· 4 min read
An Idealist’s Reflections on Nearly Two Decades in a Broken Industry Filled With Good Intentions
Written by Zan Emerson
As the saying goes, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. By extension, there are no ethical industries under capitalism. This can be even more pronounced in industries where idealism is high, like the experimental corners of the live music and performing arts world where diversity of genre, form, and identity are said to be embraced.
I’ve worked across most sides of this world for the past 18 years, from college radio to commercial venues and non-profit halls. I did this with the true belief that live music can save lives: I know, because it saved mine. But the live music industry nearly ruined my life, so now I’m finally stepping aside.
For so long, I’ve wanted to use my negative experiences as a catalyst for change, in ways both big and small. But at a certain point it became clear - at least in my opinion - that the needle cannot be moved in any significant way, especially by one person or while our industry slides even further into economic scarcity on all fronts.
It is not any one organization’s problem or fault. The entire industry, both for- and non- profit, is so strapped for cash that it naturally protects profits over values. However, in my personal experience, this desire has led to a mentality of “disruption” over paced wisdom: tech startup solutions that come and go, wasting staff time in training and data clarity; hasty layoffs when numbers seem shaky, regardless of the long-term outlook or impact on overall morale; the in-fashion concept that content can drive a brand versus long-term unsexy, behind-the-scenes strategy.
This disruption model is compounded by the fact that many people do not stay in the industry for the entirety of their careers, which leads to less stability for workers and business models. As a result, there is simply not enough embedded knowledge for a stable ecosystem, even if there was enough money to go around.
As many industries are, the live music industry is often hostile towards marginalized groups, who find themselves tokenized (that is, when they’re hired at all!) given the traditional reliance on unpaid internships and/or hiring pipelines that reward the privileged.
However, these are often the same organizations that communicate that they value these marginalized groups (they put them on their stages after all - taking their merch fees and unfavorable door splits) and use that for fundraising goodwill, comms wins, and thus ticket sales. This, in turn, leads to bar sales, which keep the whole machine running.
But where are the workers in this? As far as the organizations are concerned, they are merely data on grant applications and fodder for Instagram content that touts company diversity. In reality, they are underpaid, undervalued, and often leave the whole ecosystem for jobs that pay better.
In today's non-profit arts atmosphere, claiming support of diversity measures can legitimately mean more money for an organization, given how crucial “diversity” is as a funding measure for major foundations. However, grant reporting on how these funds are spent almost exclusively comes from the development departments of the organizations who apply for these grants, and not the intended impacted recipients - social media content as proof that a performance happened can be enough to justify tens of thousands of delivered funds. If this money only benefits the organization from the top down, and marginalized workers or artists do not experience anything different in their day to day, is this actually furthering anything close to justice?
Under capitalism, money in the pockets of workers and artists is key to a sustainable ecosystem. So if impact is the goal, how are the highfalutin doings of the non-profit sphere any more noble than the DIY club down the street in a basement, if the latter is putting more money in the pockets of more marginalized people who grace their stage?
Focusing more on the for-profit side of the industry, there is an inherent element of danger, both casual and very real, that comes with any industry that relies mostly on alcohol sales for profit. On the lightest front, it is not a reliable source of income from night to night, and for many of the workers, it means relying on tips and potentially unruly patrons. On a darker note, it creates a human resources hell in organizations with no support for such matters, and promotes an atmosphere where alcohol is a replacement for other concrete forms of payment for both the workers and artists. Add to that the reality that if workers and artists don't participate as drinkers, they can miss out on important networking opportunities, and professionalism and equity are yet again pushed aside.
The amount of cronyism that I have experienced in my time in the industry is remarkable. To be fair, I have both benefited and suffered from both sides of this coin. Every major job I have gotten has been through bar-room style connections. Every major job or promotion I have lost has been to a cis white man who had a less qualified resume than mine, but was more appropriately scene connected.
I wish I had any optimism left for this to shift to a more stable ecosystem with an equitable pipeline, where skills were rewarded and workers were protected, but I’m not sure I do. We’re all getting exploited for our talents, whether it’s on stage or behind the scenes - running on the fumes of the passion for this art form that we live for.
That’s not to say there won’t be glimmers of good and that people shouldn’t attempt to make their own small utopias. If you and your scene have it in you, both spiritually and monetarily, start your own fucking show space.
It’s just not my place anymore.
Zan Emerson (they/them) is an artist and craftsman based in LaFayette, NY. In addition to their primary metalsmithing work, they also enjoy the material possibilities of wood, leather, and glass. For their unique take on bold, minimalist graphic design, Zan was named Village Voice’s “Best Concert Poster Designer” of 2015.