This rarely happens, but I got carried away responding to a social media post recently.
In a nutshell, a local organization was posting a call for musicians to perform during a 4-hour time slot. So far so good. Then they said, “Unfortunately, we don't have the funds to pay any of the musical acts. But you get to keep 100% of your tips and we will promote you on [our social media.]” Also known as exposure.
Now, I am pretty even-minded most of the time, but this got me riled up.
I finally found the words I wanted to share (and maybe not directed at the people you would initially expect).
Here’s what I posted, slightly edited and expanded….
There's a lot to unpack here. I think it's a conversation worth having in an ongoing way.
My personal opinion is that expecting musicians to perform for free, for tips, or “exposure” is a culturally-accepted attitude that needs to change.
Assuming musicians would agree to this kind of arrangement has the unspoken message, “I don’t think what you offer is worth paying for, but I want you to do it anyway. And you should thank me for giving you this opportunity.”
Think of the full emotional impact of saying that to someone’s face. It’s devastating, right?
You wouldn’t want someone to say that to you. That may not be the message the event planner intended, but it’s frequently the message received.
Do this instead, event planners: If your organization really doesn't have a large budget, but you want music at your event, treat a musician just like any other business vendor or sponsor. Acknowledge the value and underlying benefits musicians would bring to the event and negotiate with them in good faith about the budget you do have.
Unfortunately, after years of musicians being asked to perform for free, tips, or exposure, sometimes fed misinformation that this is the only way to “get discovered,” many musicians have internalized the message that their talents are worthless. Or worse, it instills a misbelief that they are worthless and sends them into a shame spiral.
Navigating a career in music can be quite emotional, yet there is little to no training to learn how to handle situations like this.
Musicians who are looking at this "gig" from feelings of financial scarcity and perhaps real need (i.e. "I need whatever cash I can get to make rent."), are basically in fight, flight or freeze mode physiologically. They are in survival mode– and we don't make great decisions from that state.
I also think musicians don't always take stock of all the time, money, and effort they've invested into developing their talent and craft. For most of us, it's years and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in private lessons, gear, practice time, competitions, schooling, ongoing education, plus years of experience actually performing and refining our craft. Think of it as self-funded capital you’ve put into your business.
Your talents add real economic impact for the organizations that want you to perform. Music acts like a magnet and brings people in and keeps people at events and venues.
While there are specific circumstances where you might choose to donate your time and talent, it’s not right for others to assume you would do so.
An analogy might be: A chef (professional or otherwise) has invested time, money, and dedication to learn their skills. They feed people. They love to feed people. It takes time to put meals together. All the ingredients to make that meal cost that chef their personal money.
When an organization asks that chef to bring their food and feed the people that come through that event, it’s commonly recognized that the chef is providing a service with inherent value (economically and personally). Depending on the relationship with that organization, that chef may well decide to donate their services and food to the event. They might be considered an in-kind sponsor and get those benefits accordingly.
Musicians deserve to be treated with the same respect as other business owners.
I’m sure there are many contributing factors over many years that have led to this generalized attitude towards devaluing musicians and why musicians buy into it.
No matter how this widespread mindset came about, we can work together to change it.
If you're a professional musician, please don't perform for free, just tips, or exposure. It makes it harder for the musicians who are trying to charge livable artist fees and get sustainable income.
Additionally, you (unconsciously) reinforce the idea that this way of devaluing musicians is okay... and it's not.
You teach people how to treat you.
Personally, I think many of us are tired of arguing for the value of our work, which because of the personal nature of our work, can feel like arguing for our own value. And that can really do a number on your self-esteem and mental health... especially after years and years.
Now, I don't think we should shame others who want music at their events without paying them.
However, I think we need to bolster ourselves as a professional music community, adhere to higher standards ourselves, and re-educate people and organizations who make unreasonable and unsustainable asks from musicians (who are self-employed small business owners). Or just say “no” politely if you're not up for a deeper conversation.
If you wish you could have those courageous conversations, but feel uncomfortable doing so, or need help finding the words or confidence to do it, I would love to help.
As you can tell, I feel very strongly about this topic!
As a music and arts professional with training in psychology, and as a performer myself, I want to help change hearts and minds to start valuing music (and music professionals) more.
We deserve better. We can change the narrative.
Yes, broader society needs re-education, but musicians have to own their value, too... and arguably, first.
In late March 2023, I was a guest speaker for University of Colorado, Denver's class on "Music Cities'' (via Zoom), alongside Meara McLaughlin (MusicPortland's Executive Director). We shared about the unique aspects of the Portland music scene, music community, and what we're doing to make Portland a better place to be a music industry professional.
In a way, it was a pitch to these young professionals to come live, work, and play here. Come be part of our music ecosystem and community!
First, I shared my professional background: I am an Arts and Nonprofit Management Professional with more than 10 years of experience in strategic planning, streamlining operations, and community outreach. I earned my Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Santa Monica, where my thesis focused on helping performers overcome stage fright and develop other skills for peak performance. I also graduated from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, with my Bachelor of Music degree in opera vocal performance.
After graduating, I was hired at Long Beach Opera, as the primary singer for their Educational Outreach program where I sang for 7 years, while also working in the nonprofit sector. In 2015, I went into arts administration and became VP of Operations for an LA-based booking agency with a roster of artists (from rock bands to classical string quartets to Global dance troupes), booking national and international tours. I’ve served on the advisory board of the Arts Council of Johnson County. I’ve also offered career coaching for performing artists.
Last year, my husband and I moved to the Portland Metro area and got connected with MusicPortland. Over the last several months, Meara and I worked together to manage the Oregon Music Census, gathering data for the first-ever benchmark economic study for the Commercial Music Industry and Live Performance industries statewide. This study is another step to strengthen Portland as a music city and Oregon as a music state!
“A Music City, by its simplest definition, is a place with a vibrant music economy,” according to IFPI in their 2020 report on The Mastering of a Music City. “There is growing recognition among governments and other stakeholders that Music Cities can deliver significant economic, employment, cultural and social benefits.”
“Music Ecosystems” is an alternative term to refer to "Music Cities," in a more accurate and inclusive way. Personally, I think "ecosystem" also better reflects the interdependent nature and intersecting business models in the music world. For now, let's consider these terms interchangeable.
The Music Cities curriculum, developed and taught by Professor Storm Gloor at University of Colorado, Denver since 2019, has students examine the development and enhancement of music communities, using as templates the music communities in the city of Denver, the state of Colorado, and other cities throughout the world (such as Portland). Plus in an advanced class, students explore how investment in a city's music economy can be beneficial to the development of both a city's physical and economic landscape. Finally, students can also learn how to use music to drive local and regional tourism strategies.
This concept has growing interest, funding, and research support. Nonprofit, commercial, consulting, and government/municipal entities are all getting involved to put forward the idea that Culture means business and economic impact.
In fact, according to a recent report released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), “Arts and cultural economic activity accounted for 4.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), or $1.02 trillion, in 2021.”
This was still a year where the industry was just starting to recover slightly from the COVID-19 pandemic, so I’d expect future reports to have much higher numbers. The Oregon Music Census and economic study also showed that specifically commercial music and live performance industries were a huge economic driver and warranted greater attention and funding by lawmakers as "emerging economic sectors."
Portland's music ecosystem is a unique one. We have a myriad of independent venues, artists, and music businesses that make up Portland's vibrant commercial music scene. We also have the standard “legacy arts” you may envision when you hear the term arts & culture, such as the opera, symphony, and ballet. Recently the Executive Director of The Old Church, Constance Bracewell, described Portland's music ecosystem as a “coral reef.” So much depends on it, yet you only recognize the devastating after effects when it’s no longer there. Much of society learned that the hard way during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Music is part of the intricate fabric of the ecosystem that makes a community vibrant and prosperous. Research data is now proving this benefit to society and that's very exciting.
In other words, music is meaningful and economically viable. Investing in music (and musicians) means better business! It’s not expendable, nor a luxury.
It struck me however, as I gazed at this Zoom gallery of enthusiastic music business students and put myself in their shoes... Were we really answering the real questions in their hearts and minds?
As much as any city has to offer, there are so many things to consider when choosing a place to live (hard information, plus personal preferences). This huge decision deserves nuanced introspection, but often is made impulsively, by necessity, or unconsciously. Still, sometimes serendipity swoops in and guides you intuitively. There's room for it all, but who do you talk to about this stuff?
(Hint: A neutral guide asking you quality questions may be helpful, perhaps even more than family and friends.)
I felt uniquely qualified to offer my perspective because I consciously engaged in that inquiry relatively recently, made a huge cross-country move, and have been relaunching my life and career in my new home.
When asked by Professor Gloor, "What advice, from any lens you choose, do you have for our students?"
I shared something I only recently came to understand, one that I wish I knew as a young music professional: Career is just one aspect of life. Your personal goals and aspirations regarding lifestyle are equally important (i.e. buying a house, being close to family, nature, quality of life, etc).
My career coach, Ford R. Myers, taught me, "It’s Not About The Job; It’s About Your Life," which has made a huge difference in my career approach in my new city.
My “mini commencement speech” included several more poignant points on being very honest with yourself about who you are and what you want, taking care of your mental health, and doing the inner work it takes to develop the resilience you need to go into (or stay in) the music business.
VIDEO: What I Wish I Knew as a Young Music Professional
Improving the quality of life for artists and other music industry professionals is something about which I am deeply passionate. There are so many interpersonal and business skills needed to survive and thrive in this relationship-based industry that simply are not taught frequently enough. All of this fuels my own advocacy, engagement, and career motivation at this point.
I'm grateful to know about and join a much larger network of passionate individuals involved in music cities/music ecosystems on a global scale.
With all the data now showing the positive impact and economic viability of artists and music industry professionals, let's make sure empowerment, career development, and personal wellness is baked into the entire music ecosystem.
Cheri Jamison is an Arts & Nonprofit Management Professional with over 10 years of experience in strategic planning, streamlining operations and community outreach. As a Renaissance woman with a diverse skill-set, Cheri is known for her ability to spearhead new initiatives and bring visionary projects to life.