Pay for the Arts – A CounterCulture Initiative
Gig-goers, venue owners and independent artists have forever been in discussion about the ethics behind paying for a performance, or walking in cover charge free. This heated argument has more often than not resulted in two very clear conclusions: an artist deserves to be paid for what is, technically, his profession, versus the ‘I’m-paying-for-my-food-and-booze-anyway’ argument.
The problem with the latter is that the argument focuses only on what the venue has to gain, and not on what the artists should be gaining. Artists are, at the end of the day, offering a service (passion aside). And any service used must be paid for, if for no other reason, but to facilitate growth.
Bangalore based venue CounterCulture recognized this and gave way for what they call the Pay for the Arts initiative with a very self-explanatory slogan – ‘The gigs are free but the arts shouldn’t be. If you like what you see, pay what you feel’. The first PFTA gig saw homegrown band, Parvaaz, perform in support of the movement on August 14th, 2013. CounterCulture has PFTA drop boxes in different locations across the venue, where fans are given the freedom to contribute as much as they want for every performance. And all proceeds go directly to the band/artists.
I sat down with Vishwaraj Mohan, founder and director of CounterCulture, to understand the philosophy behind this initiative. This is what he had to say.
Noopur: We’ve heard about the Pay for the Arts initiative before. But not a lot of people are familiar with it. So what’s the story behind the initiative and how does it work?
Vishwa: It pretty much started about 6-7 months ago when a lot of new venues were cropping up in the city. And kept trying to push the idea of not paying to watch a show, from a business point of view. And we, of course, understand that there are business challenges and people do what they have to do to survive in this space. But fundamentally, encouraging people not to pay for what they want to watch is something we don’t believe in. We don’t ask artists to play free, we ask people to pay and that’s been the philosophy we’ve always followed.
And it’s not the idea that people don’t have money. It’s more about how they take certain things for granted in the alternative underground scene. And the idea is that artists should not have ‘jobs’. The idea is that artists should be artists, and they should be able to make money for what they do. So that was really the starting point. And we really wanted to start a campaign and tell people that they need to start paying. Of course, we’ve also seen that as Indians, we don’t like to pay for content. In fact, we’ve seen WorldSpace getting out of the country because of that, right? I mean, that’s a fantastic space. It couldn’t survive because we’re too used to free radio.
So it pretty much started in that thought. And we wanted to do it. And of course, it was too fresh in our heads and we thought “let’s start a campaign” and we wanted to do it around – I think it was Independence Day, or something like that, at the time – and we thought we’d do something around that time. Because it goes along with the thought. Parvaaz was the first show and it worked damn well. One thing is for sure: the campaign has created a lot of buzz. People are asking for it. So we’ve been creating badges and stickers. And people have been taking it, man. So Guru (Somayaji – Programme Director) was in Glasgow recently, and we’d made these badges, and people were coming and asking him for more. Even when I was in Chennai for the IndiEarth conference, people just kept coming for more and more stickers to take back with them.
So obviously everybody feels it, because it’s the idea of survival. And it’s the idea that musicians should make money with what they do. I’m not saying that the venues who don’t charge aren’t paying the artists. They definitely are. Nobody is taking anybody for granted. But in the long run, this system will fail if people don’t pay for what they want to watch. And it’s also a level of respect, you know? So you don’t walk out. I mean, I’ve seen this in Delhi where venues don’t charge entry and people aren’t sticking on for shows. Firstly, music in a bar itself, in some sense, is reducing the seriousness of the art; what you watch in a Chowdiah Hall is very different from what you watch in a bar. I’m not saying one is less serious than the other but it is already sort of reducing the feel of watching, right? Because you’re distracted with different things. So I’ve seen people walk in to venues, have one drink, achaa nahin lagaa, they move on to another venue.
From all these point of views – it’s for survival of the art and for people to take it seriously.
Noopur: On the technical aspect, how does it work? How is it laid out at CounterCulture?
Vishwa: So the earlier format was that we pay the artists the basic fee, and whatever is collected in the drop boxes that are around the venue go to the artists.
Noopur: And is that how it’s still working?
Vishwa: No. We’re re-looking at this whole model because what we’ve realized that the impact of the campaign is more. So we don’t want to keep repeating it constantly. But we’re looking at a re-model of this whole thing. We’ve seen it sort of dip. Like, for Parvaaz and Live Banned when we did it (PFTA gigs), we collected almost Rs.8000 on an average for each show. Which is fantastic. Some contributions were Rs.500; some were Rs.10; some were even Rs.1000. So now we’re re-looking at how to position this. But we definitely want to continue. There is one particular idea that we’re still sort of dabbling with. But ya, when it’s sure and solid, we’ll let you know.
Noopur: How open and receptive are artists to performing for this? Are they aware of this?
Vishwa: It kind of depends on what level you’re at. Unfortunately, what has been happening is that acts that believe in it, want to do it. And acts that don’t have a space, want to do it. Our idea is to eventually bring in someone who is already popular, already commercially viable, to make them support the system. So that’s what we’re dabbling in – how should the model work? Because it shouldn’t end up becoming a situation, or be seen as something that brings in a local act, and uses this model to pay them through it. That was the fear. The fear was that it shouldn’t be perceived as we get a band to come in and play for free, and pay them off the boxes. Because that would be opportunist from our point of view. So by May/June, we’re deciding to sort of do a big evening around it.
Noopur: So you said that you get a big act to kind of endorse this movement. What about the smaller acts? Do you have any plans for them to benefit from it, or be a part of it?
Vishwa: So, right now, it started as a philosophy; moved into a gig; and it’s continuing to be a philosophy. I mean, the boxes are still around, we talk about it in conferences, in spaces where we want to talk about what we stand for. But we want to not make it as physical or as real as how the shows were. So, we’re thinking of ways of how we want to take the campaign through. It might not necessarily be “put box, make money”. So we’re going easy on that part, on the actual performance part. We want to hold back on that till we’re really sure how we want it to work.
Noopur: I remember when I came for the first PFTA gig, which was Parvaaz, and a couple of gigs after, you guys would document the proceedings of each gig outside the venue. Did that help? Did you have curious gig-goers asking you what it is?
Vishwa: Absolutely. We’ve seen some Instagrams of people putting that up, some Facebook photos too. 100%. There’s definite curiosity. People would come and ask us at the gate. 100% curiosity. But like I said again, we’ve discontinued from writing it straight-forward, because we’re looking at how to go about it.
Noopur: So when it does come back, it’s going to come back with a bang.
Vishwa: There is a super idea that Guru and I have been working on. Actually it was Radnyee’s (Pradhan – Marketing & Communication) idea on how to continue the process, continue the thought and do something which is fun and has more of an impact. Not an impact commercially but for people to open their eyes and see that there is a possibility of crowd sourcing. And a possibility of people wanting to put something in front of you that they want to watch. And giving them that power. So, there’s an idea.
Noopur: Ok, that’s fun, exciting. To wrap it up, what can we expect from CounterCulture in the future – upcoming gigs, any festivals, anything we can looking to?
Vishwa: Ode to the Blues is coming. We’re super excited.
Noopur: So am I. I think a lot of people are.
Vishwa: *laughs* Yeah, the line-up is amazing. It’s going to be great.
Noopur: Is it going to be different from last year? Are you doing anything with the set up or…?
Vishwa: Yes! The set up is going to be incredible. The format is also changing. So we’re super excited.
Photo courtesy: CounterCulture Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/counterculturebangalore