TL;DR

My experience having run a DIY art space called BAM in Brownsville, Texas, brought forth many hard truths about having a dream and then seeing it come to fruition. Sure, people would come to the shows, and we had some great events, but the overall lesson I learned was that there is currently little to no fair compensation for live performance art. Headliners always took the bulk of the money leaving little else besides transportation costs, if that, to reimburse others.

Economic Justice is a facet of social justice that is overlooked in the music industry. Economic justice suggests that equity should be sustainable and accessible. This type of justice should ensure fair payouts to the musicians for their time, skills, and travel to entertain an audience.

The movement for Economic Justice works to challenge the current economic exploitative practices of our society under capitalism. The organized effort strives to achieve economic dignity through fair wages, opportunity, and enforces labor protections. Overall, it is the goal of Economic Justice to create workplaces that allow workers to maintain a healthy material existence and the ability to live a dignified, productive, and creative life.

The former BAM space in Brownsville, Texas | Bam/Facebook

Unfortunately, the music industry has been stacked against independent artists directly because music is consumed as a commercial commodity, and the most advertised and hyped get the spoils.
The live music experience is the crème de la crème to a music fan. Think of Ritchie Valens busting out La Bamba in a dancehall to screaming teenagers or flash forward to the iconic CBGBs, where young punkers tossed back too many brews in the midst of punk and no wave royalty. One can’t argue that partaking in the live music experience is achingly romantic and a huge reason why people choose to be musicians despite the nebulous landscape many will have to tread. The performance provides a platform where audience and band members share in this unique energized camaraderie that pumps up the most exciting artists of our time.

But we aren’t living in that kind of world in the Rio Grande Valley. Sure, everyone goes to concerts, but mainly out of the area. Maybe they buy a ticket to watch a touring mega idol that’s coming to the State Farm Arena. What I know for sure is that, on the local level, we are not experiencing that live music experience with the frequency and energy we once had in the past when dancehalls were more relevant to people. My perspective is that the market, with a little help from political action committees and the onset of new technologies, has diminished economic returns for fringe artists.

The Rise of DIY

Nationally, people have blamed music for suicides and mass shootings— both issues that society should combat by providing support for mental health and fighting white supremacy, the root of the problems. The “moral” majority has often attacked fringe subcultures for their content. Religious and conservative communities are quick to dismiss original musicians for misguided reasoning, possibly the lingering after-effects of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and its warning labels on music in the mid-80s. The entire debacle left a scarlet letter on then commercially successful, fringe musicians who still suffer from stigmas of “otherness” for their perspectives in politics, religion, sexuality, and culture.

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For starters, just look at the Valley’s conservative culture. I can remember community members referring to BAM as some sort of drug and sex den (which made it sound much more exciting than it was, to be honest).
DIY spaces came into heavy play because traditional platforms for performance would not host original artists. These platforms believed they didn’t have the same commercial viability that a cover band or a DJ does. But these avenues were in jeopardy as well.

Artist Josue Ramirez (Rawmirez) painting at the former BAM space in Brownsville, Texas | Bam/Facebook

Having deemed DIY spaces an existential threat to conservative values before the last presidential election, an online campaign created in 4Chan’s /pol/ sub introduced an action against art spaces across the country. Anonymous actors compiled lists of DIY spaces and called city officials to alert them of a fire hazards occurring within city limits across the nation. One by one, fire marshals came into the fore with warnings of danger and orders to fix things to continue operations. Cities and police departments buckled down on art spaces, and people questioned why venue management would choose to set up shop in some of the most blighted spaces in the whole United States without a hint of irony— the hint: art doesn’t pay. And just like that, additional costs shut down DIY joints everywhere and left artists without local venues and peer groups to propagate their works.

Technology

A lack of venues isn’t the only facet damaging the economic generating power of today’s musicians. Whereas from before, when we had local radio stations and DJs that we could rely on for playing the best regional hits, now our musical landscape is owned by communications corporations to monopolistic fervor. The MP3 and online sharing have radically transformed music where small-time music artists are ripped off for their compositions.

Grosser than all of this, music is moving to a more rigorous campaign of pop pandering rather than being savored for its uniqueness. Today, a computer can analyze beats and write a song before a human being can formulate an idea. Corporate titans of the music industry have monopolized airplay and web streaming with payola and online ads to help us make the right choice: their choice.

Battling Exclusivity

Then we should consider “scene culture.” The motto “support your local musician” is buried deep in the heart of subcultural law, but finicky as hell to see applied across the board. A new band coming into a specific scene is like cotillion for a debutante: you are entering the social circle of a fringe group that believes they are the one true path. That means you subscribe to their value systems. In that same token, Economic Justice is relative to the music scene it serves.

Various scenes within the musical diaspora maintain different customs for payment, and, very often, money is secondary to the survival of said scenes. If a local promoter can manage to get a touring act that fits into the narratives of the group, often the promoter will book locals who compliment the main act so they can claim “street cred” for the show itself. The payout could be nominal, if at all, and the average participant will only be spending about 20 bucks anyway— which will definitely go to the touring act’s merch after at least buying one beverage and admission.

But a musician has to gig. For what it’s worth, the current landscape has not intimidated musical entrepreneurs from making some cash playing live. There is a trickledown effect in music that mirrors the Reaganomics theory of the eighties in which market forces will drive the economy and create opportunities for others. I will detail the winners and losers of these market forces in brief.

Winner: Cover Bands/ Artists

Cover bands are often contracted by local culture vultures for their inclinations to play covers instead of original music. The bands usually have amazing musicians that regularly gig at restaurants, parties, quinceañeras, weddings— you get the picture. They may even have a gimmick, like spandex pants or dressing like The Cure, and you hate it, but you can’t help to know all the songs. Cover bands get paid. Is it art? Sure. In an academic sense, you could argue it’s about the artful execution that makes it worth it. Is it original? Nah.

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Winner: Copy Cat Bands/Artists

After cover bands, there is the “sounds a lot like so ‘n’ so band.” These folks get paid and are booked across the state and even nationally for their homage to certain kind of sound or singing, but still “original in its own way” music. These folks tend to satiate the entry levelers of any city subculture and normies alike because they embody recognizable and commercially established narratives that are recognized internationally.

Loser: The “Original Music” Band/Artist

Not to be confused with the rip-off band, the original music band will embody characteristics or aesthetics that are recognizable to some audience members, but will primarily be enigmatic in their presentation. Their music will span the subcultural landscape of music. They can be a hip-hop artist, or they can be a punk band, but they do not necessarily have to fit into style subsets. Usually, these people seek to establish new narratives or seek out similar music scenes to perform with. They are typically openers when first getting booked, and their only audience will likely be the bar staff in their early inceptions. Being an opener is a rite of passage, but one that comes with no money. Eventually, if their entourage and marketing are on par, they will rise above.

Drag performers at the former BAM space in Brownsville, Texas | Bam/Facebook

Achieving Economic Justice

So how can we all step up to help musical artists get paid their fair share? There’s a two-part answer for this.
One, we must accept that inflation drives our economy and start learning to pay more for the show we go check out at the end of the night. How long have we seen the $5 show get advertised? I can remember as far back as the 80s. And 40 years later, we are still arguing that “the costs of shows are too damn high!”

The cost of admissions-based shows needs to start going up. It is the responsibility of the audience, as consumers, to recognize the music they are coming for is not a hobby but a craft that costs thousands of dollars to set off. (Don’t forget about your humble sound guys that make everything sound right for you, too. They need to eat as well!) We often hear, “get the bar to cut a percent of the sales to the bands,” but bars won’t give you any shows at all if that’s the case. It is just not a solution, but taking accountability as a consumer of the art is.

Secondly, buy merch. Buy as much as you possibly can. If you are planning on going to a show, bring extra funds for the bands. A lot of times this is the only money bands will make and is the only way to ensure that they get compensated for the work they do. Plus, wearing a button or shirt is free advertising for them, a true solid.

Economic Justice will never be secured for musicians if their audience is unwilling to pay. If you are a musician and you are reading this, just know that you are appreciated. But more importantly, play for different groups of people, talk frankly about payouts up front, and do not go out there without a plan. I have seen too many confused folks just excited to play, and that’s good, but remember that you set a precedent for failure if you don’t articulate what you want.

The music scene is still the wild west of entertainment. Be gracious out there.

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This post was published under Neta’s “Community Voices,” a space for community members of the Rio Grande Valley to publish stories, opinions, information, and ideas. Posts in this section solely reflect the views of the authors. To read more from Community Voices, click here.

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