Monday, February 2, 2015

Divers Brief and Dull Reflections on Whether People Should Be Paid for Working

If you inhabit the wrong kind of social media bubble you will have seen this little bit of iconoclasm doing the rounds - it’s a competently-written bit of contrarianism aimed at deflating memes such as this one; it lists six points of varying merit , and its basic tenets are supporting meritocracy and attacking entitlement.  As such it’s hard for me to find fault with it. 

No wait, of course it’s not hard.  This is the internet - a machine for finding fault.  And I am one of its tiny but mightily-contrarian cogs.  So let’s find some faults!

First of all I should say that the attitude the article aims to skewer is eminently skewer-worthy (skeworthy?) -  most of us can agree wholeheartedly that the world does not owe anyone a god damned thing, and that if you can afford the kind of gear and training (or spare time to practice, if you’re self-taught) that the average musician takes for granted, then you automatically inhabit a very privileged sector of a very privileged society.  It is churlish to whine about inconveniences when your belly is full. It is also cute but laughable to demand payment for doing something that no one wants you to do, and that you are shit at.  So far, so stating-the-obvious.  Simon Sweetman, who is usually dead right about music, deals effectively with this side of the argument.  But, just as it is easy to point out what a great songwriter I am, it is easy to point out that no one deserves payment for Being Crap, and indeed that no one deserves payment, or anything at all, full stop.  This is low-hanging fruit.

Let’s reach up the tree.

The first thing to note about the article is that it’s a response to a number of memes like the one I linked in the first paragraph.  But the two are at cross purposes.  The 6-Reasons article is clearly talking about original musicians - people who are performing mostly or exclusively music that they wrote themselves.  In which case appeals to Sturgeon’s Law and the dogma that good art comes from pain are all well and good.  But the original meme is talking about a covers band playing a 6-hour gig for a wedding: hired for that purpose, and likely with a written contract specifying services provided and associated costs.  The comparison to a plumber is apt.  You’ve been asked to do a job of work, and you do it, and if it’s satisfactory, you get paid the previously agreed amount.  This does not smack of entitlement, or head-in-the-clouds idealism.  It sounds like how the world works.

But it’s not how the world works, actually, is it? Not if we’re honest. In the real Real World, there are three distinct forms that working-and-getting-paid can take.  At the bottom are the jobs where no matter how good you are, or how terrible, you’ll get paid the same barely-(or in-)adequate amount.  You can be the best cleaner or carer or McDonald’s worker in the First World, and you will get Just Enough To Get By If You’re Lucky, same as your lazy and incompetent workmate.  You can be the best iPhone-circuit solderer or garment-finisher or call-centre hack the Third World has ever seen, and you will get an amount so small it would be funny if it wasn’t horribly, tear-jerkingly obscene. Of course in the Third World you won’t have a lazy or incompetent workmate, because they will be off starving somewhere.  Fuck meritocracy’s great, eh?

At the top, there are jobs where no matter who good you are, or how terrible, you’ll get paid the same gob-smackingly astronomical sum.  You can be the worst CEO or MP or PM or Management Consultant that ever graced the First or Third World, and you will be paid so much that you will literally be incapable of spending it all.  If your laziness and incompetence does lead to your being sacked, in the private sector your severance pay will be More Money Than I Will Earn In My Whole Life, which seems a good deal.  In politics, you will either be noisily fired and quietly re-hired, or else noisily fired, and rapidly snapped up by the private sector, where the circle of life will continue in all its brute glory. Fuck meritocracy’s great, eh?

In the middle, which is famously shrinking all over the world, are the trades and the professions.  Doctors, Lawyers, Nurses, Teachers; Builders, Plumbers, Electricians, Mechanics - these people have the skills, experience, and qualifications to deliver a service that almost everyone will need at some point in their lives, and although there are definitely disparities and disagreements and imperfections, by and large all these people are paid enough to live with dignity, and in most cases have their own home and a family. Fuck.  Meritocracy.  Great eh?

So let’s revisit our original meme - you’re planning a wedding.  Weddings need music, apparently.  You find someone who will play the kind of music you like.  This is a service which requires specialised gear, training, and practice.  The person who provides the service tells you how much they want, and you pay it, or find someone cheaper.  Later, when planning your divorce, you will require a lawyer, and you pay them for their service, which similarly requires specialised knowledge, qualifications, and training.  Similarly, you find one you can afford, or do without.  It goes without saying that if either your wedding singer or your divorce lawyer is incompetent, you’ll probably not pay them.

The original meme is designed to serve two purposes - one is simply to point out that people will quibble and haggle and prevaricate with musicians in a way that they will never quibble and haggle and prevaricate with lawyers.  The second is more interesting - it’s an attempt to establish ‘Musician’ as a profession just as ‘Lawyer’ is a profession.  Or if you like, as a trade, just as ‘Plumber’ is a trade - not a minimum-wage job like being a cleaner, nor a maximum-wage sinecure like being a currency trader, but a service which most people need at some point in their lives, and which only some people can do, hence the price tag.

Maybe I’m biased, but this just seems utterly uncontroversial.  I’ve done wedding gigs and corporate functions and the like, and either through blind luck, or the fact that I’m Actually Quite Good, my clients have always been happy to pay the fee I’ve asked.  If I’d been awful, or my service unsatisfactory, I would have gladly provided a refund.  It’s a service after all - you’re playing what you’re asked to play, often when and where and how you’re asked to play it.

Which is different to original music, isn’t it.  When you write your own songs, you’re playing what you want to play, the way you want to play it.  Which is less like a service, less like a profession, and more like, well hell - it’s like play isn’t it.  The plumber analogy is not going to hold up in this instance - it’s not like a plumber gets to use whatever tool he likes just because it’s cool; he has to do a job of work, to specifications, hence the price tag.

So is it reasonable to expect the same level of pay for original music?  The knee-jerk answer is no, obviously.  But part of the beauty of arts is that that you get to provide a service that no-one ordered, but that they discover they wanted after all.  A parable: Raphael Ravenscroft was famously paid 27 pounds for recording one of the world’s most distinctive saxophone solos, ever.  The song on which the solo features is said to have earned 80,000 pounds a year in royalties.  The amount Ravenscroft got paid would have been a pre-agreed session-musician rate; fair dues for an honest hour or two of work.  But in the light of Baker Street’s success, (and bearing in mind that the sax solo is the only bit of the damn song anyone would recognise) does his wage seem fair?  Or let’s take it from the exact opposite angle - what say Baker Street had flopped?  Rafferty and his label would have been out of pocket for untold thousands in studio time, promotion, A&R, development, payola - meanwhile Raphael Ravenscroft is the only person to profit from the whole debacle, walking away with a cool 27 quid that no one could take away from him.  Meanwhile, covers bands the world over are demanding a living wage for providing a competent version of Baker Street at a wedding near you.  Fair enough, right? They’re providing a service after all…

It’s ineffable.  There’s no way to eff it, and I’m not going to try.

I’m going to attempt a different angle.  Those wedding bands (me included) who provide a tangible service by playing Songs People Know at weddings and corporate events and so on - they need Songs People Know to work with.  And someone’s got to make the Songs People Know, and that’s where we come back to the 6-Reasons post. 

Most of the people generating songs are, as the 6-Reasons blogger, and Sturgeon, and Sweetman, and all the world’s cynics (self included) note, just awful.  But also: all the people who wrote and performed the Songs People Know were themselves at one time awful musicians - trying to get a gig, and hoping to get paid for it too.  And what happened was that while they were busy being awful, they got some gig, and people at the gig liked this one song or sound, and then they thought, ‘Shit.  This is actually working.’  And they developed that song or sound to the point where, after untold amounts of serendipity and nepotism and general malfeasance had played their part, there came about a Song People Know.

How and where do you get the opportunity to be awful until you’re good?  Short answer, for New Zealand at least: play at bars.  What’s playing at bars like?  Short answer, there are two models.  I’m going to arbitrarily call them BYO Everything, and Curator Venue. 

BYO Everything works like this: there’s a room (black) and a PA (bits missing) and a bar person.  Everything else you pay for.  You pay the sound person, you pay for promotion; every single punter who walks through the door is there because you personally made them come.  The bar is interested in your schtick in precise proportion to the number of people who walk in and buy drinks.  The money you make is the door take, minus paying for the sound person (and in some cases, the room; and in extreme cases, the bar person).

Curator Venue works like this: someone wants to open a cool bar that has live music.  They pay attention to the décor, they hire funky staff, they use their social networks and marketing nous to create a place that people want to go to.  They have a peppercorn door-charge (think $5) or slightly higher drinks prices to cover bands and DJs.  Bands and DJs want to play there because there’s always a crowd and, (for fuck’s sake) it’s fun!  Everyone’s having fun!  Bands/DJs play at set times and receive set fees, paid out of the door or straight from the bar.

If you’re an original artist in New Zealand, you will have to play in both of these venues.  No matter how good you are, BYO Everything venues will always be hard work.  It’s no good being awesome when no one’s there - you have to generate a crowd, and a big enough crowd to pay all the overheads that BYO Venue has outsourced onto you. Curator Venues, on the other hand, will pay you (once) for being awful; and they’ll have you back (and often pay you more) if you were good.  Both are meritocratic.  But the merits are different.  At BYO Everything, you are a successful meritocrat if you can get 60 of your friends to go into a black box at 11:30 on a Wednesday and listen to you play your songs that they already know after sitting through four other awful bands that the bar manager stuck on the bill because.  At Curator Venue, you are a successful meritocrat if you play good and everyone has a good time.

So let’s revisit 6-Reasons’s claim that you don’t deserve to be paid because you’re terrible.  That would be indisputably true in a world where all bars were Curator Venues.  It’d be a fair argument in a world where most bars were Curator Venues.  In New Zealand I can name 10 curator venues, and two of them are closed.  Everywhere else, you’re BYO Everything.  You might be an awful band playing to no one on a Wednesday; you might be an awesome band playing to no one on a Wednesday.   If you don’t get paid much at a BYO Everything venue, you might be a bad Musician; or you might just be a bad Miracle Worker.  There’s no way to know unless someone comes, and the only places someone is guaranteed to come are the Curator Venues.  Who Pay Musicians.

There’s room here for a genuine and logical argument that just paying musicians across the board is the best policy - give them a room full of people, let them do their stuff, and if it doesn’t work, don’t have them back.  Fuck meritocracy’s great eh? 

I (bias acknowledged) see little room for any argument that says ‘Well if, through your efforts alone, filling a 100-capacity venue on a disused alleyway in Hastings, providing your own sound, bar, and security people, convincing enough New Zealand punters to buy enough drinks to keep a 100-capacity venue in Hastings running for a week as well as paying enough on the door to cover the sound, bar, and security people, does not provide you with enough money to cover your petrol, then you are Bad At Music’.  Maybe that is a meritocratic argument.  But it’s asking for a lot of merit, very little of it musical.

Look, I want us all to get along.  I don’t complain, outside very exclusive company*, about the vicissitudes of trying to make a buck making music of my own, because I recognise the privileged position I’m in just having enough food in my belly and time on my hands to be able to contemplate such a thing.  I don’t begrudge, on the other hand, a professional bar-band expecting a fee commensurate to the time they’ve put into becoming a professional bar-band when they pay a professional gig at a bar.  I just think those songs they’re covering have to come from somewhere, and it’d be nice if the people who make those songs they’re covering got a buck maybe.

The most lucrative musical endeavour I’ve ever been involved in is the Wellington Sea Shanty Society.  We play exclusively Sea Shanties**, mostly from the 19th century, and on New Years Eve 2013/14 we were playing a gig in Akaroa.  Long about 11:30pm we launched into a number called Soon May The Wellerman Come, which talks of a whale so full of fighting spirit that the crew is said to be still attached to it to this day, receiving regular deliveries of sugar, soap, and rum from the long-defunct Weller company in Dunedin.  A spirited crowd of 150 or so were stomping their feet and attempting ill-advised reels and singing along even though they didn't know the words, and for a moment I looked about me and wondered what the writer of the song, dead these 150 years past, would think, looking about him at these lily-livered lubbers, waving their iPhones in the direction of his tune.  Is it enough just to know that you’ve made this thing that makes people dance, generations after your death?  Or is that actually worth a buck, the same way a loaf of Budget Bread is worth a buck?  Time tells, I guess.  If only time paid too…

*This blog counts, because no cunt reads it.
**There’s some controversy over the extent to which we play Shanties, actually - in order to qualify as a real Shanty a song has to be in 2/4 timing so that men can work to it; a lot of our numbers are pinched from France, where there is a long tradition of Chant Marins (Sea Songs) written in 6/8, which count as Sailor Songs in folk tradition but not as Shanties per se; or (as in the case of Fiddler’s Green) English songs which were thought to be traditional but actually written in the 20th century and back-attributed to that great composer Trad Arr…