Musicians paid just $8 an hour: when online businesses go bad

Money for nothin’ and chicks for free – am I right? When Dire Straits first penned those lyrics decades ago, they were challenging the widely held perception that life as a professional musician is all roses. The reality was that making a living from music was hard graft for the majority of artists. The pay was low and hours long. Thirty years later, it seems nothing much has changed.

Earlier this week Tech Crunch broke an article about Sofar Sounds, the online platform which sells tickets to curated in-house concerts held by hosts who open their home or premises to the public. This is a business model which is becoming increasingly popular as live music moves online, with several international and local players moving into the space. The numbers in the article are pretty damning, with an average gig banking the company $1,100 – $1,500, and the artist $100 (the hosts for their part get paid nothing). The article asserts that, in some cases, artists end up pocketing a meagre $8 an hour.

Should we be surprised by this? Yes and no. Exploitation is pervasive in the traditional live music industry, with large percentages of the profits going to numerous cogs sitting between the artist and audience – an aspect of the industry most musicians experience regularly. What is different, though, is the perception that online platforms are geared to be in the ‘best interest of the artist’. The language sitting around Sofar certainly reinforces the idea that it is a community built to ‘support emerging artists’ through the ‘democratisation’ of the market. The irony is that imbalanced power dynamics and outrageous transaction fees are the problems that platforms like Sofar were designed, or at least marketed, to fix. But, just as we have seen in other industries, a ‘digital community’ does not guard against exploitation. In another recent article, musician Joshua McClain notes:

“[Sofar] seems to be just fine with leaving out the most integral part: paying the musicians. This is where they willingly step onto the same stage as companies like Uber or Lyft — savvy middle-men tech start-ups, with powerful marketing muscle, not-so-delicately wedging themselves in-between the customer and merchant (audience and musician in this case). In this model, everything but the service-provider is put first: growth, profitability, share-holders, marketers, convenience, and audience members — all at the cost of the hardworking people that actually provide the service.”

So, do the audience members actually benefit from this service? Well it’s difficult to say. It doesn’t seem that way from a price perspective, with ticket prices for these types of in-house performances usually sitting at around the same price as the average regular ticketed event. The experience of a more intimate music experience could be more valuable, but perhaps also prone to over curation as noted by one commentator on social media:

“Went twice. First time it was cute then next time that cuteness lost its charm. Sitting on the floor? ‘Teachers’ telling us how to behave in a room. Music doesn’t have to feel like 5th grade reading time. Lame. Yeah, and they profit off the work of artists getting little in return.”

Customer disappointments aside, the most disappointing and frustrating thing about all this is the disillusion it causes yet another generation of musicians. This is an industry which has been historically prone to over-promising and under-delivering for artists, and there is a genuine opportunity in the online live-music space to break the old model and drive towards something better for artists and audiences alike. That is an opportunity which has been dropped by some in the industry. But it is one we are eager to pick up with both hands.

I know there is always risk in casting stones from the moral high ground, but I am proud that Six8 has always put the artist first. Our figures are transparent and fair – we believe in a fair price for a fair service for all involved. Ultimately, we have a vision to increase live music accessibility to everyone, and to support good professional pathways for artists across the world. That is why we do what we do.

In the coming weeks we will be piloting a new part of our platform which will allow artists and venues to directly advertise their gigs to an engaged audience on an intuitive, map-based system. Anyone will be able to use this platform for free, whether the gig is booked through Six8 or not. We are doing this because it is good for live music – because it increases accessibility to live music. We are doing this because it is the right thing to do for the industry. And isn’t that what live music needs right now?

Tech Crunch – Sofar Sounds house concerts raises $25M, but bands get just $100

Medium: Sofar Sounds: Why It’s Important to Boycott Them