Category Archives: live

‘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.”

Or;

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

Or;

“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.


More Stats on Streaming and Vinyl in 2014

Total Music Wallet Spend, 2014

As Nielsen Music trickles out their annual music sales figures, the tiny amount spent on digital streaming services and vinyl has been revealed.

Whilst the average music consumer spent $109 on music, only 3% of that was spent on digital streaming services, and 2.5% on vinyl and cassettes. In comparison, 35% was spent on admission to live concerts (this is good for artists) and 12% was spent on CDs.

These stats throw the analysis of last week’s stats out the window. Last week, some suggested the increase in demand for digital steaming services was leading the recovery of record labels. Instead, these figures suggest the turnover generated from digital streaming services is minimal, and record labels are still relying on CD sales for the bulk of their profits.

Turnover is an important figure in the music industry because most of their expenses are upfront and fixed. Whilst the sale of a CD has the added cost of manufacturing, this cost is minimal when compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the recording, production and marketing of an album. It is these costs which need to be recouped in order for labels invest in future releases.

With this in mind, whilst much of the press was downplaying the rapid increase in vinyl due to its minimal share of total sales, it would seem vinyl’s contribution to turnover is almost equal to that of digital streaming. This is particularly true when you consider that record labels will only see a faction of an online digital subscription through royalties.

What is interesting is that these two formats sit side-by-side. Whilst one is lauded as the future and the other dismissed as nostalgia, it seems that at this point at least their contribution is the same. And whilst there is little doubt that different types of consumers are attracted to each format, it is perhaps symbolic of the increasingly eclectic nature of music.

 


Lacklustre Gig Sales – Has Live Music Hit Saturation Point?

Nothing worse than playing your ass of to an empty room.

Nothing worse than playing your ass of to an empty room. (Photo credit – http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelz1/)

This time every year, thanks to what should be known at the festival season (January to April), east coast capital cities are inundated with international acts looking to extend their stay with a good ol’ fashioned side show.

So what I ask is; have we reached saturation point? I have it on good authority that two recent tours from international artists sold below expectation. One of those acts struggled to get the Corner Hotel two thirds full, yet the same act sold out the Hi Fi Bar back in 2009, which is of comparable capacity.

Some might suggest that it’s poor economic times that are causing these underwhelming ticket sales. There is no doubt that attending a show falls into most people’s discretionary spending, and the prices we are forced to pay in Australia is well above world average. However, Australia is very strong economically and recent consumer confidence figures say that consumer confidence is higher than it was in March 2009. So why the lacklustre sales?

I had one theory put forth that music fans are now much more fickle; that they now go with short term trends and no longer stay with an artist for their career. I personally don’t think this is a new phenomenon although seems to be linked more towards popular music audiences, not your niche styles such as world, jazz, blues and funk. Artists playing to these audiences have to substantially prove themselves before they will be accepted. Once that audience does accept them, they are in for the long haul, so long as the quality is sustained.

Further to this, if fickleness is really a problem then why have both Prince and Bruce Springsteen been able to sell out stadium shows (multiple shows in Springsteen’s case)? Whilst both have continued with solid release for decades, neither has replicated the commercial success they had in the 80’s and early 90’s. If this fickle argument was true, then both these artists would be playing much smaller shows, with much less hype.

For me personally, I was hit with saturation point a few years back. I’m always happy to part with my hard earned cash to go and see a live show (even at the exorbitant prices we play in Australia), but now there are just too many shows and not enough money in my wallet. It is especially true this time of the year; if the same artists came out with a month between them, I’d be there for sure, but with them all touring around this festival period, it is simply impossible.

The unfortunate thing about this is that it makes the promoters reluctant to bring more acts out. Whether they blame economics conditions, fickleness, or saturation, once they start to feel that shows aren’t going to sell out, investing in international acts will be considered too risky.

So whilst economics does play a part, I feel that saturation is the real villain here. People are willing to pay good money to see quality international artists, but most are unable to afford to see three or four artists within the same month. This leaves promoters in a sticky situation, bringing artists out at a different time of year’s means no festival gigs. No festival gigs increases the risk to the promoter and decreases the pay for the artist. Alternatively, continuing this saturation during the festival season potentially leaves prompters out of pocket, artists playing to a half full rooms, and fans disappointed they had to make a choice between so many quality shows.


Why Every Musician and Music Fan should Despise Peter Garrett

Firstly it should be said that I am what is otherwise known as a Left Wing, Socialist Pinkie. I think that health care and education should be free, that refugees shouldn’t be locked up, and that uranium should stay in the ground. So when Peter Garret became Mark Latham’s star recruit for the ALP in 2004 there was a cautious amount of optimism on my part, unfortunately this optimism has turned into despise and disappointment.

The Two Faces of Peter Garrett

The Two Faces of Peter Garrett

Firstly a short history; Peter Garrett was originally lead singer and weird dancer of Aussie Pub Rock band Midnight Oil. To an audience of VB drinking bogans he would sing songs about how we shouldn’t be mining uranium, how we should be compensating Australian Aboriginals, and how we need to be careful of an absolute alliance with the United States. At the same time Peter Garrett ran for state and federal senate seats for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, was president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, became international board member of Greenpeace, and was a founding member of the Surfrider Foundation. At this point if you’re anything like me you’ll be going “respect”, he obviously sung the lyrics (Rob Hurst wrote a lot of the Midnight Oil tunes), but he also truly believed what he was saying.

Then in 2004 Garrett was seduced by the ALP as Mark Latham’s star recruit and only lasting legacy.  Since then Garret has;

So there you have it Peter Garrett is a hypocrite; either that or he has a do-gooding, left wing twin brother. But why does this grip me so much? Because it undermines every musician who uses music to share a point of view on social issues. Music can be a persuasive medium capable of reaching a large audience. I have no doubt that fans of Midnight Oil at the very least gave thought to some of the issues that Garrett was singing about. These issues are important; they are issues that they vote on and perhaps previously hadn’t taken into consideration when choosing a leader. By Garrett changing his stripes it gives the opportunity for every VB swigging pub rock fan to think that the person pouring their heart out on stage is just ‘acting’ because that helps you sell records, and as soon as an opportunity for real power comes along, such as a front bench ALP seat, then those values and passions will go to the $2 bargain bin at JB HI FI.


Melbourne Soul Comes of Age

Whilst there can be no debating that in the last 15 years the home of soul music has returned to its rightful place of Brooklyn, New York, it is time to recognise that Melbourne’s soul scene has now come of age.

Chances are that if you read the paper or listen to (non-commercial) radio you’ve at least flicked past something about The Cactus Channel and their new LP Haptics (Hope Street). Whilst part of the focus is their age (they’re only just old enough to get into bars) it’s still an LP with some nasty grooves from a quality bunch of musicians with an instrumental maturity fitting of the style.

Saskwatch

Saskwatch

Second to this is Saskwatch.  As they embark across to Europe they’re are about to release their first LP, Leave it All Behind (Northside).  If this album lives up to the quality of their previously released 7inch’s and sharpness of their live shows then this album is sure to be spinning regularly on the turntables of every funk and soul officinardo between Melbourne, New York and London.

What’s most interesting about these releases is not the bands or their ages but rather who is releasing them. Bands who could now be described as the elders of Melbourne soul such as The Bamboos, Cookin on Three Burners and Deep Street Soul, previously had to rely on European labels for release. But then enter Hope Street who after a series of 7inch releases had full length success with The Bombay Royale and should see the same as they release The Cactus Channel.

Second this with Northside, and although this is Northside’s first release (with the exception of the accompanying 7inch) label owner Chris Gill is as much an elder of Melbourne Soul as any of the bands having owed and run the record store Northside Records for the last ten years.  Chris will have no problem garnering the attention both locally and internationally that Saskwatch deserves.

In Richard Guilliat’s slightly inaccurate article on Melbourne Soul he was not scared to call Melbourne “the funk capital of the southern hemisphere.” This has probably been true for some time now given the bands that have been coming from here, but what really caps this is the integration of Hope Street and Northside into the mix.  Finally Melbourne soul bands can rely on Melbourne representation and reliable Australian distribution. A friend from Bendigo recently told me that he first heard of the Bamboo’s on a trip to the US.  This is a by-product of what happens when local bands sign to overseas labels, the label focuses it’s often limited marketing budget to overseas consumers and leaves very little to the home town of the band.

This coming of age will mean further growth of the Melbourne soul scene. Local distribution and representation means that everyone in Melbourne will (and why shouldn’t they) know about the best local acts hence strengthening the scene and seeing further growth.

Now check out this nasty groove from The Cactus Channel.


Golden Plains Music Festival

Well I’ve just returned from Golden Plains music festival. Right now I’m very dusty, regrettably sunburnt, and little bit smelly, but still glowing form the positive vibes that only Auntie Meredith can provide.

Golden Plains and Meredith Music Festival would have to be without a doubt one of the best run festivals. Every thing seems to have been properly thought about. From the landmarks, to the bars, to the set times and the number of tickets sold, not to mention what seems to be a very effective ‘no dickhead policy,’ everything that Auntie Meredith has done is done right. The organisers deserve a big pat on the back for being able to think about the smaller details that make this a hassle free festival experience.

The highlights undoubtedly for me where Saskwatch and Charles Bradley who both played on Sunday’s bill. Saskwatch’s sound has developed into a sweet and smooth soul groove and their Golden Plains performance has left me eagerly anticipating their forthcoming debut album. Charles Bradley; there is nothing that one can say that truly states the raw emotion that comes from Charles Bradley when he sings. Despite seeming a little tired having just landed in the country and having done a show in Melbourne the night before, this 64 year old was still able to hold festival goers in the palm of his hand with the rich and raw texture of his voice, and the suave dance moves that some performers half his age would lack the confidence and ability to do. Only one questions remains : Has there been a better male vocalist then Charles Bradley since Otis Redding? That question is definitely worth a discussion.


Sam Cooke – Basin Street Blues

I love Sam Cooke a lot even though he’s not really considered ‘fresh’ anymore. Perfect slick voice, perfect rythmic phrasing. This the best version of this Louise Armstrong track in my opinion. It’s a video I have watched many many times and I can’t just watch it once.