Saturday, September 15, 2012

On paying artists for their work, and the Amanda Palmer kerfuffle

I am a musician, a photographer, a writer, an actor. I have been paid to do all of these things, and I have also done all of these things for free. First and foremost, I do them because I have a passion for each and every skill and creative expression.

But a lady gots to get paid, too. I have bills. I need to eat.

And, you know what? I also don't think there's any shame in an artist saying that compensation for their work is also a way to feel legitimized and appreciated.

Yes, we do this because we love to do it. But it takes countless hours of toil to be any good at it, and the public at large benefits greatly from what we do. And being that we live in a society that forces us to pay our utility bills with actual cash and not through the barter system (or hugs, alas), we need to bring in money for what we do.

This is a discussion (and sometimes argument) I've been having with my fellow artists and art consumers for years. Here in Madison, Wisconsin we are constantly grappling with the too-pervasive perception that artists should always be happy for gigs regardless of if they're paid or not, like someone is doing us a favor simply by asking us to do our thing in a public forum. Sometimes it's even the artists themselves making that argument.

Which is bull shit, I'd say.

Sometimes we are happy to lend our services on a volunteer basis. Lots of people volunteer their various talents for a wide variety of reasons - not all of them artists. We should encourage more people to volunteer for good causes.

But we also should be doing a heckuva lot more as a society to grow our appreciation for the incredible amount of work that goes into the various arts, and the great value the arts have in our communities. Having a thriving art scene builds the mental/spiritual life of a people, and it bolsters economies.

So yes, I'm happy to lend my time and talents to causes I believe in, especially if they're not-for-profit situations.

I almost always draw the line at doing free work on behalf of for-profit enterprises, though.

Which brings us to the recent and on-going dust-up over Amanda (Fucking) Palmer's solicitation of volunteer horn and string players for her upcoming tour. AFP is an artist I admire a great deal, formerly a street performer, one half of the Dresden Dolls, married to Neil Fucking Gaiman, a pioneer of DIY music and all-around creative juggernaut.

If you're not up on the current hubbub surrounding her, go read this open letter to her about the issue here, and then read AFP's response here. There are plenty of other posts and tweets about it, too, and I'm glad to see such a robust discussion unfolding about an issue I hold near and dear.

Palmer's argument is generally that she has made sure that many, if not most of the musicians on tour with her are appropriately compensated - but that she wanted to try an experiment that involved including different people, some perfect strangers, with varying levels of musicianship to join them on each stop of the tour, to bring more people into the artistic fold, try something new, have fun, etc.

I like that, it's a cool idea.

Palmer also argues that we should allow space for each artist to find their own paths, try new things, try weird things - she talks about finding ways to support artists that have come on tour with her in the past when they couldn't pay them money, like guaranteeing free lodging and good food and sleeping spots on the tour bus. All of that is actually above and beyond what too many tour managers and promoters ever even attempt to do for opening/supporting acts.

I have little doubt that Amanda Palmer is trying to do right by her fellow artists, and I'm more than a little in awe of the new ground she's been breaking in terms of her incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the new album and tour, and all the work she's done in general to promote the idea of independent musicians making a living and doing incredible things along the way.

I also don't disagree with the people who were hurt to discover that several professional musicians were not paid to join her backing band, and in some cases, apparently weren't even mentioned by name from stage. Because that sucks. These folks had to audition, learn a ton of material, show up on time to a high pressure gig, and then perform in a high pressure setting. That's a lot of time spent not working on something that might help you pay your rent.

But it was their choice, right? They knew the gig would be unpaid.

If they weren't even acknowledged by name from stage, though, if that's what happened - that was one little thing AFP could have done to help make up for the lack of monetary compensation. Doing something for free in order to gain exposure only works if you're, y'know, exposed. I figured that would be something AFP, especially, could get behind.

The other big problem is two-fold: timing and wording. As my friend and fellow musician Eric Oehler from the band Null Device points out in his own blog on the subject: was the way she asked.  She requested, to use her word, “professional-ish” players (specifically, a string quartet and six brass players).  A different choice of phrasing may have been enough to prevent this.  Whether she used it to just mean “really good” or mean “professional, but with enough weasel room that I can walk that back later when you ask for payment” isn’t clear, but the fact remains that she used that word.  That word – specifically the non “ish” part -  pissed off a world of professional musicians.  A lot of full-time players are not of the type that tour their own bands around the country, playing the music they love.  While there are a handful, your average Berlioz-slingin’ violinist or french horn-er is generally making a chunk of their income as a ringer.  It’s a journeyman’s job – playing in pit orchestras and as backup for touring acts they may or may not have any particular interest in.  But that’s a living.  It’s why there are musicians unions dictating pay scales, because otherwise it becomes a nasty race for the bottom where nobody can make enough to put food on the table.
Consequently, asking “professional-ish” players to play for free is telling all those working players “here’s a gig you won’t get if you want to get paid, that under normal circumstances would be next week’s groceries.”  Of course, it’s possible, and probably even likley, that if she couldn’t get the players, Palmer just wouldn’t do the songs, or would do them without the backing ensemble.   It just wasn’t stated outright, so a lot of the professional music world saw it as, at best, a dangerous precedent – touring bands demanding professional-ish volunteers instead of hiring local ringers would decimate an entire class of working musicians.
Eric goes on to highlight the incredibly poor timing of the request, coming, as it did, hot on the heels of her loudly touting the million-dollar success of the Kickstarter campaign. "It’s like showing up for a date in a brand-new Ferrari and saying 'hey, could you cover dinner? I’m a little low on cash,'" he writes. "It’s egregious to show up, hat-in-hand, after you’ve just spent more money than most people with your job will ever see in a lifetime, even if it’s factually true."

I'm not privy to her actual budget. I think a lot of people are looking at the $1.2 million she raised in the Kickstarter and assuming holy cow, that's a shitton of money, clearly she can afford to pay everyone and buy them all caviar and champagne. 

But she laid out exactly where the lion's share of that money is going, and it's not into her own pocket. Putting out a top-notch album, touring the country/world, and running an independent record label is not cheap. So there may be legitimate financial reasons why the AFP crew needs to cut a few corners in terms of who gets paid and how much. People are free to turn them down when asked to volunteer their efforts.

Then again, maybe it wouldn't be make-or-break for AFP to offer, say, $100 to each "volunteer" musician who agrees to help out at one of the shows on the tour. It's probably a lot less than what their time and effort is worth, but at least it acknowledges their talent in a tangible way. That and shouting them out from the stage, of course.

I know this is doable, because I produce a lot of shows. I hire artists and performers, stage managers, photographers, videographers, DJs, etc. to put on serious nights of entertainment for my fellow Madisonians. I love doing it, even if the work loads are enormous.

Rarely do I ask any of these people to do this stuff for free. I have no Kickstarter, no label, no company to back me up financially. All I have is the ability to hustle my ass off--and the incredible luck to rely on many other people to hustle their asses off--to give great show. We use the money we make at the door to pay our performers their guarantees, and so far have never had to dig into our own pockets to make that work. So far.

We do this, even though, more often than not, it means we only break even. That is, for all our efforts in organizing and producing the shows, I'm lucky to personally make a hundred bucks for the whole shebang.

Why keep doing it, then? Because I love it, because I love being able to provide a venue for super talented performers where they are treated with respect and paid appropriately for their time (though I wish we could pay them even more, still), because I love seeing the faces of the people in the audience, clearly having a blast, because I love doing my small part to build alternative, inclusive spaces and communities. Why wouldn't I keep doing it?

I'm still keen to find ways to be better compensated, though, and I have no shame about that.

Neither should you.

You're worth it. More.
AFP seems willing to talk about the issue, and genuinely interested in finding new and better ways of doing things. I hope, at the very least, she learns to always always ALWAYS acknowledge your supporting (especially if they're volunteer) band members from stage, and maybe to never again refer to any musicians as "professional-ish."

But you do it for the exposure!

Here's another tricky thing, though: Playing for free in order to gain exposure and further your career rarely actually works. In my experience, and the experiences of many of my fellow artists with whom I've discussed this, playing for free tends to breed...more invitations to play for free. It rarely leads to paid gigs, or real career growth.

You have to earn it and demand it. Kindly, firmly.

Years ago I realized that a band I was in was getting booked largely for unpaid, charity gigs. Like I wrote earlier, I dig playing on behalf of good causes, and I still do it now. But I made a conscious decision to cut back on how many of those gigs I accepted - because there has to be balance. If my calendar is full of unpaid work, then I don't have time to do things that will help me pay my bills.

I put my foot down. I started saying no, even when I liked the folks involved. I also started asking for more money to better compensate the efforts of my band, especially when we were asked to travel for a show. Not just enough money to cover transportation and lodging, but enough to pay us for our time - like you would for any consultant or businessperson.

Because, as much as I love what I do, this shit is work. I've spent almost my whole life becoming a better percussionist, photographer, singer, actor, writer. I've gone to school (and into debt I'll likely never pay off if this societal attitude persists) for it. I've hustled, I'm reliable, I take risks. I've invested. A lot. I expect to be appropriately compensated for that.

And you know what? People starting paying us what we asked for. And we got more and more paid gigs, and many of them had the added bonus of providing great exposure for us as well. I mean, we had to work for it, and we had to be good to work with, and gracious, and people had to actually like what we were doing - but if you don't stand up for yourself, even well-meaning people will happily take advantage of you.

I also understand--and this is where AFP's argument comes in--that this shift in how our communities treat artists has to come from both the public at large and we the artists. We all need to respect the decisions of others, the various paths we all create for ourselves, and the work we do. Sometimes that means doing work for free, as it does in any career.

It means getting to the point, too, where no one ever tells us we should "just be grateful to be asked to play."

That auto worker should be glad just to be asked to work on that super sweet car.


We are already grateful to be part of the amazing arts community, to be given our various talents and dedications and ideas. We also expect to be paid for providing a valuable service.

I don't know what the exact answer is to the AFP situation.

I know I'm glad it's being more and more discussed--because more people thinking about ways to address it means we're more likely to find better solutions for the long-run, and build stronger communities as a result.
The Lost Albatross