Tears run down the painted faces of three young girls; their mood in contrast with the neon pink and green glow sticks that complete their on-stage attire. This is the saddest memory of the music industry gone wrong that the former booking agent for the Rivoli shared with me recently. It was the opening night of the North by Northeast (NXNE) festival, and these young artists arrived from Norway that morning. They came to Toronto on their own dime to play one set. They were not paid by the festival. They were promised exposure. The only exposure they got was an audience of 15 people. This is not the reputation the Toronto music scene needs. Something needs to change.
Lesser known artists regularly accept exposure, food, and drinks in lieu of money. This trend is not unique to Toronto. Great music cities around the world are plagued by bad pay practices. It is what sparked the Musicians Union (MU) in the United Kingdom to create the campaign Work Not Play. Their goal is to end the expectation that professional musicians should play a live show for free. The world needs more champions like the MU to have a positive impact on the music industry. Toronto is in a unique position to become the next champion and establish its own identity as a music city.
Toronto Mayor John Tory and key members of the Toronto Music Advisory Council visited Austin, TX last week to reaffirm the Austin-Toronto Music City Alliance. The Alliance will foster business and cultural partnerships between the two cities. Sharing best practices and expertise is thought to fuel job creation, economic growth and tourism. It’s the first Alliance of its kind and has great potential to benefit both cities. But before we hold hands and skip off into the sunset, we need to think through what is best for the local artists at the centre of the Toronto music industry.
Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) has grown a great deal over the years. In an article on expressnews.com, former Mayor Will Wynn credits the festival with revitalizing downtown Austin and says the economic impact is incalculable. But as the size has increased, so has the corporate sponsorship, which many say has stripped the festival’s identity. Brands like McDonald’s have jumped on the SXSW bandwagon, hoping to capture a cool, young market. Unfortunately, the money these big sponsors are bringing into the festival isn’t trickling down to the artists themselves. This year, McDonald’s came under fire for not paying the artists performing at their showcase. Only once the pubic shaming by the band Ex Cops went viral, did the corporation decide to shell out a few bucks to the artists. Is this really what we want up here in Toronto?
If all we learn through the Music City Alliance is how to increase economic impact, then Toronto will be doing itself harm. We will become just another city, with typical music festivals plagued with corporate sponsors. We will have nothing special to offer. Toronto needs to learn and share what we can with our new allies in Austin. But we must also take this amazing opportunity to carve out a unique identity as a world-class music city. Toronto has the potential to foster the careers of home grown artists; the potential to not only attract international talent, but provide them with a worthwhile experience. We must push the Alliance to join the ranks of champions like the MU, and put the artists first. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if Toronto became known as the city that always pays its musicians?