So you want to organise a massive Christmas event – a 50,000 sq ft creative retail playground featuring F&B and retail stalls, interactive exhibitions, neon light art installations, creative workshops, games and of course, live music performances.
Based on the success of a previous event, Artbox Singapore, you’re now expecting this one to reach a million visitors over its three-week run.
You’ll make millions of dollars from the event, but it will cost you a substantial amount of money to stage it, too. So what do you do to lower that cost? You don’t pay the music performers any cash. You pay them with exposure!
Because musicians and performers could stand to gain so much from the social media shoutouts that you are going to give them for participating in the event. Also, the performers will be busking, so the visiting public can drop some change into their hats.
But what the musicians will really gain from this is the exposure!
One musician who was invited to busk for a one-hour set but was less than impressed with the mode of payment was singer Amanda Tee. In a Facebook post which included the letter of invite, Amanda, who has several successful EPs to her name and a substantial fan following, pointed out that the organiser had received cash from the Singapore Tourism Board and was expecting $20 million in transactions.
“They want to pay musicians with ‘maximum exposure’, which bank do I bank it in ah,” she added. Comments in support of that post referred to the organisers as “cheapos” and “freeloaders”, among even more unsavoury names.
But could it be right under any circumstance to ask that a musician perform for free?
“Maybe for a charity event,” said former Singapore Idol finalist Sylvester Sim. “Maybe. And the event organisers need to prove that it is indeed for a worthy cause.” In other words, it has to be a charity that Sylvester himself, or the musician who is asked, believes in and would be willing to support.
“I have done such events for just a transport allowance,” added Sylvester, who is project director at SGEE Ventures, which runs events and exhibitions.
The 35-year-old singer, who is also the entertainment manager at a lounge in Dempsey Road, would not perform nor allow any of the singers and musicians at his lounge to do so and be paid only with exposure either. He was indignant that anyone could think of getting away with that.
“This is bull,” he proclaimed furiously. “For a regular event – a carnival, a lounge or an event gig, musicians have to be paid. Musicians have to practise hard at what they do. It is a profession, just like any other job, and they are expected to perform well by the event organiser as well as the audience, so it is only fair that they get paid for their work. And it is work, after all.”
What about young, inexperienced musicians? Shouldn’t they get over themselves and, instead of demanding payment for gigs, play for free to enjoy some exposure?
“Honestly,” said Sly, which is his way of staying calm, “for the places I have run and the events I have handled, I have always made sure that all musicians get paid. Even if they are new and have never performed on a stage before, I will pay them half of the market rate. It is basic respect for musicians.”
Exposure, he insisted, is not the way to go for the music scene.
“Besides, what kind of exposure are you talking about? Are you talking about airtime? Television? Or newspaper and magazine coverage? Even so, there should be no such thing as a free gig, and especially not if the event is meant to make money,” he said.
He has even told off musicians who have accepted gigs for exposure.
“It’s not to go gangster on them but to guide them for the future of the industry, and their own growth as a musician,” he explained. “I tell them, you’ve practised so hard, why allow people to eat you?”
Singer Beverly Lim Morata, a jazz performer, was a lot less critical of the aforesaid organiser with exposure as a paycheque. She considered it a different business model to what most artistes are used to.
“Their offer to Amanda and artistes like her was a venue to showcase their craft. They were treating the artistes like entrepreneurs. Without charging them rental for the venue or marketing. Strictly from a busking standpoint, it is the public who will be responsible for the artistes’ remuneration,” she explained.
“If one were to approach the offer from an entrepreneurial angle, then one would see this as an opportunity to capitalise on the sheer number of attendees. It’s a way to understand the marketability of your product (in this case, your music) on a molecular level,” said the 38-year-old Singapore Idol alumna.
She said the invitation was not clear about many things and she would have clarified the following: Would there be a stage, sound system and technicians? Would I be able to sell my CDs (for artistes with albums)? Could we add marketing gimmicks like autograph sessions and photo sessions? Could I turn my performance into a ticketed event?
“All that viral bashing shows too obviously that our younger musicians have zero business sense,” added Beverly.
That said, Beverly has had her share of event organisers asking her to perform for exposure, which she did because she wanted to be nice and understanding. However, one went to the extent of making her do an event planner’s duties. It was something she would not stand for.
“There is a fine line between being nice and being taken for a ride,” she said. “I was proud to have cut my losses with that one.”
But not all her gigs for exposure ended badly. She did an overseas performance in Jakarta gratis for a charity when asked by a record company to do so. And how was that repaid?
“I scored a show in Bali which coincided with my birthday weekend and that show has led to an upcoming one in late January in Java,” she said.
At the end of the day, Beverly told The Pride she had a choice about what kind of gig she would accept.
“The day you treat the arts as an actual profession, that music is actually a business and start to consider artistes as integral members of society, that’s when more millennials and seniors will start to take off their blinders and start thinking with their heads and becoming music entrepreneurs,” she said. She accepts that not every situation will be in her favour.
“I prefer to look at it from every angle and see how I can turn that situation into one that will work for me,” she explained.
One musician who will not say no to playing at a zero-budget gig is violinist Eileen Chai. However, she would not accept such a gig without asking a few questions of the organiser.
“I’ve been performing since I was 23, so I’ve seen quite a bit, and I’ve realised we can’t get anywhere by being emotional,” said Eileen, who is 39.
“It’s about sharing the music, and it’s about communication,” the author of Teach A Life, For Life – which details life lessons from her time as a national athlete – added.
She has played pro bono for charities, but other than those, she has been paid for all her commercial performances. Her strategy for event organisers who ask her to perform for free: “Have a direct chat and come up with something that is workable. If not, let go of the opportunity. There will be others. But whatever the outcome is, the meeting would have created a positive outcome — changing the mindset and perspective of how musicians are perceived. It’s not easy, it takes time.”
And Eileen, who also teaches violin and is a musician with pop-rock band, Red Nov, refuses to feel insulted if she’s asked to perform for free, or for exposure. She’s cool that way.
“It’s definitely not the appropriate thing to do, but they must have a reason. So we find out and negotiate. We have to set aside our pride. Matters will then be resolved. If not, again, there will be other opportunities,” she said.
Eileen also appreciated the fact that the organisers who invited Amanda Tee to busk have since apologised and have pledged to work out something for the performers.
“How rare is that? An organiser making an apology? With communication and negotiation, everything can be resolved,” she said.
I’ll leave you with a story of my own: While managing the T’ang Quartet when I was a little younger and when they were already Singapore’s pre-eminent classical string ensemble, a show organiser who wanted to engage them insisted the quartet played for free.
“The President will be guest of honour, so they will get a lot of exposure,” the organiser said haughtily.
If it’s exposure they needed, I’ll have them perform naked – somewhere else, I told him.
The quartet was paid its full rate and had enough money to buy clothes so they never had to play naked in subsequent shows, too.