Why you should care
Life is pretty quiet without music.
It’s a casual Monday night, and Seattle’s music venues are hoppin’. Top-40 pop icon Ellie Goulding sings prepackaged beats to the masses at Seattle’s highly lucrative arts and music festival Bumbershoot. A few miles away, at the grungier Nectar Lounge, “Mo’ Jam Mondays” are in full swing, and a trombonist hits on a cute girl. “I’m a musician,” he says — oh, dear God. Then: “My life is, like, when do I sell out?”
The two scenes are a classic back-and-forth in the battle to succeed as an artist. Play for the masses, hit it big. Occupy your hipster niche, struggle. In Seattle, though, once home to Nirvana, Death Cab for Cutie, Macklemore and Fleet Foxes, artists, venue owners and the city itself are coming together for a cause that tastes thoroughly Seattle, the city of the $15 minimum wage battle. The city is the new hub for a movement called Fair Trade Music, with a goal that’s simple enough: Treat artists better.
Run by a professional labor organizer and a bassist, the movement, they say, includes some 125 musicians. A 2015 study done by Fair Trade Music Seattle calculated that $4.3 billion is pumped into Seattle’s economy annually both directly and indirectly by the music scene, up from $2.8 billion in 2008. So Fair Trade Music Seattle wants to know: How do we split up the pie more sustainably? Musicians in the city make an average of about $32,800, half of the average income in Seattle, according to federal and census data analyzed by Fair Trade Music. Musicians here generally get paid a percentage of the entrance fees — making it tough to make ends meet. ”Every single area you could conceive of in the business transaction of playing music, at any point, a problem can come up,” says Nate Omdal, a bassist and co-leader of Fair Trade Music.
Fair Trade, which originated in, duh, Portland, has had limited successes so far: About two dozen of Seattle’s some 100 music venues have signed an agreement for transparent payment and proper working conditions for musicians — e.g., letting musicians know ahead of the show how much they will make, clearing the venues for safety standards like rickety lights and making sure the sound tech is all up to scratch. The city council created designated loading zones outside venues to help musicians go in and out.
Some artists, like keyboardist Curtis Seals, say that Fair Trade Music hasn’t affected them: “I haven’t seen anything … really.” But there’s more to come, the Fair Traders insist, like minimum pay, i.e., a universal basic income for artists — which Fair Trade Music organizer Paul Bigman says they hope to establish. All these agreements are soft contracts between artists and venues, but the small-timers hold more sway than you might think: Catherine Fisk, a law professor at UC Irvine, points out: “If you run a small club in Seattle, it’s not like you can turn your back on the half dozen successful music groups that will get a crowd big enough to fill the house.”
Seattle’s scene is a microcosm of a larger industry struggle: Making money as an artist is rough. It’s not just live music. There’s also digital-music services, ever since Napster, and now Spotify, where artists can lose money — see: Taylor Swift pulling her work from Spotify this year. (Spotify didn’t respond to our request for comment.)
Of course, there’s the survival-of-the-fittest question: If you can’t make the cut, do you deserve our sympathy? “Big Yellow Taxi,” the Joni Mitchell hit, might hold one response: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. In support of bailing out the music scene, Seattle’s mayor, Ed Murray, called music “critical” to the city’s culture. Indeed, as much as industry brings jobs and money to a city, art provides a reputation you just can’t buy.
Fascinatingly, though, this has musicians moving beyond the starving-artist trope and into a timely conversation about labor. The rise of a gig economy — or, as the experts call it, contingent labor — is everywhere these days: contracted Uber drivers, individual consultants, freelance journalists. Musician Kenny Ball uses this labor language, saying he and his fellow artists are “undervalued service-industry employees.” Fair Trade would have artists eschewing a true union in favor of loose social contracts (Fair Trade Music doesn’t take dues). For its part, the local chapter of the union the American Federation of Musicians has helped out, providing space and footing the bill for Fair Trade Music’s work, says Joan Sandler, vice president of the Musicians’ Association of Seattle.
In the long run, changing the entire landscape of the music industry’s future looks even cloudier than Seattle itself. “Some art, including art that I love, just doesn’t have an economy,” musician and venue owner Wayne Horvitz says. Or, as famed producer Quincy Jones put it: “Honey, we have no music industry.”
This economy operates, rather, in small places. Like the show Ball once played with three other bands. Each group was handed a fiver for the whole night. His band ended up giving their payout to one of their comrades-in-arms. The other musicians needed gas money to get out of Seattle.