Ok, so maybe the problem is not specifically you, but it does seem like a lot of people like to cry murder at the sight of someone offering ‘exposure as payment’ to a creative type. The view that asking a musician to play without monetary payment not only goes against what the music industry is based on, it also goes against the way that society works.
No one is denying the fact that you can’t cash exposure in at the bank, but nobody claimed that you could either.
Don’t be a hypocrite
There is no way that anyone in the music industry can ever truly say that they are against exposure. Whether they are searching for exposure to new fans, new readers, a new booking agent, a new label, a prospective promoter, a prospective employer or customers; everyone who actually wants to be in the music industry is looking for some sort of exposure. When themusic.com.au and Tone Deaf post articles slamming the Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) for seeking musicians to volunteer a performance in return for promotion, it's a little concerning. A media outlet criticising someone for offering exposure as payment must have paid all those artists that they have premiered tracks or videos. No? Oh really, so why did all those artists want to premiere their track or video with those outlets? You guessed it; they all wanted the exposure.
In the event that a media outlet would pay an artist for an article, and exclusive interview for example. It wouldn’t be with your mate’s band who just played their first show, it’ll be with a name who is going to drive readers into their media outlet. Because if exposure is done right, it can not only be worth getting for free but worth paying for. I’m sure all of the promoters, labels and artists paying for advertising with themusic.com.au or Tone Deaf would agree... I would hope that at least the directors and finance team of those sites would too.
Exposure has value
If you view an offer to play without payment for exposure as taking advantage then you need to get your priorities straight. The music industry works because completely unknown bands can level a playing field somewhat by offering to play without a payment for the exposure. This can give them access to the same opportunities that a more established band has who might offer to play the same show for a fee. You see, exposure works both ways and promoters understand that. A promoter or venue may agree to pay you a lot of money to perform their show if you have an established following, as this will inevitably mean increased exposure to their show. Exposure is a valuable commodity and can allow any artist regardless of size, to level the playing field in order to build a career for themselves.
The main call out from the article(s) in question, was that the Melbourne International Coffee Expo were looking to take advantage of musicians (this is not the first time an article such as this has been used to reel in some readers btw). I know several bands who’ve not only agreed to play shows without payment but been the ones who offered to play shows for free in the first place, for one reason: exposure. I even know a band who took the opportunity to open for a larger Australian artist on their national tour last year (8 out of 10 dates) without payment. They paid their own way for travel and accommodation, but they gained a hell of a lot of exposure for it. No one is asking you to play for free, let’s get that clear. But if you don’t play for free there may be others who are already pitching to play for free so they can get the exposure. What it comes down to is how much the exposure means to you.
It’s up to you
Paying musicians in exposure is not the problem, you are.
If someone is looking to buy a backpack for $5 when you are selling a backpack for $40, it doesn’t mean that they are trying to rip you off. Even if they ask you directly if you will sell your bag for $5, they are still not trying to rip you off - this is called negotiation. It’s up to you to determine the worth of your backpack, exactly the same thing applies to musicians.
If you don’t feel as though you deserve to play a show for free, you say “No thanks, our rate is $xx.” If they then say “That’s OK we’ve got others who will play the show for free,” it’s not blackmail it’s a reality. It’s up to you to explain your value and lower rate until you both come to an agreement. If they are adamant they want someone to play for free, then it’s either not the right show for you, or you need more exposure (you can get that by playing to a larger audience than your mates just FYI).
If you're going to complain about that then you need to take another look at the big picture.
This isn’t just the case in the music industry, it’s a fact of life. How often do you think people start off their career on six figures versus starting on minimum wage and working their way up? Careers work the same way, you choose which jobs to apply for and which ones to ignore, salary is one of the criteria which will determine if you say yes or no. Some people get the exposure and experience working an unpaid internship so they can use that to boost their chances of getting the job they want. Others decide that they can’t dedicate that time without getting money and take a different path to try and work their way there. Others start their own business and pour in ridiculous amounts of money so they can have an opportunity at living the job they want.
If you’re not getting paid for a show then maybe you need more exposure; if you’re not getting exposure then maybe your price is too high. If no one is playing your show maybe you’re not offering enough money; if you have a lot of people offering to play for free then maybe your exposure is a pretty valuable thing.
If you ask the internet, pages like reddit will tell mostly you that Kanye West is the biggest asshole in the music industry; but Kanye is an artist and performer, his job is not just to have all eyes and ears on him, and this post is not about that at all.
My experience in the music industry has showed me that a portion of this ‘business’ is just a bunch of people trying to screw everyone else over while they try and avoid getting screwed over themselves.
So have those who’ve come out on top done so by not giving a fuck about who they bring down around them and their dollar sign eyes? Or is it actually possible to still care about the music and the people in the industry and still cast a widespread shadow on the music industry?
It was Steve Miller’s comments earlier in the year that got me thinking. Upon his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Miller called everyone involved “kind of a dick and an asshole” before taking aim at the music industry as a whole. Talking to Rolling Stone about his disdain for making records now, Miller summed it up describing someone from his record label. “He's made a billion dollars off my work over the last 50 years and the motherfucker just came over and introduced himself tonight. That cheery little thing. You know he won't do any contract work, he won't clean anything up, he won't get anything done.” I’m not sure if Miller’s estimation of “a billion dollars” is correct given the current state of the industry, but from that statement alone his assessment of the guy as an asshole feels pretty correct.
I thought back to a couple of times I had really wondered before if caring more about money than artists is what really makes up the music industry. At Face the Music 2015, a Melbourne based industry conference, I watched a panel where The Rubens’ 2015 album ‘Hoops’ was broken down to unpack what made it a hit. One thing that stood out to me was how little Ivy League records’ Chris Maund actually seemed to give a shit. After having to ask the other members of the panel how many singles the band had released from the album under his label, he also made a statement regarding what attracted the label to The Rubens initially was the fact that they already had a booking agent and a Triple J high rotation single. It all left me pretty convinced this guy cared way more about how much money The Rubens had made him than anything else about the band. It seemed like others had gained the same perception as I had, a further question from the audience prodded whether he actually liked The Ruben’s songs before signing them…
Throughout much of Stuart Coupe’s book Gudinski: The Godfather of Australian Rock ’n’ Roll, Mushroom empire legend Michael Gudinski is painted as a godfather type figure who lived by his own rules. At some stages of reading, it begs the questions if Gudinski is some soulless mogul who will chew bands up and spit them out if he needs to for the sake of his reputation as an influential figure, to get one up over those who crossed him or to prove that he is right.
While this has all the markings of an asshole, I’ve heard the guy speak and where that notion falls short is the part where he cares a lot about his artists. A stark contrast to the attitude of Ivy League’s Maund, Gudinski seems to take every opportunity to big up his artists and talk up their back catalogue – I do the same, who wouldn’t if they actually care about the artists. In fact, Gudinski has stuck by a lot of his artists that aren’t pumping out hits or acclaimed albums. Mark Seymour is one example, in the early parts of this decade Gudinski was a champion for Seymour’s solo work despite it’s failure to chart.
So now here we are back where we started.
Do you have to be an asshole to make it in the music industry or am I an asshole and do some people just make it?
Thanks to some recent figures published by Billboard, news outlets (mainstream and music) across the western world are reporting on the fact that album sales slumped to an all time low while streaming is taking over at an all time rate (Pitchfork, Music Feeds, NME, etc).
The Billboard article sent media into a flurry, reporting a drop of 16.9% for the first half of 2016 for album sales while streaming rose 58.7% for the same half year time frame. I have no concerns about this trend, but I am very concerned at the fact that this is reported on as though it’s a surprise to everyone.
If this is a surprise to you then you are what is wrong with the music industry.
Didn’t we see the same headlines last year regardless how bad album sales had gotten? Also wasn’t 2014 setting a historic low for album sales? Actually, more than 5 whole years ago we also had the same headlines and stories about music sales.
The first streaming service, Rhapsody, was launched in 2001, however it wasn’t until the second half of that decade that streaming began to get some traction, with services such as Grooveshark (2006) and Spotify (2008) coming out of the woodwork. Since then, streaming and illegal downloads have grown while album sales heavily declined (whether physical or not). In fact, I would hazard a guess that a lot of people predicted the downfall of album sales back in the turn of the millennium when Napster was a big enough threat to be sued.
So, why did the music industry spend so much time on laws and lawsuits rather than innovation and marketing? Why are key players such as Amazon and Apple just joining the party now?
The answer could be in the fact that the music industry appears to have constantly failed to identify the opportunities in changing times and instead spent their efforts seeking short term gains. Sure, they ushered in low cost plastic CDs like no ones business, but when a clear trend became visible that people no longer wanted to buy music in physical form, preferably without paying for it, they ignored it. OK, maybe they didn’t ignore it, they did worse – they tried to fight it with lawsuits while squeezing all they could out of the dying CD market (as the album sales reports and articles from all those years highlight for us).
We know for a fact that during the recession demand for music did not just disappear, in fact music ticket sales experienced an increase during the recession. So if demand didn’t change, then what did? – consumers needs did. The need for on demand, disposable, portable and very, very cheap music is what all the research and sales trends told us.
I don’t know about you but that sounds a lot like we've been crying out for streaming for nearly the last ten years, a solution that was already well into existence at that stage.
And yet, the industry is still trying to resist streaming with artists like David Byrne, Thom Yorke, The Black Keys and even Will I Am “calling out” streaming services and preaching against them. Sure, I understand that there may be some updating and development required for streaming to work the way everyone wants it to, the problem is that you can’t adapt or grow to utilise something if you’re fighting it.
So did the music industry seal it’s fate by it’s failure to adapt?
The answer is a big resounding no, the industry will always survive as there will always be a demand for music, but it’s impossible not to wonder if we will make the same mistakes and resist the next inevitable change in consumer trends. In an age where major labels have purchased stakes in Spotify, we still report on the demise of album sales like it’s relevant and key consumer bases such as Amazon are only just coming to the party, you also can’t help but wonder where we could be right now if the industry had adapted and grown with changing consumer needs for the last 20 years rather than fight it.