Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tell Us What You Think is a Fair Wage for Musicians (and can a union help you get it?)

Tell Us What You Think is a Fair Wage for Musicians (and can a union help you get it?)

The Fair Trade Music campaign mentioned at the end of this article is a group of Portland musicians organized by the Portland Musicians Union to establish a fair and livable standard of pay for local musicians.

Ronda Retail Vs. Rocker Joe
A musician provides a service to a bar, club, or restaurant whether fans show up or not, the same way a retail clerk provides a service to a store whether there are customers shopping there or not. If afternoons are slow in the ladies apparel section at JC Penny, then maybe the manager doesn’t need Ronda Retail to come in to work anymore. He can lay her off. But if he wants to avoid a lawsuit, he damn well better pay her for the work she’s already done!
In the same way, shouldn’t Rocker Joe be paid a fair wage for his work last Monday night at Klub Vertigo? (Practicing, writing, rehearsing, scheduling, booking, promoting, loading in, sound-checking, waiting around, performing, loading out, waiting around to settle up, driving home). If Klub Vertigo didn’t find the performance adequate (either Rocker Joe sucked or his band didn’t bring in enough of a crowd to make the night worth it for the bar), then the club shouldn’t hire him back next time. But Rocker Joe’s band DID work and should be paid something for their effort, right? So why do we so willingly accept the fact that most music venues do not pay well? Why are so many bands hungry to play for free?

Music Apples to Retail Oranges
Granted, the comparison is not quite exact. For one, bringing people through the door is a burden that Klub Vertigo expects Rocker Joe to shoulder. JC Penny doesn’t expect Ronda to be responsible for the number of shoppers in the store on the days she works. (Of course, they do hope she does a good job and makes people want to come BACK once they’ve interacted with her.) Conversely, if JC Penny is slammed right before Christmas, Ronda still gets paid the same wages. If Klub Vertigo is packed with fans, Rocker Joe’s chances for a larger payment increase.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the simple fact that Rocker Joe and Ronda both performed a service. What are the assumptions we make that cause us to THINK of their work and compensation differently?

* Music is a hobby/recreation/art-form, while retail/commerce is work. Hmmm. Maybe not. Some of the best musicians I know don’t enjoy the music they play. They do it. They do it well. But it’s not fun. It’s work. They get paid what they can. They try to support their families. It IS possible for someone to enjoy selling ladies apparel MORE than playing music.
* There are millions of bands competing for that performance slot. Great! May the best band win. And when the best band IS chosen to perform, may they be paid accordingly. We don’t expect Ronda to work for free just because her boss at JC Penny pulled her job application from a pool of hundreds of applicants. She is paid BECAUSE she was the best candidate for the job. We have a whole other set of problems to look at if clubs are booking crappy bands (either they’re terrible or have no hope of building a draw) just to fill time-slots. I’m sure there are quite a few good bands (talented, or with a big draw, or both) that would jump at the chance to have a more regular gig. Which brings us to…
* W-2 versus…. other! Ronda is a W-2 employee, with a regular work schedule and, potentially, a benefits package. What is Rocker Joe’s status? 1099 employee? Under-the-table day-laborer? Volunteer? No matter how the IRS would define this OTHER status, it doesn’t make sense that Rocker Joe should be paid an unfair wage (or nothing at all) simply because he’s not a regular employee. What if Klub Vertigo decided to have Rocker Joe perform there 5 nights a week (instead of a different act each night)? Does he suddenly seem like “an employee” who should be paid well for the music he provides? Does the frequency of his work all of a sudden seem to justify that Klub Vertigo pay Rocker Joe a living wage? Whether Rocker Joe plays Klub Vertigo all year long or they have a different band every night, the club is getting the same service either way.

What part can musician’s unions play?
Portland, Oregon’s musician’s union (AFM Local 99) has been running a campaign for a few years now called Fair Trade Music where they’ve tried to encourage clubs, restaurants, and coffee houses to support musicians at whatever level they’re comfortable. Basically, they’ve developed a tiered pay-scale according to venue size and capacity, and asked business owners to commit to a certain scale. If they do, they can display in their venue that they are a proud supporter of the Fair Trade Music campaign, which hopefully has some social currency among patrons and musicians.
Noble as the union’s efforts are, I’m not sure the idea is catching on like wildfire amongst Portland venues, who obviously benefit from the existing system where bands will play for next to nothing just for the chance to be performing on a decent-sized stage. At the same time, we must consider the costs of operating a music venue (liquor license, insurance, rent, staffing, equipment maintenance, etc.) Ever notice how music venues are always changing names, switching owners, or going out of business? It can’t be easy running a profitable club. But if we accept that difficulty exists and also demand fairer wages for musicians, will WE be putting even more performance spaces in the red? Are we to believe our only two options are: 1) a world where millions of bands have plenty of places to perform, as long as they play for cheap or free, or 2) a world where the successful/lucky/connected musicians get to make a living by performing at the few remaining venues that can cover their costs and afford to pay decent wages to the bands?

What do you think?
Is the current system the best compromise for both bands and clubs? Is the de-valuing of music and performance an inevitability in a world with such steep competition, not just in terms of music, but for your entertainment time in general? Can unions help, or is it a lost cause? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please share them in the comments section below.

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