The first time that I came across a venue that didn’t pay its artists, was Sine over on St Marks Place. Shane, the owner, was an expert at socializing, at spreading his charisma. I had enough of a following to demand payment for a gig. But Shane had been building a name by getting all kinds of famous people to play in Sine for fun. Sinead O’Connor was hanging out there, and Jeff Buckley had been a regular. Shane came to one of my shows and said that I would be welcome to play at Sine any time. I (like most people) can only play so often in one area, if I want to maintain my drawing power. So playing at Sine for nothing meant risking my income for that period. But I also was drawn towards it, like a Lemming to the cliff. So I did it, Shane said it was most that he had ever seen in the passed hat, I Think it was around $280 (for Fred Parcels and I)-he also said that it was the most beer he had ever sold, they had to keep going to the Bodega on the corner. I couldn’t even get Shane to pay for Fred’s taxi from four blocks away, he used an amplifier, Fred wheeled it over on a trolly. Afterwards I wondered why I did it. I knew that the spirit of it was wrong. For young artists who can’t find anywhere to cut there teeth, this kind of thing is important. But for anyone who has done all that, and established a hard earned following, it’s insane. The only one who really benefitted from this was Shane! from a business point of view he deserved it. But, he started something horrible, for musicians, as far as I can see. Now, everywhere you look in Manhattan, there are places presenting free music, being played by high quality, mature musicians.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s (pre Sine) Venues paid musicians to do that, it might not be a whole lot if you weren’t a draw, but $300 or so was the common fee. Now they pay you a compliment by allowing you to play. I have volunteered to do one of these new places recently, for the same reason that I did the insane Sine gig, some kind of peer pressure. They said yes, sure, and offered me a gig next March 2018 !! It’s not even impromptu. Needless to say, I ain’t doing it, get stuffed!
Please remember when you are in the audience at one of these places, that what goes in the hat, is all the musician gets. I have seen great artists blowing the audience away, and watched people either putting nothing in the hat, or just one dollar! We are supposed to leave 20% tips now for being waited on in a restaurant. If musicians play for 40 minutes at the minimum wage, you should be putting $8 in the hat.
Thanks to initiatives like Sine, exploiting musicians has become so normal, we don’t even know it is happening.