The musicians’ union is threatening to tackle the frequent use of upstart bands playing for free at music industry summits that also include a festival component.
On the surface, it sounds to be a reasonable expectation that the musicians be paid for the work they do—but framing the issue in dollar terms doesn’t fit all the facts.
There’s a quid pro quo at work here and it has been around forever; unknown bands that have earned a small degree of notice want to make a bigger splash and these events place them in front of influential audiences populated by music industry professionals who work the conferences by day and bristle with excitement for the opportunity to get out and see live music by night.
The thrill of discovery, the chance to seize an opportunity over competing talent agencies, record companies, and management firms is real and palpable when one speaks with the participants, as I often do.
These baby acts are also compensated with conference passes that are worth hundreds of dollars that provide access to learn about the intricacies of the business—and a rare opportunity to network with people they have only heard or read about—or didn’t know existed.
These are big-ticket, tangible benefits that money can’t buy.
There is also the fact that many of these new faces on the scene are, by degree, subsidized by their regional music industry associations, and sometimes by FACTOR. The grants they receive aren’t large, but they help offset travel costs and can include a per diem. Couch surfing is commonplace, but when one starts with a dream one has to be realistic in one’s expectation that life isn’t easy, and that the onus is on the individual to grab what they can and run with it.
These industry events spend a lot of money marketing themselves to attract sizeable audiences, and even more to fly in top-tier industry music biz talent who can, at the stroke of a pen, make a difference in an act’s career trajectory.
The quid pro quo is that acts with stars in their eyes and a household of few followers have the genuine opportunity of being discovered.
It happens yearly at the Canadian Music Week Music Festival, as it happens at the ECMAs in the Atlantic provinces, and at BreakOut West in the west.
Undo this age-old tradition of mixing up the new with the established and an enormous opportunity is lost for everyone concerned—except, perhaps, the musician’s union that collects fees for paid work.
It would be the undoing of a farm system that has worked forever; from classical composers such as Gustav Holst to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; hell, the Beatles were earning C$3.33 a day, seven days a week in Hamburg, and came home to Liverpool to play The Cavern Club for the princely sum of $4.75.
Hoping to be discovered and becoming successful in the music business is as risky as buying gold penny stocks—but the opportunity to strike pay dirt is as real, even if the odds appear formidable. These music industry conferences can create validation for an act and put them on the fast-track to go wherever their talent and good fortune takes them.
There’s no other opportunity quite like those offered at these events.
One might cynically suggest that the musicians’ union is seizing an opportunity to campaign for validation with a membership that forever seems to be at odds with how the age-old organization is run, but one might also understand that they do have a valid concern. For this reason, it is vital that this skirmish doesn’t escalate into warfare because there are no winners in this end-game.
Events such as BreakOut West, the East Coast Music Awards-affiliated festival, and the many others that dot the landscape all have hard ticket events that benefit the union’s coffers and pay real money to the acts.
CMW paid out $700,000 in talent fees this year, according to organizer Neill Dixon.
The conference spent even more paying for speakers and talent buyers to attend the conference and affiliated festival.
Most all of whom make themselves available to attendees and more than not get out to enjoy the nightlife. Hanging out in hotel salons and ballrooms all day is reason enough for them to get out at night and bathe in the bliss that comes with hearing live music. It’s in the DNA of the participants. It means long-haul days and nights, but that’s the music business. Just ask any musician.