Andrew Keese: Why The Music Industry Is Corrupt
Is instability, financial ruin and having your dignity gradually stripped away part and parcel of being a musician? It shouldn’t be, writes ANDREW KEESE. Photo by KRISTY MILLIKEN.
It was very easy to misread Kim Salmon’s recent opinion piece in The National Times. A superficial skim gives the impression that here is nothing more than a disgruntled old rocker who thinks things were better back in the day. But a closer read reveals more.
Salmon is talking about our perceptions of professions and how these perceptions affect working conditions within those professions. And contrary to popular belief, even a struggling musician with a small audience can still be classed as a professional musician.
Littered throughout the comments praising Salmon for his article were quite a few decrying it as nothing more than a selfish rant which was all about Salmon bemoaning his own self-wrought lot in life. Salmon, they suggested, should keep his irrelevant mouth shut. He is old, he is out of touch, he has not had a serious release in years, he does not draw crowds, he is in no position to make demands, he is not personally entitled to anything, his position in life is his own responsibility and so on and so forth.
What was interesting about all of this was that much of the scorn directed at Salmon – and in some cases, at musicians as a group – served only to inadvertently prove his point: by and large, musicians are not understood or respected.
Scrolling through the article’s public comments – some of them surprisingly vitriolic in their tone – what, I wondered, would have been the reaction if the same article had been penned by Nick Cave? Or Bernard Fanning? Or Jimmy Barnes? And why was it, I wondered, that in order to attack Salmon’s opinion, people felt it necessary to attack his lack of commercial success, his low audience draw, his album release schedule, his age?
I’m not saying that Salmon has never put a foot wrong in his career or that his article is without flaws or that he walks the streets with the scent of spring roses trailing about his person. What I am saying is that his opinion is as valid as anybody else’s and it deserves to be heard. And as far as I am concerned, Salmon is, in the main, correct.
It is the attitude towards the profession which is at the heart of the industry’s woes and Salmon’s voice makes a welcome change from the usual misguided bleating that emanates from the music industry about how technology is killing music and ruining everything for everyone. Certainly, Salmon is angry personally. But in his tone, I detect a wider, less personal grievance. He’s angry with the machinery and the attitudes that make people in the music industry behave the way they do.
What Salmon is talking about is the institution of the music industry, an institution which has – and continues – to generate vast streams of private and sometimes public revenue ($501 million, in this case) yet manages to achieve this feat by exploiting the very people responsible for its existence in the first place: musicians.
“The music industry is almost exclusively concerned with the exploitation of music and musicians.”
And make no mistake about this. The music industry is almost exclusively concerned with the exploitation of music and musicians. And as Salmon points out, this behaviour runs right through it, at every level, from labels to publishers to booking agencies to touring companies to venues. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. Of course not everyone working in the industry is wicked or greedy or ignorant. But historically and actually, the truth about the industry is that it is corrupt.
Let’s take touring as an example. A local support band that is asked to open for a medium draw international act will usually be paid around $400 per show. All other expenses will be their responsibility, including the sound engineer, whose minimum rate is $100 for a mid-sized venue.
Do the maths.
The average band has four members. They are opening for a good draw act. The tickets are priced between $40 – $50 and there are 400 – 500 people in the room each night. And the support act with four members is getting $400. Minus $100 for their sound engineer.
Don’t tell me there are expenses to be paid. Don’t tell me that no more money is available. Don’t tell me that the support act should be grateful for the chance to even display their sorry faces on a stage at all. The support act is being screwed in broad daylight and everybody involved knows it.
The worst thing about this – and something Salmon points out – is that at the end of it all, as a musician, you will be told in no uncertain terms: this is normal, this is what you signed up for, this is what the life of a musician is all about. Says who? The only reason it is this way is because people continue to insist that it should be and act in ways that reinforce it.
The stories of ill treatment and inequality, however, extend past touring and mid-sized venues and sometimes find their way into smaller venues – which are the breeding ground for new talent – as well. I’ve witnessed and heard things that would make any reasonable person’s blood boil. But you won’t be reading those stories in The National Times or The Age, or anywhere else. And this is the crux of the issue. This, to me, is what Salmon is railing against.
“Salmon’s voice makes a welcome change from the usual misguided bleating that emanates from the music industry about how technology is killing music and ruining everything for everyone.”
For all the marches in the street and the well-meaning panels and various government initiatives and political cant, nothing actually changes. Because instability, financial ruin and having your dignity gradually stripped away is apparently all part and parcel of being a musician.
But what makes me most angry is the opinion, so readily and easily expressed, that musicians are people who expect charity. Every single musician I know works for an employer to fund their endeavours. Many work full time. I know of no musician who is resting happily on the dole. They all work, they all pay their taxes and they all contribute to society financially, physically and socially.
And all they ask in return is that when it comes time for them to cart their gear to a venue, set up, play and pack down, they are treated with a modicum of decency and respect. Too often, they are not. And the only reason this happens is because the social attitudes that exist about their profession are so entrenched and so widely accepted as to be considered completely normal.
These attitudes run right through the music industry at every level of the game and the shame of it all is that it messes with people’s hearts and souls. It makes them feel miserable and worthless and marginalised. Sometimes it even makes them want to give up the pursuit of music entirely. And all of those things impact society in other less visible ways. There is a price to be paid for everything. That they do not give it all away is a credit to their tenacity and their self-belief.
Things can change. Situations always have the potential to get better. But it does require a wide and deep cultural shift in attitudes and a corresponding change in values. Musicians are not looking for charity or pity or sympathy. We are not looking to be deified or lauded or admired. All we are looking for is to be treated as anybody else in this society would want to be treated: with dignity, fairness and respect.
And I for one am thankful that at least one person has had the guts and the nerves to stand up and point it out.