By Morgan Davis
Of the nearly 70 people who move to Austin each day, many of whom are young college grads, it’s safe to assume a good percentage are lured in part by the promise of the city as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Austin is a town that has made its name on a vibrant creative culture, and by extent, the events that surround that culture, events like the annual Free Week, which has kicked off every January for more than a decade. But for as much as events like Free Week benefit the city’s identity as a music destination, how beneficial is an event like Free Week to the people who make it happen, namely the musicians?
That’s basically the question Red Hunter put forth on Dec. 3rd on the Facebook page for The Owl, the DIY venue he helps run. A musician himself who fronts Gender Infinity and Peter and the Wolf, Hunter was curious about how much of the free week success was coming back to the artists who take part in the event. In his passionate open letter to the Austin music community, he suggested the city instead implement “Musicians’ Week, where we all voluntarily pay more than we normally would to see shows.”
When I spoke to Red over the phone, he told me his open letter was “the most active post” he had ever put up. Hunter feels that that response makes it clear that to a significant portion of the Austin music community, more events that are centered around music should treat the artists involved better. “People are just so inundated with music that they stop paying covers,” Hunter explained, adding that many fans don’t realize that “there’s a shitload of money that goes into making you hear about a band, from mixing and mastering to touring– someone has to fund it.” In Hunter’s view, the venues that the bands play at should be doing more to fund the bands they profit from. “I think if everyone else is making money off of the huge [attendance] numbers, why shouldn’t the musicians too?”
Hunter’s proposed alternative, which has now been named Pay Musicians Better Than Usual Week, landed more than a hundred RSVPs before Hunter had announced any groups or even partner venues other than the Owl. The event continues to grow and Hunter has now confirmed the involvement of the East Austin hotspot Cheer Up Charlie’s, which has pledged to bring its Free Week compensation to bands up from 10% of bar revenue to 15%. Because of the nature of Free Week– which has multiple venues and promoters working together under the Free Week banner– it’s unclear how common that 10% baseline at Charlie’s even is, though.
Ryan Darbonne, from local Austin hip-hop supergroup Space Camp Death Squad, told me through e-mail that in the past two years that his group performed, they never got compensated. “It was never about making money for us,” Darbonne said, “we knew what we were getting into.” Similarly, Chief of Chief & the Doomsday Device, confirmed that when he played Emo’s Lounge during Free Week as part of The Word Association, his group “got paid in tips and merch.” To be clear, neither artist had a problem with this arrangement, and as many other artists pointed out online to Red, Free Week’s attendance and the exposure aspect are difficult to ignore. But as Hunter handily points out “I’ve never met a musician that’s turned down money at the end of the night.”
“I just want more people to do what Cheer Up’s does, which is be clear about how they’re paying bands and how they’ll pay them better during Free Week,” Hunter said, “I just want to make sure Free Week doesn’t become a thing where bands are expected to play for free. I want to open that dialogue.” Hunter used an anecdote from the Austin musicians section of Craigslist to make his point clearer: “There was an ad where someone was looking for musicians to play their restaurant for free, saying it’d be great for exposure, and someone replied with another posting, asking if the restaurant would cater a dinner party they were throwing for ‘exposure.’” For a lot of creative types, “exposure” is a dirty word, used to lure you into doing work for free when you should be getting paid. For Red and many other Austin musicians, the key example of this is SXSW, the massive industry event that in some ways defines Austin to the rest of the country, and for good reason, as it has the largest economic impact out of any event in Austin and brought in almost $200 million last year.
Though there is no available data on Free Week’s revenue or how its attendance has grown since it was started by Transmission Events partner Graham Williams in 2003, the fact that it has now grown to be two weeks indicates that it’s a successful enterprise. Hunter views it as a “microcosm of SXSW,” which he believes is even more problematic in regards to fair artist compensation. Hunter is eager to put his money where his mouth is, and beyond promising to give 100% of revenue back to the artists who play The Owl during Pay Musicians Better Than Usual Week, he has also begun to consider how Austin musicians would benefit from the creation of an entity similar to the Screen Actors’ Guild. “SAG says you’re an artist and you have a minimum value,” Hunter explained, stating that “once you’re in the union, you’re not allowed to act for free and that protects everyone.” It sounds like a good solution for a problem like lack of fair compensation, particularly in regards to events like SXSW and Free Week, which require the involvement of a large number of musicians, venues, promoters and service industry workers. But according to some, the complex nature of these events and the state of the industry in general makes such solutions all but impossible to enact.
Shaun Spalding, an intellectual property lawyer and advisory board member of the New Media Rights organization, said over e-mail that “it’s really unlikely that a generalized musicians’ union could ever work.” There are many reasons for this, but a key one that Spalding points out is the fractured nature of the music industry, which is especially visible at events like Free Week and SXSW. “There are more people writing checks,” Spalding said, clarifying that “the Hollywood unions formed against the studio system, which was less than ten companies that weren’t fractionalized, in a time when if nobody with training in your geographic area (i.e. LA) would work for you, you didn’t have a movie.” Spalding’s statement highlights how geographic isolation and a lack of widespread training allowed that union system to develop alongside the industry, and Hunter is equally aware of that contrast in the music industry, where it’s extremely easy for venues and promoters to simply bypass “problem” acts in favor of acts that are happy to take exposure as payment. In Hunter’s experience, that goes beyond venues and is symbolic of a more widespread problem with creative commerce in general.
As an example, Hunter spoke to me about Daytrotter, a “music discovery” site that made its name on video sessions from touring bands who passed through Illinois, where the studio the sessions are recorded and filmed at is located. Hunter’s band Peter and the Wolf did sessions for Daytrotter, up until the point when they rolled out a membership plan and started generating revenues from the previously free, promo-only performances they captured. “I did another open letter basically saying ‘I’m sad to say no but I can’t do this if the bands aren’t getting paid,’” Hunter said, “And Sean Moeller [Daytrotter’s founder] basically wrote back saying that if I did stuff like this, the site would go under, it was the only way they could survive, and it was great exposure.” The irony of that last statement wasn’t lost on Hunter, and it’s easy to see why Free Week reignites similar feelings in him. While communities are happy to fund the entities that profit off of musicians – like Daytrotter, which continues to thrive – many of those same musicians struggle to turn exposure into rent checks. Though he’s adamant that his counterprogramming isn’t meant as an inherently anti-Free Week move, Hunter hopes that this will be the conversation starter the Austin community needs to start examining how committed they are to sustaining the people who make Austin the live music capital of the world.