantation that wishes away real problems and real distinctions. Art is not a commodity in the usual sense, they argue, so applying entrepreneurial skills to the arts is misguided at best, actively damaging at worst. They then suggest some alternatives to entrepreneurship based on personal connection and engaging the most involved parts of your audience, what Lee calls “supporters” and Gervais calls “hardcore fans.”

These are solid suggestions, but I worry that they are not enough. Gervais makes a historical argument by pointing out all the false threats that have been thought to endanger musicians throughout the ages, and it’s true, reports of music’s death have been greatly exaggerated time and time again. And yet Gervais ignores the huge upheavals that have dramatically changed the way musicians make money over the years, from artistic patronage to digital distribution. These things make a difference. Music will certainly survive, but possibly not in its current diversity and quality, and we should care about this.

It’s true that in a free market society, any way to make money off of music is going to be a “hack” of some kind, and isn’t going to represent a 1:1 ratio with that music’s true value, which is subjective anyway. But this isn’t an argument against entrepreneurship — it is an argument for its absolute necessity, at least in a society without abundant public arts funding (like the United States).
In other words, the medium matters. Streaming music services are one kind of entrepreneurial venture that can have a big impact on the livelihoods of musicians. Let’s look at two existing services, Spotify and Bandcamp, and their ability to engage the supporters and hardcore fans that are so important to Lee and Gervais. On the surface, these services are pretty similar on the end user side of things, offering unlimited free streaming to music listeners. Spotify then pays the artist a rate based on the number of plays per month. While these rates are slightly different for free users and paid users of the service, it doesn’t really differentiate between avid and casual listeners for a particular artist. The rate at which Spotify pays out tends to be consistent but small, in fractions-of-a-cent-per-play territory.

Bandcamp, on the other hand, only pays the artist if the listener specifically chooses to purchase and download the album. At first glance this might seem pretty bad — there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid at all! — but in practice it clearly delineates who is emotionally invested enough to actually buy your music. A pay-what-you-want option allows for superfans to pay more if they so desire, not all that different from a charitable donation in effect.

To date, I’ve made over 75 times as much money with Bandcamp versus Spotify. Clearly, one service was made with musicians’ input and interests in mind, and one was not.

This is what I am deeply concerned about when we abdicate our role in arts entrepreneurship. When we let others make these decisions for us, others who may not have our best interests in mind, we leave ourselves open to exploitation. This is why we must continue to advocate and agitate, and not be lulled into accepting the status quo under the false assumption that the status quo cannot and will not change. How music is disseminated and perceived is in fact undergoing dramatic and profound changes right now. While this is terrifying, it also gives us an unprecedented opportunity to shape music’s future, but if and only if we have the will and vision to see it through.

Update: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that Michael Moore donated $250,000,000 to the Traverse City Film Festival. This figure has been corrected.