Picture this: a standard $25.00 entrance fee to any indie music live performance.
If, and that actually is very common, you’ve got a 4-band bill, and they’ve got 4 people each, that’s door profits separated amongst 16 people. Say each band is fortunate enough to bring 10 people each, for a total of 40 people in the venue, that’s a $1000.00 profit at the door.
Split that equally to 16 people, they’re getting $62.50 each for their performance that night. Though it’s still below standards, $62.50 is alright of a payment, for a live musician’s performance work for one show.
Now, bring that scenario in the context of a $5.00 entrance fee -which is, basically, actually reality. Each of the 16 people receive $12.50 as payment for their night’s work.
This past year in lockdown had all my social media news feeds flooded with pictures of musicians from all spheres playing live, captioned as When can I do this again? Can’t wait to do this again! I miss doing this!
And I see these, and I ask myself Do I miss this?
I mean, I haven’t played live since 2019. I’ve been missing playing live, in itself, since the last time I walked off the stage. It’s not like the pandemic made me miss it more; I was already missing it like I’d miss breathing.
But I haven’t been missing the conditions under which playing live for me as an indie musician means.
I don’t miss not getting proper payment for my work. I don’t miss the anxiety that results from the stress of event organization and management. I don’t miss needing to do jobs that make me sick so I can pay my musicians properly, because I never can know if I’ll make profit myself to be able to pay them from. I don’t miss using badly lit, questionably smelling bar bathrooms as a dressing room, with a couple in the stall behind me having a quickie.
And I wonder if I’m the only one. And I ask around, and some will say, you know what, you’re right, and some will say, that’s just the way it is.
See, the thing is, that is just the way it is. When I started on the scene, and learned that those were the conditions, I just had to accept it -or so, I thought, at the time.
But I knew it wasn’t right. It wasn’t right that things were like this, and it was even worse that we all just accepted it. We’re really accepting here that we aren’t worth anything more than those $12.50. Oh, maybe a free drink, which is completely useless btw, if you’re not an alcohol-drinker -which there are many of, I’ve worked with some- so it’s not as if it makes anything better, really. And actually, who ever decided that a free drink was acceptable as a payment for a live performer? We’re not paying you, but we’ll give you a free pint.
Wow, great. Thanks. That covers all my costs for this show, and compensates me and my 3 bandmates quite properly.
Nope, not at all.
The production of live shows on the indie music scene as it is right now must be completely revised, as the current model is unsustainable for all parties involved. As I write these words, what comes to me is that we must find a way to be unionized -to find, or found, an organism that can ensure that specific rules are followed and applied whenever an indie music concert is being held somewhere. Or something like that.
As it is right now, organizing and holding a live concert is a process that’s pretty much all over the place, with each bar or venue kinda doing its own thing as far as gear, technicians, sound quality and payment to the artists go. It’s also worth noting that every musician out there kinda has their own way of doing things as well, from gear sharing, to what exactly a guestlist means, to the value of the live concert itself, to the way collective promotion is handled, and so on, which tends to easily get people into failed expectations, misunderstandings and feuds amongst each other -which doesn’t contribute at all to the wellness and kinship of the scene.
By establishing clear, nationwide rules, because independent musicians to tend to branch out into other provinces, and having an actual active organization that takes care of the thorough application of these rules, every city in the country has the potential to become a fresh, sustainable, lively cultural hub, which in turn creates more hype for the city itself -and the country itself- which boosts the economy, and the good vibes, all around.
Amongst the many conditions that must be revised so that the indie music scenes of Canada may truly thrive, the fact that indie music live performances are mostly held in bars is one of the first major issues to address.
My experience of 15 years on the scene has gotten me to see this: venue owners rely on the bands to bring in people way too much. Venue owners, it’s important that you understand this: it’s not our job to make sure you make profit at your bar. If you’re counting on other people to bring in money than yourself in your bar, you won’t survive.
Our job, as performers, is to perform our show in the best way we can for the people who are attending it. Our job, as event organizers and promoters, is to organize and promote the event. But we can’t force people to come. And we can’t force people to drink alcohol in your bar.
Maybe indie shows shouldn’t happen in bars anymore. Maybe it’s time for shows to be done in spaces that are exclusively about that, and not about making profit selling alcohol.
Because when you play shows in spaces like that, the show loses its purpose. The show becomes a commodity, or incommodity, because you’re performing in a bar that hosts live concerts. It’s not about the artist playing that night. It’s about a space that sells alcohol. And no one cares. Actually, maybe the people who come out to see you play care about you, maybe, but no one else there cares, starting with the owners and staff of the venue. And then maybe you meet really awesome people in there and they actually do care, and they mean it, and you know it’s true, but mostly, people don’t care.
When the people who are there are there for the show, because the show is what makes the place alive, not the fact that there are drunk people in a place that sells them alcohol, the entire experience of the event itself elevates into this frequency of utter respect for the art that is being presented, and the artists themselves, hereby giving us the chance to perform our live show as it is intended, allowing it space, and the opportunity to be.
And the people who are there don’t really care about drinking that much, because it’s not about that. Sure, you can have as many drinks as you want, but it’s not about that -and that’s the key, here. The people are there to let the music take over.
The people are there to surrender.
Surrender to the music, surrender to life.
Surrender to being alive and let the music take their minds and souls and bodies over, with its rhythms and melodies and harmonies and songs.
Otherwise, the live show is just background noise and distraction to the patrons of the bar.
The other thing with bars is that because they’re open until 3am every night, they make the shows start and finish as late as possible. Sometimes, the first band doesn’t start until midnight. For sure, the first band never begins before 10:15pm. That’s for sure. So usually, what happens is that by the time the last band gets on stage, people have mostly left the venue -ultimately, to catch that last bus or metro.
Not everyone is able or willing to go out and stay out this late, especially with weekday shows. Not everyone can afford cabs all the time. Not everyone feels safe on a night bus.
The show schedule shouldn’t be based on the imposed need of keeping people in the bar for as long as possible.
And then it gets weird too, because as an indie musician, when you try to organize and play a show that starts any earlier than 10pm, suddenly it’s too early for everyone.
As far as I know, shows in bigger venues usually always start around 8pm, right? Sometimes 7pm.
Why can’t this be applicable to indie musicians as well? We are doing the exact same thing. All of us artists performing live -WE ARE ALL DOING THE SAME WORK, no matter the size of our audience. Our conditions should therefore be the same.
Indie artists must have easily access to actual concert venues -because sure, yeah, you can pay to rent a concert venue, for sure! That’ll be 400$ please.
I’m not exactly sure that indie musicians have 400$ available to rent out a venue for one show. That’s about at least half of the rent of an average small apartment in Montreal. And yes, we know that this covers the cost of the staff, amongst other things -which actually shouldn’t be our problem at all. It’s not up to us to pay your staff. How about you take care of paying your own staff, venue owner? Us artists have got to take care of performing in the best way we can for our audience, and pay our musicians, and pay our own selves.
This pay-to-play thing needs to stop. It costs us enough money to put on our show -beginning with buying our gear and instruments. With the costs of the production of certain live events out there, it definitely shouldn’t be costing us between 500$ to 1000$ to be able to perform our live shows in decent venues.
By providing easily accessible concert venues to indie musicians for their live performances, we allow for, again, a sustainable indie music scene.
And then, there’s the fact that bars are, well, bars. This limits the way the space can be used and/or transformed for the performance. Of course, us artists are radical creative forces, and in my 15 years of experience, I both came up with and witnessed a myriad of ways of adorning and using the bar, in the best effort possible to offer the audience as much of a full-rounded live performance experience as possible. I remember musician-friends putting a tiny drop of essential oil in the table candles, going wild and jumping on the bar counter for a solo, and I myself have, amongst other things, taken several hours of my time to set up a full art exhibit next to some gambling machines, using 2 small round tables and definitely not enough wall space. We do what we can with what we’re given to work with, but it goes without saying that were we given easy access to an actual space dedicated to the showcasing of our art, we’d not only be able to do a whole lot more, we’d be able to provide the art a true space of respect.
I always feel like something’s not right, when I set myself up for a show in a bar that smells weird, where there’s no proper light, and playing unplugged might actually sound better than plugged in. I’m speaking here of my worst experiences, of course. Some places are great, but it’s those bad spots we need to address. You shouldn’t offer the opportunity for bands to play in your bar, if the last thing you care about is providing enough of a decent space for the show.
Bars being bars also means that there’s no dressing room or green room. Again, us artists being the radical creative forces that we are, we’ll always figure out a spot to get ready and put on our makeup. Bathrooms, of course, but I’ve also found myself putting on my makeup with a mirror sitting at a bar table somewhere, because the light was better, and I’ve also done it in the rental car or van a few times. Sometimes, I’d do it at home before getting myself to the venue.
We’ve dealt with it, and we’ve figured out a thousand ways to make things work for ourselves, but that’s exactly the problem: why do we have to deal with those kinds of conditions, why can’t it be a standard for a place that hosts live concerts to have a green room somewhere? And those rooms aren’t just used for putting on clothes and makeup, those rooms are also where singers get to do their vocal warm-ups, and performers in general can get into their bodies with physical exercises or stretches, collect themselves or get grounded before the performance, and sometimes even do last-minute rehearsals or warm-up their fingers, wrists and arms.
And again, sure, you can do all that in the bar, but the opportunity to have the proper space for it means an actual sense of respect to the musicians, and those who come to perform the show.
It’s all about reclaiming that space, really.
Reclaiming that space of value for ourselves as creators of music, and creators of the live music experience.
All of us indie musicians out there carry this infinite potential, and potency, to provide audiences the very best, most astonishing live shows. I for one was raised in show-business -it is innate to me to come up with as elaborate and immersive of a live event as can be. My experience had me feel restricted, like I was never able to fully express my vision. In the long run, this can make people feel like giving up -which is the saddest thing that can happen to any creator. We have to be given the opportunity to manifest our full artistic vision as much as can be.
There’s gotta be ways to reset the scene so that us artists can benefit from a more equitable access to quality standards and conditions when it comes to performing our shows. As mentioned before, the work is the same, regardless of the size of the audience. Our work conditions should be standardized.
What makes a scene is its livelihood. Let’s give ourselves the chance to thrive -in a sustainable and equitable indie music scene, where its creators are valued and cherished for what they do: make it, and keep it alive.