Letter to the editor: A response from a guilty artist to ‘Let’s retire the $5 show’

Musicians perform at the 2018 Grey Area festival. — photo by Jason Smith

By Justin K. Comer

I want to thank Luke Tweedy for his Sept. 29 letter to the editor. Artist compensation is an incredibly important subject that isn’t discussed in concrete terms nearly enough. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about it while I sit at a desk working a job I don’t really care about, dreaming of a day when I can support myself entirely on my art. I’m a saxophonist, composer and improviser creating music that doesn’t have a lot of widespread appeal, and I organize the free iHearIC concert series. We’ve retired the $5 show by abandoning cover charges entirely. We run a Patreon page and collect donations at every show. All contributions go to our performers’ fund, which allows us to keep admission to our shows free while guaranteeing artists some money regardless of how much of an audience we draw. We’re trying something different, because economic and artistic circumstances demand it.

Luke’s letter cites the minimum wage, so I will present my points in similar terms. It’s very nice that many businesses have agreed to honor the $10.10 Johnson County minimum wage (shout out to the Center for Worker Justice). Unfortunately, we live in Hell, our state and country are controlled by a group of demons and cowards, and the enforced minimum wage is still $7.25. We’ve seen a 116 percent minimum wage increase from 1987’s $3.35 to today’s $7.25. Since this is a college town, let’s compare the minimum wage to education costs:

One year of tuition, fees, room and board at a public four-year institution in 1987: $3,859.

The same in 2015: $19,189. (All figures taken without adjusting for inflation to compare directly to minimum wage.)

A 397 percent increase! I’m sure we’d find that costs of housing, transportation, healthcare and other basic needs have outpaced the minimum wage as well. Because our costs are increasing at a much faster rate than our income, many of us have to work longer hours to make ends meet, which cuts down on our free time (and often our free time is at odd, irregular hours as we take whatever shifts we can find). In what little free time we have left, it’s become easier and easier to entertain ourselves inexpensively without leaving our homes –- if you can afford an internet connection, you’re pretty much set. I personally attend live music events because nothing gets me higher than sharing a space with others and witnessing the creation of new sounds. Not everyone shares this desire. Can I really blame them for staying in and watching an entire world’s worth of video content on demand instead of going out and paying to see a band they’ve never heard of?

After considering an increased cost of living and the proliferation of cheap entertainment, who is left as our audience? In my case, mostly friends, family and other musicians. Can you see why I may feel some guilt at demanding more from these people, who have overcome the obstacles above to come out and support me? In many cases, they are doing so because they like me personally more than they appreciate my art. And if another artist pays me $5 at a show tonight, and I pay them back that same $5 at a show two nights from now, did either of us really benefit?

Yes, artists’ work is undervalued, but there’s a whole lot more to it than how much we charge at the door.

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