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Why musicians are the canaries in the coal mine

  • 21 August 2017


To get a good idea of where employment practices are headed, a good place to start is the music industry. Musicians have been the canary in the coalmine. The gradual removal of their work place rights, and even basic remuneration, points to what happens when there are no effective constraints on employers’ behaviour. Instead, they are being offered ‘exposure’—and, as one muso quips, ‘you can die of exposure.’

First, a little context. In 1907, Justice Higgins made the point that wages should be sufficient to maintain workers and their families in “…frugal comfort...” (it was known as the Harvester case). The idea was derived directly from Leo xiii’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and provided a method of balancing the competing interests of employers and employees.

In recent years, that principle has come under serious threat, and the commercial music industry provides an example of just how far it can be diluted. Commercial venues only hire bands because they attract crowds. Bands know that they must attract a crowd if they want to be paid reasonably. The traditional way to achieve this was to play a popular repertoire presented in an entertaining manner to ensure repeat customers. It gave bands a path to follow in developing their acts. Successful musicians, in this view, were those who derived a living income from their musical activities: working musicians.

It is a reasonable arrangement and creates a supply and demand relationship between venues and bands. The amount of properly paid work for musicians under this system is potentially vast. Musicians’ employment, which is covered by a series of awards that govern minimum pay including penalty loadings, meant that musicians could, and often did, take venues or promoters to industrial tribunals if they were underpaid—although usually they were paid considerably higher than these minimums.

It all changed when new profit/risk sharing arrangements were introduced, such as the ‘door deal’. The industrial relationship between venues and musicians could now be construed as a contractual, rather than an employment, one. It meant awards were potentially no longer enforceable.

Meanwhile, a coalition of large promoters, recording companies, music managers and broadcast media— which constitute the ‘Music Industry’—pushed a different view. For obvious reasons of self interest, they consider that only those who create original music are musicians, and that they should aim, after a period of ‘paying your dues’, to secure a recording contract, engage a manager and enter into competition with other original