The promise of the “Pay Your Wage” sliding scale

A hallmark of post-punk underground culture has been the cheap show. A $5 cover for a night of 3-4 local bands and a $10-15 ticket for higher-profile touring acts in bigger venues became the norm by 90’s — and in Portland, it’s still the norm, two decades later.

While booking quasi-“underground” classical concerts for Classical Revolution PDX, it was really important to me to try and price things at a similar level. The mission of the group was access, and its ethos was irreverent and egalitarian.

And yet, there is the hard fact: cheap live shows are a hard way to break even (never mind make a living). We can cut overhead but at some point even the most DIY garage band will find itself resorting to a kickstarter or other self-funding source in order to record, buy new gear, get a tour-worthy vehicle.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that $5 is not, in 2015, what it was in 1991. Back then, it was pretty close to the local minimum wage; the federal minimum then was $4.25. That’s half the minimum wage in Portland now, and that wage itself is deflated, with rising income inequality in the US (and gentrification in in the Rose City) not making the picture any rosier.

There are plenty of creative and/or bureaucratic solutions out there. Kickstarters are the viral, DIY option (with a cut going to the corporate tech company,  like everything these days), while small nonprofit-sponsored acts in the art-music space compete for the lottery of grants and ever-thinner streams of arts fundraising. There are limitations and downsides to these strategies.

Many people might not recognize how much at a disadvantage kickarters are compared to nonprofit fundraising. Donor’s can’t write off donations, and unless you’re incorporated that income is going to look like your personal income for your taxes at the end of the year. Moreover, if you don’t have enough business to convince the IRS that your music is a sufficiently profit-making venture, you won’t be able to write off any of your expenses paid for with that kickstarted money, because they’ll legally classify your artistic passion as a “hobby.”

Unfortunately as I found out with CRPDX, nonprofits are not a panacea: you are required to raise half of your funds through donations, you have to have a board of directors who can micro-manage or even fire you, and you’re going to face a lot of paperwork and administrative culture when what you really want to do is create and perform. But whether you’re kickstarting or fundraising, sooner or later you might start to feel like you’re spending all your time begging, which is never the best headspace for art.

Artists need to get paid, not bureaucratized. Some folks think this is the responsibility of the venues where shows happen. But venues often barely cover rent — we’ve seen a lot of great ones go under in the past decade in Portland — so trying to make them foot the bill for better musician wages off of their beer sales hasn’t gained any traction despite the ongoing efforts of groups like Fair Trade Music and the local Musician’s Union.

That’s where Pay Your Wage comes in. We need a fix that isn’t a lottery like grants, that isn’t s perennial begging system like kickstarter or fundraising, and that isn’t a coercive model that puts the pressure on the venues and makes everyone adversarial.

What if our $5-$15 ticket prices at least kept pace with wage levels and inflation? What if, further, those who were doing better than average and still coming to shows — professionals like attorneys, high tech workers, medical professionals — were given a framework that encouraged them (without demanding) to give a little more?

Here’s how it works:

  • Your show has a sliding scale for admission
  • The scale is called “Pay Your Wage”, which means: pay what you make in an hour
  • It’s an honor system; everyone pays what they will
  • You can use the minimum wage as a minimum — which will go up when our so-called leaders find the will in their cold little hearts to hike it — or you can set a lower minimum for the under-employed, or no minimum if you don’t want to turn anyone away.
  • For ticketed events, many systems like Brown Paper Tickets will let you set up several different prices of tickets, so you can even use the sliding scale for advance sales. Pick a small range of prices and have the purchase page say “Please choose a price closest to your hourly wage”. E.g., $10, $15, $20, $25, $30, $40, $50

That’s all there is to it. Once people encounter enough shows structured this way it will become second-nature to them; I’ve seen this happen among the audiences where it has been tried already.

Will everyone really pay their wage? Almost certainly not — but they will likely still pay more than what they pay now. And it only takes one generous person chipping in $50 to make a big difference for a band playing a small room. If the small-venue show averages $10 or $12 a person instead of $5, the bands playing will more than double their (still slim) income. Bigger venues that might currently charge $10-$15 can expect to get closer to a $20 average; when CRPDX used this model for a chamber performance in 2014 we didn’t turn anyone away, had a number of people come in for free or paying an “under-employed” $5, and yet we still averaged $19 per audience member at the gate.

This system also builds in a way for show promoters and venues to gradually shift prices up with wages without pissing most people off. If Portland follows Seattle’s lead and raises the minimum wage to $15, then a new suggested minimum of $15 won’t seem so crazy as long as “Pay Your Wage” is the buzzword.

If you’re in a band or producing a show, try it out! Let me know how it goes, what problems you encounter and how it changes what you make per-audience-member. If you’re running a bigger presenting organization that typically sells higher-priced tickets, maybe you could experiment with this model for a section of your audience or for special outreach performances. I believe the more that it’s tried, the more this system will succeed in changing people’s expectations, by letting them be part of better arts funding directly, at the show, supporting the bands and other performers they like with a few extra bucks — an hour’s worth.

What does it mean to Keep Portland Weird?

Getting back to some emerging-music think-tankery for tonight’s salon…

Our monthly Muse:forward event champions stuff that doesn’t fit into established genres. We’re not alone – there are many venue owners/bookers, impresarios and scene-makers in town who seem to just get it, and that venerable bumper-sticker mantra “Keep Portland Weird” still applies here, despite corporate TV’s attempt to co-opt its diversity for profit and cynical, passive amusement.

Weirdness is a natural part of being human. A person is existentially the strangest mash-up of transcendent consciousness and awkward animal. Anything imaginable is our natural, terrible, playful domain. This is what being human’s about, and what IMO art is about, if one can say it (like life) is “about” anything.

The impersonal is the domain of the institution. Set something up with a creed, a program, a hierarchy. The institution naturally normalizes, classifies, suppresses the weird so that some agenda can be met. “Normal” is the oxygen of the institution, it’s what allows it to predict and control and expand and maximize its interests.

So on this basis I think “Keep Portland Weird” isn’t about the surface, the idiosyncratic style or trend. It’s about making room for the individual to be natural, to be oneself, to be weird, to explore without being corralled by normalizing institutions. What I’m attempting with the monthly Muse:forward event isn’t to curate a preferred weird style, but to provide a forum that resists agenda and groupthink and gives anyone who wants to try something (mainly with music) a protected space to be themselves. And I think that’s not new in Portland; if we have a weird cultural ethos it’s because many have worked, and still work, to foster this kind of individuality that lets us remind ourselves we aren’t just consumers or taxpayers or subjects or TV audience.

Looking forward to discussion, tonight at the salon, and in comments!