‘We shouldn't just be used for charity’: musicians are still getting work – but they’re not being paid

With more Australian artists being asked to play for free in the lockdown, many are asking if it might do more harm than good

If live music died in mid March, it’s sure been noisy at the funeral. On platforms old and new, live gigs performed at home have streamed from trickle to tidal wave, breaking over the mobile devices of captive audiences. Global gig guide aggregator Bands In Town has added a livestream dropdown, and a new Australian state has been ceded by Eventfinda and tucked alphabetically between Victoria and Western Australia: the state of “Virtual”.

For fans it’s been fun. We’re loving seeing musicians’ pets and plants and enormous fingers fumbling for the flip screen button and, unless we’ve bought a URL ticket, there’s scandalously little to lose by dropping into, and out of, a show.

But for artists, potentially, there’s a lot to lose. “Suddenly there was this outpouring of content that independent artists were giving away for free,” says singer-songwriter Katie Noonan.

Fundraisers have spiked, often to raise money for the industry itself. In a pioneering socially-distanced studio sponsored by the Victorian government, Delivered Live is paying artists, crew and different venues nominated each week. Isolaid is a weekly Instagram-based festival that doesn’t pay artists or organisers, but instead raises money for music industry crisis relief service Support Act.

Julia Jacklin, Stella Donnelly and Angie McMahon
Julia Jacklin, Stella Donnelly and Angie McMahon, who played at Isolaid festival, an Australian music festival on Instagram amid the coronavirus crisis. Photograph: Instagram

Musicians playing for free isn’t new. Fundraiser gigs have always been part of the deal; a win-win for the image of both artist and cause, and particularly prolific during Australia’s recent bushfire crisis.

Elsewhere, however, there’s been a wave of unpaid, or poorly paid, requests from commercial and not-for-profit organisations, asking artists to feature in livestreams that raise awareness of their brands.

“Horrified” is how the executive director of the Australian Association of Artist Managers, Catherine Haridy, describes her reaction to a recent such request. Haridy has worked with Olivia Newton John, Jebediah and Noonan’s prior band George. “I almost wish they hadn’t offered any money,” she says. “Such a little amount, so little, is offensive. There’s been an increase in requests [where artists are offered] a fraction, if anything, of what they’d usually pay.”

One email, she says, listed six or seven brands looking to collaborate, offering briefs but no money. “They were specifically asking for emerging artists, which is always a big giveaway,” she says. “But there will be artists desperate, just desperate, for anything to kick things along at this point.”

Amid the coronavirus crisis, the timing “feels like a slap in the face,” says Haridy. I Lost My Gig is estimating $340m in lost live music income so far in Australia, and the future of venues post-lockdown is looking increasingly uncertain too. “There’s survival at stake,” she says. “A lot of artists aren’t going to be around after this.”

On top of that, “[free content] shifts the dial permanently. It’s like giving your kids candy and every day they ask for candy. You can’t take that back.”

As artist Kira Puru wrote on Twitter in April, it “might not only be undervaluing your own work but also has potential to diminish the value of your craft industry-wide”.

Controversial take but ~ giving away music/performances/your product frequently for free for the duration of the iso period might not be only undervaluing your own work but also has potential to diminish the value of your craft industry-wide. Thoughts?

— Kira Puru (@kirapuru) April 1, 2020

Noonan agrees. The multiple Aria-winning artist posted a public plea to Facebook in April: “Indie artists PLS pls stop posting extended content for free – you deserve to be paid for your art.”

Noonan herself has featured in a series the Australian newspaper launched on 27 March, the Isolation Room, in which 29 musicians thus far, including John Butler, Missy Higgins, Sarah Blasko and Tim Rogers, have performed for free from home. Noonan says she viewed the concert as a “media gig”. “You never get paid for any media. So I kind of put it in that [category] … it’s such a tricky thing.”

Katie Noonan.
‘You deserve to be paid for your art’: Katie Noonan. Photograph: Cybele Malinowski

Noonan has also played Isolaid, which is now in week eight. Viewer donations and sales from its merch line have raised up to $80,000 for Support Act, helped people through some wretchedly lonely weekends, and brought some artists hundreds of new Instagram followers. “I’m working hard to find ways to pay the people behind the scenes and the artists,” says director Emily Ulman.

Ulman has been a Melbourne booker for nearly two decades; her pedigree precedes her, and all set-up costs for Isolaid – domain name, site hosting – came out of her own pocket. Yet are others, with bigger pots to pay from, seeing the buzz and wanting in?

An artist manager who asked not to be named said Movember’s MayEight – a festival raising awareness for men’s health – and Ticketmaster’s Together Fest fundraiser for Support Act were just two of several streaming events run by major organisations who’d wanted donated time from her artists. “They’re seeing livestreams take off [in lockdown] and know the audience behind it is huge.”

Another major charity she didn’t want to name had approached her via an advertising agency, she says, “so I know there is a budget for the agency to be on board. And usually there would be a marketing budget, and I would want a portion of that allocated to an artist if their music’s in the campaign.”

God, I’ve been invited to play about 10 different streamed gigs - not one of them offered to pay me despite some clearly having tip options from the audience. Honestly, this industry figures out ways to kick you in the balls even when we’re all on fire.

— brendan maclean 💞 (@macleanbrendan) April 27, 2020

Over the past two years musician Brendan Maclean has built a Patreon subscriber base to whom he delivers password-protected tidbits. When Covid-19 struck “it was a time of panic”, he said. “A different tier of artists, and a bigger group, are being asked to play for free now.”

Maclean has been approached by a variety of different types of organisations wanting him to play for free, including a major touring company, a small arts organisation, and a music events startup; the latter asked for “a 15 minute performance, broadcasting all over the world, but no mention of pay”.

He performed a livestream for Together Fest which directed people to donate to Support Act, but didn’t pay performers – despite being run by a major ticketing company. “I play a lot of fundraisers [that pay] – I don’t see why these ones can’t,” he says. “Honestly, they could’ve given me $50 and I would’ve been like, ‘Neat! $50!’ … I don’t think we should be getting used to playing fundraisers for free.”

In a statement to the Guardian, a Ticketmaster spokesperson said the festival’s streams brought more than 150 direct links to the Support Act donation site. “All the feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive,” they said.

As for Isolaid, Maclean says his experience was “fine” but “I won’t be doing any more. Musicians shouldn’t just be used for charity and at some point, you have to go ‘OK enough’.”

Brendan Maclean.
‘I don’t think we should be getting used to playing fundraisers for free’: Brendan Maclean. Photograph: Supplied by Brendan Maclean

Singer-songwriter Jen Cloher, on the other hand, enjoyed Isolaid so much she started a weekly show on Instagram called Lesbian Play School. “Yes there will be gross corporate evil things that come from this time,” she says. “But I was playing to my fans [all over the world] all at once. I was playing to children, older people, people who told me ‘I hate going to gigs and getting crushed’ and … to people who have disabilities.” She agrees, however, that “future livestreaming needs to be and will be monetised”.

When does that future begin? Globally, the grim consensus is the end of isolation won’t be the end of the music industry’s pain; Australia’s chief medical officer, Dr Brendan Murphy, has said festivals and nightclubs would likely be some of the last social activities to return, even as restrictions ease.

Until then, Noonan has advice. “Unless you’re on a major performing arts company salary, please don’t share your content for free because it perpetuates this horrible myth that your art is not worth paying for,” she tells the Guardian. “I think we should starve the internet of content and then re-emerge as a beautiful Phoenix from the ashes … and everyone has a paywall. It can be two bucks, it can be five or 10 bucks, whatever, but it has to be something.”

Some artists have already turned to new platforms to ensure Facebook and Instagram aren’t the only ones to profit. As Emma Swift – a Nashville-based Australian songwriter – puts it, “There is no reason we should give Mark Zuckerberg or his company content for free.”

Instead, Swift uses Stageit to play gigs with cult musician Robyn Hitchcock, because it’s ticketed and has an option to tip. “It’s the online format that to me is most like a proper, paid show,” says Swift. “If gig streaming is to continue … playing for free or playing for tips is not sustainable.”

Promisingly, hybrids with one foot back on the sticky carpet are emerging – not Silicon Valley goliaths but small, agile venues dedicated to their communities. Their learning curve will be steep. It’s not only how to mic up the drums so they actually sound good online – it’s the nerd stuff: cookies, speed tests, private browsers and spinning wheels of death.

Late last week in Sydney’s inner west, tiny venue MoshPit finally got permission from police to stage and stream its first crowdless, barless gig, professionally recorded with schmick rented gear, ticketed at $10. A studio in St Peters and a jazz bar in Dulwich Hill are doing something similar, says MoshPit co- owner Pat Jones. Last Saturday, the first gig, he had been prepped to pay the artist and, crucially, a skeleton crew and a few casual staff he’d been unable to enrol in jobkeeper. A few hours after the gig was announced came a “super gutted” follow-up post. That familiar word, “cancelled”. NBN issues. So it goes.


Kate Hennessy

The GuardianTramp

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