Pay To Play: Another Nail In The Coffin

superbowl-half-timeThe National Football League crossed a line recently, one that has been incrementally stepped on with increasing regularity, from large concert stages to the corner music cafe. They are now asking the performers of the Super Bowl half-time show to Pay to Play.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, “The NFL has narrowed down the list of potential performers for the 2015 Super Bowl to three candidates: Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Coldplay, these people said. While notifying the artists’ camps of their candidacy, league representatives also asked at least some of the acts if they would be willing to contribute a portion of their post-Super Bowl tour income to the league, or if they would make some other type of financial contribution, in exchange for the halftime gig.”

Pay to Play is an arguably contentious practice that has been increasing over the last few decades. Essentially, the music performer(s) is charged an up-front fee to play at a prestigious venue or event. The idea is that the organizers or venue operators minimize risk by forcing the performer(s) to guarantee a minimum amount of income hedged against ticket sales. And now, this practice arrives full force upon the largest stage in America.

But we—as musicians—all knew something was very wrong a long long time ago.

Popular Music As We Know It Is Almost Dead. It Just Doesn’t Know It.

In a previous blog, I touched on the three phases of an art form: Creation, Codification, and Curation. In this post, I make the argument that rock music (among other art forms) is in the final stage. There is little in the way of original creativity, and we find ourselves like curators in a museum, simply retreading most of what has already gone on. Consider:

• The Top 25 Touring Groups of 2013 include Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, and Iron Maiden. These bands are generally not releasing new material, but have re-formed to cash in on their nostalgic resurgence.
• As of this writing, the most popular album now is the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack, which is the number 1 album on the Billboard 200. This soundtrack features songs from the seventies.
• Most live concert venues in my area feature Cover Bands and Tribute Bands. The later genre focuses not only on a specific type of music but a specific band, endeavoring to capture their songs note for note. As a result, bands attempting to play original music are finding little in the way of venues to express their art.

The Present Generation Loves Music, But Doesn’t See The Need To Purchase It.

This trend is equally troubling. While music continues to play an important role in our culture, recorded music is not sufficiently valued as intellectual property. Unlike previous generations where we had LPs or cassettes or CDs to place a physicality to the music, today’s generation sees music as simply a file to be ripped, downloaded, streamed, and shared. Uploading and downloading are simply a few clicks of the button. Music is disposable, so why should anyone pay for it?

For greater insight, I encourage you to read this young person’s famous blog on this issue, and this thoughtful and well-reasoned response. But consider these three sobering statistics from the latter source:

• “The number of professional musicians has fallen 25% since 2000.”
• “Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010 only 2,000 sold more than 5,000 copies.”
• “Only the very top tier of musicians make ANY money on the road. And only the 1% of the 1% makes significant money on the road.”

The ubiquitous and inescapable result of all of this is that the vast majority of musicians are no longer making any real money from royalties or performances. Which essentially means that many working musicians can no longer make a decent living doing what they do.

Brave New World or Paradise Lost?

YouTube, social media, music streaming, home recording studios, virtual instruments, DJ music, American Idol, smart phones, pay to play. One can argue that all of these are opportunities for the millenial musician. But those opportunities are greatly stacked in favor of large corporations—the ones who own the streaming companies, the music publishing, the smart phones, the music labels and reality shows, even the football teams. Consider:

• The income from a single Rhapsody stream is $0.0091 per song. So a musician would need 220 people to stream one of their songs just to buy a Starbucks coffee.
• Monetized views on YouTube pays $0.0030 per view. So that same musician would need 667 views for the same cup of coffee.

How many views and streams would a working musician need per month to feed a family?

When I was a young musician working in the eighties, the average local club gig paid about $75 minimum for a 3-4 hours of work. Today, that number is closer to $50. Now I make considerably more than that on any given night, but I feel sorry for those young musicians trying to break in, those who have a lifetime of virtuosity and are laying it down for a little over minimum wage.

beyonce-performs-during-half-time-show-nfl-super-bowl-xlvii-football-game-new-orleans-louisianaYes, I’m Ranting.

The closest I’ve ever been to Pay To Play was back in the nineties, when my jazz fusion band, VESPERS, was first asked to open for Multi-Grammy vocal group, Take Six. We agreed to play without monetary compensation for the opportunity to gain some greater visibility in our local area. I remember after the concert, being thanked profusely by the concert promoter for our efforts. And he slipped me a check for $200, admitting simply, “You guys earned that.”

The recent NFL announcement seems in my view to be one more nail in the coffin for professional musicians. Sadly, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Coldplay will likely bid for the opportunity to be on the largest American stage. One will be selected and pay to perform on a hype-filled day in Phoenix in February.

And the rest of us will simply watch it happen.



4 thoughts on “Pay To Play: Another Nail In The Coffin

  1. Fine craftsmen have been paying to play all my life. We pay to be considered/juried in to a venue. If we get in, we pay a booth fee to rent square footage on the floor of the venue. We pay all our other expenses. And in some cases, we are asked to be jurors for venues and are not compensated for our time. Then we hope people come and buy what we have made and that it will be enough.
    I know the show producers need the money to rent the arenas and advertise. I know some are willing to work with you in terms of booth fee payments.
    It’s just part of the deal in my line of work. Did I mention we are asked to pay these fees 12 – 6 months in advance? If 2014 shows are not as good as I need them to be to meet my already bare bones budget for 2015, I may go the local Christian Ministry, services for poor people, for food and help with my winter fuel bill. And thank God they are there.
    I have begun saying and believing I do what I do for Love and He makes the provision. I give Him the glory and my gratitude. And things are better for me financially. He has certainly delivered me from fear of financial insecurity.
    My Shepard does supply my need.

  2. Boo Hoo. Times are getting tougher for musicians. This means that only the ones left will be the ones who truly have a love for doing it? I can only hope I live to see the pot of gold removed completely so that the only people left are there because of passion. There are also a million ways to make a buck with music. You just have to get creative. What do I care if millionaires pay billionaires to spew garbage I’m not going to watch?

    1. Hi Neil. Your unsympathetic response is a little over the top, in my humble opinion. Times getting tougher also means that many of the ones who love doing music and are passionate about it will not be able to feed their families with it.

      The 1909 Copyright Act born of the extreme injustices perpetrated on the Tin Pan Alley composers as well as subsequent legislation in 1976 and 1988 were a good start, but obviously, the laws have not kept up with technology. As a result, the injustices on musicians and others in the music industry will continue to propagate. I am frankly surprised that you would side with the “millionaires paying billionaires” as you stated.

  3. I don’t see how anyone can justify this – it’s a total demonstration of disrespect to musicians. What ways would you suggest us to be creative if not with our music?

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