Musicians should be paid at least a socially inclusive minimum living wage

It’s Wednesday and I am now ensconced in Kyoto, Japan for the months ahead. I will report on various aspects of that experience as time passes. Today, I reflect on a debate that is going on in Australia about the situation facing live musicians. Should promoters be able to employ them for poverty wages including ‘nothing’ while still profiting or should they be forced to pay the musicians a living wage. You can guess where I sit in the debate.

The dilemma of live music

Regular readers will know that I play in a band in Melbourne and have been in working bands for a lot of my adult life.

I think I can safely say that I understand the economics of the ‘scene’ pretty well.

The situation facing working musicians in Australia has always been vexed but it has worsened over time.

I wrote about some of the issues in this blog post – Performing artists bear the brunt of austerity under neo-liberalism (January 4, 2017).

In the past there were lots of venues and the big agencies dominated the booking. If you were lucky enough to land a spot in the agencies then you were able to get enough work across the week to scrape by.

It used to be said though that the unemployment benefit agency was the largest employer of musicians in Australia, which was a statement about the difficulties that musicians faced ‘making a living’.

They often had to seek recourse to the unemployment benefit system for sufficient to get by.

Many musicians, especially in the rock’n’roll segment of the industry, declined to join the union.

And for those of us who did join the union – being able to get union rates was difficult and usually meant less work.

More recently, the big agencies have been undercut by smaller entrepreneurs who run single roooms and book the bands themelves and have massive power face to face viz the musicians.

Further, there are many younger bands that will ‘play for nothing’ – using the excuse that they need exposure to get a break.

The myth of stardom is fed to them by the promoters, who offer these young bands opportunities to pay – often for free or for a pittance.

There was an article in the Melbourne press this week – Paying musicians a minimum wage would kill live music: Tote owner (September 26, 2022) – which highlighted these tensions.

The new federal Labor government is keen to differentiate itself from the past conservative government that lost office in May by the development of a “national cultural policy’, which aims to redress the cutbacks in the arts sector by the previous government.

The pandemic has also devastated the live music scene – my own band now plays infrequently because the small clubs that we regularly used to play at have not reopened after the closures during the first two years of the pandemic.

As part of the solution, the musicians union – Musicians Australia, which is part of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance – is pushing for better conditions for musicians including the payment of a living wage to become compulsory.

However, the small entrepreneurs who run pubs and clubs which feature live music have rejected the call and use the old furphy – workers will only be able to work at the wage we can pay them – which includes no payment at all – just the chance to get exposure!

That old line.

It is regularly rehearsed narrative – workers have to be working poor to work.

One entrepreneur who runs a pub in the inner Melbourne suburb of Collingwood said that many ‘rooms’ that currently offer live music would stop doing so.

The entepreneurs also claimed in formal submissions to the federal enquiry that a living wage would make:

… big bands, choirs and orchestras financially unviable, and favour large venues over smaller venues …

My position is clear – any worker should be paid a living wage at a minimum.

If they can’t get that from a work place then that work place is undesirable in societal terms.

The union’s position is that no sector should have:

… a business model “built on exploitation” …

I agree.

In 2007-08, I did work in South Africa that was funded by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and focused on the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) in South Africa, which culminated in several reports.

One of my tasks was to develop a minimum wage framework to replace the system of poverty wages.

I was initially sought to build a framework that provided, in the first instance, a buffer against poverty, which would give the government time to expand the things that the mininum wage could achieve.

The employer groups claimed that if the minimum wage rose and was made uniform then it would devastate workers who would be laid off.

My starting principle was that minimum wages should not be set on the basis of private sector capacity to pay principles – the employers should adjust not the workers.

The principle should be that the minimum wage as a statement of how sophisticated you consider your nation to be or aspire to be.

Minimum wages define the lowest material standard of wage income that you want to tolerate.

Accordingly, it should be a wage that allows a person (and family) to participate in society in a meaningful way and not suffer social exclusion or alienation through lack of income.

It is a statement of national aspiration.

In any country it should be the lowest wage that society considers acceptable for business to operate at.

Capacity to pay considerations then have to be conditioned by these social objectives.

If small businesses or any businesses for that matter consider they do not have the ‘capacity to pay’ that wage, then a sophisticated society will say that these businesses are not suitable to operate in their economy.

Such firms would have to restructure by investment to raise their productivity levels sufficient to have the capacity to pay or disappear.

This approach establishes a dynamic efficiency whereby the economy is continually pushing productivity growth forward and allowing material standards of living to rise.

I consider that no worker should be paid below what is considered the lowest tolerable material standard of living just because some low wage-low productivity operator wants to produce in a country and make ‘cheap’ profits.

I don’t consider that the private ‘market’ is an arbiter of the values that a society should aspire to or maintain. That is where I differ significantly from the mainstream of my profession.

The employers always want the wages system to be totally deregulated so that the ‘market can work’ without fetters. This will apparently tell us what workers are ‘worth’.

The problem is that the so-called ‘market” in its pure conceptual form is an amoral, ahistorical construct and cannot project the societal values that bind communities and peoples to higher order considerations.

The minimum wage is a values-based concept and should not be determined by a market.

All of that is in addition to the usual disclaimers that the pure ‘competitive market, cannot exist for labour given the imbalances between workers and employers and the fact that the use value of the labour power is derived within the transaction (that is, the worker has to be forced to work). This is unlike other exchanges where the parties make the deal and go their separate ways to enjoy the fruits of their trade.

Anyway, those principles govern the way I operate as a professional and make me a ‘martian’ relative to my professional colleagues.

In the case of the music industry debate, the entrepreurs submitted to the Federal government enquiry that:

A typical weekend lineup of three bands, each with four members, would cost $3000 under this model. Assuming venue and licensing fees and a sound engineer added another $800 to the cost of a show, with tickets costing between $15-$20, a minimum paying audience of 200-250 would be required to break even … No venue or promoter sizes a room at the breakeven point, so a typical viable band room capacity would be 400-500. Most independent live music venues fall under this size.

So the adjustment is forced on the workers while the ‘promoter’ still gets their desired profits.

Under that arithmetic, what happens if only two bands were playing, each with four members, then the cost drops considerably and the required room capacity also drops.

Which tells us that – assuming the profit rate is reasonable (and I wouldn’t) – then the arithmetic tells me that there are too many bands competing for two few viable spots.

And that will never change as long as promoters are allowed to pay next to nothing for the bands.

If the industry cannot sustain workers in non-poverty wages, then it either has to innovate and increase productivity – which is the large ‘room’ approach, or, cut back on bands.

Another way of dealing with the issue is for the minimum wage to be enforced and for the federal government to absorb the displaced musicians and artists in a Job Guarantee, and to design new taks and responsibilities for the musicians in return for receiving a sustainable living wage.

The introduction of a Job Guarantee would reduce the supply of musicians to the promoters, which would be appropriate given they claim they cannot sustain a living wage, without reducing the opportunities to work as a musician on non poverty wages.

I envisage non-for-profit cooperatives would spring up to provide opportunities for Job Guarantee musicians to share their talents.

That would be a better solution than leaving the musicians to fight over crumbs in dirty dives around the city

Music – more from Ernest Ranglin and Monty Alexander

This is what I have been listening to.

Jamaican reggae jazz greats Monty Alexander (piano) and Ernest Ranglin (guitar) playing – Stalag 17.

It appeared on their 2004 album Rocksteady (Telarc Records), which was recorded live (one take) in the studio.

This is another of my favourite albums. There are many of those (favourites).

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2022 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Culture distinguishes the human beeing from other animals.
    Greed brings the human beeing close to other animals.
    Society needs to support those who make art, whether it’s a real object like a painting or something intangible as live music.

  2. Poor old workers are asked to suck it up two ways. If employers can’t earn enough revenue from the product or service they sell to make adequate profits, workers are expected to accept lower wages. If employers’ non-labour costs go up, they pass the costs on in the form of higher prices. Then workers are told they must suppress their claims for higher wages to offset higher goods prices to prevent a wage-price spiral. Why aren’t businesses asked to cop the cost increases? You never hear of a price-wage spiral, only a wage-price spiral, the latter of which deliberately places the wage rises first to imply workers are the culprit for high inflation. As Bill suggests, much of this would disappear with a Job Guarantee with a minimum real wage set in place, since it would allow society to dictate what is an acceptable minimum standard for real wages and conditions of employment without it leading to unemployment. It ain’t just to maintain full employment that there should be a central government-funded JG.

  3. Western music is so far down the austerity mind set that it is hard to see any sort of leftist tinkering will reverse the damage being done to social cohesion.

    The fundamental nature of music is as a communication and synchronisation medium for building human communities.

    The performer audience dichotomy crushes this nature under foot.

    Imagine if the only talking done by humans was performed by orators at public lectures or by elocution students in isolated private lessons.

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