I’ve played in about a half dozen bands over the past seven years here in the Valley. I’ve played on the steps of my beloved Goodwin Memorial Library in Hadley (for free) and I’ve played The Calvin (for $250); I’ve played countless basements (including “The Basement”), colleges, and plenty of bar shows to boot. With the exception of the very occasional, yet lucrative, college show or an exceptionally good night at a bar, which does happen sometimes (especially at Bishop’s), there isn’t much much money to be made playing original music around here.
It doesn’t matter if my music is good or bad, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve shaped my music to be palatable if the following fact is true: Venue owners and promoters (with few exceptions) are always trying their damndest to keep costs down. As any half-assed Marxist knows, the lower the labor costs, the higher the profits. Musicians and artists are not just underpaid here, but everywhere. The business side of the music industry happens behind closed doors and away from prying eyes, but one need look no further than streaming services like Spotify to understand that exploitation of artists is systemic. (If you want to know more search for “Courtney Love does the math,” or “Steve Albini ‘The Problem with Music.’”)
A recent example of this dynamic playing out on a local level revealed itself in last week’s Advocate which declared “The Future of Western Mass Music is Here: Next Wave Stage at Green River Fest.” And in case you missed it, the “Next Wave Stage,” which was sponsored by the Advocate, hosted five local bands featuring members who under the age of 18. The nice, generous, community-minded version of me was very excited to see young and good bands recognized in the paper. I went online and listened and really enjoyed the music. But the jaded, cynical me chimed in with the counterargument: “The Future of Western Mass Music is Free Labor.”
It didn’t take long to find the contest rules that offered festival passes to band members in lieu of payment. I also emailed or Facebook messaged the bands to inquire about whether or not they were getting paid. Of the three that wrote back, two said they didn’t think they were getting paid, and one band declined to comment.
I tried to contact Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds and director of the Green River Festival, but didn’t hear back in time for publication. Instead, Jeff Good, the executive editor of the Advocate, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and the Greenfield Recorder, offered a statement speaking as the Next Wave Stage’s sponsor. “While it’s fair to raise the question of whether music venues fairly compensate professional musicians for their work, I think it’s unfair to level such criticism at the Green River Festival’s Next Wave Stage,” he writes. He goes on to defend Olsen, saying that he “has a long history of giving upstart bands a chance to shine.” Good also pointed out that bands on the Next Wave Stage will have the opportunity to play on the Advocate Sessions stage, which is the Advocate’s take on NPR’s “Tiny Desk,” where they will have a professionally made video. And lastly Good said that “far from trying to exploit young people to turn a profit, the Green River Festival gave festival-goers aged 18 and under the chance to attend all of Friday night’s performances absolutely free. Clearly, the festival is willing to sacrifice revenue to promote youthful bands and their fans, young and old.”
If we’re as seriously enthusiastic as we say we are about supporting young people and supporting the arts, surely a music festival that can charge $60 to camp for the weekend can afford to pay its talent. The more money we pay to artists — and especially young ones — the more they will invest into their art. They will buy instruments, make records, and take care of themselves in ways they couldn’t playing for “exposure.”
Of course such opportunities can absolutely be great resume boosters and could help propel a band forward. But the point of this column isn’t to point a finger at Green River, and I don’t mean to suggest that anyone is being “exploited.” Rather, my aim is to make a larger point about the creative labor market: when we will fill stages with unpaid workers, we make it harder for all musicians to be paid. Said differently, paying artists fairly lifts the boats of all artists. Any “future of music” that has a “future” will center artists, take them seriously, and pay them.
Will Meyer writes the Advocate’s bimonthly Basemental column. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @willinabucket.