Design by Kim Miers

The myth of ‘Exposure,’ and other lies


Elmwood Village ArtFest organizers ask bands to play for free

Happy Monday! Lol. If you are a musician scheduled to perform at the inaugural Elmwood Village ArtFest this coming weekend, your week got off to a lousy start, as news broke that the festival would not be paying the 30 or so performers slated to entertain the gathered. 

Slow down, though. Take a beat. 

Information is conflicting regarding how all of this rolled out. According to some of the hundreds of folks in the Buffalo music community who are sharing their thoughts on social media today, bands and artists knew they were performing gratis going in. According to others, the assumption was that musicians would be getting paid, as they did in past years, when the festival was known as Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts, prior to the Elmwood Village Association, a not-for-profit, taking over. 

I’m not interested in getting in the middle of all of  this. If organizers moved the goalposts after the ball was kicked, that’s not at all cool. If bands and artists went into this knowing they wouldn’t be paid, that’s their prerogative. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion on this. (Which is something that is clearly well-known, as everyone does seem to have an opinion on this, including me.) 

The real issue here is a deeper one. Because what this is really about is the value (or lack of value) we place on live music as a community. 

Therese Deatschlander, president of the Elmwood Village Association’s board of directors, told the Buffalo News over the weekend that organizers of the event believed that artists were “happy to play for free,” since this is technically a new festival, and there’s no budget for paying them. 

If you’re at all like me – and if you’re reading this, you probably are – that quotation burns. 

Sure, there are times when musicians are indeed “happy” to play for free – for a cause or an event that they believe in, for a friend’s backyard party, in honor of a fallen musical comrade, and the like. All of us have likely participated in events like these, at peace with the idea because we knew what the deal was, going in. But if we’re being honest, none of us are “happy” to be ripped off beyond such examples. I mean, I get along well with my plumber, but just cuz we’re buds, I don’t expect him to get in his car, haul all his gear over here, apply the expertise he spent his life gathering, and fix my toilet for free. 

The great fantasy being propagated here is the Myth of Exposure. This is a damaging nursery rhyme of a conception that suggests that musicians will gain so much from performing on a big stage at a large event that money becomes beside the point. They’ll gladly do what my plumber won’t, because it will ‘help to get their name out there.’ 

I’ve been playing gigs since I was 15. Early on, hell yes, I played gigs for ‘exposure bucks.’ Did they help my career? Well, I always – always – have fun playing music, and I had fun at these gigs, too. But beyond that? Well, no. They did not help my career.

It’s one thing if you’re being offered the hypothetical slot right before the Foo Fighters at Lollapalooza, or whatever, and there’s no pay involved. It’s quite another to perform alongside your hometown peers and colleagues at a regional community festival for no pay. 

Successful careers aren’t built this way. Reputations as musicians willing to perform for free most certainly are, though. 

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