Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What Have They Done To The Rain?

Portrait of the artist as a patron of the arts.

(Portions of this blog appeared in the Fall Issue of Penguin Eggs 2012)

In the past couple of weeks I have had so many “opportunities” as an artist I can hardly keep track of them all. Songwriter contests, “Last Chance” opportunities to compete for a spot in festivals, opportunities from social music networks to “enhance” my free status by giving them money so that they really promote my material, plus opportunities to compete for showcases at expensive conventions so I can get “exposed” to the “industry people.” That’s not even taking into consideration the opportunities to pay for applying for opportunities.

Supposing I could afford all this, if I pay out all this money does that mean I’m really getting somewhere? Are these opportunities real or bogus? What is the motive of the groups behind the opportunities? Do these opportunities actually serve the culture or do they simply support business and operational structures to supply employment for others who take advantage of artists who are vulnerable by virtue of their easily identifiable dreams and ambitions? As an artist and survivor it behooves me to look at these phenomena in terms of their real value to me, and to view them with realistic expectations, both for my pocketbook and my sanity.

While it has always been true that being booked into a festival has been a competition of sorts, i.e. having your music appreciated by artistic directors, I was invited to write an article for Penguin Eggs specifically about festivals who ask artists to “compete” for a spot in the festival at “pay-to-play” events. As I see many parallels between this and other music industry modes of the day, I have expanded the field to include song contests, digital agents, and folk music organizations who produce showcasing conventions.

From the outset let me state that I believe presenters, radio DJs, and others are motivated by love of the music, and they engage themselves and their communities in activities motivated by passion and respect for the art form. However, due to the drying up of government and corporate support for the arts, many groups have followed a path of least resistance in funding and have, unwittingly perhaps, put far too much onus on artists to support their events financially. As a result of this evolution, the aspirations, hopes and ambitions of artists are being used as a fund-raising tool. Whether from the best of intentions or simple greed, conscious or unconscious, this has placed far too much weight on the shoulders of the artist who must develop their craft and art while having to raise “opportunity” money to find “exposure” for themselves and their work. Perhaps even more damaging, this has challenged the credibility of many who proudly claim “artist” as their identity but are simply not in a position to lay out funds time after time to attempt to stay the course.

There is no room for a full run at the phenomena listed below, but here is a part of what I see.  

Song Writing Contests...

I drift to dreamland…

From the mists of Music Row I hear the distant cry of a carnie barker:

“If you write songs step over to our song contest booth where for only 30 dollars you can enter your song in our contest.  We even have an important sounding name suggesting that we are associated with famous people, just like the people you want to be!  But wait!  Did I say 30 dollars?  Why today friends you can enter your second song, and every song thereafter, for only 20 DOLLARS EACH. And THAT is a SAVING of 10 DOLLARS for every song after your first entry!  You just can’t afford to pass this up!  And for these paltry sums, friends, you earn the right to compete for any number of grand prizes given to us by our proud sponsors who so generously donate prizes for the primary purpose of educating you about their fine products and services which you WILL require as you climb the ladder to songwriter success!  Not only that friends, we will personally send the ten runners-up in each of our twenty-five categories an OFFICIAL letter stating that you were a finalist in our esteemed competition!.  That’s 250 artists who get our letter each time! Just IMAGINE how that will look in your next EPK and bio!”

I wake up, sweaty. I read my bio. There it is. FINALIST in Songwriter Contest “x.”

Eventually everyone is a finalist…but there will be a few more millionaires on the planet before we all have that OFFICIAL letter.   On consideration, I can’t think of a soul whose music I know as a result of their participating in, or even winning a songwriting contest.  However, if schools of music or legitimate publishers were to organize them, the contests might begin to take on some meaning beyond satisfying the avarice of organizers and the glitz which has artists clamoring for a little recognition. (I confess I have been sucked in more than once)
Internet Data Base Intermediaries: Sonic Bids etc...

Enough has been said in raging debates about these organizations to fill more bandwidth than Facebook.  I personally don’t see their use except as a money-maker for all concerned except the artists.  Obviously these companies themselves are money-motivated, but, since they are intermediaries, the only way they earn is by putting sets of individuals together.  They are dependent on those who service artists, i.e. festivals, magazines etc., to make the whole thing work. So I ask myself, “Why can’t a festival, event or media outlet get an email from an artist that links the festival to their web site and EPK?” Done and done.  The wrench in the works are the organizations who have begun to rely on part of their income deriving from artists’ applications.  This plays into the hand of these companies who naturally steer the presenter client base toward exclusivity in their application process, making their company the only conduit through which an artist may apply for the event.  Presenters and media also want Sonic Bids et al to do part of their job by weeding out those who do not participate…after all only the serious artists will pay to join Sonic Bids or its equivalent.  This of course makes these applications elitist by virtue of their cost to the artists, limiting participation to those who can afford the fees. In terms of these particular types of companies, this is a blatantly obvious short-coming and detrimental, not only to individual artists, but the culture itself.  As mentioned, even the media is getting into the act. Several magazines are now asking for submissions to their new or emerging artists pages from the artists themselves via Sonic Bids-type middle men.  I personally wash my hands of this process and refuse to participate.  To me these companies serve NO purpose except to skim money from artists for themselves and for their presenter/media clients.  Period.
This Way Madness Lies...Festival Contests For Entry and Exposure...

The very “best” of these festival entry opportunities is this type: After paying an entry fee to be selected from all the other entrants, and if lucky enough to be one of the chosen from a few hundred (thousand?) entries, I would have the chance to travel to, and play at, a festival.  I would pay my way there, pay for accommodation and meals, and compete to be the “best new folk artist,” at least as defined by that festival.  This process is the only way I could be considered as a “real” artist to play this event in future years.  This is because I was deemed to be “unknown” by the standards used by the festival.  Despite 40 odd years of creating and programming workshops, hosting workshops, recording CDs as artist and producer, having live performances recorded by CBC, Chicago’s Midnight Special and others, not to mention touring and playing, I had not had enough apparent “exposure” to be considered a real artist as of yet, and I had to prove myself in this competition.  I took a pass on this opportunity.  Had I won, I might have been “best new folk artist” in the “on a scooter” category.

That particular idea is probably the most glaring example of a festival’s hubris, but a close runner-up is an event created by a festival with which I have a past association, being its founder and first artistic director.  This little gem is called, of all things, “The Last Chance Saloon.”  It was implemented sometime in the nineties when festivals were getting very hungry.  Some were resorting to retreading old pop acts as headliners in an attempt to draw crowds they had lost by discontinuing workshop excellence and focusing on the night “show” as the “ticket seller” of the festival. It is no surprise these actions alienated the folk crowd and helped to guide festivals down the slippery slope of trading cultural depth for entertainment value. (Pardon the digression but it points to essence of how this type of travesty began.)  For the artist, this Last Chance Saloon involves paying a fee to be chosen as one of 12 finalists in a night of entertainment similar to American Idol, or Timbuktu Has Talent.  If chosen for the event, you pay another fee, make your own way to the event, and then house yourself in town if you happen to be from somewhere else (most everyone is).  You then play for an audience who has paid to see you and who then has then has the ability to cast a vote for your being chosen “the winner” of the evening, or not.  You have just contributed to the cash flow of the festival by “donating” your talents, but here is the payoff to you:  The prize, should you win, is the opening spot at the festival which you play while everyone is filing in for the Friday night show. I say the “Last Chance Saloon” and all the contests of its ilk should be burnt to the ground for the dignity of all concerned.

There are better ways to raise funds and festival awareness.  Why not try seasonal multi-talent music events.  Rent a hall, pay the artists, celebrate the community and raise some dough.  We used to do it all the time, and it worked.  

Folk Music Convention-Style Showcasing…

What has been developed over the past couple of decades is a new paradigm in the way folk organizations and performers interact.  It is one in which the artist appears to be the worker bee of the hive, sent out to work to pay for the myriad opportunities presented to him or her for exposure by the music industry’s queen bees, the bureaucrats of the biz.

If this seems a tad harsh, consider that by the time membership is paid, entry fees for showcase consideration are paid, and then those costs combined with convention fees, table fees for halls, bag stuffing, accommodation and transportation, it is likely the investment for the artist is not less than $1500.00. When I mentioned to an old hand at festivals that an artist actually thinking they are going to find work would be sorely disappointed, he responded saying that people “know after the first year” that work will not likely be found, but discover that it is a “great way” to meet the community.  It’s “great” if you can afford to get no return, or if you can wait for that return to come to fruition after a few years of developing relationships.

Expense aside, problems are arising with these events.  Artistic directors are choosing not to attend at all, therefore making "showcasing" pointless.  Likewise other presenters are beginning to complain of their expenses associated with attendance.  It is valid to look at how these issues are beginning to impact the artist.

Firstly, neither the OCFF (Ontario Council Of Folk Festivals) or the FAI (Folk Alliance International) have stuck to their original mandates and instead have tried to be all things to all people.  The OCFF’s original intention was to unite the culture of festivals in order to demonstrate solidarity and credibility to the Ontario Arts Council and other funding bodies.  The Ontario Arts Council was warning that folk festivals were about to be cut from public arts support.  The response of the festivals was to gather the disparate entities into one coherent voice and present cogent arguments for the funding of folk festivals.  That cohesive voice became the OCFF and these actions indeed saved the festivals from bureaucracies who were attempting to undermine the cultural significance of folk music generally, and festivals specifically.  The further purpose of the original group was to share organizational ideas, volunteer sourcing, and the possibility of sharing resources like sound and lighting systems.  What was initially a few acts booked to perform for diversion at the conference, slowly but surely became instead a carbon copy of the Folk Alliance. “All that is gold does not glitter” (Lord of the Rings) Be careful what you wish for.

The Folk Alliance, when I first heard about it, was intended to be a more formalized version of Hey Rube!, a list generated by artists to share information about concert presenters, festivals, and coffee houses.  However, rapidly the FAI became a sponsor of musical competition for gigs, and, in order to continue to bigger the organization itself, it seems to have forgotten that it was put together to serve artists, not be served by them. I see talk today on the list serves about discounting presenter attendance, but no such discussion for artists.  In respect to this discussion, the president of FAI, Louis Meyers, recently said that people must remember the Folk Alliance is a “business.”  This worship of the bottom line by organizations meant to support the arts is, in my view, completely wrong.  The arts cost money and that is not news.  What should be promoted by these organizations is the development of the art form and finding ways to support it.  Governments must be lobbied, grants developed, corporations educated. I know this is not a popular view in these days, but that is work which must be done.   This is the right and proper function of these organizations…together with the sharing of information and collective archiving of resources for presenters and artists alike. It does not serve if they wish to be the culture itself, or worse, attempt to be the revival of bygone glory days.

Secondly, what is all too easy to perceive when observing these events is the “gang” mentality that can exist with those who have executive power and those who are presenters or artistic directors.  These events are elitist by nature and driven by money used to sustain the sponsoring organization.  The result is that a new kind of old boys’ network is established which leads to huge compromises in artistic integrity.  One sees, for instance, non-professional ukulele groups hired at festivals, given rooms and food which could have gone to those who have dedicated themselves to their craft. (yes I am aware of ukulele virtuosos…so hire them) Amateur songwriters and musicians are elevated to performer status and promoted within the ranks of festivals because of the “buddy” system that conferences and pay-to-play concerts promote.  A false community born of commercialism is established, created by the elitist nature of the organizations and events which sees those who can afford these conventions become an integral part of such organizations and also garner work because of it.  Organizers should not be surprised that numbers of artistic directors attending are dwindling while the talent pool continues to be watered down.

I believe this paradigm will die a natural death.  As already stated, the first group off the ship at OCFF seem to be the artistic directors.  Why?  I think because they are in the pursuit of excellence for their audiences and at these conferences they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of individuals who may, or may not, have something to offer musically.  It forces artistic directors to retreat to their dungeons to decide for themselves.  Presumably their considerations include the material that has been left for them at their “drop boxes” which now have become their “virtual” presence at these conferences.  I have to say that I think this is the way it should be.  It is the job of the artistic director to plough through all of the entries to his or her event.

I believe the price is too high for our society to insist that artists make their own cultural contributions by not only finding the resources to create their art, but needing to participate in these types of expensive and elitist activities.  Song competitions, conference showcases, pay-to-play concert competitions, songwriter camps, and other hobbyist-style activities which have found their way into the folk music “business” ultimately present a huge cost to a society’s cultural fabric.  Firstly they spawn a creeping mediocrity born of having to absorb amateurism and hobbyists …the lawn bowlers of our generation…who need to be included for the sake of the financial stability of the presenting organization, and secondly they exclude genuine artists who may lack the funds for entry into such events.

So what is an artist to do?  Get out there, write, play, and record and just be so damn good they have to hire you! (an old Steve Martinism)

Culture is the psychological infrastructure of our society.  It gives us meaning and direction.  We need to be searching for financial solutions outside the pocketbooks of artists to sustain them and the work they do.

 ©Tim Harrison Oct/2012

Tim Harrison is a singer/songwriter, sometime festival artistic director, music producer, sound engineer, and broadcaster. He lives on Gabriola Island off Canada’s west coast. www.timharrison.ca