Musicians Are Often Exploited in Denver: Here's What We Can Do About It

Denver music is much more than sold-out shows at Red Rocks. Let's make sure we're paying everyone fairly.
Denver music is much more than sold-out shows at Red Rocks. Let's make sure we're paying everyone fairly.
Aaron Thackeray

Many musicians are accustomed to playing for free, especially those who don't have a large following. The joy of it, as well as the promise of exposure, often suffice as a reward. But this can cause consternation for serious or professional artists who spend hours upon hours honing their craft. In the economy of live music, when is it appropriate to not pay someone for her creative labor?

My own experience suggests there is no clear answer. Overall, musicians enter into business relationships at a disadvantage, and not paying musicians treads a fine line with their outright exploitation. But I've also come to learn that there are many instances when playing for free seems acceptable. So, how do we tease out the difference? It can be hard to codify exploitative behavior. I'd suggest as a starting point that when other people profit from the presence of live music but the musicians themselves don't receive compensation, they are being exploited by definition: their labor generates value that disproportionately goes to other people.

See also: 50 Ways to Support Your DIY Music Community

Two examples come to mind that come close to this sort of relationship. Last year I played at Make Music Denver Day, which is an annual music festival centered on the 16th Street Mall. It was sponsored by the Downtown Denver Partnership at the time, though Swallow Hill Music now runs the festival. The DDP is technically a non-proft, though its CEO took a salary of over $360,000 in 2012. It's a consortium of businesses and business leaders united to promote a healthy business environment downtown. The festival did not reimburse the musicians. I assume the DDP paid the sound engineers, the event planners, and practically everyone else who made the festival a reality. The DDP also stipulated that musicians performing were not even allowed to ask for tips, even if they weren't on the official stages. A friend of mine who was busking that day (an important source of income for him), was reprimanded by a DDP employee and told he couldn't have his hat out.

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More recently, Denver's Underground Music Showcase ruffled feathers when it reduced how much it was paying some of its musicians. Some returning bands, myself included, were offered less than they were previous years despite increases in ticket prices. The annual increase in ticket prices (from $30 in 2011 to $75 this year for a four-day pass), as well as the salaries paid to those who ran the festival all stand in contrast to the withdrawal of financial support for the artists. And this is not to mention the growth of profits generated by the festival but not strictly held within it - at bars, hotels, after hours clubs, and through transportation services.

In these two instances, it seemed to me that money was in circulation, but not to benefit the artists themselves. In contrast, there are plenty of shows where the structure feels more transparent, shows where I feel fine playing at for free. Usually, these are situations where the performance is part of a community endeavor, at house parties or DIY spaces where I know a lot of people involved. The people who keep DIY spaces like Rhinoceropolis run their stages because they are interested in bringing new, often challenging, music to the public while also providing a platform for emerging artists. Importantly, they aren't profiting from a musician's labor in any sort of disproportionate way. The little money generated is used to maintain the spaces themselves or pay touring bands and sometimes to pay the local bands, too.

There are more conventional venues that compensate a musician (or not) based on his or her draw. I recall my first ever gig as Cop Circles, at the Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn. I remember peeling myself away from the five or so friends who showed up to sheepishly ask the door guy, "So, did I make anything?" Nope. The $25 bucks my pals dished out all went to cover the cost of the venue, which was disappointing but didn't seem outright abusive.

Sometimes, it has been unclear whether or not I will get paid. I assumed my payout was based on draw when I opened for Wheelchair Sports Camp at the Walnut Room a few months back. Very few people showed up for my set, so I left without a thought of money. But a few days later, I happened to be getting pizza there, and an employee walked up to me with a cash-filled envelope in hand, saying, "Hey, you forgot this!" What a pleasant surprise! Lay down some artichoke hearts and aged feta on my pie!

It isn't always clear or consistent, then, how venues value musical labor.

 

But without a doubt, examples of mistreatment exist, often justified by those doing the mistreating with hackneyed catch-phrases like "do what you love" and "gain exposure." Those ideas only articulate the ideology that musicians are not professionals. They reveal a fundamental belief that artists are simply precarious workers always desperate enough to ply their trade for free. I avoid those types of gigs unless I really feel like I am playing in a supportive community or that the opportunity poses a genuine chance at a breakthrough.

Even when musicians do get paid, it can be pennies per hour when one factors in practice and rehearsal time, as well as the money spent on lessons or degrees, equipment, transportation and studio rentals. This is why very few musicians, myself included, actually work full time. The ones I know that do often struggle to make ends meet. A piece of equipment breaking can go months without being replaced, thereby disrupting projects, release dates and tours.

And part of the responsibility lies with musicians themselves, who must select their gigs with more deliberation. More importantly, musicians need to be more forthright concerning pay, understanding what mechanisms are in place to pay them before getting on stage, and they should push for more favorable relationships with venues. When UMS asked me to play again this year, it was for a wristband only, so I declined, pointing out that last year, at the very least, I made a small sum. I told the organizers I wouldn't play for less this year. A polite conversation followed, and I was granted my request. Honestly, I feel self-conscious for revealing this, but that concern is exactly part of the problem: Talking about pay is taboo, but it can't be if the culture is going to change.

Of course, money isn't the only or even most important motivation for making music. Amongst other things, music can get the party started, spur spiritual transcendence and make a grandma cry. At my UMS gig, I experienced a combination of wonderful emotions that had little to with money. It proved to be a genuinely heartwarming experience. It shocked me to hear strangers sing along to some of my songs, and money definitely wasn't on my mind then. But I also didn't feel undervalued or taken advantage of, because I was getting paid.

But the issue of pay surpasses whether I (or any other musician) has a good show. What is at stake is the health and sustainability of this city's music community, especially as rent and the cost of living increases. If Denver is to become a musical hub, serious musicians should be able to make a living here, plying their trade. It's becoming harder to do that, and those artists might simply move elsewhere, either where it's cheaper or the music scene rewards their efforts better.

I would hope, however, that, rather than move, musicians make efforts to transform this city into one that truly fosters music and creativity. Even though it will take compromise and some new ways of thinking from those putting money behind live music, we are the only ones who truly have the power to spark that transformation.





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