‘Come Play for Free, it will be Good Exposure’: Musicians, Performance, and Exposure as Currency

In case you’re unfamiliar with the issue, try this social experiment**: Walk into a room full of musicians and announce that you own a small restaurant or bar and that you’re looking for a musician to play there. Tell them that you don’t have the budget to pay them, but you can give them a free meal and a few free drinks, and besides, ‘it’s a great opportunity to get some exposure’.

Now just sit back and listen to sarcastic and vitriolic responses like;

 “Why don’t you come over to my place and cook a meal for me and my friends; we can’t afford to pay you but it will be great exposure for your restaurant.”


“Hang on; let me get the details of my ‘exposure account’ so that I can give you an ‘exposure invoice’.”


“What the fuck! You want me to play for free!”

(**Seriously; don’t do this. It’s likely that you will leave that room one or two limbs lighter.)

From the side of musicians this is a pretty simply argument: Musicians provide a service like any other and they should be paid money for that service. You wouldn’t ask a plumber, or an architect, or a chef to work for ‘exposure’, so why should musicians be expected to do so?

Exposure as currency

As a musician, this is a perspective that I can empathise with. Not only do I rely on the money that I make playing music, but I believe that the product I’m part of is of a high enough quality that it adds value to the bar/restaurant/festival/etc. Therefore, I should be fairly compensated for this service.

But of course, the words ‘fairly compensated’ are problematic in themself. While I consider that I am fairly compensated for most of the gigs I do, this seldom takes into account the hours I spend practicing, or the time I spend travelling to gigs, or the investment I put into equipment, or the fact that I need a reliable, registered car in order to get to gigs.

Fairly compensated also has different definitions for different contexts. I recently performed at a large festival in Queensland and the band I was playing with considered the amount being offered to be fair, particularly given it was a higher fee than other festivals pay us. But when you took into account the fact that we needed to pay for flights, hire car, food, and some accommodation, we were effectively only covering our costs. But despite this, we still decided the gig was worth doing because it put us in front of a potentially very large festival audience, gave us the opportunity to sell CDs, and it looked great on our bio. And besides, it would be a hell of a lot of fun.

But no matter how you spin it, the fact of the matter is that we did this gig for ‘exposure’, and we were well aware that that’s what we were doing. But we had enough confidence in our product that we were certain we’d sell CDs (which we did), pick up new fans (which we did), and impress the right people (which, given the feedback we got, we did). So, on this occasion, exposure was a currency that we converted into tangible benefits.

But then this is still a long way from playing for just exposure, and venues that do pay a nominal fee that only covers the cost of petrol are not targeted in the same way as venues which pay nothing at all. This is probably because these venues are the sort of places that musos or bands start out playing at, and in most cases they’re the kind of gig you quickly grow out of. In some ways, these gigs are the backbone of a good music scene because they allow new bands and inexperienced musos to get up on stage and get valuable experience.

Playing for exposure

So with this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that every muso has done at least one gig for free. It may have been some of the first gigs you did, or a favour for friend’s party, or a charity gig (although some would argue that you shouldn’t even do charity fundraisers for free). Even getting signed to a major label requires you to do industry showcase gigs for free, and probably the biggest of these is SXSW where even big name bands are effectively paid nothing, or are forced to rely on corporate sponsorship.

So it would seem that the concept of playing for exposure exists at every level. And that at every level there are musos who are willing to do it because they see the tangible benefits that exposure to a new or larger audience can bring.

So this raises the question: Why the anger at small, local businesses who often naively ask musos to play for a free meal and a couple of drinks? I recently saw this anger play-out when a young colleague of mine was trying to get his foot in the door of the Melbourne scene. He was working for a bar and convinced the manager to put more music on during the week. He then dared to offer the spot on the Melbourne Musicians Facebook group. The reactive and malevolent responses that followed, directed at him personally and the bar, were astounding. The bar quickly distanced themself from my colleague saying that he was acting without their permission, and my colleague was forced to delete the original post and publically apologize.

While I agree that musicians should be paid appropriately, I see several problems with reactions such as this. Firstly, no one was being forced to do the gig – if you’re not happy about the pay, then don’t do it – ignore the post! Secondly, my colleague was not asking anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t have done himself. Likewise, he seems to have been making a genuine and honest effort to add more music to the bar. Even thought the ‘payment’ was inappropriate, a simple and polite discussion may have lead to more music at the bar AND a fee being paid. Instead, musicians chose to fling mud and vilify the bar and a fellow musician, and looking at the bar’s Facebook page, they do not seem to have added anymore live music as a consequence, let alone more paid gigs.

A few months later I was doing research for an NFL blog I write for. I was particularly interested in some of the numbers around the Super Bowl – things like the amount of money made, TV ratings, player payments, etc, etc. But one number stood out to me the most: Zero. This is the amount the NFL pays performers for the Half-Time Show. And these are not small-time local acts. In fact, since the 1990s we’re talking about some of the biggest international acts on the planet. Some more research also led me to discover that according to the Wall Street Journal, the NFL is trying to coerce artists to give up a portion of their future performance and album sales for the privilege of playing. This, in effect, means these artists would be paying-to-play. Fortunately, there are no reports of artists conceding to these demands as yet. (That Wall Street Journal article is behind a paywall – try this Forbes article)

So this got me wondering: On one hand a small bar is committing a crime against humanity for wanting musicians to play for food, but one of the biggest sporting organisations in the world who could certainly afford to pay almost any fee asked for by any musician, expect artists to play for free.

So I thought I would pose this question to the good people of the Melbourne Musicians Facebook group. And don’t get me wrong – they are good people. In my time being part of this group I’ve seen a variety of great discussions take place, musicians helping musicians with little expectation of the return, and great some camaraderie.

However, it’s worth pointing out that the group is a closed group so I’ve kept all the responses anonymous. If you’re a member of the group, you’ll be able to find the full discussion thread by going to the group and searching for my name.

Playing for Exposure

What initially surprised me most was the amount of people who said they would do the gig because of the exposure. Most cited the TV ratings and the cost of advertising – essentially they thought of the Half-Time Show as free advertising for their music.

But it wasn’t long before someone pointed out the division, or perhaps even hypocrisy, that existed on the group;

“Interesting responses here from people who I know completely eschew the ‘play for exposure’ idea.”

To which another muso (let’s call them MM1) responded;

“The Super Bowl is different to ‘play for exposure’ at some random event/bar/gig/showcase. It’s the god damn Super Bowl!”

From this I opened up a discussion with MM1. I have not met MM1, but I was familiar and respected their work and success, so I felt they offered a good perspective. And when we got talking about a high profile New Years Eve gig they did, they noted that three years ago they would have done it for free, but now they would stick to a minimum price. However, the Super Bowl on the other hand, MM1 stated, they would not expect to be paid for simply because of the exposure the gig can offer.

This brought me to the following hypothesis:

Playing for Exposure

MM1 agreed – playing for exposure was something that was determined by the level of the artist. If you felt a gig offered the opportunity to significantly expose you to a new audience, then you would do it for free. Otherwise, there was an expectation that you should be paid monetarily.

However, it wasn’t long before some started saying that playing the Super Bowl for free was wrong:

“That’s so bad. Does anyone else working at that event not get paid? Do the announcers not get paid because it’s good exposure? Do the players? So wrong.”

Others justified doing it for free based on the size of the royalties cheque:

“They’d be getting live performance royalties and it would bringing in some sweet $$$$$$”

My question to this latter group was how does this differ from any other gig? Regardless of where you perform you are earning royalties – even at the tiny bar down the road that is paying you in beer. Sure, the Super Bowl royalties would be much larger, but this is simply proportionate to the amount of people who you are supposed to be playing to. The general response was that the amount of royalties earned playing the Super Bowl should be payment enough, and that as a consequence it didn’t matter that the NFL wasn’t chipping in.

The most surprising thing about this conversation was that very few people said they would not do the gig. Given the amount of memes appearing on my Facebook and Twitter feed that criticise venues expecting musos to play for exposure, I expected many more people to take this stance. But then, I’ll be the first to admit that the Super Bowl is an extreme example.

But on the other hand, where does this end? Festivals? Support spots? Saturday nights at a popular bar? All of these examples can offer expose to certain bands at certain levels, and I’ve personally seen many cases where this has been taken advantage of. So long as there are bands and musos willing to say yes to expose as a form of payment, then there will be gigs that offer it. And if my discussion about the Super Bowl is anything to go by, it would seem this is not about to stop anytime soon.

So why then do musicians on one hand get so irate when a bar or restaurant ask them to work for a free meal and some exposure, but willingly jump at other opportunities? The irony I see is that some of the worst offenders, such as the Super Bowl or international support spots, are the ones that can afford to pay. Yet we as musos we get angry at a bar or restaurant who just like the Super Bowl is hoping that there is mutual benefit for the muso and the venue.

Personally, I believe musos should be paid, and I am always cautious about doing gigs for cheap, let alone free. But I also wouldn’t say no to playing the Super Bowl even if it was for free or at a loss. The fact of the matter is that if Beyonce is willing to do it for free, then I have no choice but to accept that as the going rate.

As musicians we work in an entirely unregulated, capitalist economy. There are no minimum wages, unfair dismissal laws, federal awards, or paid public holidays. We need to rely entirely on the quality of our product and our ability to negotiate. But this means that if every quality band is willing to do a gig for exposure, then you have no choice but to accept this as the going rate.

So perhaps the only way to change the attitude of small business owners who want musicians to work for free is to start saying no to the bigger players. If every international act said no to playing the Super Bowl for free it would force the NFL to pay. Likewise, if mid-level bands started saying no to support and festival sports that are too cheap, it would force promoters to pay properly. This would filter down, and the expectation of what musicians are willing to work for would slowly change. The only way to remove ‘exposure’ as a form of currency is to remove it at all levels.

But I also understand that this vision is, at best, utopic. So perhaps while we wait for musician utopia to arrive, let’s go easy on these small bars and restaurants. I’m not saying take the gig, but either ignore them, because they’re probably crap gigs anyway, or try politely explaining to the business owner that if they want quality musicians to play there, cash is the only currency we’ll deal in.

The writer of this article was not paid for writing it – he did it for exposure, and because it was interesting to research.


An Ode to My (former) Abode

There’s only one door left which closes properly.

The weather boards on one of the outside walls have become so warped that they are beginning to resemble a Salvador Dali painting.

A friend of mine dubbed it the Slanty Shanty. An apt name given the massive crack which existed on the front porch.  A crack which the landlord recently paid someone to cover up – not repair. The uneven angle is still obvious for anyone who cares to pay enough attention.

I’ve lived here for seven years, one month and one day. The longest I’ve ever live in a single place.

There have been two seven inch records, one EP, and an unreleased album recorded here. Not to mention the countless rehearsals from numerous bands. Or the various photo shoots which have used the house or yard as a backdrop.

More musicians have seen the inside than I can possible count. Some only briefly – maybe 30 minutes – after which I went onto auditioning the next person. But others stuck around for many years and became as much a part of the house’s character as any of its housemates did.

There were slightly less housemates – eight including myself – more than one for every year. Each one of them a good person in their own right, but I still find it difficult to imagine them all at the same dinner party or attending the same function.

However, this is a small number in the house’s history. At one point I was writing down the name for every piece of mail I received for someone whom I did not know. I no longer have the list but I seem to remember this number as being over 20. In my early days of living here dropping the ‘return to sender’ mail into the postbox was a weekly chore.

It was a house that operated 24 hours a day. It wasn’t unusual for someone to be getting home from work at the same time of the morning as someone else was leaving. And if you wanted to play some loud music, you may have been less likely to disturb someone’s sleep at 3am than at 3pm.

In winter housemates would often congregate in the tiny, dank living room drawn to the house’s only heater. As a consequence some of the best times were had during winter. Red wine would flow freely and offer the perfect environment for getting to know your housemates and their friends, family or partners.

But during winter the rest of the house’s temperature can only be considered as oppressive. The ancient gas radiator is unable to fill its large rooms and high ceilings with much warmth.

And now has come the time for me to leave number 403. Just down to road, but to an entirely new postcode and demographic.

It’s smallish place, but a newish kitchen and bathroom and heater which is appropriate for its size.

But oh how I’ll miss Albion Street. The constant flow of people and cars makes any time the perfect time for sitting on the porch and observing.

It’s a street which offers the perfect sample of what Brunswick West is now. From the conservatives to the crazies; the students to the retirees; the artists to the accountants.

And although I’m choosing to move on into a place which is a little less rugged, I will miss every crack in the wall and every wonky floor board.

It’s with sadness that I leave this place. And a reflection of the good and bad times that I’ve had. And a hope that its next residents, whoever they may be, will become part of the house in a similar way that it became part of me.

Me at Albion St

Pay Your Respects to the Amen Break

It matters little what sort of musician or music fan you are, chances are you have been influenced by the Amen Break.

These four bars, or about six and a half seconds of music, which were found on the track Amen Brother, the B side of the The Winstons‘ grammy nominated single Color Him Father, changed the course of music

It’s a drum break that has been replicated and sampled millions of times, and heavily influenced styles as diverse as hip-hop to rock, and given rise to genres such as jungle.

But the Winston’s never got paid for the track, not a single cent – not for any sales or radio play, and not for the countless times it has been sampled. According to Richard L. Spencer on an interview with the BBC, Gregory Coleman, who played the drum break, died “broke and homeless” around 2006.

But now someone has decided that perhaps its time to do something about this. I think the campaign blurb says it best;

“So here is where all of you come in, if you have ever written or sold any music with the amen break, or even just enjoyed one of the countless hundreds and hundreds of tunes that contain it over various genres and styles of music, please donate towards the good cause of the worldwide music community giving something back to the man behind the legendary breakbeat.”

The aim is simple, lets throw some cash the way of Richard L. Spencer – the person who wrote the arrangement for the track, and seemingly the only surviving member of The Winstons.

To contribute – http://www.gofundme.com/amenbrother

The Radio Show that Inspired this Campaign – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hb618 (Will require an IP proxy outside of the UK)

Why You Should Release and Promote Your Music on iTunes

Click image for source.

The new buzz seems to be that independent artists shouldn’t release and/or promote their music on iTunes.

The argument is that iTunes is the Walmart of digital music, and you wouldn’t point your fans in the direction on Walmart to buy your record. You’d send them to an independent record shop.

Furthermore, the argument goes that iTunes keeps 30% of the retail price where other retailers, such as CD baby, keep 9% to 15%. So it makes better sense to keep fans away from iTunes.

Now as I’ve written before, I’m no fan of iTunes. There’s a real risk that they’ll end up being the only online music retailer. But for independent musicians, it’s necessary to have your music on iTunes, and let your fans know about it.

Firstly, a lot of people have iPhones. If you’ve ever been through the process of trying to get non-iTunes purchased music onto an iPhone, then you’ll understand what I mean.

Secondly, the fact that iTunes is so big means that there’s a certain credibility in having your music on there. Whilst anyone can get there music onto CD Baby, it’s much more straight forward than getting your music onto iTunes. Therefore, it adds the impression of credibility and authenticity.

Thirdly, sites like CDBaby are still big businesses. Sure, they make more effort at promoting independent music, but let’s not forget that they’re still in the business of making money. Avoiding one company because it’s a “billionaire corporation”, but promoting a millionaire corporation, doesn’t make much sense.

So what should independent artists do?

Firstly, let fans know all the places they can buy your music from. Have links to iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby, etc.

Secondly, iTunes charges more for albums – let your fans know this. If they still want to use iTunes and pay the premium, well good for them.

Thirdly, try push fans to physical copies. The profit margin is about the same and it gives fans more bang for their buck. Tell them which record stores they can buy your record from, and furthermore, set up your own online store.

Avoiding  iTunes as an artist is reckless. But having it be the only place you sell your music from is just plain stupid. After all, your an independent artist. You’re not locked into any contracts, so why act like you have only one option. So don’t stop using iTunes, but make sure you explore all possibilities for selling your music online.


Triple J Was Right to Deny Taylor Swift

Look. I understand that Triple J’s Hottest 100 is sold as “the world’s biggest music democracy”. I understand that women were severely underrepresented in this year’s poll. And I also understand, that like me, you think that there was a lot of crap in this year’s Hottest 100. Well, none of that matters! Triple J did the right thing by excluding Taylor Swift, and though I hope they’re not forced to do it again, I hope they do.

I don’t vote in the Hottest 100. Why? Because I don’t listen to the station. This is despite the fact that I’m well aware of many of the songs that are listed on the Hottest 100 website. Hell, I would have probably even put Chet Faker down as my number one; the guy is a boss and writes some awesome tracks. But my overall favourite songs mostly don’t get played on Triple J, therefore I don’t listen to the station. Sure, the Hottest 100 is supposed to be a democracy, but America is a democracy and I don’t have a right to partake in any of their democratic rights. If you thought that Taylor Swift had the number one song of 2014 that’s fine, I have no problem with that, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that anyone who has Taylor Swift as No.1 is not a citizen of Triple J.

Taylor Swift is massive. And I’m talking superstar massive. She released her first album when she was 16 and it sold 5.5 million copies. She’s now 26 and has just released her fifth studio album which to date has sold nearly 5 million copies, which is a massive achievement given that pretty much no one is buying music anymore. If you want any more proof of just how massive Taylor Swift is, just go to the Billboard website and check out their news section. The first thing you notice is that there a disproportionate amount of news about Taylor Swift (although nothing about Triple J). For example, Taylor Swift is headed back to number 1, Taylor Swift’s Twitter got hacked, Taylor Swift is playing the Superbowl. WTF! Taylor Swift is playing the Superbowl! She’s about to get the biggest gig that any pop artist can possible get and yet her Aussie fans are complaining that Triple J excluded her! The whole purpose of Triple J is to give a leg up to fringe bands, to Aussie bands, to alternative bands, to bands that aren’t going find airplay on many other stations around Australia. By allowing Taylor Swift onto that chart, Triple J would have gone against its very purpose.

Ok sure, there has been some pretty embarrassing tracks in the Hottest 100. U2 got a go one year and they’re in that category of artist that’s supermassive stupid big. Pretty Fly For a White Guy by The Offspring was an embarrassing song that should never have been played on Triple J. But the major difference is that Triple J did play their music. This made them eligible. Alternatively, Taylor Swift never got played, not even once. This makes gives her the same amount of eligibility as the crummy ass rock band that rehearses down the street from me.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that the gender inequality is a problem in music. Sia was the only female artist in the top 10, and only 37 songs had some resemblance of female involvement. But including Taylor Swift in the Hottest 100 for this reason does nothing to address the fact that this is a problem that exists categorically across all areas of music performance. Females are severely underrepresented and have been for a long time. And whilst there needs to be more encouragement and promotion of strong female artists such as Taylor Swift, this was not the right forum. What’s more, Swift’s inclusion at number 12 would have excluded Tkay Maidza, which would have made no difference to the proportion of female artists, but excluded someone who is much more worthy and appropriate of inclusion in the poll of Triple J listeners.

Triple J is not perfect. It doesn’t always get its music selection right. It often misses what is actually happening. It can be annoying and embarrassing to listen to. But it’s there, and it serves a purpose. Not always perfectly, but always with good intention. Including Taylor Swift in the Hottest 100 would not have helped this purpose, in fact, it would have made it harder to achieve. The consequences in the long run could have been devastating. The vast majority of Australian bands who are played on Triple J are just ordinary run of the mill musos – quality musos – but far from the heights and crossover success that Taylor Swift has managed to achieve. Let’s let Triple J do its job, the Taylor Swift’s of the world do not need them.


Where’s the Racial Equality in the Music Industry?

The majority of us listen to music that has its roots some way or another entrenched in African American culture. And whilst we see racial diversity within the ranks of performers, it seems the higher up the corporate ladder you head, the less likely you are to come across someone other than a white male.

This was highlighted to me by a post in Digital Music News showing this exact problem.

Top Executives at Pandora

Top Executives at Live Nation Entertainment

Top Executives at Spotify

Top Executives at Universal Music Group

Some further research revealed to me that whilst this is a problem which is largely ignored, it hasn’t gone undiscussed.

Dennis McDougal noted that almost every person holding a position of power within the recording industry is white. This is despite over a quarter sales coming from black artists.

This is further pointed out by Vick Bain who wrote an essay on this issue in the United Kingdom. She highlights that in May 2011 77% of artists in the UK top 40 charts where from non-white backgrounds, whilst 92% of the “behind the scenes workforce” are white (p.9).

Johnny Roberts notes that historically, even when what was known as “race music” became popular in the 60’s and  70’s, the styles “quickly came under the control of the white-led majors”. Black executives were then shuffled across to “in-house black music departments.”

Furthermore, Every Person is a Philosopher noted how whites have managed to break into black dominated genres such as hip-hip, blues and RnB.  But at the same time, blacks are basically non-existent in white dominated genres such as country, rock and electronica.

This last point is part the frustration felt by Q-Tip and Azealia Banks when they attacked Iggy Azalea over her silence on Ferguson. Whilst whites do have a history of breaking into black genres, there seems to be an ignorance over the origins of these genres – hip-hop originated in the civil rights movement, the blues’ history is firmly entrenched in slavery. And whilst Iggy Azalea reacted wrong, she is potentially bearing criticism which should be directly universally to the white musicians. After all, how many white musicians came out in support of Ferguson protesters?

Music has many inclusive elements. Most musicians just like playing with good players – they care little for age, race or background (although gender has been highlighted as a problem). So isn’t it time we see true equality is all areas of the music industry? Perhaps the solution to the business model problems the music industry is facing is within the mind of a non-white male.

So How Much Power Does Taylor Swift Have?

Taylor Swift was the biggest selling artist of 2014. What’s more, she was the first artist to sell over a million copies for the year, and this didn’t come until November.

Leaving aside your subjective opinions of Taylor Swift’s music, and ignoring conversations surrounding the current state of the music industry, a couple of recent events have lead me to ask the question; just how much power does this give Taylor Swift?

The first event came upon the release of her current album when Swift announced she would no longer be doing business with Spotify. Citing insufficient royalty returns, her entire back catalogue was promptly removed.

But what effect, if any did this have? Well to date, no other artists have announced that they would follow suit. And according to digital music news, Spotify premium subscriptions have actually spiked as a consequence of Swift’s announcement! As Digital Music News note, “a wide-scale boycott from the most powerful, influential artists…would cripple Spotify’s service”. But to Spotify, Swift on her own, was merely an inconvenience who does hold enough sway to truly affect the service.

Spotify Subscriptions Surge after Taylor Swift removes music from the service

The next is a more localised issue. Over the past few weeks there has been a campaign, using the hashtag #tay4Hottest100, in an attempt to get Swift on Triple J’s Hottest 100 for 2014. Whilst it bewilders me that her fans would want her on the chart of a radio stations that has never played her music, it has seen Swift move to second favourite in betting.

Whilst Triple J never publically comments on Hottest 100 voting, it has caused some media contention, with Noisy suggesting that it could destroy the Hottest 100, and The Guardian calling Swift’s potential exclusion “cultural elitism”.

However, it is now being reported that Triple J may remove Swift from contention because the rules state that the station “reserves the right to remove artists from the list who have benefited from competitions or commercial campaigns that incentivise fans to vote for them.” KFC recently made this worse by Tweeting their endorsement. Although this Tweet seems to have now been removed.

KCF Tweet

So it seems that Swift herself does not carry much power. But her name is still able to mobilise people. Spotify are laughing at the extra promotion her name gave their service as she wasn’t able to mobilise other artists to follow her lead. But the executives at Triple J would be quite nervous at the results of the current Hottest 100 voting. Does she stay, or do they find a justification to remove her? With a movement of this size and with this much press, I find it unlikely that she won’t get enough votes to poll. So we’ll just have to wait and see how Triple J choose to play this situation. Regardless, it does seem that Taylor Swift is the one artist currently who is able to grab headlines.