Many pop musicians on Dutch stages perform for next to nothing

There is an aura of golden mountains around pop music. The stars can afford a mansion in Beverly Hills, or the requirement that a bottle of Hennessy cognac be ready in the dressing room. But for the vast majority of Dutch pop musicians, performing is just too meager a source of livelihood, according to an inventory that the pop sector presented to State Secretary Gunay Uslu (Culture, D66) during the Groningen Eurosonic Noorderslag festival on Friday.

The many Dutch pop musicians who are already performing in well-known pop temples, but do not fill a large hall there, only have an average of about 100 euros left over on a concert. That turns out to be far too little: to get a fair reward (‘fair pay‘) as the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has set itself the target for the cultural sector, the wages for these artists should quadruple.

This requires 7.8 million euros nationwide, concludes consultancy Berenschot, and the stages do not have that money. “If there were easy solutions to generate more income, the venues would have already done that,” says advisor Bastiaan Vinkenburg.

The research follows a year of conversations between venues and festivals, artists and other stakeholders in the Dutch pop sector.

Fair payment has become a spearhead in the cultural sector. In 2019, the then Minister of Education, Culture and Science Van Engelshoven introduced the requirement that cultural institutions must endorse the ‘Fair Practice Code’ in order to receive government funding. Striving for fair payment is an important part of that code.

However, that soon became apparent fair pay would cost many millions – and that money is not available in the cultural sector. Since the end of 2021, several cultural professions have been investigating how Fair Practice, and therefore fair payment, can be arranged in practice. Pop music is the first sector to complete their project within the ‘Platform Labor Market Cultural and Creative Future’ (Platform ACCT) financed by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. State Secretary Uslu wants to make structural money available for ‘fair pay’ from 2025 onwards.

Also read the interview with Secretary of State Uslu: ‘I take ministers to the theatre. Because culture is chefsache’

Talent is lost

“As a pop musician in the Netherlands you cannot make a living from making music for a large part of your career,” says Rita Zipora, active as a singer-songwriter until a few years ago and now a board member of the professional association BAM! Pop authors. That only happens if you sell out a large venue, such as in Paradiso (Amsterdam) or 013 (Tilburg). But that road to your own income is long, according to Zipora also longer than, for example, in Belgium. “We miss progression to the real top. As a result, talent is lost.”

A large group of artists that the research focuses on perform as professional pop musicians – they play in the smaller venues, have a manager, they appear on the radio and sometimes on TV. A fee of 1,100 euros per performance for the entire band is then common. Each musician only has 100 euros left after the technicians, the manager and the tour bus have been paid. To make ends meet, for example, they give music lessons or have a job outside of music.

To earn a ‘social minimum’ for a performance (including preparation time), the wage per band member should be 258 euros, plus expenses. For a fair wage, that should be 414 euros. “Music venues were shocked by that calculation,” says Zipora. “The costs incurred by the act are not visible to them.” For those higher wages, an extra 3.1 to 7.8 million euros would be needed nationally, depending on how fair the payment is.

Director Berend Schans of the Association for Dutch Pop Venues and Festivals (VNPF), with 65 venues and 57 festivals as members, knew that musicians were poorly paid. In 2020, a study commissioned by OCW concluded that pop musicians have a “weak income position” and that there is an “equality of power” in relation to bookers and venues.

It was only last autumn, for example, that NPO agreed that musicians would receive 250 euros for performances in radio and TV programs – at first they often received nothing. There is also the National Stage Plan, which matches wages from pop and jazz artists from a fund up to the ‘Sena standard’ of 290 euros. But that fund is for music cafes, for example, not for the VNPF music venues.

Fill bags

The new inventory, in which VNPF contributed, shows that the music venues have too little income for higher wages. According to Berend Schans and Rita Zipora, this led to mutual understanding. “We wanted to get rid of the controversial discussion that we fill our pockets,” says Schans. “The money would stay with the podiums. That’s just not true. The whole sector will be stronger if we pay musicians better.”

Music venues do receive a subsidy from the municipality, but that is almost entirely spent on rent and other fixed costs. Subsidies for programming are scarce in pop music; the fees must be paid from tickets and catering. If an artist in a small venue does not sell out, which happens regularly, the pop stage is already losing out.

Higher wages could be earned through more expensive drinks or tickets. According to Berenschot researcher Vinkenburg, however, stages experience that there is little or no space there: if pop becomes more expensive, visitors will stay away. “That has not been systematically investigated, but of course venues experiment with prices.”

VNPF director Schans sees some possibilities. “The ticket price can be raised here and there, but it will probably have a negative effect for the smaller, more adventurous programming that we consider important.” The solution he sees the most in is a fund for fair pay. “The government could take the lead in this. Other parties could supplement that. Think of culture funds, copyright organizations, maybe we ourselves.”

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