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To Pay or Not to Pay: That is the Question: Local Performers and the Shadow Economy

Should musicians be willing to work for free?


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The Bottom Line

While the lack of data defining shadow economies makes them difficult to study, significant data has been gathered on the spike in the number of unpaid internships since the financial crisis in 2008. And on those, economists are quite clear: The ability to not pay people decreases the likelihood that employers will pay anyone. And it isn't just employers taking advantage of people, it's that non-paying jobs undermine job market stability.

A recent article in The New York Times got to the heart of the issue when it delved into the business model of a Manhattan comedy club, The Upright Citizens Brigade.

"How did the comedy juggernaut solve the intractable problem of live theater today, the inexorable rise of ticket prices? Simple: don't pay performers for their work onstage," read the article.

By not paying performers, the very profitable for-profit club was able to undercut other venues on ticket prices and provide packed houses for performers. That sold performers on free appearances for self-promotional purposes. But it also left other Manhattan clubs that do pay struggling to fill more expensive seats to make the money required to pay performers, thereby further restricting the number of paid opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, it is a contentious model; but since all performers who take part in it do so by choice, even if grudgingly, it is completely legal.

The effects of that case study are also reflected in a speech given by Recording Industry Association of America CEO Cary Sherman at the Personal Democracy Forum in June 2012.

In the talk, Sherman cited a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed a 41 percent decline in the number of professional musicians since 1999. That statistic was challenged, however, by some tech folks as being not reflective of the changing revenue and professional definition models birthed by the Internet.

Justin Cantrell, owner and booker at The Shredder, the venue at the center of the 2012 local controversy, generally pays bands from the cover charge at the door. The great hazard of that model, of course, is that there is no guarantee anyone will come through the door--especially on the off nights that bands often come through Boise.

The Facebook post that began this article came from just such a night.

"It was a Sunday night, they [Killing for Peace] didn't bring a person through the door and it was a Portland [Ore.] band [headlining]," Cantrell said.

And even when there are people coming through the door, Cantrell said his goal is to make sure the touring band gets enough cash to fill its gas tank.

One of the best ways to do that is to keep the door price low; but that also means less money for the band. On the nights when he pays a flat fee for a band--which he does several times a month--it can run anywhere from $200 to $500.

Most nights, Cantrell said a touring band can pull around $100 from the door and selling merch, but if he had to pay every band that played on his stage $100, "I wouldn't be in business," he said.

Cantrell told BW the economics might be different if he sold liquor at The Shredder, but the expense of getting a liquor license in Boise makes that extremely difficult. A liquor license recently went up for auction in Garden City with a starting bid of $75,000. In Boise, licenses can reportedly cost more than $100,000 and require years of waiting.

For Cantrell, who lives in a small rented house on a noisy downtown street and who built most of the interior of The Shredder by hand over the course of more than a year, that's not a justifiable expense.

Still, he is emphatic that The Shredder's business model is not exploitative.

"It helps them [bands] out in the long run," he said. "If you're a local musician and you're not planning on touring at all, then the next best thing is to open up for touring bands. That's the only way you're going to get your name out there, other than pushing yourself online."

Billy Thornock, guitarist and singer for local thrash-metal band Krystos, agrees wholeheartedly.

"Paying local bands is not a part of the business model for The Shredder," he wrote on the Facebook thread that followed the controversy.

"The Shredder is designed to support and pay the touring bands. Just how it should be. ... As a local band playing at The Shredder, the opportunity is not in the pay, but in networking with signed and touring bands, developing a relationship with them, and they will support your Boise band on tour."

Thornock also gave several examples of how its policy of playing many an unpaid gig at The Shredder had helped Krystos on the road.

"People do talk on tours," Cantrell said. "A touring band meets up with another touring band and asks, 'Hey, do you know any bands to play with in Boise, or a cool spot to play?' If you've played with that band and you kind of sparked their interest, of course, they're going to say something."

Cantrell is also quite clear that he has nothing against local pros who do demand a paycheck to play--even the ones who won't play his club.

"That's fine," he said. "That's not what I'm trying to do."

Since he started out booking shows in his basement, Cantrell said that his primary goal is to push music and performers whose work he likes.

"Even doing house shows, I'd get all these bands that are huge now," he said. "I'm not trying to be some big rock club. I just enjoy good music."

Keeping on Keeping on

To the outside observer, it may seem dubious to build a business model on the idea of not paying certain workers in the operation. But there isn't a coordinated effort by clubs or promoters to defraud artists. Most promoters arise from local music scenes and genuinely feel for performers who leave their club with a handful of bar peanuts. But it is a complicated industry with tight profit margins, lots of moving parts and no shortage of emotional entanglements. In short, it's something of a clusterfuck.

However, one club that does things differently is Humpin' Hannah's. Its longtime soundtrack, The Rocci Johnson Band, is made up of salaried subcontractors with weekly paychecks that earn them around $20,000 a year.

"Anyone that has ever worked for me has always been fairly paid," said bandleader Rocci Johnson. "But I do work you. I'm a boss."

Johnson isn't kidding. Her band rehearses regularly and performs three nights a week, 49 weeks a year, almost, gasp, like a real job.

Before Johnson and company got to this point though, they were embroiled in the same complicated and inconsistent system of payment.

"We used to be a road band," Johnson said. "At that time, in the '80s, people wanted to pay you with coke and stuff like that."

Unsurprisingly, Johnson likes this better.

"I'm not just a musician,"she said. "I'm a business person. So for me, it was better to have it be more formal. I keep all my receipts."

Paying gigs like Johnson's are often the result of performers operating more like tradesmen. Though no one in her band is a member of a musician's union, and no one that responded to BW's survey was, either, that is the sort of treatment unions demand for their members.

There is however a tradeoff that comes with that switch from art to craft.

"There are drawbacks to it," said Johnson. "I have to play 'Sweet Home Alabama' every night of my life."

A tragic fate indeed.

Another group of performers who are paid consistently--but without having to endlessly channel the ghost of Ronnie Van Zandt dissing Neil Young--are orchestral players; however, with a financial pinch affecting orchestras around the country, those artists are facing complications emblematic of the challenges faced by the performance industry as a whole.

A recent article in Boise Weekly (BW, News, "Rhapsody in Red," Feb. 20, 2013) examined how the Boise Philharmonic found itself so deep in red ink that it couldn't afford to pay the musicians required to play several Wagner pieces it had scheduled.

Even in good times, it doesn't pay that well.

To cover the bills, Kyla Davidson, a 25-year-old Boise Philharmonic cellist, trades her tuxedo for a parka four days a week to work at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area. She has also taught music lessons, played private gigs and tended bar.

But just to keep her part-time gig as a member of the Philharmonic, Davidson must spend up to five hours a day practicing and reviewing recorded pieces of music--all of it unpaid. And that non-paying work is impacting her health.

"I have thoracic outlet syndrome," said Davidson. "Sometimes my fingers go numb. It's a repetitive stress injury from practicing so much."

To complicate matters, despite performing with the Philharmonic for six years, Davidson is not eligible for health insurance because she is paid per-service--despite the fact that the wear of practicing has required physical therapy for years

"I'm still lucky enough to be under my parent's health insurance plan, which has made the therapy possible," she said. "But that goes away in April."

Like so many talented and underpaid people in Idaho, Davidson knows that the sheer economics mean she won't be able to stay in Boise, even if she wants to. The only way Davidson says she can truly make a living is to score a gig with a major orchestra like those in Boston, New York or San Francisco--jobs which rarely open and sometimes have upwards of 1,000 applicants when they do.

For now, she expects to start bartending again once Bogus Basin closes for the season.

One place she could apply is The High Note Cafe, the new venue DeVino proposed in his online comment last year. (DeVino has no actual financial or organizational relationship to the cafe.)

The small eatery on Fifth Street in downtown Boise isn't quite that utopic, though. It regularly features acoustic acts on weekends, and has, on a few occasions, moved out the tables to bring in a full-band electric performance. The louder and larger touring bands that play The Shredder aren't likely to be found on High Note's calendar.

Payment-wise, staff at The High Note told BW that on one or two occasions, musicians who performed at especially profitable nights got a cut of the bar, their ideal system. But for the most part, performers have been paid in food and beer if they have been paid. Unlike Amanda Palmer, The High Note Cafe has not offered to pay in hugs or high fives.

For Cantrell, the nature of the shadow economy is such that sharing the wealth is made impossible simply because there simply isn't any wealth to begin with.

"You'd have to have a pretty good amount of people even at $5 [at the door] to be able to pay a touring band, and then each local band as well," said Cantrell. "And lately, it's been kind of so slow that you have to have three locals for each touring band just to get a crowd out."

And that is the heart of the issue: to pay everyone simply means less music. And no one, not the venue owners, the fans or the musicians want that. So everyone keeps on keeping on the best they can.