Monday, June 4, 2012

What killed the Jetport’s summer series?

Published at

In the wake of near-immediate outcry objecting to the terms of a proposed musical series at the Portland International Jetport, the summer-long program was canceled the day after it was announced. The proposal — and the backlash — brought complaints from many corners of the city’s music scene, and may suggest a possible growth area for the Portland Music Foundation, a non-profit established in 2007 to help musicians improve their business and promotional skills.

But first, a brief run-down of the events. On Thursday, a call went out online and over social media for musicians interested in playing at the Jetport over the course of the summer, with terms laid out on the website of event sponsor Dispatch Magazine, including the compensation: “free parking” and in-airport meal vouchers. Performers could sell their CDs and any other merchandise, but would have to pay 30 percent of the revenue to the jetport’s concessions company, Paradies Shops.

The lack of pay for performance, as well as the high commission rate on sales, quickly attracted objections online. Brian D. Graham, saxophonist of Sly-Chi and the Fogcutters, has two Facebook threads on the topic, each with more than 50 comments; pianist Kelly Muse authored an open letter that was signed by 17 other local musicians. Amid efforts to change the deal to be better for musicians, the jetport “pulled the plug,” Frank Copsidas said Friday afternoon, going on to blame the complainers for the event’s cancellation. (Jetport director Paul Bradbury says there wasn’t time to resolve the “miscommunication issues” before the series’s June 28 start date.)

Graham says he actually liked the idea, until he learned about the compensation terms from the website. And there was some misunderstanding about what the terms actually were.

Portland Music Foundation president Pat May said his group agreed to help publicize the call for artists with the understanding that performers would have their CDs sold in the jetport gift shop all summer long, and “there is some type of stipend.”

Frank Copsidas, the owner of Dispatch Magazine, who also serves on the PMF board, said those were good ideas but became impossible. “We were trying to get a sponsor to give stipends. Nobody will come to the table,” he said Friday, before the event was canceled outright. And CDs could only be placed in the gift shop for a few artists, he said, due to lack of space and the fact that the bar codes for local artists’ CDs were not in the store’s existing database.

Bradbury, at the jetport, says when Copsidas came to him with the idea, the jetport saw it as a way to provide musicians free advertising, while entertaining passengers waiting for their flights. He says musicians didn’t have to sell anything, but if they did, Paradies’s commission would apply.

But there remained the question of whether the musicians would be compensated for their performance. Oddly, nobody had thought to ask if players could put out a hat for donations until after the series was announced. (Bradbury says he’d have to seek legal advice, in part because the performers would be in a secure area of the jetport.)

In any case, Copsidas’s view was that the merchandise sales should be enough. “If they can’t really sell 20 CDs to 1000 people there over the three hours, that’s pretty bad,” he said. “Two percent should be the lowest that you sell.”

He said he was planning to spend about $5000 on a stage, sound system, and a person to run the audio, and was unwilling to spend more to pay the musicians. May said paying each of the projected 28 performers even $100 would use up most of the PMF’s bank account.

And in the wake of the cancellation, Copsidas, obviously upset, took to Graham’s Facebook page, beginning a series of posts with this line: “Brian, you single handedly set back the Portland music scene about a year in getting any kind of corporate support so that shows like these can pay.”

(In an interview with the Phoenix, Copsidas was similarly blunt: “Is it the best opportunity? No. You should be paid” but blamed the lack of funds on local businesses and musicians themselves: “No business in this town is willing to put money behind the artists. That’s a problem the artists have created for themselves in this town.” In a Monday website posting, he suggested applying to the Maine Arts Commission to underwrite such a program.)

May, for his part, wrote a letter of explanation and apology, posted Sunday to the PMF website, admitting that the group didn’t do a good job explaining what the situation was, nor why group organizers thought it would be a good idea. He called it “a case study in how poor communication can wreck a good idea.”
Bradbury says the jetport is very interested in having something like this happen in the future, so perhaps it’s not completely wrecked.

In fact, it presents an opportunity for the PMF that May intends to capitalize on, writing that he wants members’ feedback on how to make future efforts more successful.

Given Copsidas’s statement that “This was meant for younger artists trying to establish themselves. There was no budget for anything else,” and his claim that as many as 25 musicians expressed interest, it seems clear there’s plenty to do.

Graham says those younger artists need to know how to evaluate proposals like this: “The up and coming people are the most important people to be educating. They need to know that if you’re going to perform you need to be compensated. You can’t just give it away.” People who perform for free lower the ability — and rates — for others to get paid, and in the end undercut their own hopes of earning money in the future, he says: “You’re ruining your career.”

But PMF seminars on the topic may not be well attended, given the organization’s history. Some recent sessions have had small audiences, even for opportunities to talk with big names in the music business.

Copsidas says “nobody goes to them. (Musicians) don’t want to hear they have to work.” He went on to say local musicians are "lazy" about taking advantage of money-earning opportunities. He added that negativity can hurt: complaints about "opportunities" like this are "exactly why sponsors won't come on board; because they're afraid (people will) bitch about the sponsors."
Then again, if musicians were getting paid for their performances — and not just for their merchandise — it’s hard to see what the bitching would be about. “People would never think to ask a plumber to work for free. . . . That’s the mindset we need to break,” Graham says.