Paying the Piper — Art, value, and why musicians don’t get paid

I was originally planning to write about this for one of my Japan Times columns, but as I thought about it more, I realised it was really a personal issue related to my own rather parochial experiences and concerns in the Tokyo indie scene, and not the sort of thing I should be bothering my editor with. It also struck me as the sort of idea that I could end up rambling about for pages on end without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, and a selfish fear gripped me that the sort of tightened and simplified version I’d need to present for a column wouldn’t allow me the space to take the reader on the convoluted journey through my thought process that I vainly hope might protect me from some of the criticism I’m opening myself up for.

And this is a fraught issue, because it’s about money.

An increasingly common complaint that arises from all around the music world is one of musicians being asked to play for free or “for the exposure”. Musicians are doing work, the argument goes, and we wouldn’t treat any other worker in this way – we wouldn’t ask a chef to cook us a free meal “for the exposure”, we wouldn’t ask a doctor to operate on us as publicity for his surgical services.

Or would we? I’m from the UK, and I absolutely would expect a doctor to operate on me for free, because the UK has a system where medical care is free at the point of delivery and funded behind the scenes through the tax system. In fact, to a certain extent a system somewhat like that exists for musicians across Europe, with government funding supporting the arts to a greater or lesser degree across the continent.

It’s a system that brings with it a host of its own problems for musicians of course, because unlike surgeons, outcomes for musicians are not so easy to measure, which leads to musicians crafting their art to ensure it ticks the necessary boxes to receive the funding. “Why should I have to suck up to these ignorant pen pushers? What do they know about the value of my work?”

Outside of the arts funding model, the standard measurement of musical “outcomes” is sales – either of tickets or music or whatever – but this doesn’t necessarily chime with the musician’s demand to be compensated fairly for their work either, because it leaves the assessment of their value entirely up to what the market decides it is. An excess of supply (lots of people making music) and finite demand (not that many people willing to give up an evening to watching it) leads inexorably to a situation where musicians are playing for free.

This isn’t limited to the music world. Across the creative spectrum, people are now expected to work for free. If you enjoy what you do, the argument seems to go, you shouldn’t also demand to be paid for it. Now this is a bit of an odd argument. What has your enjoyment of the work got to do with how much time, effort or skill it takes to do? And what kind of economy would we be living in anyway if the only work people were allowed to make a living from was stuff they hated?

Of course that’s not really the argument: it’s a post-rationalised moral explanation for something that’s just mundane market forces. Enjoyable work leads to an excess of supply in the labour market and therefore its market-assigned value drops.

This can be exploitative, and without a doubt there are clubs, bars, promoters, labels etc. who use the fact they can get away with not paying people as a means to make money. It’s not only that though. In a world where mainstream music across the board is all unmitigated garbage and the industry itself is sick to the core with creativity kryptonite, the willingness of creative people to work for free or next to nothing is the only way anything good gets made.

In Tokyo, you find yourself in a position where people are paying you for playing gigs and you instantly put yourself out of the range of the organisers and suchlike who are doing the most interesting stuff. It usually means you’re playing in that muddy nowhere realm of gigs at places like Shibuya O-Nest, with beige coloured, dazzlingly technical but musically dreary Rockin’ On-style bands with ticket prices hovering around the ¥3,000-¥4,000 zone.

I work as a writer and I face the same situation. If you can find the work, you can make good money as a writer by doing advertising and corporate copywriting. You can make a bit of money here and there in the media, writing about a topic that broadly interests you like music, although the kinds of places that will pay you are mostly looking for what basically amounts to PR for major label or major-wannabe acts. Or you can write about stuff that interests you, or do stuff that you find creatively rewarding, and get paid jack shit. There is no connection between the time, effort and skill you put in and the compensation you receive at the end of it.

So what writers tend to do is they accept their work occurs on multiple scales: stuff you do for money, stuff you do for exposure or to maintain your profile (and occasionally a bit of money), and stuff you do for creative satisfaction (usually for no money). It’s not easy, and there are certainly plenty of eager idiots out there willing to do corporate PR for free (hello there to pretty much all J-pop blogs), but it’s a balance that’s just about possible with the right amount of perseverance and luck.

Musicians are in a similar position: if you want to get paid, your best chance is to suck up your pride and start making stuff to other people’s specs, and even then it’s a lottery whether you’ll get anywhere.

I’m reluctant to romanticise the situation, but the truth is that, in Tokyo at least, whenever anything good happens, there’s a whole network of people – not just musicians – making fuck all out of it. The organiser might cover the cost of making flyers and get a bit of loose change to give to bands or subsidise part of the post-gig drinking party with, but basically they’re working for free; the DJs and bands might get a tiny bit of money if they’re lucky, but basically they’re working for free (Tokyo’s live scene is mostly pay-to-play, but the good events almost never are); the artist who made the flyer and poster did that for free; the people who wrote about the bands on blogs or music web sites mostly did it for free (you can get paid as a music journalist in Japan, but again, not for writing about anything good); the people who took the photos and made the videos probably did it for free; the people who went around distributing flyers probably did it for free.

“So what, am I just supposed to bow my head and be grateful, and say thanks for giving me the opportunity to work for nothing? Is that what you’re saying?”

No, although as someone who does all of the above tasks at one time or another, it’s always nice to get a nod of appreciation from the artists I work my nuts off trying to get people to listen to. What I’m trying to lay out here is that the problem is much more fundamental than any simple confrontation between musicians and organisers/bookers really addresses. There isn’t much money around the place, and even a crowded gig in Tokyo is often operating on a pretty narrow financial margin, with bands touring from out of town getting priority on any cash that comes in. Certainly some organisers and especially venues exploit the fact they can get away with paying bands nothing, but often the organisers and the bands are in the same boat: enthusiastic hobbyists who lose rather than gain money from their work, and who rely on people working for free to ensure they are able to make something that they love happen.

Let’s look at two scenarios here. The first is the one we’ve already discussed: A band plays to a decent sized crowd, the venue brings in a solid amount of money off the bar, but the band walks away with nothing. The band complains to the organizer, but the organizer can’t help because they only just made back the cost of renting the venue in the first place and the venue keeps all the money from the bar. Complain to the venue and maybe they’re being dicks, but maybe they’re just doing what they need to stay afloat given the rental costs, payments to local mobsters and various other overheads in a town where audiences don’t flock out to shows every night and where they often have to make it through many a slow night on the bar to get to the occasional good one like this that brings in a solid crowd. Who now? Complain to the building owner? Can’t pay the rent, get out and I’m sure a sex club or pachinko place will be able to pay the market value, and probably bring in a better class of clientele too. Was the band unfairly treated there? Certainly it’s unfair in that they didn’t get paid for work they did, but then they’re doing something they love.

Here’s the second scenario: An organizer wants a certain band and invites them to play an event. That band is widely agreed on as being very good by people in the music scene, and they are in a lot of demand by organisers. The band says they can play, but they want a guarantee of a certain amount of money. Now while this band are popular among event organisers, they don’t bring very big audiences, so the organiser here has to balance their artistic value against their financial value and decide whether to take a hit on the money side in return for the satisfaction of having done the best event they possibly could. The organiser can argue that the band don’t understand their own market value by setting a financial demand disproportionate to the audience they bring, or the band can argue that hey, the value is decided by the willingness of organisers to book them, so if you can’t pay, just don’t. Is the organiser being treated unfairly here? Certainly it’s unfair that they are paying out for something that won’t return a value commensurate with that outlay, but then they’re doing something they love.

In both instances, the real problem is that people are trying to bring to light art within a commercial mechanism that has only the crudest means of measuring value.

To some people, the answer is simple: Be better at working the levers of that commercial machine – musicians reading inspirational biographies of entrepreneurs and implementing five-step business plans that they got from a book somewhere, organisers shifting their role from something akin to an arts curator to something more like a retailer. Both these moves might bring benefits, and navigating a path is certainly possible, but let’s not mistake them for anything other than what they are: They’re artistic compromises, and compromises of this nature are never simple.

There’s always an attraction of falling back on the market for answers, because its rules seem simple. There’s also an attraction in the way adherence to the market reflects a sort of tough, hard-nosed, no-nonsense image back at oneself – in fact if you find yourself thinking like that, basking in the glow of your own tough-mindedness, you ought to take a moment to catch yourself, because you’re probably in the middle of saying something facile and idiotic. In any case, the market is not the artist’s friend here, and no matter how loudly you insist on your value, you’re up against a system that doesn’t have the best interests of anyone except those at the very top at heart. The market can explain, but it can’t justify.

So the difficult question, as always: What can be done?

Well, bands can just refuse to play for free and see how they do with that. My guess is in most cases not very well. Bands in Japan will most likely have to spend a long time playing for free or even doing pay-to-play gigs in order to build up the connections and get well enough known that they’re getting enough gig offers to be able to start putting the squeeze on organisers.

And even then, unless they’re super-popular with audiences as well, they’re just pushing an additional share of the burden onto the organiser, who’s already getting squeezed by the venue from the other side. Musicians can self-righteously declare at this point that this is none of their concern, and sure, go ahead and pat yourself on the back for being so tough, hard-nosed and no-nonsense, but you’re still being a dick.

More ideally would be a situation where a rising tide raises all boats. This would require cooperation and compromise, and would be fraught with contradictions (art is inherently unequal in that it lays itself open to judgment – a process that would have no value if it were equal). It would mean creating a sort of parallel economy incorporating the means of delivery (venues, labels), of dissemination (media, promotion) and content (bands, artists) and then ensuring the benefits are fairly and transparently distributed. Much of this infrastructure already exists, but not in an integrated way.

Integrating it, however, brings its own problems, since there is often tension or even opposition between the roles of these elements. Curatorial roles like the media, labels and organisers pick and choose which artists to promote, so asking musicians to support a system that inevitably excludes a large number of them is going to meet resistance and leaves open the danger that you’re just recreating a smaller-scale version of the same industry system that has already excluded all of us.

But then as long as money is the driving factor, you’re already implicitly buying into some form of capitalist economic model for art, and the inequalities and power dynamics of that are always going to be recreated along recognisable patterns. You can try to keep access to the infrastructure as open as possible, but you need the filter provided by the various curators to get an audience, which inevitably ensures only a select few artists get to be in the club. You can let people set up their own “clubs” but the more those proliferate, the more the system fragments, the more the audience dissipates and the smaller the pie gets for everyone.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not a pessimist, and I do think the situation can be improved for musicians and other participants in the music scene. Even just being aware of these potential pitfalls can help make things better.

  • If everyone just asks themselves, “Am I screwing someone else over here?” and avoids self-serving justifications along the faux-hard-nosed lines I’ve bitched about above, there’s a chance that even if there’s not more money, at least there’s a bit more fairness and understanding within the scene.
  • If we all recognise that the scene in Tokyo is still at the stage where it has to get over pay-to-play before it can consider “play-for-pay”.
  • If we can accept the financial reality that there’s a certain threshold that any musical endeavour has to reach before it produces profit for anyone.
  • If we accept that there are multiple people, not just ourselves, involved in reaching and exceeding that threshold.
  • If the curatorial side can get its act together and start integrating its efforts in a more coherent, accessible way.
  • If the creative side can make the compromises in terms of quality of equipment they’re prepared to use, their own promotional efforts, and either appreciate that whether they like it or not, by seeking to put their art in the public arena they are subject to the judgments and whims of others (or to adopt more of the roles of curators themselves, which many bands already do).

If all these things happen, maybe then we’ll start to see a meaningful alternative growing (again, there are people who do these things in a scattered sort of way and it basically works).

To return to my own personal experience, I realise that in my discussion I’m being rather selfish and self-justifying too. As a label owner and event organiser, I do better than I used to, but nearly all the money flows upwards, to the venues and CD presses, and the whole thing would collapse into financial ruin if I didn’t rely on the good will of people invested in simply being part of something good for its own sake. Part of my problem here is also a very personal fear of money, and in particular a fear of how money can poison the relationships I’ve forged. When I find one of my own events lurching into profit, the money feels ugly and awkward in my hands, and I usually can’t wait to get rid of it (I nearly always bring bands from outside Tokyo to play my shows, and they usually get most of the money, while anything left goes on subsidising a post-gig party – and I realise this is partly a way of dodging the responsibility of money).

As a DJ and someone who occasionally plays in bands, I’m always happy when I get paid for a show, but I try not to expect it: again, the good will that drives much of what I find beautiful in the music scene in Tokyo is poisoned by financial expectations and demands. There are people out there who will screw you over, and that’s an environment that fosters a me, me, me attitude among participants. That’s an environment and mindset I’ve never wanted part of, and I try to avoid those kinds of people and venues.

I also realise, however, that as a part of the broader picture, the scenario of this little artistic niche is not a model for how the music industry as a whole should operate. I don’t run a business, but lots of people do or aspire to, and they shouldn’t be able to cannibalise the values and methods of an essentially cooperative subculture for their own gain. And the borders between art and business aren’t so clear that it’s easy to separate them and say, “Well, this doesn’t apply to me.” Even those of us operating on the fringes – protected from difficult decisions by our own unprofitability – need to be aware of how money interacts with and influences the shape of the scene as a whole. And to return to my earlier point once more, if money is going to be made, the only fair way is as a tide that lifts all boats.

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