The Side Barre: On Adele & Performing for Free

This is Season 1 Episode 4 of the The Side Barre podcast, developed through Anchor and streamed on Spotify.

Listen now on Spotify and read on to follow the transcript.

It’s been a busy and polarizing couple of weeks in the music industry news sector and I’ve been having a little trouble deciding what topics I wanted to touch on in this week’s Side Barre. 

We’ll start with Adele.      

On Adele, Spotify & The Shuffle Button

On the tail of her new album release, Adele has been seemingly everywhere, but the press release that was the most interesting to me was one where she boasts about addressing the hot pressing issue of the shuffle button with the Spotify executive team. 

If you didn’t hear the story, Adele stated that artists spend long, excruciation, detailed hours determining the tracklist for their records, and as such the Spotify shuffle button is an abomination, infringing on her rights as a serious performing artist who not only has important stories to tell, but a specific detailed listing of which they should be heard. 

As someone that produces and engineers their own records, I’m in no way unfamiliar with this practice – although, I think if you’re spending hours putting this together, maybe you’re not familiar enough with the story you’re trying to tell and you should work on that first. 

I have nothing against Adele doing this or saying this, in fact, in many ways I absolutely agree with the statement. Concept albums are not a new thing by any means, popularized most notably by The Who with Tommy, The Eagles with Hotel California, and Green Day with American Idiot, but I’d argue that the vast majority of artists you come across in your lifetime don’t actually create them or in any way set out to create them in the way Adele proclaimed. 

I’d also argue that if your songs absolutely need to be played in a specific order for the listener to truly “get” and appreciate what you’re doing, then the songs themselves simply don’t hold their own weight and you’ve missed the mark along the way, but that’s a whole other segment. 

Here’s the thing about what Adele’s really saying here with her statement: she wants her art to be heard in the way that she and only she intended, so what does that mean exactly? 

Do we stop all other artists from covering Adele songs? After all, she’s not the one singing and performing them in that instance. Do we stop club DJ’s from spinning her latest single? After all, she put together a very specific and detailed music video to accompany it, so are you cheapening the art by not taking them both in at the same time? Do we have to set aside 30-45 minutes of our day each time we want to embrace the wonder that is Adele, taking in each album in its entirety, from start to finish, without pauses? Is that not what she insists upon, and feels so deeply and strongly about that she went out of her way to not only sit down with Spotify to discuss it, reprogram their platform to her specific wants and needs, but then also go out of her way to talk about it globally. 

And we’re talking about something that you could already really easily do by simply selecting Track 1 on any given album on Spotify. You can still do this, so her big conversation with Spotify big wigs has altered virtually nothing, but the world blew so much smoke up her ass about it when it hit the presses that it rendered me marginally speechless while I took it in.

This is in no way innovative or helping the artist community, Adele, and I’m a little annoyed at how quick we are as a musician collective to jump onto stories like this without really taking consideration to some of the very real and serious issues that plague artists when it comes to streaming services like Spotify. 

Here’s the bigger issue: Adele is a multi-millionaire superstar singer and songwriter, no one is disputing that. She has incredible influence on the music industry given her stature, even spilling over into film and other art forms, and she knows this. That’s what she was boasting about – “check out this thing I made streaming giant Spotify reconsider and change!”. And it’s great, really, thank you Adele for bringing light to the subtle art of producing hit records and all that goes into it, but when you were sitting at that table with those big wig executives who are making a killing off of musicians right now, did you talk to them about anything else? Did you ask them to reconsider their position on the average artist per stream payout which currently sits at $0.00437 cents per stream? Those songs that artists put hours of time and detail into? Those albums that are so important to be told and listened to? 

.00437 cents per stream, on average. That means at least half the artists on the platform see even less than that per stream. 

Did you talk about the abysmal rate that audio and mixing engineers get paid to spend all those hours on your work? 

Did you talk about the high cost of marketing that album to get a single stream? 

Did you talk about how musicians were knocked on their asses when COVID hit, without any assistance from their respective governments who already care so little about the arts and culture sectors that in the best of times you’re lucky to get a volunteer position setting up a stage at your local community music festival showcasing the best in – enter whatever tiny U.K hamble town name that Adele would know and appreciate where I’m coming from with this statement here – nevermind get paid to set it all up, run the show, ensuring those who paid a ticket to attend are enjoying themselves, have food and drink, and can actually sit down for 5 minutes to just take in some music? 

Those people don’t give a shit about the order of your album, Adele. 

Adele did you talk to Spotify about the lacquer shortage that’s going to drive more and more artists to streaming platforms, and how they’ll capitalize on that exponentially if that streaming rate remains what it is? 

Did you talk about how your record is among a select few that clogged up vinyl record pressing plants for months and months so that you could take a monopoly on the music charts for your release? 

Did you talk about how crippling this was to the indie artists who were keeping vinyl alive for years, one of the few things keeping indie artists afloat, before major labels like yours caught on to the novelty factor of it, created the vinyl record boom and took complete control of that aspect of the industry, too. 


Adele pressed something like 500,000k vinyl records of her most recent album 30 and I’m willing to bet a few of those are still sitting on shelves slowly collecting dust.

Why is it that efforts like Adele’s shuffle-button crusade are applauded but the music industry as a whole in many parts of the world still remains in absolute shambles and nothing is said or done of it? 

Why do we shriek and holler when popular music festivals announce their post-pandemic return, showcasing the exact same 30 bands that have been standing on those stages for 25 years and counting? 

Why is this industry so remarkably afraid of changing the faces on the front cover and why are they adamant to keep indie artists out of the equation entirely, instead of embracing them and encouraging their submissions, they continue to force them through expensive channels like sonicbids just to get their name in the hat? 

Is it because the same major labels are still being run by the same executive team that brought these bands to popularity in the first place? Is it because a very few select group of companies head almost every single major music label, every single major music festival, and even the record stores that shelve them? 

Is it because behind closed doors Spotify is shaking hands with pop stars like Adele as they agree upon a press release that only serves to make them both look good instead of actually working towards building a model that is sustainable for indies and majors alike? 

What would be the benefit of that except a world rich in music that spans the globe, sharing stories from as far away as Mumbai and Singapore with listeners in the Yukon, Amsterdam, or the middle of nowhere Idaho. 

I say this often, but we currently are living through a time where due to great advances in technology we’re able to connect more intimately than ever before and yet we do nothing to truly take advantage of that opportunity, thinking first of our pocket books and not the connections we claim to crave, and shamelessly doing it under the guise of free expression and art instead of calling it what it really is. 

Performing For Free

Speaking of making connections, let’s talk about performing for free.

I happened upon a tweet this morning where somebody posed the question, “what do you think about performing for free as a musician?” with the underlying question of course being, is this an acceptable practice, should it be allowed, and why not? 

This is a bit of an age-old question and it’s one that I often personally struggle with a response for. 

Of course, as a performing musician, I want to be paid for doing exactly that. That’s the ultimate dream job for many of us, isn’t it? 

Even those who have never strapped a guitar to their back have found themselves fantasizing about it, imagining a world where they’re in the spotlight, if only for an hour a night. 

The responses that poured in under the tweet were pretty much what you’d expect to hear from indie musicians. Things like, “performing for free undermines the craft,” “Venues that do this are taking advantage of musicians,” “I put so much time and energy into learning how to play, of course I should be paid for it,” and “do restaurants give away food and drink for free? So why should I?” 

I’ll preface my response here by saying, in case you’re new to me personally, at this stage in the game I have released virtually all of my music for free in some capacity. 

Many of these same artists can no doubt say the same. 

But we’re talking about performing and not simply distributing, so we’ll try to bare that in mind here. 

Now this question can and often has   spawned endless hours of debate and I don’t imagine that’s going away anytime soon, but as I’ve been slowly booking shows it’s something that comes up often for me, as well, so it’s worth talking about for a few minutes at least. 

So let’s start with the first response: performing for free undermines the craft. 

I’m not of the mind that it does, actually, and I’d argue that every single musician of all time has to undergo this rite of passage. 

If you can name me even 1 musician who has from the beginning of their career until the very end, been paid for every single performance, I’ll literally quit this podcast right now that I’m writing and distributing for free on Spotify which is a platform we don’t even talk about podcast streaming rates the way we do music streaming rates. 

It begs the question, is there a set number of hours or certain level of musical ability in which you as an artist must obtain before you can start fussing about whether or not that dive bar down the road from your grandmother’s house should be paying you or not? 

Further to that, why should the venue care how much time you put into defining your skillset? 

You don’t deserve money for playing music no more than you deserve money for that doodle you drew in 2nd grade that your mom put on the refrigerator for company to fawn over. 

You don’t deserve that money regardless of if you’re a 4 year old prodigy or you’re the legend Keith Richards himself. 

The venue you’re performing at is in no way cheapening your art by allowing you the opportunity to perform to their customers.

And speaking on that other point that anonymous twitter user raised, a whole lot of restaurants and bars actually do give away food and drink for free, like when they’re trying to entice customers   to come in and pay for a meal – the same way they entice customers to come in with a scheduled performance by an Irish cover band on St. Patrick’s Day. The same way coffee shop barista’s spend hours on the sidewalk holding out samples of their freshest banana bread and a shot of their new and improved Pumpkin Spiced Latte. 

I could go on about that one, but you get the point, I’m sure. 

I don’t really get the argument for having spent so much time and energy into something that you deserve to be paid for it, particularly when it comes to showcasing art, which is all a musical performance is. The visual art equivalent is renting out an art gallery and framing your best prints. Do you get paid just to do that, or do you put out the money for it yourself and then do your best to promote the hell out of it? Did you hire a promoter to put on the showcase, or did they offer you a slot at a specially curated festival? Did you even have a showcase if nobody leaves with a print? 

These questions are important because simply saying you deserve to be paid just for doing something you enjoy is, well, silly when it all boils down to it. 

Actors don’t typically get paid for the 800+ acting lessons they take to nail that lead audition, but they do negotiate a salary for committing to the part. 

And that’s what musicians really need to focus on. 

The question is not, “do I deserve to be paid” or “does this undermine the art” – it’s “what am I bringing to the table for this venue, and how can we ensure we’re both happy when we walk out the door at the end of the day?” 

The other question is, “am I negotiating with the venue, or am I negotiating with a music promoter?” because these are two very distinct things and they spawn their own offshoot of questions. 

For the purpose of this discussion, my own position here is: you do not deserve to be paid by a venue offering you the opportunity to play to their customers. You DO deserve to be paid by a music promoter who is billing you a spot on their show, but there is still something to be said about your level of artistry and the exposure gained from the slot.

I know, we all hate that word – exposure. Playing for exposure – shudder at the thought. 

But it’s a real thing. Hear me out. 

When I first put together a band, the type of music promoter that ran rapid here in Ontario were your run-of-the-mill pay-for-play music promoters; Supernova; Hotboxx… these were the promotion teams that were largely putting together battle of the bands showcases where you’d be granted something like a 20 minute slot on a list of 15 other bands playing for the potential of some sort of prize money, if of course, you advanced through the obstacles of 4-5 other showcases of the same nature. 

It’s was a losing game. The other kicker to these showcases were that you as the performing band were required to sell a certain number of tickets just for the opportunity to play – and you were required to do this for every single showcase you advanced into. 

If the day of the show came and you were short on your tickets sold, you were told to pony up, like that greasy bookie down at the race track taking bets under the table.

This is basically an impossible feat for any new artist. Even if you have the greatest support network of family and friends, you’re going to have a hard time convincing those same 40 people to come to 5 of your same show in the same month. By all accounts, when signed artists do month-long residencies at a venue, it’s a surefire sign they’ve “made it as an artist,” rather than them dishing out their pennies for a lottery ticket. 

These types of music promoters are everything that’s wrong with the live music industry in each and every city, because they’re not actually music promoters, are they? You’re the music promoter in this situation, and if you can’t deliver, you’re not getting paid. 

At that point, you might as well rent out a venue yourself and sell your own tickets, shouldn’t you? Cut the middle man. Save on overhead by holding the show in your backyard or at your local park (a park permit is way cheaper than renting out Lee’s Palace – I know because I’ve hosted shows at Lee’s Palace). 

This type of show opportunity is in no way akin to getting a slot on a major music festival though, especially if you’re brand new to the festival circuit. 

Now, I’m not at all suggesting that when you’re approached by a music festival organizer you say, “that’s okay, you keep that $500 for my set fee,” but I am saying you really need to look at the opportunity as a whole when it comes to any sort of artistic medium.

For starters, there’s something to be said about knowing your own worth. The problem artists have had over the years is that major labels have belittled our worth to such a point where we have incredible difficulty navigating that line. 

Let’s just say you’re approached by Riot Fest, you’re an up and coming band with a small following in your town, and you’re going to have to travel out of state/province to make the gig. You’re getting 20 minutes on a small side stage. They can’t pay you, though. 

Do you take the gig? 

I’d be looking at a few things. How much is it going to cost me to get there? Is equipment provided or am I lugging that along? What other bands are performing at this festival? Do they compliment my own set? Is the contact person for the festival a recurring employee of it? 

These are important questions because, since you’re not being paid, you’re already going into this one at a loss. If all goes well, you’ll gain a few new fans out of it, and best case scenario, they’ll invite you back next year, this time maybe you’ll get a better stage, longer time, and a stipend for the food truck. 

You’ll also be able to tell all those guppy music promoters in your hometown that you landed a slot at Riot Fest – and yes, that means something to them and it should mean something to you, too. 

Now, is Riot Fest also telling you that you, an out of town independent artist need to sell tickets to secure your spot on the stage? 

If they are, I’d run. That’s not a music promoter, that’s a Battle of the Bands hack trying to scam you out of cash because they know how hard it is to get these types of opportunities and they know how badly musicians want their art to be validated by this type of platform. 

If there’s one thing I learned about music promoters and getting gigs over the years, it’s that the bands that are getting the good gigs, the ones that pay, the ones where they’re opening for reputable artists they themselves listen to and fit into the scene of, are because of three key things and 1 undisputable reality. 

1) They know the difference between a music promoter, someone who’s rented a venue, and someone who owns a venue that’s okay with showcasing live music inside it

2) They’ve determined they’re worth as an artist at the level they’re sitting and they know how to negotiate it in both theirs and the promoters’ favour

3) They understand the importance of networking within the communities they want to play

And of course there’s 4) they’re just well connected because of their family name

If you take the time to consider all of these things, you can see that there are certain instances where playing for “exposure” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

If for some reason this weekend Treble Charger were playing the Phoenix Concert Theatre and their opening band couldn’t make the show, opening up the opportunity for me to play that slot for free, you’re damn right I’d play that show and hell, I’d ask them if they need help setting up the stage, too, and I wouldn’t feel bad about any part of it.

There are bars and restaurants right now in Toronto who do things like offer musicians 4-hour blocks on a weekday night for free to perform as much or as little as they’d like within that window. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Up to 4 hours for free, after all those hours you’ve spent honing your craft, you claim? 

They sweeten the deal by saying “if we like you, we might invite you back, and we’ll pay you for that one.”

Do you take the gig?

If your answer is “hell no” you’re missing the mark. 

Imagine opening up your establishment to an artist you know nothing about, presenting them a mic in front of all your regular customers and newcomers alike, and granting them the floor for that length of time. 

They might scare off your customers, and that’d be bad for business, wouldn’t it? This type of showcase goes both ways – you’re not just there to perform your music, you’re there to drive sales, both yours and the venue.

If musicians want to be taken seriously as performers it starts with asking the right questions and asking them of the right people.

It makes no sense to picket your local bars who offer free stage-time to performers they themselves have never experienced live shouting about unfair wages and diminishing art. These are your auditions. These are your opportunities to fine tune your playing, to experience different crowds and tailor your set to them as necessary. And they’re an opportunity to do them with nothing to lose – you get out of your bedroom and in front of an audience. That itself is worth something. And if it’s not, you’re in the wrong business. 

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