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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

After Dark, November 15, 2011

So...we have to be poor?
A recent music controversy points to problems for us all
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois

The band Karkwa is terrific. They're fresh, they're brash and they don't need to prove anything to me.

But last week they learned they had something to prove to their fans: their status as cool and indie. Karwa liscensed a song to Coke and Twitter, Facebook and their web page exploded with rage. They were sell-outs, donchaknow.

If I know anything about mid-range Canadian bands (actors, dancers, singers) is that they are not lighting Cuban cigars with rolled up twenties. They tour hard, they promote hard and they work their asses off to get their music onto a disc or over to iTunes. That Karkwa liscensed a song to a megacompany and made some cha-ching perturbs me not in the least. 

When it comes to art, our consumers have a sense of entitlement they do not merit.

What pisses me off is the accepted belief that to have street cred, artists mustn't just not be rich, but have to remain poor. And it's not just the impoverished who are insisting on this, but also the suburban kids who don't even drive their SUVs to the stores to buy music anymore but download it from iTunes or, worse, Torrent it. (Read: steal it.)

When it comes to art, our consumers have a sense of entitlement they do not merit. It is the bane of artists of the new age; pundits have said that the internet, among other things, have habituated the young to getting stuff for free and so has created an impoverished creative work force.

Of course, artists have let this happen too by undervaluing the work they do and in an utterly innocent and pernicious way. The good/evil of funding agencies have allowed us to set ticket prices at an artificial price and this has one unfortunate result: unsubsidized artists cannot charge real prices for their work. If you can see a Canadian Stage show for $40, you are not going to pay $100 for the show that receives not a cent from governments. I had an example of this this week when a company, presenting a show in a tiny house said they were not providing critics' tix because the house was too small, the run too short, and they had to pay the bills. I utterly understand. But maybe it's time for artists who are presenting unfunded work to charge for it. Instead of the fifteen bucks the company is charging for a three-person play, perhaps $30? It sounds like a terrific show, after all.

But no. The locals won't stand for it. Or will they?

The fact is no one will know unless someone does it and I fear for the first who tries because they'll be going into a new world where spoiled spectators are going to demand more for the ticket fee. But, the fact is, they've been receiving far more than they've paid for for an awfully long time.

Simply: if governments and philanthropists won't subsidize art, and artists need to earn a living, it's time for the seething mob to cough up.


  1. The music industry today is not what it was 20, or even 10 years ago. The volume of recorded music being produced so much larger than it once was, and so speciated into genres and sub-genres that making a living by selling recorded music is next to impossible. In fact, the sales of most albums don't even cover the costs of recording. There is money in touring, but most acts can only hope to break even, and to put on a truly spectacular show, it costs more, so it's not like the difference between a $30 ticket and an $80 ticket is lining the performers pockets. The best way in this day and age for recording artist to earn a real living is by licensing their music. This means allowing their songs to be used in television, movies, and yes, advertising. The only real consumers out there who actually by a decent price for music are the licensing agencies. Before any so-called fan chastises a band for "selling-out" they should first ask themselves "what have I done to help sustain this artist?"

  2. I understand what you're saying about ticket prices, and I've given the matter some thought myself over the past months. While charging 40$ a ticket for independent theatre would be nice to be able to do, insofar as it would theoretically help pay the bills, any theatre practitioner in Montreal knows that you can't do that. The public simply won't pay 40$ for a show at a smaller venue, because it's not worth that much in their eyes.

    I've been considering recently what the source of greatest competition for theatre is, and I believe it to be cinema. If people are going out of their homes to spend 20-50$ on an evening of entertainment, they are more likely to spend it at a cinema than at live theatre. Quite a lot of that is simply that Hollywood has more money to throw at things like publicity and marketing, but I think there's also a public perception that needs to be addressed. We, as theatre practitioners, know that there is a difference, both in style and in experience, between cinema and live theatre. I wonder, though, how clear that distinction is to our audience. If the audience we're trying to entice sees no practical difference between watching us on a screen, or watching us live, then of course they won't spend more than cinema prices to come see it.

    The point I'm getting at is that maybe part of the problem is that we need to convince the public of the value of live theatre. People will pay more money for a theatre ticket if they feel it is worth more. I'm not sure how to re-value our art in the public eye, but I'll keep thinking about it, and I would definitely welcome suggestions.


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