Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The opening act dilemma

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Ronald McDonald

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “Have you ever gone to a concert just for the opener?”

Earlier this week, I described the initial stages of creating a brand, whether commercial or artistic, as a kind of charitable enterprise: you’ve got to be willing to lose money for years to produce anything with a chance of surviving. I was speaking primarily of investors and patrons, but of course, it’s also true of artists themselves. A career in the arts requires an enormous initial investment of time, energy, and money—at least in the form of opportunity cost, as you choose not to pursue more remunerative forms of making a living—and a major factor separating those who succeed from those who don’t is the amount of pain they’re willing to endure. David Mamet famously said that everyone gets a break in show business in twenty-five years: some get it at the beginning, others at the end, and all you can really control is how willing you are to stick around after everyone else has gone home. That’s always been true, but more recently, it’s led to a growing assumption that emerging artists should be willing, even eager, to give work away for free. With media of all kinds being squeezed on both sides by increasing competition and diminishing audiences, there’s greater pressure than ever to find cheap content, and the most reliable source has always been hungry unknowns desperate for any kind of exposure.

And that last word is an insidious one. Everybody wants exposure—who wouldn’t?—but its promise is often used to justify arrangements in which artists are working for nothing, or at a net loss, for companies that aren’t in it for charity. Earlier this month, McDonald’s initially declined to pay the bands scheduled to play at its showcase at South by Southwest, saying instead that the event would be “a great opportunity for additional exposure.” (This took the form of the performers being “featured on screens throughout the event, as well as possibly mentioned on McDonald’s social media counts.”) When pressed on this, the company replied sadly: “There isn’t a budget for an artist fee.” Ultimately, after an uproar that canceled out whatever positive attention it might have expected, it backtracked and agreed to compensate the artists. And even if this all sort of went nowhere, it serves as a reminder of how craven even the largest corporations can be when it comes to fishing for free content. McDonald’s always seeks out the cheapest labor it can, cynically passing along the hidden human costs to the rest of society, so there’s no reason to expect it to be any different when it comes to music. As Mamet says of movie producers, whenever someone talks to you about “exposure,” what they’re really saying is: “Let me take that cow to the fair for you, son.”

Ronald McDonald

That said, you can’t blame McDonald’s for seizing an opportunity when it saw one. If there are two groups of artists who have always been willing to work for free, it’s writers and musicians, and it’s a situation that has been all but institutionalized by how the industries themselves are structured. A few months ago, Billboard published a sobering breakdown of the costs of touring for various tiers of performers. For a headliner like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, an arena performance can net something like $300,000, and even after the costs of production, crew, and transportation are deducted, it’s a profitable endeavor. But an opening act gets paid a flat fee of $15,000 or so, and when you subtract expenses and divide the rest between members of the band, you’re essentially paying for the privilege of performing. As Jamie Cheek, an entertainment business manager, is quoted as saying: “If you get signed to a major label, you’re going to make less money for the next two or three years than you’ve ever made in your life.” And it remains a gamble for everyone except the label itself. Over the years, I’ve seen countless opening acts, but I’d have trouble remembering even one, and it isn’t because they lacked talent. We’re simply less likely to take anything seriously if we haven’t explicitly paid for it.

That’s the opening act dilemma. And it’s worth remembering this if you’re a writer being bombarded with proposals to write for free, even for established publications, for the sake of the great god exposure. For freelancers, it’s created a race to the bottom, as they’re expected to work for less and less just to see their names in print. And we shouldn’t confuse this with the small presses that pay contributors in copies, if at all. These are labors of love, meant for a niche audience of devoted readers, and they’re qualitatively different from commercial sites with an eye on their margins. The best publications will always pay their writers as fairly as they can afford. Circulation for the handful of surviving print science-fiction magazines has been falling for years, for instance, but Analog and Asimov’s recently raised their rate per word by a penny or so. It may not sound like much, but it amounts to a hundred dollars or so that it didn’t need to give its authors, most of whom would gladly write for even less. Financially, it’s hard to justify, but as a sign of respect for its contributors, it speaks volumes, even as larger publications relentlessly cut their budgets for freelancers. As painful as it may be, you have to push back, unless you’re content to remain an opening act for the rest of your life. You’re going to lose money anyway, so it may as well be on your own terms. And if someone wants you to work for nothing now, you can’t expect them to pay you later.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2015 at 9:22 am

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