First 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.