How Live Venues Exploit Emerging Artists

It has always been challenging to establish yourself as a performer in the music industry. There’s no way of denying this. At the same time, different generations of musicians have certainly faced their own distinct challenges. While the Internet is not the specific subject of this editorial, its importance cannot be understated in creating the landscape that led to some of these challenges that new musicians face when trying to establish themselves. Forty, thirty or even twenty years ago, record labels were interested in talent scouting and searching for the next big act, genre or phenomenon upon which they could capitalise. Sadly, I’m of the opinion that this is no longer the case, as advances in technology – vis-a-vis, the Internet – means that the ways in which we consume music are radically different from how it once was, but that the kinds of music are now so different from each other. There is no longer the same unity and alignment between music and youth culture, at least not to the degree that record companies could profit from it like they once did. Labels have changed tactics. As a result, they are now less dynamic, and unwilling to take the risks they once did.

This is not good news for anyone aspiring to build a career as a performer. To me, it represents a symptom of modern capitalism that is more comfortable milking established acts, and this same symptom is shared by people who run music venues as much as it is by people who run record labels. A recent indicator is the emphasis venues are placing on getting a cut of an artist’s merchandise sales. Not satisfied with gaining a very lucrative percentage of ticket sales, venues want to get a portion not just of sales of merchandise (such as souvenir t-shirts and hats), but also any recordings a performer chooses to sell to concert-goers before and after their performance. This sort of thing is really bad news if you are just starting out. The exploitation of musicians by venue owners is nothing new, of course. The rule of thumb tends to be, notably in the U.S., a policy of ‘pay-to-play’. It’s not simply the case that a musician may struggle to get a paid gig, like the basket house ‘hootenannies’ in Greenwich Village’s folk clubs of the 60s such as the Gaslight Cafe and Cafe Wha? Basically, performers were not paid by the club, so at the end of their set, they would pass around a basket to audience members willing to pay tips. Now, performers have to pay venues to perform, cutting further in to their funds, becoming another barrier to success. I came across an article from the Los Angeles Times from 1989, discussing how two entrepreneurs had purchased a venue in Westminster, California with the sole intention of paying its hard Rock and heavy metal bands. Thus, they bucked the trend of the pay-to-play on offer by famous venues like Roxy and Whisky-A-Go-Go.

A recent story emerged about an outdoor amphitheatre in Vienna, Virginia called Wolf Trap. Singer-songwriter Sarah Beth Tomberlin posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the venue demanded a whopping 41% cut of sales of her “soft merch” (anything that is not recorded music, such as t-shirts and posters), in addition to 21% of any recorded music she chose to sell at her gig. For an artist relying on merchandise sales, often to get her to the next leg of a tour, this is a disgraceful abuse of her hard work and livelihood. It’s downright theft, and if exploitation on this scale were to occur in other work sectors, it would be more than sufficient grounds for major industrial action. Funny how it never seems to be perceived that way when it comes to musicians. But alas, the fact that performers like Tomberlin are emerging, that they don’t have much capital behind them, and they are dependent on these venues because they have few other options, they are ripe for exploitation.

This particular profiteering trend appears to escalated started during the pandemic. Social distancing rules varied from state to state, where many venue owners were left out of pocket and faced closure. This was a serious prospect for the famous Troubadour in L.A. They set up a gofundme in 2020 to keep the doors open. No doubt they will justify their actions by saying that a cut of an artist’s profits are in line with inflation, but surely there are others ways to go about this without hurting the artists who are filling their concert halls, clubs and amphitheatres? Why not, instead, increase the cost of food and drink sold on the premises? Venues can increase their profits without taking badly-needed revenue away from the performers. At the risk of sounding naive, it’s almost as if the people who run these venues aren’t interested in promoting new music in their communities, helping to foster new talent, and ultimately benefitting by association if an act goes on to bigger things after starting in their club. No. Instead, musicians are lining up to be ripped off, all in the name of a quick buck.

We cannot allow this sort of thing to continue, as it will diminish the efforts of talented and hardworking performers whose music deserves to be heard. It will also discourage future generations from pursuing music as a career if they feel there is no incentive for doing so, and they won’t be able to access the earnings for which they are entitled. Musicians, both established and emerging (or anywhere in between) should unionise and support one another in the face of greedy venue owners and corporations out to steal their earnings. Otherwise, I foresee a very fraught future for aspiring musicians, and the music they create. We’d all surely suffer as a result.

A petition attempting to outlaw pay-to-play, alongside other forms of industry exploitation, is provided, below.

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