Why should artists be paid fairly?

An ironical question in the world full of art-lovers

Do you think your plumber must be paid? Or your electrician? Now, don’t you feel someone is asking you a ridiculous question? What do you mean by ‘do you think’ your plumber must be paid? Well he/she will have to be paid; because they do a job and a payment ‘has’ to be made and no-one can escape that! You don’t have a choice to not pay; even if your electrician makes a visit and does not fix anything; you still have to pay visit charges. Don’t we all do this? An electrician I know, actually first fixes the visit charges and only then arrives at my doorstep. 

Well, now in this same light let us think of musicians. Here we will restrict our view to a consumer and service provider relationship. A musician offers a recreation service; a consumer is the one who avails this service – thus a payment is due. Also, no matter the quality of the service, a payment is due! Just like the payment to the plumber; even if the plumbing problem recurs the very next day you can’t get your money back. You obviously have the full right to not avail the services of the same plumber and look for a new one. You can always look for a different musician. 

Being a good plumber or an electrician is a skilled job which can be mastered relatively quickly. However being a musician is not just a skill based endeavour. Mastering an art can take years and it is always work in progress that comes along with a lot of uncertainty about excellence. 

What is fair payment? 

Well, let me ask explicitly; do you think paying a thousand bucks for a 3 hour program is fair? Or is it okay to pay a token amount (top the thousand by another five hundred) for accompanying 2/3 artists in a day long festival? We will take help of a similar example like the plumber one. An electrician comes to fix a bulb versus an electrician who comes to fix all bulbs in your two bedroom apartment. There are at least two tube-lights in the living room, two in every bedroom, two in the kitchen and one lamp in the balcony – so a total of 9 fittings to be done. Will she accept the same payment as that for one lamp? Usually they multiply the base amount with the number of fittings and you pay those multiples. So if she charges INR 200 for one lamp then 9*200 = INR 1800 for all lamps + visit charges. I am putting the math here so explicitly because it is funny to see how quickly we forget our math lessons when it comes to paying artists. 

Also, will an electrician be okay if you paid way below his/her quoted price? Say she quotes INR 500 for a job and you offer INR 50? Will that be acceptable? Who decides what is fair? Is it an industry standard or is it personal? Maybe mix of both?  Maybe your local electrician will charge less but your service technician from Syska will charge more. You can negotiate with your local electrician within limits but not with your Syska technician. You also get a warranty if you use Syska services. So maybe when you approach a musician you can ask what they are expecting; and then let them know what you can offer. You don’t offer very less than what the artist has quoted. For example if the artist has requested INR 5000; if you cannot afford that amount you may request a reduction by INR 1000 or so but not say that ‘we can only pay thousand’ or ‘can you please come for free’. 

Do we as audience question ‘how is that I can attend free concert?’ Who pays for it?

Investment and Returns: 

Have you visited a dentist? Well, if you have visited one you know certain things. They are usually people with an education, a degree. Then they also have real knowledge of dentistry. If they take out your tooth they know how to fix a new one. They also have a staff or at least one receptionist who needs to be paid. They have a lot of equipment and use materials for which they need to pay. Now think about a musician in this light. They have an education in music; this may be a degree or may not as many musicians are also groomed in the Guru-Shishya parampara. Musicians cannot sing/play alone and they have a team of accompanists. Musicians also have instruments which need to be bought and which also need to be maintained. Now, when a person invests in dentistry education he/she is expecting some kind of returns later. Similarly, when a musician invests he/she is also expecting something (some payment) in return. Obviously if you were a dentist by choice you will be good at it and will enjoy it; in the same way if music is your calling you will give it your best. 

Do all dentists charge the same? Don’t we have the ones who have lavish clinics with comfortable waiting lounges and a lot of staff? As the quality and the promise of service changes; the price changes. Also no matter what you will go to your trusted or recommended dentist even if he/she charges a bomb instead of visiting a cheaper one. 

Unlike your dentist friend who has a guaranteed income (less or more but there is an income); musicians don’t have an income guarantee. Plus learning dentistry is much easier than music because there is a certified and mostly universal coursework, there is a ranking of good and best institutions, no one doubts your dentistry skills when you show your certificate and no-one can tell you to charge less fees. Whereas musicians don’t follow a fixed syllabus, there is no certain standard of mastery or rather it may never be mastered; plus your style may not always appeal everyone and there may only be a limited following to your aesthetic views. 

Beyond this consumerism: 

Till now we saw the situation as purely transactional; now let us look at it differently maybe with more compassionate eyes than that of business. 

Music is an art. Some may argue that it is not a necessity and we definitely know of no one who has died of music deprivation. However, do we know of any culture in the world where music is not an integral part of life of people? So maybe music is essential but ironically we still perceive it as a luxury. Maybe because of this perception, music always had patrons. Some art is publicly funded while some or most of it is supported by patrons who understand this need for music in our life. 

Art for those who pursue it wholeheartedly is a way of life. It is not a mundane transactional way of surviving but rather a way to experience life itself. Thus some artists find it very difficult to put a price on their art while some may also charge huge amounts which may seem disproportionate. Some artists may be good at talking about their art while some are extremely shy or completely self-satisfied. There can be many combinations or variations of how artists manifest but one thing is true that it needs great sensitivity to truly know an artist. 

Thus the unique nature of art and music makes it difficult for us to perceive it as a profession, a means of earning a living and also equally a way of life that is somewhere beyond economical considerations. Thus many times quoting a concert fee sounds rude; even though it is just professional. Similarly when an artist does not quote a figure; he or she may not even receive payment or may receive peanuts as token. Both extreme responses failing to understand that though something like art is priceless, one needs to honour it with payment that is decent and dignified. 

Art is a relief to us as audience can we extend that same relief to our beloved musicians?

Prioritising artists is not difficult: 

In the name of promoting art, there are multiple organisations which organise free concerts for audience that are unfortunately a hole in the pocket of the artist. Artists sometimes have to pay their accompanists out of pocket and also manage personal transport which may be very expensive especially if you live in a big city. Not all artists have this privilege of paying out of pocket. 

Such organisers may say either they are a new group, or they are a small organisation with low funding, or worse; they are providing a stage to young musicians! Does it help to feed a hungry artist with adulation? These same organisations spend on fancy stage decoration, bouquets and shawls, a paid advert in print and digital media, videography and photography etc. After all this spending there is no money left for artists. Shouldn’t artist payment be the priority in their budget? We see a clear problem in prioritisation! 

Some organisations even boast that they have been calling senior musicians for free – meaning they pay the artist but the audience does not have to buy tickets. Why? How will the audience ever know the value of the event? All these concerts are not like fund raising events or special centenary celebrations etc. they are very much like regular events done to promote music. Well, if you don’t have an audience in the first place; keeping the concert free is not going to attract the non-existent audience. People pay if they want to come, if they see the value of the thing offered. In this context the Indian Classical Music scene is somewhat like the chicken and the egg problem. 

Similarly for artists it is a very tricky situation. There is always someone who can and who will perform for free or even invest personal money. You refusing an event because it had no payment does not bother the organiser. An organiser can very arrogantly and consistently demand free concerts and even get what he/she demands without being labeled or called-out for the wrong. 

Who is accountable for this mess? 

  • An artist who does not specify fees
  • An organiser who chooses to not pay 

I think the wrongdoer is the organiser. It is the moral responsibility of the organiser to compensate fairly. Secondly it is also the professional responsibility of the organiser to raise the required funds to host an artist. Depending upon your budget you may choose different artists and even request a reduced fee (within decent limits); however paying nothing is not an option. I truly feel that if an organiser does not have funds to pay the artists involved; they need not organise events. 

However the game is not that simple for organisers too. Again a vicious cycle exists in acquiring funding, ticketing events and paying fair amounts to artists. An organiser is not always in a position to fully deliver an event as they wish. 

The reluctance of audience in paying for concerts makes it difficult to make an event sustainable forget about making it profitable. This reluctance is in turn fuelled by the alarming number of free events. 

Basically the illusion that a platform is more important for an artist than payment has created many problems. The dream that artists may somehow later in their life earn lots of money is a false one. It is a dream that remains unrealised for many. An allusion of the past glorious days and exalted status of artists in the past does not help the present generation of learners, beginners – the young musicians without privilege. 

How do we fix this? 

Well, then what can be done? How does one break the cycles of stupidity and exploitation? Maybe, some answers can be found in this article and maybe we have some examples to emulate? 

First; 

  • All artists must be paid at all times
  • Pay fairly and don’t hand over token amounts 
  • Talk about the difficulty of raising funds 
  • Ticket events 
  • Free public events can ask for donations for a cause or use a pay it forward system 
  • Artists must also demand payment and share their discomfort when they are not paid fairly (Remember this is difficult for young artists as we cannot forget their vulnerable position!)
  • Audience must ask if the artists were paid fairly (don’t attend concerts where you know that an organiser boasts not paying artists – and voice your discomfort)

Secondly; 

  • Search for organisers who pay artists well and attend their events
  • Buy tickets and don’t ask for discounts if the prices are fair (compare with a Drama show ticket or a Weekender ticket whatever is fair)
  • Make donations to organisations who organise events and pay their artists
  • Don’t demand free music (It will always come with advertisements and advertised music too!)

Lastly; 

It is not that difficult to know what is fair payment. Whatever job you do; don’t you know what fair payment is for that job? Here too, follow your heart! Maybe at least pay as much as you love the music! 

Written by – Dakshayani Athalye

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