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Fair Trade Music in Portland, OR

It’s a common stereotype, a broke musician, bumming from family and friends until they “make it”, whatever “it” is. Time and time again, musicians are faced with a very raw and exploitative deal in exchange for their professional services. Has anyone ever tried to pay their rent in hamburgers and pizza slices? If you have, seriously, email me I’d love to find out how you managed to pull it off. Here in Portland, Oregon we have decided what “it” is, a living. We have rallied a few hundred musicians around the idea that their time is worth something, and the service they provide to the bars, restaurants and coffee houses of our city is a valuable one.

Fair Trade Music is an organizing effort in the same sense as those undertaken in the Coffee and Cocoa producing regions of the world. It is a campaign by the local chapter of the AFM to recognize businesses that hire musicians under equitable terms. After months and months of deliberating on the cause of the problem and how to fix it we decided to use the Fair Trade model for it’s existing recognition and support by the population here.

The typical contract for a small to medium venue consists of various “fees” for the musicians including, wages of staff hired by the business and costs incurred by the business for advertising and other arbitrary expenditures. Effectively transferring the financial risk and responsibility for the event to the bands without giving them a voice in how those sums are spent.

Here is a real world example from one of our committee members. Since our goal is positive recognition, not negative, we will refer to the venue as “The Raw Deal Theatre”

Our member’s husband plays in a band that was booked to play at The Raw Deal Theatre as one of three acts. In an effort to support her spouse she payed the $8 ticket price for the show. After the concert, when the contracts were settled, roughly $800 dollars was paid out of the ticket sales to event staff that musicians didn’t have a say in hiring, leaving $75 as the total compensation for the three groups. I’m sure I don’t need to point out that less than 10% of the ticket sales (not to mention revenue from alcohol and food) went to the musicians and the husband would have made more money if she had just given him the 8 bucks and both of them stayed home.

Our message to musicians is simple, just say no to abusive and parasitic business relationships. Earning a living should not be a struggle.

Reader Comments (2)

Where is your leverage? You're looking to negotiate off membership size, I take it?

How has your reception been with existing, quasi-successful local bands? Are they down, or wary that you might complicate their existing relationships with venues and promoters?

March 1 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Yes, our leverage is size, Justin. Both in musician and public support.
We have had reactions from all corners of the spectrum. Political tirades, bars telling us it won't work and that all of their employees deserve a guaranteed wage, but not musicians, bands who want to support us anonymously and successful artists who remember dealing with the race to the bottom and how horrible it was. It's a delicate subject, to be sure, and one which takes some time for some people to get a handle on.
We are incredibly grassroots right now, working from the ground up to get the musicians to effect this change themselves. If musicians stick to their guns and set a reasonable rate for their services this problem gets much easier to solve.

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