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Getting Paid to SLAM Dance on a Stage

Yesterday was Save Live Australian Music Day and, as the live music economy sputters on, we crunch some numbers and have a look at how the artists still don't see a large amount of Benjamin action. And we're not talking BJ's because we all know bassists get heaps of those.


Ben Salter from The Gin Club

Save Live Australian Music. Personally I think Save Australian Live Music makes more sense. But then I guess SALM doesn't really work as an anagram. Maybe slide in the word Exceptional before Music. SALEM. Remember those little Privileged Satan-Fuckers? Man, they really sucked live. I guess Save Australian Live (but only Exceptional) Music is a bit too much to swallow as well. Ok, SLAM it is then.

Save Live Australian Music. But does it really need saving? Probably not. I can still walk to a dozen-or-so music venues from my abode in the Western Suburbs of Australia and see above-average local bands (and sometimes Exceptional bands like Peabody) for the price of a couple of schooners at the local pub. As long as I can do that, I would consider the live scene to be in a stable condition, hardly thumping it's chest and doing a million laps around the local football field, but also a far cry from being found bludgeoned to death in the changing rooms.

But the idea behind SLAM Day goes beyond the issue of how many bands are playing around town and the number of people/pubs/clubs/warehouses are supporting Australian music, with a large of part of the thinking centred around the way in which the live scene is operating, or more specifically, the role of the musicians within this system.

SLAM Day is specifically focused on small venues, viewing them as an essential part of the "cultural fabric". It's an initiative that was birthed last year on the back of the iconic Melbourne venue, The Tote, being forced to close it's doors amidst increasingly unreasonable Victorian liquor license laws. The committee focus on the importance of these small live venues and their role in helping to promote and develop artists. No arguments here, and anyone that has spent even just a few moments trolling through this webspace would know that we've not only consistently supported smaller (especially DIY) venues as the critical link between artists and their audience, but also promoted it as the preferred way to experience live music.

However, amidst the mountain of SLAM Day-related press releases we've received in our inbox over the past few weeks, there was one particular fact that stood out:

According to the 2011 report Life's Better with Live, live music contributes $1.2 billion to the economy and supports nearly 15,000 jobs nationally. An estimated 42 million patrons attended 328,000 venue-based gigs at 3,900 venues in 2009/10. Yet the report revealed that Australian musicians earn a mean average of just $12,200 from live performance.

For people who call Reality home this fact shouldn't come as a surprise. Since the beginning of time, music hasn't been a career renowned for it's association with large paychecks. Most rock and roll dreams live and die in sweaty rehearsal spaces, amidst life-long friends and a metric tonne of damaged brain cell memories, more than a few billion frequent flyer miles from the often painted mirage of leer jets and dead hookers. Truth be told, this is nothing new. If people are pursuing a music career (the premise of 'career' itself is a whole other discussion) for the financial benefits, then they're setting themselves up for disappointment.

That said, their end cut of that $1.2 billion seems fairly small, right?

The basis of the figures, the "Life's Better with Live" report, appears to have been built from the findings of this Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) report, which was conducted in September last year by Ernst & Young. In the report it states that from the net revenue of $1.2 billion, around $277 million is allocated towards paying the talent, leaving us with about $933 million for all the other expenses (ie. staff wages, cost of sales etc). These expenses total a whopping $886 million, a fair bit more than the outgoings on your illegal backyard Shed Brothel. Presumably, this also covers everything to do with the general operation of the business for the year, including maintenance, refurbishments, council fines for noise violations, "special services for VIPs", security guard wages and out-of-court settlements when security guards try out their new fists on some unsuspecting facial features. And after all this we're left with around $46 million. This is the surplus, the profit, the cocaine-Xmas-party-at-The-Ivy budget.

$46 million might seem like a lot, but remember we started with $1.2 billion. This is just a 4% return, less than that generated by throwing that same money into a fixed term deposit for twelve months. Of course, if you've got a billion dollars I'm not advising you to stick it into a term deposit, it's just to get some perspective. Actually, if you've got a lazy "Bill Gates" lying around we should talk, I've got more than a few worthwhile investment opportunities (ie. inventions) that are looking for some start-up cash.

The APRA report quotes the actual average income for musicians as $19,300 (sourced from a 2010 Austrlian Council study entitled Do You Really Expect To Get Paid?). This is a touch higher than the $12,000 amount quoted in the SLAM press release, which was calculated by converting the industry wage amounts into the average cost of each full-time employee, and then divided that by the average amount of time actually spent working.

However, using that $19,300 figure, it would mean that there are approximately 14,352 musicians getting a slice of that $277 million pie. Even if all of that extra 4% of profit (ie. $46 million) is paid directly to the musicians, they'd still only increase their average take to $22,505. The minimum wage in Australia is currently $30,643.

Of course, it's also completely unreasonable to expect venues to hand over their "rainy day" money, even if it is to the most important expense in their operation — the talent. A fact in itself which is also a little questionable, especially when you consider the revenue breakdown of where that $1.2 billion is coming from. Only 16.7% ($200.4 million) is generated from ticket sales, the rest coming from sales of drinks and food. Presumably, in most cases, the performers are the reason people are attending these venues and eating and drinking, thus they can take some credit for that 83.3%, but the actual flow on affect is impossible to measure in a general sense.

So, what is the solution? Well, at the moment there doesn't appear to be an easy answer. Running a live music venue is an expensive venture, that's something which doesn't seem like it'll change anytime soon. Within the APRA study, around 70% of venue operators cited "the impact of the current regulatory environment" as the main barrier for live music venues. This is a wide net, including everything from licensing issues to DA approvals, solicitor fees, etc. Reducing their overall operational costs, including the continue government-related expenses, is one possible way to increase their overall profit, thus making it possible to pass on a few more clams to the performers.

It should also be noted, however, that the cost of talent was seen by 61% of operators as a concern. When the majority of those within the industry itself are viewing the payment towards performers as unreasonable, it doesn't hold much hope towards a drastic structural change in the allocations. And from the musician's perspective there's not a great deal they can change either, especially considering that the majority of the third-party factors that contribute to the business expenses are out of their control (ie. gentrification, increasing rental costs, steroid-loaded bouncers).

Government support (ie. financial handouts) is one possible answer, but it's not a sustainable solution. Just ask the slow-dying local car-manufacturing industry. Grants handed out to individual musicians based on applications, governing panels and personal taste is obviously fraught with problems. So is giving cash boosts to local art collectives and businesses that support local music, creating temporary band-aid solutions that inevitably live-and-die on the state of political policy, changing governments and funding allocations.

The APRA report doesn't include the operation of those outside of the food and beverage industry, such as DIY venues which run on a much smaller budget and scale. Most of these venues operate without liquor licenses, in cheaper rent areas and without several of the other expenses detailed above. Even though artists still wouldn't make enough money from these shows to live comfortably, it's safe to assume their cut is a bit larger (at least as a percentage), and it's coming directly from those supporting their music — me and you. In many ways, these particular places are already offering a possible solution and, although it might not be a well publicised one (partly due to the legalities associated with their operation), the DIY scene continues to play an incredibly important role in helping develop local talent.

So, maybe the solution is to just take it all off the grid? Do away with businesses that require governance, licensing and painful things like "workplace safety". Well, of course, in a perfect world this would be something we'd push for, but it doesn't seem like a viable solution for the wider community. And in many ways band's need these larger (legal) venues for the exposure alone, necessary for transporting their "career" down the path of record deals, radio airplay and the end goal — having your music used on a Nissan television commercial.

I'm sure there's plenty of things I've probably missed in this rambling, not to mention more than a few occasions where I've forgotten to "carry the one" in my calculations. Comments are open and, as always, your 2 cents is more than appreciated. Please note: each 2 cent donation will be placed in a 12 month Fixed Term Deposit and the proceeds donated to the Top Ten most deserved bands, of our picking.

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Comments

Royal Milkshake

Great rant man, probably the best I've read on this website. I've played a few DIY or backyard venues, but based on my limited experience artists are lucky if they make any money from them at all. The most I've ever gotten personally is about $25, taken from the profit left over from the sale of the store bought case of coopers and no-one I've spoken to at any of these events seems to go to with the expectation of actually making any money. It's much more about networking and making people who are active in the scene aware of you and your music. Todays hipster art-school dropouts are tomorrows FBI radio interns. I know a guy who runs hardcore and punk gigs out of his garage and it's much the same in that scene too. The band might flog a few EPs and make a little cash from that, but ultimately it's about building a reputation, getting a little experience and making a connection with the people who really care about your particular style of music. I can't say I've ever really felt ripped off after performing at an illegal venue though, mostly because they are completely volunteer run and tend to make fuck all money, but also because there's no expectations placed on you. You aren't treated like shit if you don't 'pull a crowd'. The people who organise the events generally take care of their own promotion and there's almost always at least a few dozen people there anyway because honestly, who wouldn't see a band in someones backyard, where you can smoke a little weed and get shitfaced on $3 bottles of coopers for practically nothing? You hit the nail on the head about promotion being an issue though. It's hard to find out about these gigs unless you're in the loop and I think this insularity is one of the things that's turns people off finding out about new underground bands and musicians. Going off the grid would be great if these venues could get the word out and regularly pull the kind of crowds they need to pay the musos a decent price, that is of course until their reputations cause them to be shut down, which is an inevitability.

Another thing that's fucking everything up for musicians is their complete lack of any self-respect. No, really. Why would a venue pay a decent price for a semi-experienced act with their shit together when there are so many amateurs out there itching to do it for fuck all? They just want 'the opportunity'. It's not as good an opportunity as you think, the only people who are going to show up to your gig at your local pub after two months of you being a band are YOUR friends and family. People who already know and like you and have no interest in the actual quality of your music. Why not rehearse for another month or two, round up all the cunts you know and ask the venue for a decent price or a percentage of the drinks or y'know... SOMETHING? The worst they can do is say no, then you can tell 'em to get fucked and go ask someone else.

The venues are partly responsible for exacerbating this problem, because many of them have no foresight and would rather get the amateurs with no idea what they're doing in than the bands who are more motivated, more-experienced, and better-rehearsed i.e. actually good. For them 25 friends / family members is the same as 25 punters / actual fans, they're all just warm bodies that buy drinks as far as they're concerned, which is the kind of attitude that might save a few bucks, but also gives the venue a reputation for putting on shit acts and ensures that no-one ever takes them seriously. Venues that focus on the integrity and talent of the artists they put on last a hell of a lot longer than those that are just trying to get some fucking people in, but it seems that for every Annandale there are three or four pubs that don't really give a shit about that and nobody even talks about.

But that's just my two cents and it's worth noting that I know nothing about anything.

5 years ago

Royal Milkshake

The amateurs aren't completely to blame either, they might drag down the value of a live performance, but the semi-pros and pros accept the shitty paying gigs as if that's what they're actually worth. I've spoken to a few older musos and they've all told me that what the average band earns for a gig in Sydney now is more or less the same as what they would have earned in the 70s.

Ended up writing a bit more there than I intended.

5 years ago

Royal Milkshake

Sorry if any of that didn't make sense. I've been drinking. Oh and don't actually tell anyone to get fucked. I meant that as a metaphor, pretty bad way to actually get anywhere.

5 years ago

TeddyH

I couldn't track down the wonky/academic research that has gone into this (as promised), but I thought I'd bring in some of the economic (and political) concepts at play, while trying not to be too boring, and most of them simply support Johnny's thesis.

'Elasticity' is an important concept; it measures the response of an economic variable in response to another. 'Price elasticity of supply' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elasticity_of_supply) is the variation in the quantity supplied (for this, live music) as a response to a change in price (amount musicians are offered). Let's say live venues no longer offered money to live performers: would live music dry up? Probably at many of the venues stereotypically deemed to be live music venues (pubs etc.). I do however think that in the long-run the DIY venues will mostly fill that void, and cater mainly for people who are genuinely keen on live music (and let's be honest, local band live music does not have nearly the same demand it had, say, 20 years ago [due to a coalescence of economic, technological and social reasons])

I think the supply of ingenuine/insincere bands may decrease in the short-term. Subjectively, I think this is a good thing. I also suspect that many of the bands supporting SLAM and other forms of lobbying (and grants etc.) do so because of rent-seeking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent-seeking) - they are going to perform music whether or not they are going to get paid (and most bands get paid a paltry amount anyways; are you really going to change your supply of live music because you didn't get that $50?).

In some instances, the (admittedly paltry) amounts most bands gets and the SLAM reasoning on it seems to reflect a culture of entitlement amongst some musicians. I personally am not convinced that either the government or the pub/club scene really should be supporting the pursuit/hobby you chose to do at the expense of another alternative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opportunity_cost).

In the long-run, a switch to low-cost 'off the grid' live venues may have the (for mine, positive) side-effect of eliminating many acts that are not pursuing live music for the 'pure' and simple purpose of creating and sharing music. Artists that feel the need to receive an income can still 'innovate', pursue alternative income streams including merchandise, licensing (many TV producers source synch rights independently of publishers these days), and other internet-base activities).

Worthy of note: the shape of the music industry isn't even pyramid-shaped; I'd argue it's thumb-tack shaped. There's a narrow pin representing, say, 3% of the industry who reap the vast majority of the income earned in 'the biz', while the tac represents the other 97% collecting a very small portion of total revenue. They still do it despite not receiving much revenue.

The role of government is worthy of some points. Regulation is distorting; but that's not an argument for 'small government' or the flip-side, 'big government'. Appropriate regulation needs to be established, and the role of licensing etc is worthy of further evaluation (I haven't got an opinion myself [yet] as I need more evidence, data, arguments...)

But grants, despite noble rhetoric, are often pretty bad. [Disclosure: my band has received grants. I don't think we deserved them, but we'd be idiots not to take free money]. It involves picking-winning based on an arbitrary criteria, and many of the music grants just go to white, middle-class ego-trippers who'd have gone about the same business irrespective of the grant. Also, the structure and application of many grants provides an incentive to 'game' the process. I suspect one reason we got one of our grants was because I used to word 'social inclusion' throughout the application. And if you need further proof why giving people the power to pick winners is shitty, look no further that Richard Kingsmill.

There's certainly a case for targeted, well-argued government grants articulating the social benefit of said grant e.g. a touring grant to an Indigenous group performing or incorporating traditional music that, by it's own practice, serves as a form of 'live archival' of First Australian heritage. Such social benefit does not apply to middle-class hipsters.

Something people need to remember is that money is a tool. I love money for it's utility in this regard. Money is neither good or evil; it just is... just as a hammer can be used to build a house or crush a skull. But I think it's role as a tool in music is decreasing in relevance. The barriers of entry to recording are distributing music are lower than ever thanks to computers and the internet, and those can be used to harness audiences at small venues. That sounds fucking awesome to me.

I think that as musicians - genuine, sincere, honest and innovative musicians - adapt to these challenges including the demise of the traditional live music venue, the core elements of live music will be strengthened for those who genuinely want to be there. As someone who is politically/economically Leftish, it may sound odd to be arguing that we should let the market rip... but seriously, as a musician I'd rather play in a shed or lounge room to 40 people who want to be there, that having an entitlement mentality of a pub paying me to be there.

Musicians should probably hone their lobbying 'skills' towards workplace flexibility that allow them to earn an income separate to music but with the flexibility to perform regularly. And stop feeling so fucking entitled.

Bah, I'm done. This wasn't as nuanced as intended.

Here's some pictures of sloths: http://cuteoverload.com/2012/02/23/hey-sloth-whatchya-doin/

Nick G
@nickmgreen

5 years ago

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