How Fucked Up’s Savvy SXSW Post About Artist Exploitation Applies to Other Venues (Like, Um, the Internet) Too


Very smart post up today written by guitarist Mike Haliechuk at the Canadian band Fucked Up’s blog, talking about the economics of Austin’s South By Southwest music conference. The gist of it is an attempt to answer a simple question, one that a person could easily ask about CMJ or other, similar large-scale music festivals in which bands get paid very little and sponsors and advertisers are everywhere. To wit: who benefits? To which Haliechuck’s answer is, basically, unless you’re being very careful, not the artists–who are, of course, ostensibly the reason for the whole event. Why? Because you end doing a tremendous amount of work that you can’t meaningful monetize, even as any number of companies who can wait in the wings, transforming your effort and creative output into dollars. For instance, at SXSW,

The expense is high, and is rightly seen by most bands as a sensible gamble, weighed either against a week of good times, or at a chance at moving forward with the business of being a band – money well spent to meet managers, agents or record labels. But it’s still an expense, and while bands from all over the world are spending thousands of dollars to get to Austin, there are a lot of companies already there and with massive economic power (a whole bunch of those units I was talking about earlier) who are using these bands to varying degrees to get even more powerful.

How precisely are they doing this?

Think of all the bands that had to blow their wallets apart to get to their one sxsw showcase, and all the partiers who had to pay to fly or hitchhike from Greenpoint or Plymouth to get to Austin in order to create the cultural critical mass that allowed Mountain Dew to greenlight a giant billboard in the epicenter of American indie rock. Think of why there is so much free beer and cigarettes and energy drinks at sxsw, and why every year there is even more, and why every year there are a dozen more huge shows presented by even bigger companies than last year. It’s because you paid your money to go there and see these ads.

Your travel expenses and the bands’ willingness to take a loss in exchange for some exposure and an audience collude to provide an ideal market for all sorts of parasitical types who contribute very little, artistically or culturally. The moral of the story:

What’s important to remember is that even if you are a small band with no label, or even just a fan of music, every decision you make at the festival has a ripple effect on the music industry, which you are a part of. If you are a band, and are offered to play the Dewars Pampers Ultra Soft stage, it may be a legitimately good decision to take part in, if you can get a good slot and play for a few hundred people, and maybe even walk away from the show with a cheque. But is it worth playing in the middle of nowhere to no people if the only meaningful economic relationship created by the show is between a few companies that won’t pay you, and a few hundred people that are still asleep while you are playing?

In other words, your presence as an artist is just an excuse for a third party transaction that you see no money off of, though that transaction wouldn’t be possible without you.

Easy enough to say about SXSW or CMJ–a festival about which we’ve asked similar questions in terms of why it exists, and for whom–where the advertising is overt and the context strange and unfamiliar. But the insidious thing about being an artist of any kind these days, and perhaps particularly about being a musician, is that far more familiar, less transparently exploitative venues are participating in a similar type of economy. For instance, the medium in which you’re reading these words right now.

Internet culture has trended toward the free and the non-remunerative at a breakneck pace over the last decade, as any record label executive can tell you. Some, like the Pirate Bay’s Peter Sunde or WIRED‘s Chris Anderson, have spent the last bunch of years celebrating that fact–Anderson even went so far as to write Free!: The Future of a Radical Price last year (which he presumably made a nice bit of change off of when it hit the best-seller list), a book full of pronouncements that celebrate online culture’s slide toward not paying anyone for anything.

But the insidious fact is, people do still get paid–it’s just not the people who used to get paid. Just like the advertisers who lurk at the margins at SWSX and play middlemen as far as funding showcases and providing free beer/liquor/clothing etc., there are similar profit-skimming entities lurking online. Like say, Google, or YouTube, or the Village Voice, where ads flank the free video clips we post as they emerge. As Anderson himself once wrote, “Just because products are free doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere, isn’t making huge gobs of money.”

The Baffler‘s Astra Taylor wrote an essay on this very subject a couple months back. As she points out,

Where free is concerned, we’re typically told that “the kids,” impatient and entitled, want their culture this instant and will not pay a dime, so they’ve embraced piracy. But the young pirates aren’t really leading a mass insurrection; they’re a symbol or a scapegoat employed to obscure a larger struggle about culture and value–and in whose pocket that value accumulates. The owners of social networking sites may be forbidden from selling individual songs posted by members, but the companies themselves, including user content, can be turned over for a hefty sum: almost $900 million for Bebo and far more for YouTube. Google doesn’t see the mammoth archive of books it currently hopes to digitize as a priceless treasure to be preserved; it’s a trove of content to sprinkle with banner ads. Google, as Chris Anderson points out many times, succeeds because of an almost unfathomable economy of scale; each free search brings revenue from targeted advertising and fodder for the data miners: each mouse click is a trickle in the flood. Technology writer Nicholas Carr and others call this “digital sharecropping”: It’s not that the production or distribution of culture has been concentrated in the hands of the few–it’s the culture’s economic value. Somebody’s got a massive financial interest in free, and it’s not the people uploading footage of kittens to Vimeo.

It’s Vimeo themselves. Or anyone else that aggregates and distributes content online or in real life, as the organizers and advertisers at SXSW and elsewhere do. So when you read Fucked Up’s take on the festival, know that they’re talking about more than the Levi’s Fader Fort–not for nothing are you reading Haliechuk’s rant on Blogger, a platform owned and operated by Google, who are certainly not in the charity business, and who regularly sell onscreen ads that accompany the MP3 and band blogs we all so regularly read.

Which is to say: Haliechuk almost certainly didn’t get paid to write that post. But somebody did.

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