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08 March 2011

Art as Exploitable Entertainment

I backed a friend up on drums this last weekend, and as is all too frequent an occurrence, we got shafted on our pay. The owner/manager of the bar where we played had agreed to give us a percentage of the bar's proceeds from that night, but even before we took the stage, he left $175 with the manager on duty with which to pay the four of us for 4 hours of work.

This particular venue and its owner have a reputation for this kind of bullshit. There seems to be a shared belief among many business owners that musicians do not deserve fair compensation. Even worse, many convince themselves that they are doing us a favor by allowing us to play on their stage, giving us some kind of special opportunity. That couldn't be further from the truth. People frequent live music venues in part because of the entertainment factor: seeing a performance is enjoyable.

Some people, however, sadly think that because music is entertaining, it is not art. In fact, music is really the only art form that I can think of that is treated this way. When I was playing in my first band in high school, I had to explain to my father, who argued that we should be playing covers of popular songs instead of originals, that I didn't play music primarily to entertain. Instead, I played because it was an artistic collaborative expression of meaning and emotion. If people found entertainment in that, then all the better, but that was secondary.

The friend I played with on Saturday is a full-time musician. He tours the Southeast as a one-man band. He doesn't make a lot of money doing it, though. In part, this is because venues tend to exploit musicians. By advertising live music--even if the musician is an unknown--the bar owner draws in larger crowds that spend more money on food and drink. Many restaurateurs fail to see the need to share this profit with the very draw that earned it.

It may seem that this is a bad business model. If one isn't getting paid fairly, he looks for a new job, but musicians are often beholden to bar owners. For example, the bar where we played is the only legitimate venue in our town. There are other places to play, but they are not music venues in any serious sense of the term. Musicians also have imperfect knowledge of the job market. There are simply too many bars to know which ones pay fairly. Moreover, musicians, because we are typically freelance workers without a regular gig or long-term contract and are largely unorganized (i.e. non-union), are beholden to a system that alienates us from the profit of our product.

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