Pay to Play, to Pay for Paying… to Play

sour grapes or the cold, sharp wine of truth?  You decide.  But it’ll cost ya…  well, nothing actually

There’s a debate – which can only get more heated – about whether music should be free.  About the dynamic created for makers and consumers of music by the Free Culture – or Freecult, as I prefer to call them because it sounds stoopider (of course, they’re too numerous to be an actual cult, and are in most cases motivated by the prevalent tech-enabled custom of lax, myopic greed rather than any coherent ideology).  To clarify, these are the people who collect music like stamps – and never listen to 90% 0f it – rather than downloaders who then buy the product, or some of it anyway.  Yes: Product.

Of course money should be involved in music.  It’s been inextricably entwined with art since art existed; without patronage, no Iliad, no Odyssey, no Velvet Underground, no sustainable dance/electro music *ever* beyond the first amyl nitrate whiff of excitement, no X Factor (okay, baaad joke at the end there).  True, the major labels are getting what they deserve.  Unfortunately, the artists aren’t; while many I know or know of haven’t any problem in principle with giving stuff away – and this includes me – to “donate” the whole lot is, in essence, shutting out loads of artists who can’t afford to do that and sustain themselves or their work.  As well as carrying a stigma of bargain-basement loserdom.  This stuff tends to get downplayed in the current atmosphere of Future Boomer righteousness – or it did until recently.  Strange that it’s taken so long to be examined at a grass-roots level: and what it took was a common enough, albeit unthinking, admission from a National Public Radio DJ (hardly the big bad Music Biz Man).

So yeah, £££.  Obviously, it’s all in who the gelt comes from… corporate sponsorship, crowd-sourcing, arms deals…  and who it goes to.  On any lower echelon than superstar, it’s a vexed question (and I’m sick of labouring it, so will stop biting the hand that… sort-of… feeds now).  Besides which, you can chop logic about the moral pros & cons all day, but personally?  On a selfish level, I don’t really give a shit.

Perseverance for pennies: gotta be done, innit?  Well, up to a point.  Beyond that, it’s just slaughtering the golden goose.

If I could think of a viable strategy to get round this impasse, as hopefully someone will sooner or later, I’d be a fucking entrepreneur rather than a musician.  Or possibly a writer for sites like Gizmodo.com who “refuted” David Lowery with a barrage of meaningless stats.  But my point about sustainability – affordability – stands.  In effect, it’s like a new form of something I’d hear horror stories about from the bad old days: Pay to Play.  Who in their right mind wants that?  (And uh, don’t quit the day job btw – assuming you’re lucky enough to have one.)

A Footnote: speaking of Pay to Play…

Putting together a tour without the cradle of logistic and booking support, I’ve noticed something interesting.  I’m sure a lot of musicians in my kind of semi-legit position have run into something similar.

The era of literal Pay to Play (in London): a lot of venues demanded an upfront fee for the privilege of gigging to six uninterested alcoholics, the scarcely-more-animate sound engineer, and maybe two mates who were just there because they wanted into the keyboard player’s pants.  A promoter with a great deal of sense and integrity (and taste, obviously, as an ally of mine) urged me on several occasions: Never, ever, ever, pay to play.  It just encourages the practise, which must be stamped out.  It’s clearly a self-defeating way to go, and I won’t insult your intelligence by hashing over why this individual was quite right.   But a lot of venues – feeling the bite, so I fling no blame – are now getting into the habit of asking for a hire fee rather than actually promote a gig.  Often, in context, this is fair enough; but the implications are uncomfortable.

This may seem rather off the point of the rant above.  (God, I’m starting to moan as much as that St Saviour woman…)  But it’s a symptom of the same fucked economic model.  One alternative is free no-frills gigs, which in theory sounds nice but in practice means variable quality-control: there, see?  Free stuff sucks.  Can I buy some soil off you, please?

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