Musicians Exposing Themselves In Public

There is one word you hear more than any other if you’re an independent musician. Especially if you are relatively unknown. EXPOSURE.

It is more than a word though, it is a unit of currency. And like all currencies it is subject to an ever-fluctuating rate of exchange, not to mention the manifold peculiarities of our society’s notion of value.

Being asked to play for exposure (rather than money) is nothing new. I get emails every week from promoters asking me to do that. My refusals are always courteous and explanatory; their replies (if any) usually tend towards baffled indignation. These little conversations go on in private every day in every part of the country. But now the argument has gone public as it turns out the musicians booked for the various Olympic/Paralympic ceremonies are to work for no fee (despite reportedly being £476 million under budget). That story has been circulating quietly since the Musicians Union began an investigation in April, but when it was reported by the BBC and The Quietus at the end of June my social media news-feeds were suddenly buzzing with activity. The central query was this: Can the benefits of exposure to a wider audience outweigh the embarrassment of being the only profession contributing to the £9.3 billion event without getting a penny? It is a classic debate that can be summed up in three words: “What price dignity?”

In other news the latest issue of M (the PRS members magazine) featured a short piece by Ruth Simmons about sync-licensing, suggesting that relationships at the core of a good song/brand tie-in are being undermined now that big companies are wise to the potential exposure their commercial/film/show can give to a band. It used to be that sync-licensing was the holy grail for independent artists, a lucrative revenue stream that did not rely on chart penetration (something I have benefited from myself in the past after much internal debate and mental flagellation on the subject of “selling out”). But now multinational corporations are using the “good exposure” argument to seduce emerging bands into attaching their music to a product in exchange for a potential new fanbase. The knock-on effect being that the value of original content is driven down in yet another sector of the creative economy.

I don’t want this article to be about what is right and what is wrong – morally, financially or artistically – I am well versed in all the arguments that surround playing for exposure and I have drawn my own lines based on my experiences over the years. I understand people wanting to get something for nothing as much as I understand not wanting to get nothing for something. I do, however, have one question…

Who’s attention are we ultimately trying to attract?

Because it seems everyone is passing the buck. We can play gigs for exposure, give away our music for exposure, go on TV talent shows for exposure, advertise multinational brands for exposure and who knows what else. But who are we exposing ourselves to and to what end? Some do it for the sake of their art, to see it fly out into the world and join all the other beautiful squawking arts roosting in the treetops of the collective imagination; some do it in the hope that they’ll eventually see a decent pay day, one that balances out all the time and faith they have invested thus far. Most people want a mixture of the two. Both scenarios centre on the hope that at some point there will be someone who gives a damn. So we wait and circle, circle and wait. I know people who have been waiting so long they’re in danger of getting into Samuel Beckett territory – hoping that some day a mysterious figure will emerge bearing two large bags, one full of critical acclaim and the other full of cash. Maybe tomorrow… maybe the next day.

Why are we here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.

In all the comment threads I’ve read beneath the articles and facebook posts pertaining to LOCOG‘s non-payment policy there is always one that says something like “but surely musicians can just refuse to play, they’re not being forced – it just comes down to choice.”

I think it comes down to more than choice. I think it comes down to faith.

To play for exposure is to be given an IOU chit that may never be redeemed. A cheque that bears neither signature or guarantee, to be honoured at an undisclosed future date by parties both unknown and unknowing. One must really believe to make it seem worth it. Fortunately for unscrupulous event promoters belief is precisely the attribute one cannot be without if you want to succeed as an independent musician. Faith is something our species has always been very good at exploiting.

Because for a lot of people we are dealing in dreams. It’s show-business after all and there’s no business like it (no business I know). No single template fits. The big problem in the UK is that there is something of a mercurial fault-line between the amateur and professional music sectors – and it is whilst hopping from one side to the other that we are most prone to abuse. There is always more work to do, more word to spread, more ears to be lent. For years one must simply get out there, get in front of people. That’s just part of the process. I did it for the best part of a decade and I did it gladly. Indeed, in business terms a start-up musician is an enviable prospect in that they needn’t invest in advertising or PR or hire stalls at trade fairs etc, they are their own advertisement, they haunt open mics and free showcase events and busk on the street and build momentum with minimal cost. Exposure is not only useful, it is essential. But there is an unspoken contract: Something must come after. Progress must be made. We must be heading towards something BETTER.

But I suspect many of us are not heading towards anything, but rather endlessly round and round. It isn’t just musicians that are damaged by the caustic phenomenon of exposure, the whole infrastructure of the creative economy is corroded by it. We are in the last years of a huge empire, one that was beholden to a myth woven around the miracle of amateurs becoming icons. At some point all the jesters suddenly expected to be kings. But the primordial soup that spat out the rockstar phenomenon was originally cooked up in the music hall – jobbing entertainers with their props and patter playing for a wage. There were big names and little names, there were hierarchies and egos and ambition but everyone in the end got paid for their act. That is still what it is to be a performer – to tour, to write, to rehearse and to be paid based on your abilities and your appeal. Sometimes it is a struggle and sometimes it is an absolute pleasure. You rely on yourself and on the help of others. To succeed you need to put your faith in real things and trust that the people around you are telling the truth. You can do without the dream-mongering.

But the greatest engine of our entertainment business is The Dream. And The Dream’s demented offspring is the word EXPOSURE.

So along come the short-cut whisperers and hype merchants and buzz-builders, the pontificaters and pardoners, theory-touters and potion-sellers. The most fashionable argument currently circulating amongst so-called industry experts is that the future of the music industry is in the live sector. So there’s another thing exposure can help/hinder you with. It’s a pretty convenient trope and a convincing one when you start scrutinizing people’s consumer tendencies. But it is not true. The future of music is in EVERYTHING. Little bits of everything. It always has been. It is in the flexibility of music to work with and alongside non-music; to infiltrate, inform and inspire the world around it. That’s the reason why it is so endlessly played, composed, consumed and discussed. Music is as adaptable as it is universal and there are as many futures as there are human beings. But I can tell you what is NOT the future of the music industry: it is not in lazy thinking, it is not in empty promises, it is not in short-term investment, it is not in cutting corners or making a quick buck. I’ve lost count of the number of promoters that tell me there is no budget to pay performers but “it’ll be a great opportunity to sell CDs”. Am I to gather that we are expected to use albums as bait for live shows and live shows as bait for albums?

Such a beautifully symmetrical paradox deserves to have hymns sung in its honour.

Or maybe it just needs to be exposed.

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