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Work For Free?
By Carley Baer - 07/24/2008 - 02:33 PM EDT


They say that Portland, OR has the most micro-breweries, strip clubs, and indie musicians per capita than any other US city.  I've lived here for a couple years now and I think that statement is true on all three counts, but especially the last.  Musicians are everywhere in this town.  You can catch a live show at any hour, on any night of the week, at no less than 25 different venues.  It is this that lured me here from my indie-music-challenged Midwestern hometown, but it is also this that shoots me in the foot whenever I try to book gigs for myself.

This place has too damn many musicians.

Now, it is wholly refreshing to live in an entire city that's pretty dedicated to the arts.  People have a lot more sympathy when you talk about the rigors of self-promotion; they don't flash fake smiles and then tell you to get a "real job."  Conversely, though, the competition is cutthroat.  Venues book months in advance because the list of talent is so long, and that's to say nothing of the less-talented-but-every-bit-as-tenacious crowd that doesn't get booked nearly as often but still clogs the pipes trying.

The biggest concern that arises in this situation is money.   You may remember that, in my last column, I stood on my soapbox decrying the use of money as the definitive measure of value in music.  I honestly believe that that is true for recorded music; it's already recorded, so you may as well try to get people to listen to it, whether or not they pay for it.  However, for live performances, it is an entirely different matter.  There is a tremendous amount of energy expended by a performer, every single time, and it deserves to be rewarded-- particularly when that energy is responsible for keeping patrons at the bar.

In a town like Portland, though, it's hard to get paid.  For one thing, for every legitimately good artist that wants to be paid, there are a dozen that are willing to play for free.  Because of this, venues have gotten into the habit of not paying anyone anything even closely resembling a living wage.  Often, you'll find that the only payment offered is a free drink and some "exposure."  Now excuse me, for I must digress.

Exposure is one of my most hated euphemisms: it is the most condescending way to tell a person that they're working for free.  It might be fine when you're just starting out and need any kind of experience to boost you into the higher echelons of the music network, but once you've been playing out for a couple years and have been diligently honing your craft, "exposure" is insulting.  Imagine being a bar owner and telling your staff that they won't be getting paid tonight, but frame it in such a way that tries to make it sound like it's a really great opportunity for them.  Your staff would walk out on you in a heartbeat, and yet musicians (who arguably do just as much to keep patrons in a bar) are trained from the beginning to accept this as a standard business practice.

Granted, a lot of coffee houses and upstart venues don't make a ton of money to begin with, and if you're a veritably unknown musician, you probably won't be making them a ton of money either.  That's understandable, and in those cases, exposure can be mutually beneficial (especially if they're a growing business that will remember you in the future).  However, more often than not, you find that a lot of venues offering "exposure" are pretty established places, with a pretty reliable clientele and a pretty miserly bookkeeper. 

So what are we to do?  It's simple, really.  If a venue tells you they won't pay you, then don't play there.  Not only that, but don't frequent that place as a patron.  And not only that, but tell all your pro-musician friends not to go there either, because supporting that venue supports unethical business practices.

It's pretty difficult for one person, or even a small group of people, to affect any real change in this way (even though it's really satisfying on a base level).  So, one way to get a larger movement started is to get involved with your local chapter of the Musician's Union.  Yes, there is such a thing as the Musician's Union and yes, most cities have a local chapter.  (Here in Portland, it's Local 99.)  The whole philosophy of a union revolves around the idea that what's good for the individual is good for the whole, and so if you need muscle behind your plea for a living wage for musicians, the Union is the best first option.

But let's say you live in a small town with no Union chapter and not a lot of options as far as venues go.  My first piece of advice, at least if you have any intention of making a living as a musician, is to get the H out of that town as soon as you possibly can.  However, that's not always a realistic option in the short term.  If all the venues in your town tell you that you won't get paid for your two hours of hard work, you still don't have to accept that.  Here is one solution:  have a house concert.

House concerts happen all over the country, and they're beautifully simple.  Someone hosts music in their living room and a cover is charged or requested (I've seen anywhere from $5 to $30, depending on the magnitude of the act).  The cover goes toward providing food and drink for the audience, and whatever is left goes to the musician(s).  The great thing about house concerts is that it allows you to play in a setting where people are there to LISTEN; they're not there to drink, or eat, or socialize.  They get to sit on comfy furniture and get an intimate glimpse of you as a performer and a person.  I've never been to a house concert, as a performer or as a listener, where the experience wasn't totally magical for everyone involved.

Another solution is busking.  All you do is grab your instrument and head out to a street corner that has some decent foot traffic.  Then you open your case and play.  You can usually walk away after a couple hours with $30 or more, and if you have a sign with your name or website, you're exposing any number of people to your music who may have otherwise never come across it.   Even if you don't make a fat wad of cash, it's a good way to get a couple hours of intense practice.

I made the decision a few months ago that I will not play for free, unless I choose to.  I'm not rich, by any means, but I supplement my day job income by a couple hundred dollars a month, which is nice.  My point in all this is that you can do the same.  Griping about not getting paid won't get you paid; taking decisive action with your music will.


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