Fair Play: SMC’s Vision For A More Equitable NYC Music Scene

by Nikhil P. Yerawadekar

Our very first Sound Mind Collective meeting took place in September of 2017. It was a sprawling conversation about the broad range of difficulties we deal with in the field of independent music, concluding with a collective desire to organize towards a healthier NYC music landscape.

That same month, Mayor De Blasio signed the Office Of Nightlife into existence. Inspired by similar efforts in European cities, the Office of Nightlife, or ONL for short, is a small governmental body “working to balance vibrancy and safety by proactively managing life at night,” intended to yield “social benefits such as reductions in noise complaints, and healthier, more productive nighttime economies” while also remaining “committed to promoting safe spaces and social justice, protecting grassroots cultural spaces, streamlining red tape and regulations, ensuring fair and proportionate enforcement, and advancing quality of life for all New Yorkers.”

Since the inception of both groups, SMC members have made an effort to learn how the ONL operates and to suss out how our collective could work with them to make positive changes. One of ONL’s first public engagements was a Listening Tour of all five boroughs, to hear the concerns of New Yorkers and to help set an agenda for themselves. We were not surprised to see that discussion of Nightlife issues on this level was dominated by topics like noise complaints and businesses having difficulty with liquor licenses. SMCers attended three of the five Listening Tour events and were some of the only artists or musicians to express viewpoints representing our professions and communities.

Throughout the Listening Tour, ONL Senior Executive Director Ariel Palitz made it clear that her Office is committed to supporting the artist community, and, along with other members of the ONL, encouraged us to bring our issues to their attention in hopes for solutions (and “wins” for those keeping score in local politics/PR).

So what exactly can ONL help us with? The Office doesn’t have direct authority to, say, force venues or contractors that delay payment to pay on time, but instead it offers a type of support called “M.A.S.H. (Multi-Agency Support for Hospitality)”-- connecting individuals or venues with the right governmental agencies to address their concerns, and working in tandem to get the ball rolling on solutions.

That’s useful! Musicians are often taken advantage of in financial exchanges, and we often feel like there is nowhere to turn for leverage, particularly because we often deal in sums of money that aren’t worth hiring a lawyer for. It can be hard to understand which government agency or service is the right one to reach out to for help, and dealing with these bodies can often be confusing and time consuming.

But of course, if you consider the full scope of the problems we face working in the music industry, many of the issues that come up are traditionally thought of as falling outside of government’s purview.

Since day one of SMC, we’ve discussed our experiences as music-makers in NYC and in the greater context of the society we live in. We know that income inequality continues to increase at a rate that threatens the livelihoods of those of us just getting by on musicians’ incomes, which have remained stagnant while cost of living continues to rise.  Gentrification continues to displace poorer communities in NY (who are often the creators and innovators of new styles in music), and corrupt policing and local politicians are in bed with real estate developers which encourages these ruthless demographic changes. As professional musicians in competition with up-and-coming peers who are willing to work for free, we’re up against a lot more than what New York City’s Office Of Nightlife was designed to handle.

But considering that the ONL has stated a commitment to social justice that is compatible with our own views, members of SMC’s ONL working group decided to put forth a series of proposals called Fair Play NYC. Fair Play identifies problems far and wide and maintains a position that  prioritizes the health of marginalized communities, but focuses on practical solutions that could conceivably be addressed by the Office. Knowing that the city’s stated interest in Nightlife was an economic one, and armed with some inside advice about what areas to focus on, here’s what our working group came up with.

The problems we’ve observed include:

  • A lack of affordable housing, rehearsal and work spaces

  • Unfair contracts, and often a complete absence of contracts, leading to wage theft, withholding of wages, and overly restrictive radius clauses

  • Stagnant performance wages in spite of increased costs of living

  • Lopsided marketing expectations where the burden to draw patrons is almost solely on the artist.

  • An increasingly segregated local music landscape in which the economic barriers to entry work to sideline artists from marginalized communities, who have historically been on the vanguard

  • Closing of many of the small venues local artists rely on to cultivate their following and earn a living

But the number one issue we contend with is the simple dearth of work opportunities for musicians that truly pay a living wage. How will NYC be able to maintain its position as a global leader in Nightlife and culture in general if artists can’t afford to live here?

The Fair Play NYC Initiative would:

  • Require plain language contracts between venues and musicians followed by transparent and timely settlements.

  • Guarantee a minimum wage and door-split for shows, thereby valuing the contracted labor musicians perform and ensuring that all parties are acting in good-faith

  • Provide city-sponsored promotion for participating venues and artists

  • Commit venues to source programming from and for our local communities

  • Expand free and affordable rehearsal space models, such as Spaceworks, to sites in lower income neighborhoods

  • Expand and promote existing City programs and incentives specifically to the music community, e.g., affordable health care and discounted MetroCards

  • Secure commitments to community-focused music programming and educational opportunities for underrepresented communities, in order to ensure a diverse and vibrant future for music in NYC, and

  • Create a source for anonymous venue complaints regarding unfair settlements or inadequate working conditions (separate from 311).

  • Eliminate the venue cut for artists’ merch sales

One of the challenges in developing this initiative was narrowing down our vision to work within the capitalist framework of our current reality. We don’t believe that musicians should enjoy easier lives than people in other professions-- in fact, we don’t believe that a person’s ability to live in NYC should be dependent on what job they have. But we do see that grassroots-level musicians and artists in particular are rarely “at the table” in conversations about wielding power in the city, and that we need advocacy from within our own community in order to ensure that our needs are addressed.

We know that ONL does not have any clout to change practices in the realm of recorded music so this proposal was made from the lens of live performers. And we also know that local government can’t force a business to change its practices, and that if a performer wants to perform for free, there is no way to force a venue to pay them-- but city government can expand its existing services and outreach, and create incentives so Fair Play becomes something that venues want to volunteer to be a part of.

This past March, SMC co-founder Chris St. Hilaire presented the Fair Play initiative at a meeting with the Office Of Nightlife Advisory Board, and the full transcript of his statement can be seen here. The Advisory Board is set to make recommendations to the greater ONL at the end of this year. Thus far, we are feeling that there is a real dialogue with our contacts in the Advisory Board, and that we are in a position to realistically have our ideas determine the agenda for future ONL movement.

Since we submitted our proposal, SMC has been invited to meet with local venue owners and promoters to discuss these issues, and to join other groups wishing to advocate on behalf of musicians who have given us positive feedback about Fair Play. This is great because we presented it as a work in progress, and further dialogue is needed.

We know that SMC can only go so far with the best ideas generated from within our relatively small collective. Now that the Fair Play proposal has given us a framework, our aim is to gather as much information as we can about the lives of music makers in NYC-- even to the extent of working with university level researchers to find real data about how musicians in NYC are living, so we have data to support our claims-- and we feel a responsibility to seek and amplify the concerns of our most marginalized peers.

So, we ask you: are you seeing anything in our initiative that warrants further consideration, or any ideas that are missing? Would you like to be a part of this ongoing conversation between SMC, local government and the greater NYC music community? If so, please write us at thesoundmindcollective@gmail.com with any feedback you might have about the Fair Play vision. We’d love to have more voices in our ongoing conversation.