Fair Trade Music

Can Portland provide fair wages for working musicians?

The health of Portland's thriving music scene is evident when you're waiting in line Saturday night to see your favorite band, clutching a sweaty $5 bill to hand to the doorman.

But not enough of that cover charge goes to the acts, says a group of 200-plus musicians who have organized as the Fair Trade Music movement.

Bands usually get a small portion of door sales after clubs take out money for promotion and "house fees," but there's no set practice, and the payout changes from club to club, says Bruce Fife, president of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 99.

"Money goes to the doorman and soundman before it gets to the band," Fife says. "That money being paid at the door [should be] fairly distributed to the musician."

The concept of "fair trade" for music has been bandied about in Portland for a couple years, but the movement is now starting discussions with clubs in hopes of setting a fair wage for all performing musicians, whether they be union or non-union workers. Borrowing the fair-trade concept from the practice of paying a certified fair wage to farmers of products such as coffee, Portland's Fair Trade Music would rate venues and clubs based on their audience capacity and type of liquor license to determine a fair pay scale for musicians.

Larger concert halls, such as the Crystal Ballroom or Roseland, would not be targeted because they already work through contracts negotiated with musicians. There are about 60 unionized musical acts in Portland, including Los Lobos, Storm Large and the Balls, and the Portland Cello Project, according to the union's website.

The idea of fair-trade music hasn't been tried in any other city. But local campaign volunteer Sean Hudson, an upright-bass player for Will West, thinks it could work. Clubs that adhere to the pay scale would get a sticker to display in their window, potentially a plus in a progressive city like Portland where fair trade resonates.

It's uncertain, however, whether clubs would simply raise cover charges to meet the increase. Fair-trade organizers don't have an answer for how to pay musicians higher wages without doing so, other than increasing alcohol prices, which Fife says wouldn't necessarily hit all customers.

"This sticker means better entertainment and that your money goes to the musicians," Hudson says. "We think this will help increase attendance."

Lewi Longmire, a 38-year-old professional guitarist who's been playing in Portland for 11 years, isn't so sure.

He says part of the door fees covers overhead, and that some venues may stop having music altogether if a minimum wage becomes mandatory for musicians.

But not all venues would have to get on board, organizers say.

"If [venues] don't agree with the reasoning, then they don't have to be a part of it," says Hudson. "The idea with this campaign is to promote these ideas to the public in the same way people buy fair-trade coffee."

WWeek 2015

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