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Would You Work for Free?

By: on September 13, 2012 in Advice, PASS, PASS Summit, Rant

I think most of you know I spend a lot of time giving back (and sometimes on my own dime when I go to things like SQL Saturday) – not everything I do is paid. It’s the right thing to do. ’nuff said. However, that’s different than being asked to do a job and not get paid – well, not much anyway.

Musician/artist Amanda Palmer put up a blog post (some NSFW language in there) that is interesting. I don’t know much about her, but I do know she raised $1,200,000 (that’s $1.2 million not checking the commas …) via Kickstarter to get her album done. That came from about 25,000 people. Good for her. Maybe I should do that for my album as well as the Mission Critical SQL Server 2012 book I’m working on (that’s sarcasm by the way).

To me, it’s a bit disingenuous to put your hand out as an artiste (e added to make it sound snooty – not a typo) to fund a project, but turn around and then ask people to play virtually for free. Sure, you get a swag, some beer, and either a hug or high five. She ostensibly has a core touring band she pays to travel with her. Other musicians do things like this, but they hire, say, local orchestras or musicians for some spots. A good example was Peter Gabriel on the New Blood tour.

Speaking as a musician who has made bupkis (Yiddish word, BTW) on many a gig, what she’s doing is different. People are paying for tickets, she pays her core band – why not pay hired guns? This isn’t some local 40-something weekend warrior bunch of folks playing the neighborhood dive for some yucks. I’m sure she’s had a metric-crap ton of people e-mail her because they’re thinking, “I can claim I played with Amanda Palmer at a real gig! Woot!” And it’s for that reason they further devalue live music and musicians getting paid. Much like I would devalue my worth if I did certain things. Sometimes you need to just say no and walk away.

Someone who makes their living at a profession – musician, consultant, barista, whatever – has a right to make some scratch if it’s a professional gig they’re asked to do. Musicians have been hit hard over the past few years with less venues to play at in many cities. I know it’s that way in Boston. There are scale rates to pay musicians. Some even are in unions (not getting into a political debate about unions – don’t try; I’m not in any musician’s union for what it’s worth).

Even taking into account Amanda’s breakdown of the numbers from Kickstarter (and the breakdown done by others as well) in that UGLY discussion thread in the blog post, I have an issue with things. Yes, it’s expensive to release an album properly. Yes, it’s expensive to mount an international tour. Yes, you need to pay taxes. I’m all for an innovative different business models (and Kickstarter != charity, either; it’s real money). But pay your workers. They are not contest winners. Or do you think they are?

You could take the viewpoint that Amanda was/is essentially asking for volunteers from her fanbase. Nothing wrong with that at a 50,000 foot view really. But like a lot of other things, those who depend on playing music for a living get hurt in the process if someone’s just going to do it for free. There’s a difference between giving back and giving it away. This isn’t showing up at a gig, being friends with the band, and being asked to jam and solo on a single song. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Can’t tell you that, but there sure are a lot of opinions.

We see it in the SQL community – some choose not to go to PASS Summit because they need to or would rather make money than lose money not being at a customer that week. That’s not a bad thing, and while some may judge, it’s valid. But a lot of those people give back in other ways (blogging, etc.). So it’s not like they don’t give back, and if showing up at Summit is their only negative, you’ve got to dig more. Is it disappointing to some that X, Y, or Z isn’t there? Sure. But it’s very fundamentally different  than what’s being asked here.

Look, would I love to tour with folks like Joe Jackson or other artists I like? You bet your ass I would – SQL be damned. Heck, when I heard he was auditioning bass players for his upcoming tour (which I’m seeing next week) I knew there would be no chance in hell I would get an audition (but I e-mailed anyway in the off chance …). But I wouldn’t do it for free, that’s for sure. And I’m sure JJ compensates his musicians fairly.

As for Amanda – there’s no bad publicity, right? People are talking about her. And as PT Barnum supposedly once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”


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