Now that CD sales are as lost as a certain Dutchman’s mines, streaming audio is in the process of killing music downloads, and travel expenses are relentless, the NFL has the gall to ask the top-shelf acts they are considering for the half-time show at this year’s Super Bowl to pay them for the honor of doing the gig. Those acts were already doing the show for free (expenses only, which can be substantial), but free is no longer sufficient. The NFL wants a share of the performer’s tour and merchandise proceeds for a time period to be negotiated following their Super Bowl performance. Keep in mind that 112 million or so folks will be tuned in to watch the show, which is about as large an audience as one could ever hope for. Also keep in mind that Super Bowl half-time shows can be brutal to the performers, who mostly seem to me to furnish us with underwhelming performances. Having 112 million people see your over-produced, underwhelming performance is perhaps not the the thing one would like for the world to see. In my memory, the only half-time performance that was enthralling was Prince’s 2007 show when he played Purple Rain in the rain. A close second, to me, was Tom Petty’s 2008 performance.
Every other half-time show, in my opinion, has been as exciting as an old beer I once found behind the seat of my pickup truck as I was getting out my jack to replace a Saturday morning mud-grip tire that had overnight gone flat right in my drive way. The logo was nearly rubbed off the can as it has been jostled around for several years in the heat and the dust, recognizable as a beer only because of the shape of the can and some remaining smidgen of color, and fine print that read “Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” I looked it over carefully. Should I give it a sip?
Now that I found it, I decided I certainly would not waste it. I popped the top. I was rather suspicious that I heard no release of gasses, no whoosh, no bubbling, so I gave it a sniff, detected the most faint essence of skunk, which I sort of expected, and took a swig. I really wasn’t expecting much, but I got far less than that. To phrase it another way, I got far, far more of what I was not expecting, which in hindsight, was what I should have expected. My low expectations were not quite low enough. The beer, itself, was finally glad to have reached the moment it had been created for, much like an emerging cicada molts, finds a mate, then dies just a few hours after leaving its decade old burrow. I think that beer, aided by time, heat, and jostling, must have been brewed using the essence of dead cicada instead of hops. I’ve never eaten a cicada, but it seems entirely reasonable to me that one might taste much like that tepid, flat beer. The beer was just glad for the exposure, I suppose, having been hidden away for so long, waiting for its big chance. Time, I fear, had passed it by. Its moment of glory was also its moment of despair. I spat the swig out much faster than I took it in and watched in dismay the lumpy texture of the beer as I poured it out onto the ground, every milliliter adding to the bad taste in my mouth.
“I watch the Super Bowl half-time so I can see the commercials, not the show,” a friend who may have had too many tepid beers once told me. I’m not watching anything so I can see the commercials, which advertising agencies and production companies make so artsy now that they are beyond cryptic, some nearly concealing the name of the company being advertised. This is what happens when your advertising agency is more interested in winning awards for the commercials they produce for you than they are in helping you build brand awareness so that the quality of your product can build brand loyalty. All the touching Clydesdale Super Bowl commercials have not helped Budweiser sell more beer, since their market share is continually declining. In the advertising world the defensive reply to failed campaigns is, “Just think of how much more your market share would have eroded without those commercials.” But, it was not a Budweiser I had found behind the seat of my truck, though it may as well have well have been. Bad beer is bad beer, no matter who makes it, or how much money they spend advertising it.
And how they spend the money! Super Bowl seconds go for tens of thousands of dollars to advertisers. And tickets?? A Super Bowl ticket is beyond the means of many who might be considered wealthy by the government’s definition. Even Super Bowl games can be underwhelming, though I am not likely to miss one. I have seen a couple that made me think seriously, as I flip channels during half-time after having lost interest in the show, to sticking on the re-run of Bonanza I stumbled across. Sorry, Sir Paul, Mick, Madonna, Black-Eyed Peas and others. I regret that you played those gigs for free, since you did not need the exposure and should have taken the money. None of your performances made me want to purchase a ticket to see your live show.
For free! They played during the most expensive minutes known to man, which generated millions and millions of dollars for others, and they played for free. For exposure? If you ask me, their exposure might have been the same as a photograph exposed with automatic settings determined by a cheap camera’s light meter with the full sun in the background, the meter overwhelmed by its brightness, knowing only that it sensed sufficient light to allow the shutter to open, never minding that the photo would have the subject far too dark to be identified. Now, those at the top of the musical performance food chain are being asked to pay for the privilege that was formerly free.
“It will be good exposure,” said the NFL’s Super Bowl Entertainment Planner to the Artist-Fomerly-Known-as-Sensible’s much more sensible agent.
“We already have exposure, which is why you called me.” said the agent. “What we need is money.”
“But it is the opportunity of a life time. Over a hundred million viewers. A world-wide stage. Everything the Artist-Fomerly-Known-as-Sensible could dream of.”
“And nothing any of us could eat,” screamed the agent into his phone, banging it down on the his desk several times..
“Oh! We’ll provide finger foods in the green room, of course,” said the NFL’s Super Bowl Entertainment Planner.
“I’ll bet you will. Free corn dogs, too?” the agent asked.
“Yes! Oh, yes! If that’s what you want,” replied the NFL’s Super Bowl Entertainment Planner, mistaking sarcasm for weakness.
“I’ll tell you what. We’ll bring our own corn dogs. You pay us to play.”
“That’s out of the question. There are many other artists who would simply jump at this chance, but we are offering it to you, first.” said the NFL’s Super Bowl Entertainment Planner, not really liking the way this was going. He expected warm, fuzzy snuggles, not what was shaping up to be a rejection, on this, his first phone call to the first-most-desired artist’s agent, the one he had been instructed to obtain any cost…oops, I mean at no cost…no, I meant at a negative cost, as the NFL sought to turn the half-time show into a new profit center.
“Perhaps you should call those other artists, then” said the Artist-Formerly-Known-as-Sensible’s sensible agent. “We are playing the Moose Lodge Mid-Winter festival in Poughkeepsie on that date.” Thank goodness for the sensible agent, who did not want to lessen the value of the product he was selling by allowing it to be obtained for free, or worse, by paying for the right to play the venue.
Now, on to things of far lesser scope than Super Bowl shows.
Reverb Nation is a website that allows artists to post music, biographical information, and show dates. It functions like an electronic press kit, allowing people a taste of one’s music. It costs nothing, or at least, the basic Reverb Nation package costs nothing. There are a variety of promotional services one can pay for to increase their exposure. Before I terminated their e-mail notifications, I used to get about ten e-mails a day asking me to enter competitions for the right to play somewhere for free, all for the exposure, of course. I tell you an artist could die from all the exposure, much like a Mississippian failing to fully comprehend the hazards might die during an Alaska winter, the artist playing hungry and naked, but at least well exposed. Reverb Nation would have me spend my time and money to audition to earn the chance to be considered for the right to play somewhere for free. I decline…not that famous venues are lining up to get me to play for free, even, but if they were, I would decline anyway.
Every artist gets the right to choose what events he will play for free, whether it is a benefit for a cause he supports, or simply if it is a venue he would like to play. I understand that. And the Super Bowl is one of those events one might consider a high honor to play. But look carefully at the performances that have been given. Were I being sought, I would likely tell the seekers that it was going to cost them quadruple the regular rate to get me to play the Super Bowl, since it is too big a venue, too large an audience, and too easy to come off looking mediocre at best, and bad at worst. In all truth, about five minutes of a barber shop quartet, or a polka band, would be nearly as enticing to me as the too many underwhelming half-time shows I recall. Sorry, Bruno Mars. I knew who you were before your Super Bowl performance. The only thing I know more about you now is that you have performed at the Super Bowl. I don’t know anything more about your music, captured as I was at the time by the Bonanza re-run. When your act takes a back seat to Hoss and Little Joe, perhaps it would have been better had you gotten paid for it.
My own phone rang recently. A big corporate event was being planned. No expense was being spared on the venue, the catering, or the decorations. Dozens of professional event-planners would be working at great expense to make it a big success for the thousands expected to attend. Even Hollywood and government big shots would be there. My name had come up to the entertainment committee. Honestly, I was grateful for that.
After being sold on the sublime wonderfulness of this no-expense-spared event, the professional event-planner’s entertainment division VP’s executive assistant who had called me then said, “Our corporate client has asked us to contact you about entertaining after the main dinner at the awards banquet. The only problem is that we have no budget for entertainment. I hate to ask you this, but do you think you could play it for free? It would be great exposure and you’d have a great time. We’d see to that. And the food will be awesome.”
I was stone silent. It must have seemed like an eternity to the young executive assistant who had the misfortune of having me as his alleged first phone call.
“Are you there?” he asked in response to the silence..
I banged my phone down on the table several times, pushed a few buttons to put some dial tones in his ear. “We must have a bad connection,” I shouted into the phone I was holding at arm’s length. “Can you repeat that? Especially the free and exposure parts.”
Not having any sense of danger, he repeated the whole thing.
“No, I won’t play for free, but if I did decide to play for free it would still cost you something, since I won’t try to persuade my band to play for free, too. They like to get paid. We all can eat at home. We all like it at home. That’s where all our stuff is. That’s where the people we love are. If it’s free, I can just stay home and have a good time and not go to the expense of schlepping a bunch of stuff around, having a rehearsal, and expending a lot of my personal energy entertaining your client’s clients and employees. You just told me that no expense is being spared, yet you have no entertainment budget. You are getting paid, but you want me to work for free. I think I’ll pass.”
He objected to my objection, saying, “I don’t think you fully grasp how big this event will be.”
“And I think that you think that we are perhaps engaged in some sort of negotiations when there is nothing to negotiate. A business transaction requires that something of value pass in both directions. Apparently you think I am bringing very little value to the table, yet you called me, wanting me to perform for your client at your client’s request, in exchange perhaps for a plate of catered chicken breast, a few green beans, and a cold dinner roll.”
“Oh no! We don’t think that way at all. It’s just that we were well into the event planning when the entertainment thing was sprung on us and by that time there was just nothing in the budget for it. We’d really like to have you,” he said.
“Nope. This is not my problem. I’ll be glad and honored to give you my absolutely best performance, but I won’t do it for free. For free, I’ll just stay home and enjoy all of its comforts, though that’s not free, either; I have to pay for that. Next time, as a professional event planner, you might make sure, early in the planning process, that you have a line item in your budget for entertainment. Thanks for thinking of me, though.”
I hung up the phone. I get calls like that from time to time. A couple of times I was even reminded of how I had previously played for free, but playing for free is something I get to choose, and nearly every time I play for free, there is some sort of reckless confederacy of other musicians I admire who are involved, which gives me the opportunity to play music with them and have some fun. Playing a show as the featured entertainment can be a lot of fun, but you must put on your best face, play your heart out, and give everything you’ve got in you for people you don’t know, and agree to do all that on a date set months in advance, unable to make any plans on that date, when the truth is that when that date rolls around you may rather be fishing. You must then perform if you feel bad, have a fever, have snot running down your nose, a crick in your neck, or perhaps in the rain, with bad sound, to an audience you may have to work your ass off to win over which may not want to be won over since many corporate events are being peopled by those who don’t want to be there, but are required to. Your best is what those you are playing for deserve; it is not, however, what they always want to pay for.
“It’s good exposure, you know.”
“It’s a good way to get your foot in the door.”
“If you can do this for us now, we can probably get you several other gigs in the future.”
If exposure is the enticement, then know that exposure has a hard time superseding the precedent you already set of working for free. Those promised future gigs? They could easily pay two or three times more than your already established value. You are free to get out your calculator and see for yourself what the gross may be using zero as your factor. Subtract your expenses, and you will see that playing for free is actually paying to play.
How about if I just mail you a check for ten dollars and stay home, instead?
Am I a curmudgeon, or what? Well, yes, but not completely.
An invitation from other musicians to come join in the joy of an evening’s shared music? The joy of sharing music with friends at their homes or camps? Playing at the wedding of a life-long friend, or the weddings of their children I have known and loved since their birth? Or at the funeral of someone I have loved on this earth? Or on a whim at the drop of a hat? Those are different matters, entirely, and are not contemplated here.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to music. Perhaps musical performance is going to hell in a hand-basket like the world it exists in.
©2014 Mississippi Chris Sharp