A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#23 Sometimes You Can’t Make It (On Your Own)
First published in Trad and Now magazine, November 2010
In the last edition, I was bemoaning my decision to lay off the festivals for the rest of the year.
Next thing I knew, I was packing bags (or rather, a bag) for Kangaroo Valley Folk Festival (KVFF) – see elsewhere in this edition of Trad and Now for the match report on the festival itself.
It was at KVFF that I was reminded, time and time again, of a very recurrent theme in folk, as indeed in countless other art forms: payment.
We might be in this game for the love, the passion, the good times, the friends, and the memories.
But some of us (not all) are actually in it for the money. To make a viable living.
There’s nothing mercenary about that. I personally am rather fond of my eating habit, and intend to continue with it.
Various suppliers, vendors and ex-wives of mine (well, just the one of that last of those) do applaud when my cheques and money transfers come rolling in.
But I currently have a day job. I get paid quite well.
Meanwhile, there are many other people in the scene who rely on getting paid for their art to keep them standing upright.
This a really, really, really important fact to keep front-brain when you’re dealing with artists. Your casual enquiry about their services might well indeed colour their response.
‘Can you knock your fee down? We’re only a small festival.’
‘Any chance of a free CD for the radio station?’ Multiplied by a hundred or more askers.
‘We’re running a community event; can you appear for free?’
They’re all worthy and valid questions, and many artists give extremely generously of their time, when and where they can.
But it should never be taken as a given that just because an artist/group is available, or local or simply there on the spot, that they actually have the capacity to share their talents without any sort of financial payment or equivalent consideration.
Man does not live by a bistro meal and two free drinks alone. Nor doth woman.
People think I’m being flippant when using a common (and sadly, recurring) phrase: ‘We love volunteers; we’re worth every cent you pay us’.
It’s a case of true words said in jest.
I’m not necessarily talking here about festival volunteers: the wood-carters, gate security narcs, and wrist-band checkers. (Cf. an earlier edition of ‘A Punter’s Perspective’ in the Trad and Now archives for that particular dissertation.)
No, it’s about the artists who sometimes end up volunteering their time, either by choice or by accident, or sometimes even by design.
If you are throwing together an event, you have many choices and options.
You can go big and max out your budget on names so big that they can barely fit on the program. Or you can go with less-established acts and keep your costs down that way.
But if you’re asking artists to compromise themselves by cutting fees or appearing for free, or at best for petrol money and a couple of beers, I invite you to tread very carefully.
What the hell am I talking about?
Let me illustrate with a still salient experience. And before any festival organisers start to clench, be chill: it was an event outside of the realms of folk and even of music festivals per se.
It was 2007 and a rather large community event held in a town which I won’t name except to say the newer parliament house that opened there in 1988 has a dirty great big stainless steel four-posted flagpole on the top.
The intentions of the event were without question and more than worthy.
But (and I love getting older because all those axioms just start to unpack themselves more and more) the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, my friends.
I have whole streets, avenues, and boulevards that point in the direction of Hades and which are tarred (and feathered) with my worthy aspirations.
So, the event was set, the sun shone, the people flooded in, and the media were there in droves.
The celebrity MC sashayed in from Melbourne, the politicians checked for spinach on their teeth, and prepared to be memorable (at least for their 15 seconds on the evening news), and so and so and so.
AND a cavalcade of local musical talent lined up, all giving of their time and art for free, because this was a worthy cause.
And who wouldn’t agree to offer themselves for free for such a cause?
But as such, the slight pay-off for these artists was that they got to perform for a huge crowd, and maybe possibly could even sell a few CDs from the side of the stage.
Everyone should have won.
Not everyone did win that day.
I have three big Ss for events that you must get right.
Or rather, you get them wrong at your peril. (Cec, if you add a superfluous apostrophe to that Ss, it will be the end of our beautiful relationship!)
Sound, security and scheduling.
And it was the last S that this event got badly wrong.
Artists can sometimes struggle to remember where and when they’re supposed to be at the best of time.
Me, I’d be in another state or time zone if my black, berry annoying phone didn’t chime every hour or so letting me know what I should be doing. (It just told me to wake up. Pretty good advice in any sense of the words.)
So on the day (yes, we’re getting there very slowly) the lineup order got tossed around more than….. one of those salads that you have to toss around.
Artists who were prepping themselves to appear in front of thousands during the crescendo of the day (when there were screaming masses in attendance) found themselves on in the mid to late afternoon.
A 45-minute set was cut to 25 minutes. (‘And can you maybe make your last one quick? We’re paying the sound guy by the hour.’)
It’s one thing playing in front of a thousand people who are clapping and cheering while the news cameramen are still rolling because they might as well film since they’re here.
And it’s another thing altogether to play to 40 people scattered around the plastic chairs while the organisers start picking up rubbish and the stallholders are pulling down awnings and clanging tent poles out of time signature.
The body language was so palpable, as was the disappointment and sense of lost opportunity. It was heart-breaking to witness.
One or two were very philosophical – and again, it was for a worthy cause.
But here’s the thing.
When the next call out comes for them to donate their time and effort on a balmy spring day when they could be relaxing by the lake, pulling the paspalum out of their garden beds, or even (call me crazy) lining up a paid gig, it’s going to colour their reactions.
I’m not saying they’ll say no.
But it’s an option. And we do love choices.
Something to chew on with your double-latté and iced Vo-Vo at the next committee meeting.
At the moment I’m involved with a community event and the organiser has taken a deep breath (and the reins of the event budget) and every artist is getting paid something.
That changes the game in so many ways.
It establishes a contract between you and the artist. (Even more so if there is an actual contract – which is highly recommended, if it doesn’t frighten the wits out of the individual performer.)
It provides incentive for the artist to (wait for it) actually appear.
Most of all, it says this very clearly. You are an artist. We value your art. We can’t place an actual value on what it is you do, but here’s $200 and we’ll take no commission on your CD sales – how does that sound for starters?
I believe it makes all the difference in the world.
Now about 27 years ago when I started writing this article it was going to be on how independent artists can get some assistance in getting their word out without spending too much if any money.
I know at least half a dozen people are reading this expecting just that.
That’s for next time!