MUSICIANS: Want to get paid fairly? Learn your business!

All this grumbling about how unfairly musicians get paid should sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s been working in the Edmonton music scene longer than 10 years – but no old-timer will disagree that musicians get paid a lot less than they did “back in the day.” Many feel that something has changed, that something weird is going on and that “something,” as it were, has to be done.

Education of musicians is a good place to start.

Mike McDonald, veteran local musician (Jr. Gone Wild, A Bunch of Marys) and co-owner of Permanent Records, addresses what he considers the surface problem: “Too many bands, too many bars and nobody has any money” – and the one lurking down deep, an overriding “contempt” for musicians that creates a climate where bands are made to feel lucky to get any pay at all.

The independent concert promoters, meanwhile, which seem to have sprung up like bloggers, will say they’re working hard to promote the local scene and offering a fair cut of profits, provided the bands do their share of promotional work, social media, ticket selling and so on (but then why do they need a promoter?). Both promoters and bands might gripe about the owners of licensed venues reaping all the profits from booze sales – which wouldn’t be there without people coming to see the bands, the whole reason we’re going to all this bother in the first place.

The crazy thing is how each side sounds so reasonable when you get the participants to talk it out, but there is nothing even close to a reasonable discussion going on amongst the musical Facebook friends of Edmonton. One of the principles of good yellow journalism is to incite two or more opposing parties to fight and then take notes. Facebook does this all by itself.

It came to a head like a pimple recently when McDonald unloaded on local metal promoter Ryan Walraven of Raised Fist Productions. It’s because Walraven did something promoters rarely do – make details of a deal public on Facebook. Bands are wanted for a March 2 date at the Starlite Room, his post read, “Pay is $7 a ticket after costs and 70% of the door is split with bands.” To which McDonald responded, “Another great and convoluted way to say the bands get paid SHIT.”

Walraven took umbrage. Heated words were exchanged. McDonald stayed on message, insisting the pay deal sucks. Walraven argued his point. Back and forth it went, complete with douchebag outsiders throwing clods of dirt at what turned into the rhetorical version of an awkward schoolyard fight. It was all very uncivil. What was resolved? Nothing!

Reached later, McDonald stood by his words and the notion that musicians are considered the lowest rung of the ladder when it comes to the fruits of their own labours.

“I have no issue with Raised Fist specifically,” he says. “It’s just this attitude among promoters and bar owners, an attitude of contempt for bands. And a lot of venues are hiring bands that shouldn’t even be allowed out of the garage, let alone at a real show. That drives the audience down and it makes it harder for the professional bands.”

Walraven also made a very reasonable case. He said his deal is standard, and that the average pay for an average band on the bill at an average Raised Fist production is around $300, “which I think is more than fair when you’re starting out,” he says.

See? Both sides have a point. The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Avenue Theatre general manager Jonny Jacques points out a band is “not going to lose anything if the show doesn’t make any money,” discounting the cost of the musical instruments, rent on rehearsal space, gas for the van, and, of course, time. Venue owners will tell you that venue owners take the most risk and have the most overhead; just look at how many of them fail. The Haven Social Club is holding fund-raisers this weekend (featuring songwriter duo F&M, right, and others) to avoid that very fate.

The Avenue, a licensed theatre that doesn’t get much walk-up traffic and is considered a “destination venue,” rents its space for $400 a night, which includes sound and lights and someone to run it. Several other Edmonton destination venues that run original music are using this model, including the Starlite Room – though often doing a 50-50 deal with outside promoters – which is the same that’s used in the major leagues. Rexall Place gets its rent money first – and promoters will tell you that it’s the promoters that shoulder most of the burden. Union Events co-owner Nhaelan McMillan – who’s promoted lots of shows at Rexall – once complained, “We take all the risks and the talent takes most of the profits.” The bigger the star, the more this is the case.

What’s happening here feels eerily similar to what the Occupy Movement is fighting against: One per cent of the musicians take 99% of the money – and that’s just not fair. Is it? The free market dictates that the value of a thing is exactly what buyer decides it is, no more, no less, end of story. The same has to be true for live music. But if the live music business is so big then why are musicians’ wages declining?

Musician Layne L’Heureux of the local band Diehatzu Hijets, says his average pay for a multi-band show is anywhere between $30 to $50 per guy, which he feels should be at least twice that amount. He suggests bands should get a cut of liquor sales since they’re the ones bringing in the drinkers.

Starlite Room talent buyer Art Szabo won’t be doing that, even though he’s one of several individuals in Edmonton who have played both side of the fence. He’s been a musician in the sort of bands that get paid $100 to be an opening act in Vancouver, so he understands. He says it costs $1,200 in expenses to stage a show at Starlite, half that amount at the Brixx Bar downstairs, and that’s not including rent on the 87-year-old original Citadel Theatre building downtown that the clubs occupy.

“I can only speak on behalf of my venue,” Szabo says. “I can’t run it like other clubs. We’re a unique venue and an expensive venue and in order to maintain what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years, since it was the Bronx, we have to be consistent in everything we do.” He adds, “My bands get paid. If everybody works together and understands how the system works, everybody gets paid.”

Back in the day – let’s just say that said day is sometime in the early ‘80s before everything went kerflooey – bars hired bands and that was that (minus 15% for the agent). The musician’s union actually had some power. What’s changed is both a blessing and a curse: Way more bands, and way more bands playing original music, every man for himself. The once-booming local cover band scene has shrunk; one of the top-paying gigs in for a musician in Edmonton is the all-request hootenanny at the Red Piano duelling piano bar in West Edmonton Mall. The days where bars could rely on a live band – any band – to attract customers are gone. And so is the record industry. Szabo says that this may be the last generation of musicians who will know the meaning of the words “record deal.” Putting on live shows has become a far more important way to make money, and with so much out there, it’s a buyer’s market. Discerning live music fans need a good reason to get out of the house. So the “do it yourself” scene has come down to the nightclub level in a big way, where despite the poor wages, the responsibility of delivering a successful show rests almost entirely with the musicians.

Now all these musicians have to do is learn what they’re doing – and that they have the power.

Local music consultant and Edmonton Music Awards founder Danny Fournier is a player, too, and bemoans how the music industry is strange because “it doesn’t understand its own business.” While he agrees that it sucks how some musicians are paid these days (his dad, also a musician, was aghast when he found out how much his son’s band was getting), he says musicians have to not only learn their art, but their business. Bands like Christian Hansen and the Autistics worked hard to get to the point that their name alone draws lots of fans. Now based in Toronto, these guys wrote their own paycheques.

Likewise Andrew White (right), a local soundman who’s manned the board for any big Canadian rock band you’d care to name. He’s also the lead singer of Edmonton five-piece rock band Market Forces, which he reckons will make about $500 (and $200 for the opening band Puremud) after expenses – soundman, poster guy, paid advertising – for its gig this Saturday night at the Pawn Shop. White says there are two types of musicians: “There are dilettantes and there are professionals. The professionals make their living at it. They’re in it for life. Then there are people who do it for fun, and apparently they have unreasonable expectations.”

Some have suggested a face-to-face summit to discuss this matter would help, since Facebook is where civil discourse goes to die. It so happens that Art Szabo is way ahead of the game here. He already holds seminars once a month through the Alberta Music Industry Association (AMIA). The next is Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. in the Brixx, with speakers including Sonic radio’s Al Ford, booking agent Rob Wright from the Feldman booking agency and musician Ben Sures. The topic: How to build a career as a touring musician. Admission is free for AMIA members, $10 for non-members. Yearly memberships are $31.50 for basic and $110 for a band.

Hey, teachers gotta get paid, too.