On the future of the live music economy

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As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages much of the United States economy, concert halls – which by definition depend on the congregation of large groups of people to make money – have been extremely hard hit. The only clear thing about a safe reopening is that even after the vaccine has actually been distributed, the sites will come back last.

The U.S. government has stagnated on the meager assistance it has offered to workers and small businesses, and many people have no choice but to return to non-essential in-person work that can spread disease and disease. endanger their health and that of their community. In light of these threats, the National Independent Venue Association was formed. NIVA is a coalition of venue owners, promoters and festivals that formed in March 2020 to lobby the government for the interests of independent theaters and to seek grants and federal funding to keep them alive for that business is on hold.

According to NIVA, without additional financial support, 90% of independent sites in the country could close because of the virus. Week after week we saw one beloved club after another announce their closure. Many artists have voiced their vocal support for NIVA – their website has a list of star supporters from all over the entertainment world, like Katy Perry, Alice Cooper and Diplo. Independent sites have been threatened for years by big entertainment companies like Live Nation and AEG. In 2009, President Obama approved the merger of Live Nation (whose board of directors includes Ari Emmanuel, brother of former Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel) and Ticketmaster, marrying the world’s largest concert organizer with the most major supplier of tickets to the world, and creating a monopoly which severely hampered competition. . Live Nation and venture capitalists are watching these dying companies with interest. There is a strong possibility that these small venues will be bought by larger groups and consolidated.

This does not bode well for concert goers, who will have the homogenization and “optimization” of the musical offerings emblematic of capitalism, in addition to bonuses such as the hidden Ticketmaster fees and the increased prices. This does not bode well for workers either. Live Nation has a documented history of employee abuse, as evidenced by this 2015 Washington Post talk about their use of the typical odd-job economy formula, self-employment contracts as a loophole to reduce wages and take no responsibility for the health and well-being of their workers. Musicians can expect the same – in a memo leak reported by Rolling stone Live Nation was revealed to plan to pass the cost of the pandemic on to their artists by cutting guarantees by 20%, forcing artists to do promotional work, taking a share of merchandise sales and not paying them not for cancellations due to COVID.

Big predatory companies like Live Nation can be counted on to squeeze every penny possible from their employees, and the prospect of a massive site buyout is deeply concerning. With this threat looming, supporting the work of NIVA and coalitions of independent sites seems like a no-brainer. No one who cares about the arts wants big companies to gentrify and further homogenize their towns and villages. No one who cares about workers wants these huge companies to come and exploit bartenders, sound engineers, musicians, etc. do these places do for workers in the first place?

The phrase ‘independent venue’ conjures up an image of a beloved bar with a cute little stage, a tight-knit community, and perhaps a gracious owner who always pays the band out of pocket, no matter how hard it is. room is empty – a business forced to shut down because they refuse to endanger the lives of their employees during a pandemic. Of course, these places exist; in fact, i am fortunate enough to work for one of them. But it’s not that cut and dry. Membership in NIVA spans the gamut from small clubs to multi-site entertainment groups with ambitions far beyond well-meaning arts management. A place can be a place of gentrification, a site of exploitation, a site of police and racism. A site can try to do good by its employees and its community and still be guilty of these things. Under capitalism, exploitation is not only rewarded, but is often a condition for staying afloat. I feel grateful to work for a place that has taken care to take care of its workers during this time of crisis, but sadly they are the exception, not the rule. Anyone who has played live music has at some time, if not most of the time, played it for free. A lot of us have a habit of giving our $ 20 to the touring band, because we know it’s the right thing to do. Most of the people who have done bar, sound and door have been paid less than they can live on, with little or no benefits.

NIVA hasn’t said much about what it plans to offer its workers in return for their long-term support. Since I started working on this article, NIVA’s flagship initiative, Save Our Stages, has passed. This legislative text provides for an extension of payday loans to closed sites that have not been able to access the loans granted by the CARES law. THIS IS a crucial victory that will hopefully bring some relief to workers who have not been fired from these sites. But that may not be enough. If the Save Our Stages initiative gets a venue during the pandemic, it is quite possible that many of them will offer less manpower for musicians in the future. We will be asked to accept this under the guise of “taking one for the team” and “giving back to the community”.

Recently, Spotify, a company well known for underpaying musicians, donated $ 500,000 to NIVA. To date, Spotify has committed just $ 10 million in relief funds for COVID, in the form of conditional matching donations to pre-existing charities. $ 10 million is a lot of money, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to Spotify’s estimated net worth of $ 21 billion. Spotify makes that money from artists who only get paid a fraction of a dime per stream. The donation to NIVA is billed as an investment in music, but investing in companies and not in workers directly misses the point. The truth is, it is musicians and employees who create capital, not corporations. It can be argued that this is an investment in the long term stability of workers, but what about the people who need to keep a roof over their heads now? When times are good, we are told that owners deserve profits because they took a risk, but when times are bad, more often than not, it is the workers who see their wages go down or who are made redundant to maintain the company. This small donation to NIVA is a gesture, a weak attempt to make Spotify seem sympathetic to the independent music world at a time when the public image of Spotify is slipping. A significant investment in the music industry means a direct commitment to pay workers.

Yet, faced with the specter of a grim future for Live Nation, it’s easy to value the landscape we’re used to. But are these really our only options? In our current system, even the best-intentioned owner will exploit their workers to some extent – in fact, the larger economy requires them to do so. Their hands are tied if they try to compete under capitalism. A few artists at the top will earn a decent living, usually those with the most resources and privileges; pop stars will exist in a faraway galaxy of fabulous wealth (usually while still getting their labels contract terminated), and the vast majority of us will continue to live in poverty without any health insurance or of old age.

In this time of stillness, when we cannot work, workers in the music industry must rally around our own needs, not those of our employers. We have to imagine alternatives to the structures we have in place. We must dream away from the world we live in.

I don’t want to see beloved places shut down and wish NIVA the best of luck in their fight. Still, I believe that if they survive and no meaningful social safety net materializes from our government (which looks questionable as the Democratic Party moves even further to the right), even the “good guys” will ultimately be. forced to adopt the most disagreeable practices. large companies in order to compete with them. Our economy has failed us all and we must consider alternatives.

One model that gives me hope is the worker cooperative. Imagine workers and community members coming together to buy these dying places, shifting the focus from generating profits to sustaining the lives of workers and performers and making music more accessible to everyone. A job in one place could be a worthy and rewarding career if the pay was right, the workload was reasonable, it offered insurance and benefits, and you had a say in what went on in the business. business. Instead of endless endless each taking their share of the pie, there would be a direct relationship between the workers / owners and the artists. Workers who book these shows would have a much more direct incentive to promote shows – a business that they make some of the success of – and far less reason to skim to make ends meet (adequate and reliable income). Performance venues could raise the standard for artist contracts and perform artist compensation, and completely change the landscape of the music economy, across a city.

Last summer, waves of companies supported the Black Lives Matter movement, but I wonder if a meaningful change is really possible in our current economic system – a system in which places and other artistic spaces are so often in the dark. avant-garde movement. and gentrification. I think a conscious decision to prioritize white anti-supremacist, anti-prison, and pro-worker values ​​at every step of building cooperative places could produce vibrant scenes that would support all musicians, not just affluent whites. , and work in tandem with the neighborhoods in which they live to build stronger communities.

It can be easy to see activism as something separate from other areas of our lives, but there are dividing lines between the union struggles we face as musicians and the issues plaguing the rest of the world. When we learn to organize in our own lives, in our passions and in our livelihoods – when we learn to connect with larger structures and to build in solidarity with other struggles – we learn to make our world immediate. fairer and more decent. We make our lives and the lives of those we touch safer, sweeter and more worthy.

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