The Local Original: Getting paid for musical art is not a Suncoast tradition

Published November 17, 2010

Original music artists to the Suncoast: “Show me the money!”

A few weeks back I received a letter from a local musician who’s been playing original music around the Suncoast for over 30 years. Since age 15 he has watched the local scene ebb and flow, and countless bands and venues come and go. He wrote to me from this perspective in an effort to shed light on a huge problem that the Suncoast has seemingly always suffered from: musicians’ inability to find decent compensation for their original music. I find there are three root causes for this local phenomenon, some more easily solved than others depending on which you think are easier to change — bad habits or local laws.

The artist, who chose to remain anonymous, touched on one big culprit in his letter: “The local club owners have figured out that a 21-year-old artist who is living with Mom and Dad is happy just to have the ‘opportunity’ to play their music. So, the club owner gives them as little money (many times none) as he can get away with … Until that kid gets a few years older and starts to need money. At that point, the choices are to get a straight job, play for next to nothing, leave town, or play covers.”

It is true that many young bands that have recently emerged are inexperienced negotiators, booking shows with a rebellious and naïve, “I just do it for the music” attitude. Unfortunately, full-time area musicians do it for other reasons too — like feeding their families. And when venues get used to not paying, it creates a culture where art isn’t valued, and therefore compensated, properly. Of course, selling entertainment isn’t just about the music. Crowd draw is usually the “value” in which bars are most interested. And while promotion is a duty that should fall on both parties, it is the artist’s responsibility to create a sellable product, achieved through quality recordings, press photos, websites and fan-base building methods. Every start-up business has upfront costs — music is no different.

Another “bad habit” owned more by Suncoast citizens than musicians is the fact that, for some strange reason, people in this area have a problem with paying for entertainment. Head to any music venue in Ybor City and you’ll find lines of willing concertgoers fully expecting to pay a $5-$10 cover. That’s not the case in this area, due mostly to a business model where musicians are paid to play hours of “songs you know by heart” with the intent of drawing in diners, not fans of the band.

The third reason original music doesn’t pay is, I believe, a direct result of the noise and entertainment restrictions in this area. There aren’t enough venues to provide competition. The rule of supply and demand allows artists to say, “Well, if you’re not paying me, I’ll play at a venue that will.” Except in Sarasota County there are maybe a dozen venues booking original music, with only a handful of them allowed to have live entertainment after 10 p.m. That lack of supply heavily limits artists’ demand power, which is why almost every original show you book in this town pays roughly the same low wage.

The artist ends his letter with a plea I find quite inspiring, and that I will keep in mind when writing future columns: “If you really want to help the local original scene here, Tim, stop promoting YOUR music and sucking up to club owners and become an advocate for these artists. Let’s put VALUE back in to the music. Let’s get these club owners to stop taking advantage and get them to start taking action. Or, we could just wait for another year and watch another slew of great local artists go to greener pastures. Your choice.”

It’s actually a choice we all have to make.


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