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Dead Time: Putting a price tag back on music

Tuesday 03rd, January 2017 / 16:39
From the desk of Mitch Ray

Photo: Devon Motz

VANCOUVER — A guy walks into a department store to buy a new jacket. He spends $100 on it. He doesn’t really want to spend it, but he kind of has to. He’s going to a show later and he wants to look half decent. He doesn’t know much about the bands playing but 177 people are “going” and another 240 are “interested” so logic would suggest that he also be in attendance. Hours pass, the night beckons and our hero arrives at the show. Four local bands. $10 at the door. Fuck that. He complains. He tries to get in free. He considers sneaking in the back. Eventually, reluctantly, he pays.

I find this discrepancy in priorities to be fascinating. Why is it that someone will buy an item of clothing for $100 that costs $1 to make and could very well have been made by the underpaid hands of an exploited child in an impoverished country, but scoff at paying $10 to watch four local bands? Or balk at paying $1 for an album on Bandcamp that might have cost thousands to record, done with equipment that cost thousands to buy, playing music that took weeks or years to master.

Before you write this off as a sensational hyperbolic guilt trip, don’t. Because 1) I am as guilty as anyone. In fact everyone is to a certain degree. And 2) It is not hyperbolic. That’s what makes it interesting. The investigative depths required to truly uncover the societal reasons for this reality require more time and space than a column or even a thesis can provide. So what I’d like to do is merely pose the question in the hopes that people will at least think. Why is it that music is held in such relatively low regard on a monetary scale?

It pains me that essentially the only way to carve out a living in this industry, aside from having a foothold in large scale events, is through the profits from alcohol, which generally won’t find their way into the hands of musicians at all. Much is dictated by bar profits, and it is a direct result of the reality that the $10 standard for a small show doesn’t bring in enough money from the door alone to cover all of the entities involved in making an event happen. If you tried to quantify hours spent in this line of work, the rate of pay per hour is obviously not even close to minimum wage for the vast majority of those involved. It’s a world of underpaid musicians, aided by underpaid organizers, graciously documented by unpaid photographers and unpaid writers who contribute to publications that exist entirely from advertising money. Musicians give you so much. How can you tell them their music is worth less than a can of pop?

I feel it would require a massive shift in values for things to balance themselves out on this front, which is a stretch even for the most idealistic of dreamers. What we can do is contribute as much as possible, inform those who are misinformed, and when the arts are undermined by external forces we can collectively stand up for those artists. Until music is treated like an asset rather than a nuisance, little will change. You are not a terrible person for buying clothes. As a friend of mine once put it, unless you’re living off the grid and off the land you are not exempt, so we are all somewhat complicit in the perpetuation of this standard. I’m not asking you to sell your belongings and max out your credit card on Bandcamp, I’m just asking you to think about it next time you scoff at paying $10 for a show.

Mitch Ray puts on events and manages artists under the name Art Signified. He also co-runs an art space in Vancouver known as Studio Vostok located at 246 Keefer.

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Alberta

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