Hey kids, ever play a show at a club? Then you know how the door money always goes to the sound guy before it goes to you. What if it wasn't like that? Well, funny you should ask, because Portland, Oregon's music scene says it doesn't have to be. In an interesting article from a local alt-weekly, writer Amanda Ingram lays out the deets:
Many folks in Portland's music community think that, just like coffee farmers' wages, musicians should be able to demand a fair wage for their performances. But what do the club owners think?
Couldn't tell ya. The article, though certainly to be credited for covering an interesting issue, doesn't devote space to that side of the story. Still, the musician's angle is worth listening to, as some 200 local musicians there have formed an organization--Fair Trade Music Movement--and are in talks with clubs about setting said fair wage for their performances:
Bands usually get a small portion of door sales after clubs take out money for promotion and "house fees," but there's no set practice, and the payout changes from club to club, says Bruce Fife, president of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 99.
"Money goes to the doorman and soundman before it gets to the band," Fife says. "That money being paid at the door [should be] fairly distributed to the musician."
Who's to say what's fair? This may sound like anathema to the average club-hustling musician in town--and I'm not talking about session players, which is a different issue about compensation. Getting paid playing clubs is like getting paid selling records. You get money in direct proportion to how many warm bodies you can herd into the joint, until you get big enough to demand guarantees that pay you no matter who shows up.
Or maybe musicians feel, and rightly so, that their relationship with club owners is symbiotic and ought to be compensated accordingly, even if both club owner and band have a bad night, and that it isn't being compensated fairly.
According to the article, no other city has tried this sort of thing, and these artists are only negotiating with smaller clubs, not the larger concert halls who already work through negotiated contracts. And though it may sound like a silly feature, clubs who have agreed to participate will display a Fair Trade sticker in their window, which, apparently in a place like Portland where fair trade matters, will actually mean something to the progressive show-going public.
But what could this mean for Nashville? I called up Mercy Lounge manager John Bruton and ran the idea by him.
"I always say you get paid what you're worth," said Bruton, who explained that door deals are far more favorable to local musicians in Nashville than any kind of guarantee, which would take out advertising and house fees. But local bands who play for door don't pay those fees, and production costs here are minimal. It's not like other cities where bands truly do find themselves paying to play.
"The whole thing is paying your dues," he says. "As you progress, you're making more money. Talk to Guilty Pleasures, or for that matter, The Protomen. It's not like anyone's getting ripped off here when they play for door.
"In some cities like L.A., you pay to play just to be able to say you played the Viper Room or the Troubadour. That's not the case in Nashville. Our production cost does not even pay our sound guys. That does not include what we spend on rent, advertising and everything else. I've had a band say, 'Oh, we have to pay to play?' I'm like, 'We're paying for you to play regardless of whether one person shows up or 500.' "
Bruton says in Nashville all the clubs are competitive, and he's not aware of any club that charges more than cost to local bands for production.
But the Portland music scene's efforts bring up the idea that art, by nature, is such a subjective enterprise that while it's easy to say artists and musicians--just like carpenters and gardeners--should be paid fairly for their work, determining the value of that art is so burdened by notions of aesthetics, morality, economics, demand, blah blah blah, that it's understandable why club owners operate on one principle: What's your draw?
Still, all this makes it very difficult to imagine how one suddenly would go negotiating a value for a performance if the demand for it--that is, the number of people who care enough to show up--is removed. Typically, acts who can negotiate guarantees are thought to have built-in draws, although we know those shows to often be drastically under-attended, and clubs risk their own sustainability every time they book them.
And if clubs did agree to some kind of set price for a band, how would they absorb that extra payout to smaller-drawing acts, if/when no one showed up? Could they just set guarantees for smaller bands based on their average or typical performance? Would they have to raise alcohol prices or the cover charge (as Basement owner Mike Grimes often points out, one of the few things that has completely resisted inflation over the last few decades at small clubs)?
"Ask any local band how they are treated in Nashville as far as being fair, and I think they'll agree that it's better to go with a door deal than a guarantee," says Bruton. "When a band doesn't get paid in Nashville, that means a club lost money by even opening the doors."
So what say you, musicians? Are you paid fairly at clubs around town?