Seattle “City of Music”? Or “City of Unpaid Musicians”??

by Jason on June 21, 2010 · 10 comments

in Business, Gigs, Thoughts

City of unpaid musicians?

City of unpaid musicians?

UPDATE: I received a respose from James Keblas in the Mayor’s Office and he told me that the post shouldn’t have been made and he took it down. He said he totally supports all musicians getting paid, thanked me for my letter, and said he was going to call the hotel to talk to them about the need to compensate the musicians. He’s a stand-up guy!

Today I saw a post on the Seattle Mayor’s Office of Film and Music listing a “Performance Opportunity”. This opportunity was for musicians wanting to play for four hours in the lobby of the brand new Maxwell Hotel.

Sounds great, right? But here’s the terms:

There is no monetary compensation, however musicians are encouraged to sell merchandise. The Maxwell Hotel will promote this feature through their social media and website.

Seattle has been trying to position itself as the “City of Music”, and their stated mission is to “enhance the climate for our music industry, and to propel Seattle’s leadership role in music throughout the nation and the world.” I don’t see how this is accomplished by their implicit approval of these types of offers.

I wrote this letter to the director of the office, and will let you know what kind of response I receive:

Hi James,

I have followed the city’s “City of Music” initiative with much interest since it was announced. I attended the launch at the Paramount, I’ve watched the news conferences, followed the appointments to the Music Commission, all the while hoping that much good would be done for the working musicians of Seattle though these programs. You’ve put great folks on the commission and all the talk has been encouraging. Even seeing you accept the job at the Mayor’s office was a good sign, as I’m familiar with all the great work you’ve done for the music community.

All this made it even more discouraging when I saw the blog post on your site today about the “Performance Opportunity” at the Maxwell Hotel (

As a working musician I am constantly dealing with the fact that many people in a position to hire me to play have no respect for the fact that they are asking a highly skilled artisan to enhance their establishment. Offers of non-paying gigs with a promise of some sort of “exposure” or ability to sell my product undermine and devalue the service that I would be providing. If the hotel put a want-ad out for a bellman or a front desk clerk or a housekeeper and said “There is no monetary compensation, however the Maxwell Hotel will promote them through their social media and website, and applicants are encouraged to sell merchandise” they’d be laughed out of the industry. This speaks to the overall lack of respect and acknowledgment that the arts receive in our society.

However, I decided long ago that it’s not worth my time and energy to get upset about venues asking artists to play for free. The Maxwell and others have every right to offer whatever sort of deal they see fit. We, as artists, have every right to say no. I find it much more advantageous to ignore these folks and search out those that do get it and do value what I have to offer. There are plenty of paying gigs out there!

But by putting this notice up in your “Performance Opportunity” category you are giving your implicit approval to this type of offer. This is extremely disappointing to me coming from your office which has talked so much about making Seattle the “City of Music” and using your influence to “enhance the climate for our music industry, and to propel Seattle’s leadership role in music throughout the nation and the world.” I can’t see how your approval of musicians playing for free does anything to achieve this goal.

For the city, which is trying to brand itself as the “City of Music”, to put this in your newsletter doesn’t do a lot to show me that you are looking out for our best interests. All the press conferences, flashy logos and marketing opportunities in the world will do nothing to give me confidence that you are truly concerned about musicians making money in this town if you continue to ignore the realities of how we are treated and how live music is viewed.

If I’m missing something here please do let me know. I want to believe that the city has my best interests at heart. I want to support the “City of Music” initiative. I’m left confused and conflicted by this post and would love to hear back from you.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob Michael June 21, 2010 at 2:52 pm

An intelligent well-worded response to a perplexing matter.

Well done.

farah June 21, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Agreed with above comment- excellent article and letter to James. Keep us posted! I admire your voice Jason!

Michael Owcharuk June 21, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Hey, I think it worked. The post is no longer up on the site.

cory huff June 21, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Well done! Glad to see that that mayor’s office is so supportive. Color me impressed, and way to be pro-active and speak up Jason!

John Nastos June 21, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Great job — it’s always discouraging to see people asking musicians to play for free or “exposure,” but a happy ending like this is great to see. Kudos to you for taking the initiative to write the letter as well. It seems like apathy or laziness often subdues that instinct — glad it didn’t in your case.

Matt Erion June 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm

When I was in college, my theory project was an aleatoric piece where all the instruments were played by throwing ping pong balls at the instruments. Too much Captain Kangaroo as a kid, but I digress. I am so tempted to go to the Maxwell and re-create this piece. I can easily extend it out to 4 hours straight.

Lawrence BaTTEY June 22, 2010 at 8:42 am

Hey Jason,

Good work. I met with James and his gang two years ago talking about this very subject and all I was left with was, “here is a booklet on how to open up a club.” James had stated in the meeting that he had owned a club and had not paid musicians before. So we know what side of the house he is on.

Last week after I read the article about the 20 person “board” they had assembled for this “music initiative” (all business entities, only 1 person was a musician), I sent him an email stating that they need to involve the very people that are making the music and putting on the shows. That the musicians in this town can’t even make a standard of living which diminishes the quality of music since most professional bad ass musicians quit, get a day job or move away.

I have had no response.

Lawrence Battey

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
June 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

Thanks guys! I’m really happy with the response I got and I’m glad that we stood up for what we think is right.

Lawrence – in my experience James is a stand-up and reasonable guy who does care about the scene in Seattle. I think we should all give the Commission a chance, use them as the resource they are supposed to be, and hold them accountable when we feel they are not living up to their mission. They were created for US, so let’s think of them as partners and not adversaries.

Camden Hughes | Learn Jazz Standards July 6, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Good for you for writing that letter, and I’m glad that it seems to have made a difference! We’re all in this together. It should be very possible to make a living in music, and if we collectively keep our standards high, maybe club owners etc. will realize that they can’t expect our services without due compensation.

George Colligan August 9, 2010 at 3:26 am

Jason, your Blog is KILLIN! How do I get mine to look like that! I guess you’ve been doing this for a while. Really great site, I’ll check it out some more…..

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