gig crowd reachFirst of all, let’s get one thing straight. There’s no such thing as free. Nothing exists outside of its inherent value. There is no perpetual motion machine. Creating stuff takes its toll. We know that, and we know that graft deserves its kickback. No-one is arguing about this.

So, that free gig you’re seeing in the pub? You pay for it in beer. That’s a relationship we’re happy with.

But after here it gets a bit tricky.

In the light of Threshold-gate What are we to make of bands being invited to pay for free?

Well, to answer that properly, I think we all have to be a lot more truthful with ourselves.

Here’s where I part from some of the commenters this week.

In this city, music is (rightly or wrongly) considered to be at the top of the cultural food chain. To even mention the fact that a band has been co-opted to rattle through a 20 minute set without so much as a bag of Skittles for their troubles is seen, in some quarters, as cultural heresy.

Is it? Really?

If that’s really so, the argument really only holds weight – at least for me – if it’s applied, without fear or favour, across the board.

Consider this: what’s the difference between sitting in a squalid rehearsal room for eight hours a day, hammering out new tracks, and hunching over a laptop, trying to force words together in interesting and stimulating new ways?

They’re both industrial engagements, yeah? Two people, with talent, drive and a need to connect, trying to bring something beautiful into the world. Something that will snag onto the souls of others.

So, let’s say you’re someone who puts on events, and who’s passionate about paying all your artists. Great. Cap doffed to you.

But let’s say you want a writer to write about it (for zero money) on a website, create something new: inspiring enough to bring punters in to see your show, and part with cash – thus enabling you to pay the musicians.

If you selectively turn a blind eye to Artform A over Artform B are you not as guilty as those you decry? You might say that’s giving the writer’s website some content. I might say that’s as weak an argument as the old ‘exposure’ one trotted out at festivals.

You see what I mean? Nothing’s really free, is it?

And if you’re a club or gig (or dance or theatre) promoter complaining about liggers demanding guest list accreditation, fair enough. But if you ask a writer to interview the band, and drum up publicity – without paying – isn’t that just like asking to be put on the website’s guest list, and geg in for free?

It’s complicated, isn’t it?

Most visual artists don’t get paid for their exhibitions. At least not at the level we’ve been talking about this week. “Big name artists at major institutions will receive a fee or expenses, but in reality, and broadly speaking, the chance to exhibit at recognised institutions increases an artist’s marketability,” says SevenStreets’ friend, and working artist, Duncan Pickstock.

What he almost said was the dreaded ‘exposure’ word.

And yes, that word has been royally abused in the name of cynical business models over the years. But we have to be more nuanced about quite what it means.

It’s about choice.

I chose to write SevenStreets. But I do it alone, and I don’t earn money from it. We get people asking us to write for us. I tell them I can’t pay them. Some chose to write. They make their own calculations, see the opportunity of speaking to a large audience and think, on balance, the payment in audience engagement is equal to, or better than, the payment in whisky and wild women. With the Almanac, more advertising in meant we could pay our contributors. But it was, by necessity, a much smaller audience.

Bands and artists too are free to whirr those inner calculators and decide for themselves. Am I being taken for a ride? Or could I hitch a ride on a vehicle that others have worked hard to create, and, perhaps, find a bigger audience? And could this lead on to cash?

But that situation can only arise because of what’s gone on ahead. In our case, it’s three years of graft to build the audience. In a festival’s case, it’s easily a yearly cycle of admin and programming, and fund finding and venue hire and promotion. Bringing something big into the world takes time. Takes money. Takes commitment.

If we didn’t have people putting on a party, there’d be no party for us to go to. And putting on party is never as much fun as playing at one, or going to one. Nor is it, in a city the size and economic shape as Liverpool, a short cut to riches. Ha.

There are, make no mistake, festivals and festivals. Just as there are art exhibitions and art exhibitions. Free magazines and free magazines. There are things run for profit, and things run for love. And you know what? It’s the easiest thing in the world to tell them apart.

I think we should chose our battles way more carefully than this. Or, at the very least, really know which side we’re on before we start hurling stones.

Sadly, and without sounding too luvvie about this, those in the creative industries are afflicted with a condition that makes it harder, more painful, not to do the stuff we love. It’s absolutely right that we should value the stuff we do. But it’s absolutely wrong that others should co-opt our creativity for their own crusades. Worthwhile art has to exist outside of economics. It sucks. But that’s way it has to be.

16 Responses to “SevenStreets: All Free Today”

  1. Nik Glover

    I haven’t seen the Theshold debate, so I can’t comment on that. In terms of my experience from making music over ten years or so, I’ve had situations where we’ve played for no money at really big shows because they’re just great things to be involved with, times where we’ve played really small or pointless shows purely for the money, and shows where we’ve been paid far more or less than would be reasonable for the amount of time and effort we’ve put into it. The first few ‘proper’ gigs I ever played were probably ‘bring ten mates and you can play’ because, to be fair, no one had ever heard of us. We then went into co-operative band club nights where we accepted that everyone got paid equally depending on how busy the show was generally. Half the band would moan that we weren’t covering expenses, the other half would just enjoy themselves.
    People who say ‘bands should be paid, however good they are, wherever they play for however long’ are entirely right and also deluded. Art doesn’t come with any inherent worth, and this might sound harsh, but just because you work hard at something, doesn’t mean you deserve to be paid for doing so. Otherwise, everyone in this world would be self-employed doing exactly what they most enjoyed and earning a good wage. Nice dream.

  2. Michael Lacey

    Public engagements for artists, bands, writers etc are very different beasts. Trying to apply one argument “across the board” for all of them is a very misguided idea. Are you seriously suggesting that if bands should be paid, press coverage should be bought? You don’t see any potential side-effects to that on things such as impartiality or journalistic integrity? All of these artforms turn a profit in different ways. I can’t embed google ads in my paintings, but I will exhibit them without payment, because it increases the likelihood of them selling, or garnering me commissions. Similarly I can’t really charge a cover fee on the door for an exhibition, but that’s accepted for gigs. Why is it accepted for gigs? Because that’s how musicians make their money! Obviously, there are situations where artists of any ilk may offer their services for free. But this weird social media campaign to “normalise” that arrangement is ridiculous. Anyone who’s been in a band for more than five minutes is familiar with promoters who would rather line their own pockets or blow everything on booking a “big” headline act (paid, naturally) rather than deign to even cover petrol costs for smaller local acts. “It’s complicated, isn’t it?” – actually, no, it isn’t, at all. If you are turning a profit off the backs of other people’s art, you owe them a cut.

  3. different world for visual artists. visual artists are showing their products in the hope of increasing the value of their products, generating new commissions or even being able to sell them in the first place. they have an end result. the venue exhibiting the works will likely get a cut which is their return for allowing the artist to use their space. lazy comparison.

    there’s a different economy for live music. live music fills up a space that you pay to get into and pay for food and drink inside. the live music is what facilitates the festival being able to make money. they should be paid for their time and expenses at least.

    you know what, put a bucket up next to the exit and let people throw money in then split it up between the unpaid acts. just as an experiment and an act of goodwill. see what happens.

  4. david_lloyd

    Yes, agreed, if you’re making a profit, and yes there are horrific promoters out there. My argument was about writers, not listings mags, or newspapers or reviews. But that it’s a delicate ecosystem out there for those of us who chose to remain independent, and, yes, keep our integrity. No amount of money would ever sway us to write something we didn’t want to. But, at the same time, we chose to spend hours creating what we (perhaps misguidedly) consider to have an intrinsic value – over and above baldly listing gigs. So, if a promoter approaches us to promote (not praise) isn’t it fair to ask for payment? I guess it’s how clearly you delineate between advertorial and editorial. Your art exhibition argument sounds similar to the reasoning behind bands playing, or me writing: it’s all an attempt to connect, isn’t it? That much we share. Yes, there are differences. I chose not to embed google ads, because I believe they ruin the aesthetics of site. And because I want to stay in control of what I create. Fuck me, I dunno. It’s hard.

  5. david_lloyd

    I like that idea. Also, exhibition spaces, galleries, etc, don’t they need artists as much as venues? I mean, they’re as symbiotically linked? And, I guess the bands sell merch at gigs? Similar?

  6. The thing that makes me laugh is that you only ever hear and read complaints about grass roots companies doing this. What about the huge corporations that get away with it daily? I’m talking Academy size venues, or big festivals like Sound City? Sound City doesn’t get slagged off for this and they do it yearly – same as Glasto for example! Nevermind Threshold-gate… what about Evol-gate or Zanzibar-gate who are also known for the non-payment of bands and they’ve been going years. The long and short of it is simply: if a band doesn’t want to do it, then they don’t. Nobody holds a gun to their heads and at least Threshold are transparent about this unlike others we all know about. Honestly! If you don’t like it as a band, don’t play. If you don’t like it as a punter, don’t go. And if you’re going to moan, moan about everyone who does it, not just the underdogs.

  7. david_lloyd

    I didn’t want to name names, or put anyone in my targets. But safe to say I do think it was unfair of Threshold to be the brunt of all this. They’re good people. Hence the piece.

  8. Michael Lacey

    “If you’re making a profit…” the thing to remember is that gigs are NEARLY ALWAYS MAKING A PROFIT, because unlike blogs or exhibitions, they are CONSTANTLY MAKING MONEY. There’s not many art galleries or internet writers able to bleed 20 quids worth of beer money off every exhibition attendee or blog reader, who will probably also have spent a few quid on a ticket to boot. As such, it is entirely reasonable to expect financial compensation for taking part, and entirely insulting when someone says they “can’t afford” to pay bands because they’ve spent all their money on something else. That’s not “I can’t afford to”, that’s “my priorities as an event organiser are all wrong, and more likely fuelled by my own ego than by any desire to treat artists fairly”. Like yourself, most bands probably got together because they wanted to share their art and connect with people. Unlike yourself, they see a stream of profit that they helped earn flow away from themselves while someone disingenuously offers them a free pint and a sandwich. It’s not as if they’re asking for money that doesn’t exist – they’re asking for a slight restructuring of priorities so that they feel the value of their work is being recognised. It’s all well and good to say you don’t want to use google ads or whatever, but your argument seems to boil down to “I don’t get paid, so why should anyone else?”, the answer being that unfair-compensation-for-written-content-in-the-internet-age is not a good justification for ripping off bands.

  9. Michael Lacey

    Galleries make their money on commission from sales, not from bars or entry surcharges. As soon as THEY make money off your work, YOU ALSO make money off your work. Usually more money than the gallery does (although 50% commission isn’t unusual when starting out). It’s nothing like selling merchandise, which requires a sizeable initial investment, rarely turns much of a profit and is only really an option for bands that already have a reasonable following, and will probably be doing paid gigs anyway.

  10. Michael Lacey

    The least well-attended gigs I’ve ever put on have also been the most expensive. The most profitable gigs I’ve ever put on were ones where the venue was willing to focus on getting people in and sharing the bar takings (free entry, £1 pints, and all the bands got paid).

  11. For what it’s worth, Sound City have never seen any of my money either for similar cash-flow reasons. At least it brings big acts to the city and sometimes puts local ones on the same bill.

    What has got my back up about Threshold though is their repeated claims to be ‘grassroots’ while striving (and spending?) to appear anything but with their swish branding, wristbands, merchandise and insane ticket prices, and all the while there are *so many* venues and promoters in Liverpool who are quietly doing an excellent job, without the need for paid street teams or ‘support’ from Liverpool City Council and It’s Liverpool (it’s what, by the way?).

  12. Leocrusher

    I had, apparently naively, assumed that local bands at big events were paid something, even if it was only £20 to cover their expenses. I’m sure everyone who has promoted a gig has put their hand in their own pocket to make sure the bands had petrol money when turnout has been poor, but it strikes me as a different situation when the planned for budget doesn’t have payment for the acts.

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