Dead Time: A critique of handouts in the music industry

Thursday 09th, February 2017 / 13:44
From the desk of Mitch Ray

Photo: Taya Fraser

VANCOUVER — Let’s analyze the contentious issue of musicians asking for money and the stigma attached to it. A lot of people, myself included, often cringe when we see GoFundMes from bands asking for donations. The truth is we usually don’t know the full scope of these situations and painting things with such a broad brush is indicative of a larger problem. As is the case with almost everything, sometimes it’s warranted, and sometimes it’s not.

The negative connotation around crowdfunding often comes from the perception that bands are freeloading or trying to circumvent the grind of earning income from shows, tours, or merch sales. This is certainly the case sometimes and in these instances they shouldn’t be validated, but it isn’t always a case of asking for a handout. Unless a band is commanding significant guarantees or label money, they are generally not being compensated fair value for their skills or time invested. Is accepting financial contributions from friends and fans better or worse than accepting grant money from the government? Or a business loan from a bank? Or even a paycheque from a construction company that contributes to gentrification or a non-profit that misappropriates public funds?

I’m not sure governments or banks are renowned for being credible or ethical institutions. Yet the criticism of accepting money from those entities seems to pale in comparison to the direct approach of crowdfunding. Some bands might not be able to successfully apply for a grant. There’s a reason grant writers exist. It’s a long, technical and tedious process that still might amount to nothing, despite the many hours it takes to complete the process. Sometimes people need help. Not everyone’s first instrument was bought for them. There are actually people who had to work a lot harder than most just to begin playing music. They are working from a disadvantageous position from the outset. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to ask a parent for financial help. Sometimes people encounter heavy financial obstacles that are well beyond their control. It’s entitled and arrogant to blindly assess every situation without knowing the facts. Again, this is not an excuse for bands to be lazy and exploit people’s generosity. I feel the need to restate this because it unfortunately is a common trait for people to think that illustrating the validity of one side means you are vehemently against the other side. It’s not that simple, and simplifying things to such a degree is a backwards approach.

If you were to scrutinize your favourite bands, do you think all of them achieved “success” through just hard work, shows, working day jobs, and being fiscally responsible? I’d say they likely had to do those things for sure, but did none of them receive help? Is receiving grants from Christy Clark’s government or from a federal music fund that is governed by a board of directors that includes representatives from Bell Media or Rogers more “punk” than “selling out” with a Kickstarter? Of course people do pay taxes and therefore are receiving back what they have already bought into. This isn’t undermining the validity of grants. This is contemplating the difference in public perception of different approaches that are largely based off the same principle.

I’m not saying one should or shouldn’t crowdfund, obtain grants , or strictly adhere to a DIY ethos. I’m saying that people should put some thought into their judgment of varying approaches instead of viscerally decrying something without proper knowledge or context. It’s up to the individual to determine if the request is from a legitimately hard working band or from a band that hasn’t earned it. If it’s the latter, don’t contribute. If it’s the former, maybe there is a rare instance where it might be okay. It might not be popular to make that assertion, but I find no purpose in the redundancy of preaching to the choir.

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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