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CITIZEN DAVE

Citizen Dave: Pay musicians


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Today is the first Make Music Madison, a daylong celebration of the summer solstice with varied musical performances popping up at over 100 places around the city. It's something that started in Paris, where I got to experience it when I was there in 2008. It's a great idea and the people who worked hard and volunteered their time to make it happen deserve a lot of credit.

While the morning weather didn't cooperate, it looks like the afternoon and evening might be okay. I hope so.

Like virtually all good things in Madison this one comes with a little bit of controversy. There was some debate among the city's professional musicians about whether they should participate in another event where they were asked to work for free. Many concluded that they would.

But it's a good conversation to have. Internationally known jazz musician and long-time Madisonian Ben Sidran often recounts how local musicians were paid about $50 for a performance in 1970 while today they're often paid as much as... $50.

So, here's an idea: establish a minimum wage for musicians.

You might be quick to raise some objections.

You might point out that the legislature took away the ability of local governments to establish their own minimum wages, so this would have no legal effect. Hey, when has that stopped us? We have a bunch of ordinances on the books, like a prohibition on gun shops in the city, that have been made unenforceable by state or federal laws or court rulings.

But why pass an ordinance that can't be enforced? To make a statement that Madison supports and encourages live, local music. Also, the city itself could set a good example by actually following its own ordinance for city sponsored events.

I ran this idea by Sidran and he didn't embrace it. To quote from our email exchange on the subject:

I think musicians who want to play a gig even if there is no money involved (not all music draws fans) should be allowed to play that music in public and if there's a minimum wage it could actually stop the gig and hurt the development of music over all. Further, a musician is privileged to perform for folks; a very talented musician once told me, Any time somebody pays you even $1 for your music, be grateful because that money was hard earned and could have gone to somebody else. And there's nothing wrong with passing the hat -- I played a gig last week at a club in Brooklyn called Barbes where they do just that and we all made more than $50. There's a lot local musicians can do to publicize who, what, where and when they are and to try to deliver something unique to the marketplace and build a following every time they play. This is not about music -- it's about business. Music doesn't matter unless you make it matter. Having said that, Madison audiences really need to get real about what music costs: people here think paying $10 is too much for a great night of music but will blow twice that on digital detritus.

But, of course, our minimum wage wouldn't actually be enforceable, so much of what Ben fears wouldn't come to pass. What it would do is start to set a standard among promoters, venues and especially audiences, that musicians have to eat and that what they provide is at least as valuable as what Republican legislators provide in terms of entertainment values. There's no reason that comedians should be better compensated than musicians.

And word would get out. It would be controversial and word would spread that Madison cares enough about this to have a community conversation about fair compensation for artists. That alone would help.

Have a good weekend.

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