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November | 2014 | The Birdsell Project



Guest blog post by Hilal Omar Al Jamal (Night Auditor)

I’d like to imagine that this piece stands to initiate a dialogue that will prove fruitful to my community, that what I communicate here will contribute to a greater sense of transparency, respect, and fluidity in the relationships between those in my community who create engaging works and those who engage those works and help bring them to the public. So, please humor me. Myles asked me to write this piece, reflecting on my experience performing at the Birsdell on a particularly memorable occasion: Halloween. Another musician, Peter J. Hochstedler—for whom I have a great deal of respect—was also asked to write a piece in this vein. I read it and found it so compelling that it motivated me to conceive of my own piece as entering into dialogue with his.

It occurred to me to write about the reformation—or redemption—of a markedly bourgeois space, a space of Victorian decadence whose beauty has been enhanced both by its decay and, more so, by its appropriation not for the purpose of gentrifying a downtown South Bend community filled with good people hurt by economic and social inequality, but for the sake of cultivating a safe space for artistic and cultural production. My band Night Auditor and I performed at the Birdsell on Halloween to a packed house of creeps, like myself, celebrating, however indirectly, the resuscitation of a space for the good of our community. My experience was overwhelmingly positive. I had trouble sleeping that night; my body was so charged by the energy and imaginings of individuals investing in making South Bend a richer environment conducive to cultural and artistic production; it is worth noting that all of the profits from that party are being invested in the works of dozens of artists in residency at the Birdsell Mansion. Anyway, this isn’t exactly what I want to write about here.

Instead—encouraged by a local event organizer, LGBTQ activist, and friend—I would like to discuss, briefly, the issue of monetary compensation in light of the concepts of community and collaboration. First, as a relatively new addition to this community of artists and art aficionados, I want to thank those who’ve embraced my work. I’d also like to call your attention to those spaces, venues, and individuals who merit appreciation for the important work they do in this town to book artists for concerts, exhibitions, and other community-oriented events and to promote those events so that an increasingly wider audience can have access to this spring of culture. The conversation I want to initiate in this piece is one that I hope will have a positive influence on the dealings between artists and those spaces, venues, and individuals seeking to invest in local artistic production.

Here we go: monetary compensation. I know nobody likes talking about this; I sure as fuck don’t. Like most musicians in this community, I don’t want to have to put a price tag on something I want to share with everyone. But this music and arts shit is expensive. It puts us in debt to creditors. It makes us have to have difficult conversations with our partners in which we painfully explain that in order to make our art, which for whatever reason we are convinced we must make, we need to spend money we don’t quite have yet, but which we might recover by sharing our work with a community that supports us.

I literally invest the strength of my limbs, my sweat and blood, what little time I have on this earth, in my music. I do it willingly, and I love that I feel that I have no other choice. And when the time comes for me to act on recouping my investment—I hope those words leave as shitty a taste in your mouth as they do mine—I feel embarrassed to have to ask questions like: “How much did we make at the door? What are you paying the DJs? We got a big draw tonight, right? Did the touring band ask for a guarantee? Are we doing an even split? Is the headliner getting paid more than us? How much is the venue keeping? What are the room costs? Why are we being paid so little?” It is fucking embarrassing to have to ask these questions to event organizers. Why?

I think that many of us are learning to have these conversations. I certainly am. I want to learn to have them; I want us to learn together. My experiences in this regard so far have taught me that transparency and planning are key. When I am asked to play a show, I want the event organizers to tell me very early in the process of arranging the performance exactly how compensation will work. I know that as artists we don’t want to have to ask, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. And event organizers please work with us to figure this out and understand that our need as artists and musicians to supplement our incomes—I really doubt that anyone in my community is profiting obscenely from music—by charging for performances should not reflect negatively on our musicianship or our ideologies. I did not choose capitalism—in fact allow me to echo the words “Fuck Capitalism”. Unfortunately, I create in a capitalist context, which means that a lot of what I produce and my means of production will cost me money, just as all of my basic necessities cost me money: food, housing, transportation, etc.

You might want to know why I think this conversation is relevant to the task at hand? There was some confusion on Halloween night about payment. The house collected a good deal from the door; there were a lot of people involved in planning and preparation, contributing selflessly to the mansion’s transformation into what it was Halloween night; there were disparities in the distribution of the proceeds. We resolved that confusion by engaging, embarrassingly, in a conversation that we should have already had, a conversation that both parties failed to initiate. We resolved things by negotiating with the aim of minimizing disparities in terms of compensation, aiming to achieve relative equality among musicians and acts based on a number of factors relevant to our particular circumstances. More importantly, we had that difficult conversation and there were no hard feelings at the end of the night. I want to encourage transparency, collaboration, negotiation, initiative, and consideration in the ways we approach arts programming in Michiana. I hope you feel me.