What happens when an artist doesn't get paid by a festival
Lost Map Records boss and Pictish Trail frontman Johnny Lynch talks us through the stressful reality of what happens when a festival doesn't pay the artists and asks music fans to make better choices
So much of the narrative around music these days seems to play upon an audience having to make ethical choices. Buying a record or a gig ticket is often presented as a way of “supporting the artist”, a philanthropic act, as opposed to a personal choice because you happen to like shaking your ass to their music. If you’re someone that makes music for a living, it’s a tough one to navigate. You want to convince your audience to invest in what you’re creating, because the pittance generated from streaming services ironically doesn’t even cover your own monthly Spotify subscription. If you start whining about the state of the music industry, though, you come across as a sad charity case, or – worse – an old, bitter charity case. And no one wants to shake their ass to that.
However, we need to talk about certain festivals in Scotland. In recent years there have been events where the organisers have decided that they simply don’t need to pay the artists. Or pay the crew. Or hire the companies they’ve used. As an artist, you don’t really want to publicly complain about not being paid, because it’s embarrassing, and it’s just a rubbish, negative story. But it’s a reality, it’s happening frequently, and it’s bullshit. Artists need to collectively speak out about festivals that are taking the piss, and fans need to “support” them by boycotting said piss-fests.
Here’s what happens when you don’t get paid by a festival. Weirdly, it starts about a month before the festival takes place. The deposit that the festival organisers have agreed to pay for your performance (as per the contract that was put together six months previously) hasn’t appeared in your bank account (or your booking agent’s bank account). You feel a bit anxious about posting content promoting your upcoming appearance at said festival, and hear horror stories from friends about other bands who haven’t been paid by the organisers in previous years. You notice that the big-name headliners aren’t plugging it on their social media platforms, either. In the days leading up to the event you hear rumours about a contractor pulling out because the festival organiser owes them a heap of cash from last year’s bash. You then get a WhatsApp message from a friend which contains a photo showing the festival site but with no stage.
Sadly, you’ve already spent money on traveling down from your home (let’s say in the Hebrides) to get to the festival site (let’s say on the outskirts of Glasgow). You pay your band members’ session fees, as well as pay for a tour manager/driver, and they’ve blocked out this weekend in their diary for months, so you can’t let them down. You play a rehearsal the night before, feeling like every penny you’ve spent on this trip is not going to be remunerated. You arrive at the festival site to see that the stage is miraculously being put together, by an incredibly stressed-out, under-staffed and overworked crew. The timetable has changed due to other acts cancelling last minute. You play your show that night, it goes well enough, you even see some people shaking their asses – but the festival site isn’t very busy, due to the fact that none of the artists have wanted to actively plug it. You see some friends, and try and find a free drink somewhere. You catch a glimpse of one of the festival organisers, but they run away as soon as you turn to approach them. You only wanted a beer. You find a room backstage, and start chatting to another act who haven’t been paid their deposit either.
In the week following the event, you repeatedly send emails with an invoice for your performance, but to no reply. You try phoning the organisers, and eventually one of them answers, and speaks to you for 25 minutes telling you about all the difficulties they’ve had with the council, and the ticketing company, and reassures you that they will pay you, in full, in four days. They don’t pay. They stop answering the phone. This goes on for a few weeks. And then months. You threaten legal action, and they suddenly send you a series of long, emotional text messages promising to pay. You realise that the legal action you’ve been advised to take actually will cost you a lot of time and money, and you’re unlikely to get anything in return, other than the “sense of satisfaction” that they’ve had to go bankrupt. You look up the festival organisers on the Companies House website, and see that they’ve filed bankruptcy for many events over the years, dissolved the companies, and started up new ones. You also see that they are directors of other separate businesses that provide the bar and catering for their own events. They’ve got the money. They just don’t want to pay you.
When stuff like this happens, it knocks your confidence. It strains your relationship with your booking agent. It hurts you financially, and makes you less inclined to play festivals. It turns you into an old, bitter charity case, and you somehow have to shake your ass out of that state of mind.
I should say, this is not every festival. Scotland is blessed with plenty of good ones, that have built up a loyal following, and thrive on a sense of community. But there’s been a number of shite-hawks over the past few years that have taken advantage of the good will that is generated by people enjoying music together. These events are relatively easy to spot. If you go to their Instagram page or their Facebook, they’ve turned off comments on their posts – and have deleted posts from previous years’ events, due to a number of artists (and fans) complaining. Don’t support the shite-hawks; boycott them, and avoid any other events they put on.