Fair trade music has come to Portland, Oregon. A group of musicians has organized to establish guidelines for paying live musicians and has received some local coverage at the Willamette Week (seen via Nashville Cream, which has a lively comments section on the topic). The 200-plus members of Fair Trade Music seek a uniform basis for determining payments to performers.

The concept of "fair trade" for music has been bandied about in Portland for a couple years, but the movement is now starting discussions with clubs in hopes of setting a fair wage for all performing musicians, whether they be union or non-union workers. Borrowing the fair-trade concept from the practice of paying a certified fair wage to farmers of products such as coffee, Portland's Fair Trade Music would rate venues and clubs based on their audience capacity and type of liquor license to determine a fair pay scale for musicians.

The proposed pay scalecovers nightclubs, restaurants, taverns, coffeehouses, fraternal organizations, political rallies and showcases. According to the numbers at the group's web site, 73% of Portland musicians surveyed feel they are not paid fairly. The average Portland musician makes a bit over $8,700 per year. (While the group points out that is below the federal poverty level, it does not mention how many musicians have day jobs.) Fair trade music could have two results. On one hand, there would probably be a group of concertgoers who would either pay extra for or pay exclusively for performances that carry the fair trade logo. Since a fair trade logo isn't likely to bring new concertgoers to venues, attendance would shift - maybe a bit, maybe a lot - to fair trade venues from non-fair trade venues. In effect, being a fair trade venue would be a bit of a competitive advantage. If popular artists pledged not to perform at non-fair trade venues, the impact of that advantage would be amplified.

On the other hand, a fair trade pay scale could give club owners less incentive to book unpopular acts. That could reduce the number of chances given to new artists seeking to build a career. It can be explained in terms local bands can understand: If you asked a record store owner to buy your CD and refused to allow the store to sell on consignment (thus shifting the entire risk to the store), you will hurt your chance of getting that store to stock your CD.
Overall, the adoption of a fair trade rate would probably act like a wage floor, a la minimum wage, and carry with it certain conditions (higher prices for tickets, alcohol or merchandise) that would pass along the cost increase to customers. It might not work in every city and with every venue, but the movement may get off the ground in Portland and inspire artists in other cities to organize themselves around a similar issue.

Fair trade live music is certainly a fascinating concept that brings up many other questions. For example, what would happen to guest lists at fair trade venues? Would people be expected to pay in support of local bands in order to help the venue that has pledged to support its local scene through higher rates? How much of a premium does a concertgoer put on a fair trade concert (since it is likely to cost more than a non-fair trade concert)?

Just for fun, let's extend the concept a bit. The idea of fairness could easily be extended to apply to concertgoers as well. Perhaps local artists would be better off not playing their sets at 11:30pm on a weeknight - logic dictates there are more potential concertgoers at 8pm than at midnight (except in a few cities, like the never-sleeping New York City). One has to imagine that a band's potential is not limited to young, single and/or unemployed people who regularly stay out until 1am on Mondays. Or maybe fair trade venues should be required to post exact set times. After all, there is nothing fair about the deceptive advertising that is the typical small venue's scheduled set times. From fair trade payouts to fair trade set times...there's no telling what could happen when this status quo is challenged.