Live music is back! And so is talk about payment practices.
Live music is back! And so is talk about payment practices. JEFFREY MARTIN

Money-talk seems to be everywhere lately.

After a concert she was scheduled to headline was canceled at the end of April, Seattle singer-songwriter Shaina Shepherd organized a show and corresponding fundraiser called The Artist’s Way. "When the quarantine began... I was on the edge of poverty in a second," Shepherd wrote in the description of the fundraiser, calling attention to the financial hardships artists have faced, especially over the last year and a half.

A few weeks later at the Museum of Flight, Seattle band Tres Leches sang “Everybody's Gonna Get $250,” a protest call-out about bookers paying musicians lowball fees that they also performed at Capitol Hill Block Party.

Is everybody actually gonna get $250? Payment practices in Seattle differ significantly from venue to venue (or festival to festival). Artists I've interviewed said venues usually paid them some portion of ticket sales when they performed before the pandemic. For example, at Tim’s Tavern, co-owner Mason Reed told me artists took 100% of door sales. Jeff Rogness at the Tractor said artists got 80 to 90% of ticket sales, with the percentage dependent on ticket price. And at Neumos/Barboza, artists generally received 60% of ticket sales, confirmed talent buyer Evan Johnson.

It seems these payment practices are mostly remaining the same as venues reopen. Still, as live music returns, community discussions around how to properly support out-of-work artists have erupted. Among the conversations: How can we get more people at local shows? How can artists be paid more fairly? And how can venues and musicians work together to support that?

To help answer some of these questions, I sat down with three Seattle-based musicians to see what kind of changes they’re looking for on the other side of the pandemic.

Tomo Nakayama

Tomo Nakayama is a singer-songwriter who has been a full-time musician in Seattle for the past eight years. His latest album, Melonday, was recognized in the Seattle Times as one of the best albums of 2020. He’ll play the Neptune Theatre with support from punk outfit Tres Leches and indie rock band Antonioni on Sept. 18.

Before the pandemic: Nakayama said he would always work with venues that gave him a detailed breakdown of what the costs for the venue were and what money was coming to the artists. He said payment practices differed greatly by venue, but that he would always get it in writing. As someone who has worked his way up to headlining shows, he also finds he has more power to negotiate fees.

Changes he wants to see: Nakayama said he’s not as concerned with how much artists are being paid as which artists are being paid. He wants to see BIPOC artists have equal opportunities to play. “There's been a lot of talk about social change and fixing this systemic problem,” he said. “Now it's up to us to actually do those things.” He also wants to see more collaboration between artists and venues regarding show promotion.

Why he wants to see those changes: Nakayama said the pandemic taught him the music industry really is an ecosystem, and we all have to work together to make that ecosystem successful. And success comes in many packages, from making sure everyone in the community is represented to filling the seats at venues. He said it’s about being transparent and understanding that everyone is doing their best.

Chanarah Caupain

Chanarah Caupain is a Seattle hip-hop and pop artist who has played festivals like Capitol Hill Block Party and the KEXP stage at Pride 2019. She released her latest video, Glow, in March of this year, and drops a new single on August 27 featuring Holly Michelle and Mowett.

Before the pandemic: Pre-2020, Caupain said many shows paid her in drink or food tickets. When venues paid her monetarily, she said the payment was typically small, anywhere from $50 to $100 as a flat rate. Other times she would receive a portion of ticket sales.

Changes she wants to see: Caupain said she doesn't think venues should pay artists in food and drink, or if they do, they should include it along with monetary payment. One possible way she sees doing this is for venues to pay artists a portion of bar sales. Overall, she wants more transparency between artists and venues about who is getting paid what and why.

Why she wants to see those changes: Caupain sees the artist/venue relationship as a partnership. The venue provides a space for musicians to perform, but the artists are also bringing people to the venue and need to be compensated monetarily for that. Payment—and transparency about that payment—is a sign of respect.

She said food and drink payment doesn’t cut it for two main reasons: It’s problematic to pay a community that struggles with substance abuse in those substances, and she can’t pay her staff in food and drink. “What people don't realize is that as artists, we're receiving that payment, but a lot of the time it's not going to us,” she said. “It's going to people that are working on your set.”

Sarah Brunner

Sarah Brunner is a musician who generally works a mix of restaurant and winery gigs. She has released two EPs and is currently working on her debut album, to be released later this year.

Before the pandemic: Brunner said winery and restaurant gigs paid a flat rate plus tips. At venues, she received a portion of ticket sales.

Changes she wants to see: As opposed to payments shifting, Brunner said she wants to see more people out at shows. She hopes people will recognize the value of live music since it's been away for so long and show their appreciation by buying more tickets. “Everyone's been inside for so long. Hopefully there's a wave of people that are craving live music and craving art,” she said. In theory, the more people who buy tickets, the more artists get paid.

Why she wants to see those changes: Brunner made a distinction between winery gigs (where she plays covers) and venue gigs (where she plays original music). At a cover gig, she’s being paid a set fee for a set amount of time, and if she doesn’t find that equitable she doesn’t take that job. When she plays a traditional venue, she said she’s not there to make money. She’s there to promote her original music, hone her craft, and connect with the community. She sees payment practices as a reality of the industry — and that’s why artists need the community to come out and support them.

Are you a venue or musician who wants to chat about payment practices? Drop me an email!