TIP THE SCALES
Somewhere toward the end of 2017, when the weather was damp and a little on the ‘bleak’ side (it’s the Pacific Northwest, after all) a few musicians and music lovers on our island got, abruptly, tired of bitching. I’ll spare the details. In short, we were tired of conversations that seemed to go nowhere, on the topic of the value of a life in the Arts.
I have yet to meet anyone who disagrees in principle that artists should be paid a fair fee for their work, but in practice, it not only is becoming more and more rare for this to happen, but it’s common to have bitter arguments about it. You probably know how they go, but the underpinnings of the disagreement seem to come from a pure lack of understanding of what it takes to make a life as an artist.
As an example: I moved back to the island after living in Chicago for almost twenty years, as a musician and actor, supporting myself with those skills. Someone assumed right away that I’d be auditioning for the local community theatre, especially if it was for a role I’d always dreamed of playing. My response was a thoroughly obvious one in my world; “if I accepted a role like that, I wouldn’t be able to work for six to eight weeks. I can’t afford to donate my time and work for free right now.” Weirdly, that conversation went on for years, along with this one; “if you want a professional service, the professional should be compensated for their work in a mutually agreeable way.”
Or this, “there’s a venue opening up in the University district of Seattle that will book music, they pay $75 an evening. You play from 7 – 10 P.M. No, they don’t have a sound system, you need to bring one. No, they don’t provide parking. No extra payment to cover the roughly $20 ferry ticket. We might be able to work out a special arrangement for them to give you a meal.”
In other words, you have at least two hours of travel and four hours of work, and take home about twenty dollars after expenses, if you’re lucky. So, no.
Back to the “tired of bitching” story now, for a description of a more nuts-and-bolts way of addressing the problem. The idea, presented by a woman with seemingly boundless energy and skills who had recently moved here, was this: develop a non-profit organization that puts on concerts and pays the musicians a guarantee, to be worked out ahead of time on an individual basis. The organization takes tax-free donations to its bank account, and pays the performers from there. That way, if the audience is too small to cover costs, the performers still get paid for their work. If the audience is bigger than expected, some residual funds go into the account for future performances. One crucially important result of this approach would, we hope, be a shift in the fundamental conversation about the value of an artist’s contribution to the world. So, “Tip the Scales” was created.
We’re one local organization, at least for now, but I have hopes that the idea will spread. So far, we’ve put on concerts approximately once a month since December of 2017, mostly with local performers, with some concerts from such touring performers as Frankie Gavin, Nic Gareiss and Allison De Groot, and Claudia Schmidt. House concerts are the favored venues for these, with the added benefit of building community here and introducing people to each other, as they’re introduced to new music.
Tip the Scales is a small organization with only a Facebook page and a growing mailing list for publicity, with plans for a website and a Patreon page in our future. Small, local endeavors like this have a poetic beauty in them, I think, particularly in this era of sweeping gestures and big business monopolies. Still, there’s room for this model to go into small communities everywhere, in any region that truly values its artists, and the dedication and commitment it takes for those artists to keep working. To honor that commitment, we support those artists, so that they can continue to support themselves with their work.
Who knows? Even a small idea can make real change. Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know what happens to this one idea in our corner of the planet.