‘There Is No Compensation:’ The Conundrum of the Creative Class

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Jazz Musicians ride on top of a vintage car during the Battle of Flowers Parade.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Jazz musicians ride on top of a vintage car during the Battle of Flowers Parade.

More than 40 musicians playing all jazz styles will take to river barges for the San Antonio River Walk Association’s second annual Ford Jazz Floating On The River, a celebration along the 2½ miles of our beloved River Walk during the heart of Mardi Gras revelries Feb. 10-13.

The River Walk Association put out a call for all jazz musicians interested in participating. I'm a saxophonist, and after my initial inquiry I received an application and wrote back to the staff. “I see that there is no charge to play – is there any compensation for the bands that are chosen?” 

“There is no compensation for the bands that are chosen,” the reply read. “This is more of a marketing event for you all as we can promote your group through our website and social media.”

Receiving replies of this nature is not uncommon in the music business, or for people in the creative industry in general. I understand there are reasons to accept a gig without compensation (see music blogger Ari Herstand's The Perfect 30, which breaks that decision down to its crucial elements). Yet until we take a stronger stand and respect our livelihood, the creative economy will continue as it has for centuries. 

To its credit, the River Walk Association puts on 26 free events throughout the year – all have a budget for artists, according to Maggie Thompson, the association's executive director.

Thompson, who is joined by six staff and a board of directors (see members here), said this jazz event is different, because in addition to local musicians, participating talent is coming from some high schools. "We've created this to help highlight young talent," Thompson said. "If this is successful and we see a lot of response, then we will reach out to larger sponsors." More sponsors means a better possibility for paying musicians.

Noah Peterson, a saxophonist and owner of Peterson Entertainment, is a member of the River Walk Association, as well as a contractor for the organization.

"They’re doing everything they can do to help the city thrive, but they are cash-strapped – not a lot of sponsors coming in for this particular event [Jazz Floating on the River].” He believes the River Walk businesses could step up to help pay musicians.

Without being paid, all the musicians can expect is to see their name on the event's website and get a few social media shout-outs.

"We didn't hide the fact that this is non-paid," said Paula Schechter, the association's director of marketing and public relations. "Musicians are coming forward on a voluntary basis, of their own goodwill."

Peterson is one of those individuals, participating in the event because he wishes to support the River Walk association and its mission. “There really is nothing in it for the musicians," he said. "They can’t promote, advertise, sell merchandise."

“[The San Antonio River Walk Association is] asking the wrong people to give, no question about that. But they’ve asked everyone else, and they’ve said ‘no.’”

Sit with that for a second.

This begs the question of who should step up to the plate here. Does the creative class have to learn how to say “no,” or do businesses have to learn how to say “yes,” or "I won't do this if I can't pay the talent?"

My intent is not to single out the River Walk Association for this particular event. It's clear it pays artists for other events. Plenty of businesses, nonprofit and for-profit alike, ask musicians to volunteer their time, and the conditions are clearly understood by both parties.

Rather, my goal is to shine light on a debate that has been ongoing since the nascent days of the music industry.

Anyone who is a part of the creative class has experienced this conundrum: Do I stand my ground, let them know the full value of my art, and walk away if they don’t honor it? Or do I accept that this is part of my “hustle” and sell myself short?

As San Antonio turns 300 years old, the tides are turning. We as artists have tools and momentum we didn’t have before. Is it a question of value? Check out the Rivard Report’s latest article on the SA Music Industry Study, which showed that the music industry has a $930 million economic impact on our city.

City support? Tune into the work of the Department of Arts & Culture with their Cul-TÚ-Art plan, which includes a cultural equity clause aimed at championing “policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable city." There are more platforms than ever for us artists to let our voices be heard, more opportunities to keep our leaders accountable.

Creative class: The power is in our hands. We can say "no," but that means nothing if we don’t actively work to prove our worth, meet with leaders, share our story. If businesses wish to put our talent on display, then they will have to invest real dollars in us – doing away with the "starving artist" once and for all.

Businesses: Join us in our quest to do what we love for a living. Start by supporting the River Walk association, so they can always pay the musicians promoting our city's River Walk.

8 thoughts on “‘There Is No Compensation:’ The Conundrum of the Creative Class

  1. Great post and important issue. It will always be a struggle to adequately pay artists of all kinds as long as non-artists (most people) think being an artist is “fun” while they do “dull boring soul killing work”. The cliche phrase “starving artist” didn’t become a cliche because it was rare.

    This is an unfortunate attitude, because San Antonio is in a unique position to capitalize on all types of art, theatre, and music to strengthen the hotel and convention business and make the city a vibrant place to live. Ironically that is helped by lower cost of housing (because artists arent paid much unless they win what is basically a lottery for success).

    That said, the River group is paying money to run the boats, advertise the event and participants, and clean up. The issue is more of how does one monetize an event with artists where the audience isnt charged a fee (or havent been culturally taught to value the art). Particularly when the success depends on large audience. Gate fee?? Percent of increased sales over a benchmark from businesses? Is that voluntary? It’s an important topic to work out. We all would be better for it.

  2. Great article! I’m lucky enough to play in a cover band on the weekends, getting paid to do something I love. Even though I am not dependent on the income, it does not mean that my worth as a musician and the worth of the entertainment my band provides should be minimized. People sometimes ask us to play for free but we hold our ground and say no but at the same time we have chosen to get paid in other ways other than cash to work out a deal that is fair to us and helps the event organizers not lose their profits on us. The harder requests to navigate is request by people who know the band members, asking us to play at such events at birthday parties, weddings, quinces and other private engagements. We have to say no if the request is to play for free. We can usually do a discount but that is usually due to the band member who knows the organizers forgoing their pay as a favor to create the discount. But otherwise, we have to explain that we put in a lot of time and energy to make our performances happen. Aside from the individual practice and full band rehearsals, just the time put in to make a gig happen is substantial. People don’t understand how much time this can be. For me personally, a gig is an 8 hour day. When someone asks my band to play for free, they are asking 6 people to put in an 8 hour day, which includes hauling around heavy equipment. When 5 band members are complete strangers than it can be hard to justify such a request as most people would never volunteer 8 hours of their day to help someone they don’t know nor to help something that is not for charity/non-profits. I almost have to laugh when the request is to play for free on a Friday because that means having to leave for the gig directly after my primary job of teaching, which amounts to asking me to work a 16 hour day.

  3. I look for local acts on Bandcamp and Reverbnation, so I can hear more of what’s going on here in SA. If I were to come to y’all and such events, I would hope to be able to purchase music or merch. Let me second any motion that y’all get to monetize and promote at such events, and that I pay a modest and reasonable gate fee in lieu of it being “free” (definitely not free for you)

    Good article, and good luck with gathering more of your creative-class brothers and sisters together to present a united front [namaste]

  4. The same goes for not paying photographers, graphic designers and developers. The city just announced some APP start up competition where the winner will get to donate their APP and ‘sell’ it to others. If people aren’t willing to pay for something they don’t really value it. There are many ways to find underwriting. This is just flat lazy.

  5. Yep. AAAND you get what you don’t pay for. This is happening across all mediums here in S.A. The people who DO take these non-paid gigs are usually well-meaning enthusiasts, not professionals. Potential donors see this and think that it is an accurate representation of the quality of art in town. So they take their money and patronage elsewhere. Event planners think they can keep planning these big events with no budget, because”we can always get someone to donate their time”. Professional artists keep teaching and paying bills here and working out of town. And the divide between amateur and professional continues to be blurred. And San Antonio is poorer for it. #creativeimpasse #payforplay

  6. Yes as an artist, I’ve been asked to many things for Exposure. I think it’s okay to ask artists (musicians, designers etc etc) to volunteer if every one else is volunteering but often it’s the innovators/creatives that aren’t valued and asked to give and give…. and GIVE. If we didn’t live in a capitalist system where we have to pay for everything, sure that sounds like a good way to run a community. But there’s something unfair afloat and it’s good to always call it out.

    I’m reading a great book, For the Love of Cities by Peter Kageyama and this book drives it home. Cities are really missing out when they forget to appreciate their Co-Creators…. the unsung heroes making our cities lovable through contributions like music, art, and fun that don’t happen to get a “paycheck” from the city. But they should!

  7. Adam thanks for bringing this to the topic to the forefront for all creative professionals in San Antonio. I have been asked so many times to provide my art for free it’s crazy. I just say NO! There’s no payback and the organization wanting the art, never promotes our talents nor do they reach out to even say “Thank You”. And what is worst city council has no idea how much time it takes and cost to produce any kind of creative work. What we need is an investigated repoter(s) to jump in an find all the loopholes as to why artists of all kinds are at the bottom of the pay list. I have been do creative for over 50 years and this city still has no respect for local talent unless you have a backdoor key to the elite group heading up cultural events. Our talents are our life and we should get paid for it, why can’t San Antonio leaders get it! We are employing our talents to provide a service and have a decent lifestyle that make us feel relevant. And then there’s the 300 mess which still needs to be addressed, asking for free creative support what a serious joke, this needs to be brought out into the open and many people should be made accountable. Mr. Mayor we voted for you make good, better!

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