Why Musicians Deserve to Get Paid

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Editor's Note: A few days ago, we published an article by a Minneapolis-based musician named Drew Ailes entitled Why Musicians Don't Deserve to Get Paid. We hoped it would start some conversations, and it certainly has. You can read plenty of dissenting opinions in the comments section of that article and elsewhere online.

Longtime Denver musician and Westword contributor Andy Thomas was inspired to describe why musicians do deserve to get paid. Here is his argument.

"The culturally ingrained disdain for the musician leads you to fleece the music angle whenever possible." This quote is from a letter by Whitey, an "electro-rock" artist, in response to a TV production company, who asked to use his music, while at the same time telling him that there was no budget for music, and that he would not be paid.

As a working musician, it is a phrase I have held onto when it comes to assigning value to not only my music, but to musicians in general. I struggle a lot with my value as an artist and wonder who is setting it so low; myself or other people?

Maybe there is some truth in the opinion that there is more bad music in the world than good. For every million William Hungs there is one Bruce Springsteen. This is why we set a high value for people like The Boss and dismiss and devalue the Hungs of the world. (Although I will say that Hung's 2004 debut Inspiration was pretty awesome.)

But also, for every million Tony Roma line cooks, there is only one Jean-Georges Vongerichten. That doesn't mean that when I go into Tony Romas for a burger (I wouldn't), I don't have to pay the cook and my waiter because it is not the best possible meal out there.

Sure, I pay them less than I would if I went to Vongerichten's JoJo in New York, but even the poor shlubs working the line get something based on their talent and experience. (As a side note, I used to be a line cook at Tony Roma's, and I made more there than I ever did as a musician but that's [maybe] beside the point.)

If I had wanted to pursue my culinary dreams, I could have kept working at Tony Roma's until I got to be really good at cooking, before moving on to the next opportunity until one day I was a respected chef - all the while making a little more money along the way. I would have been allowed to improve and make more money as I did so.

Years of playing in small rock clubs and getting paid next to nothing may someday lead someone on the path to be the next Bruce Springsteen.The difference is that the Tony Roma's cook is making a modest, yet livable wage by providing a comparatively sub-par service.

Too often, the musician makes nothing at all, no matter how good his or her product gets. Music, like everything else, should be on a sliding scale. But that scale shouldn't start at $0. Encouragement, resources and a little bit of money will make musicians better. A life of pain and misery will extinguish great artists and stop great careers long before they ever had a chance to truly flourish. And I realize that I'm lucky to be here. Living in the United States comes with millions of advantages and luxuries that other countries would love to have. I own two guitars and pretty good drum set that I put on credit that I will never pay off. I should be happy with that, right?

But what if I lived somewhere else? Would I have to be happy with the hand I've been dealt as a struggling musician or would there be some resources to help me with my career?

If I lived in Canada I could contact the Canada Music Fund whose core mission is to "to increase the opportunities available for Canadian music artists and entrepreneurs to make a significant and lasting contribution to Canadian cultural expression."

Iceland, which has spawned artists like Björk The Sugarcubes and Sigur Rós, cultivates its musicians through programs like Iceland Music Export, partially funded by the Icelandic government, and the global music festival AirWaves, which is sponsored by the City of Reykjavík.

While sure, we should all be thankful about the opportunities we do have, but that doesn't mean we can't think about how much better it could be if people were willing to lend a hand.

In the United States, agencies like The Memphis Music Coalition, IMTour, Colorado Creative Industries are taking these existing models and instituting music programs to ensure there are new advantages and opportunities for musicians in their communities and nationwide.

Agencies and organizations like these wouldn't exist if artists didn't need them and, perhaps more importantly, if society didn't need artists. It's not all theoretical value, either -- there's no question that art does have value measurable in dollars. In 2010, Pablo Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust sold for a record $106.5 million dollars at an auction. This, of course, happened long after Picasso had passed away, but the painter was worth an estimated $30 million dollars and lived in a 35-room hilltop villa when he died.

Picasso spent a lifetime conjuring up tragic and inspired characters, like the Old Guitarist, and he made tons of money while doing it. If being a poor, broke loser was the key to great art, no one told one of the best that ever lived.

Anyway, why are we talking about painters? I thought this was about music?!

Michael Jackson was worth over $600 million when he passed away and made so much money off his art that he owned the Elephant Man's bones! Shit, even relatively unknown Murder by Death just raised $278,000 from a kickstarter campaign.

The paradigm shifted a long time ago from 15th Century minstrels playing for kings and getting beheaded if they played a wrong note. There is money to be made, it just needs to be spread around a little more.

Early Greek culture, from as far back as 500 BC, used to theorize that music was the God's way of communicating. They believed music could influence human thought and movements.

The American Cancer Society, through recent research, has found that, music therapy has, in some cases, helped reduce pain and relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Recently, an Auckland man was roused out of a nine-day coma and woke up singing "Anaconda" by Nicki Minaj.

Ok, maybe that last one isn't great, but my point is this: Music is fucking important!!

Music can literally change people's lives. It is the thing that rouses people awake in the morning and lulls them to sleep at night. It's made people fall in and out of love. It's encouraged them to try new things. It's caused crippling depression and snapped people right back out of it. It is God-like. It is healing. It boils the blood and alters the path of millions of tiny lightning strike synapses in your brain. It makes you a different person.

The value of a musician is subjective and will always change depending on who you ask.

To some, the value that music and musicians holds seems completely worthless.

To me, it is priceless.

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