The Super Bowl halftime show is a topic of much derision and scorn in some places, and bored shrugs in others. Barely anyone gets REALLY excited about it, and the noteworthy performances are more a pleasant surprise than an expectation at this point. The stages are ridiculous, the expectations (pyro! guest performers! children’s choirs! marching bands!) seem to increase even as the allotted time stays the same, and the NFL pays for the costs associated with the performance but doesn’t actually pay the artist themselves to perform.
Well, there’s good news! The NFL has decided that it’s going to change the way they do their halftime show! By which they apparently mean they’re going to ask artists to sign a contract forking over a portion of their tour revenue to the NFL for the privilege of playing a 15 minute set in front of a bunch of football fans and people watching “for the commercials.” The artists that have been carefully selected to consider this offer are Coldplay, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. I am sincerely hoping all of them respond to this “offer” with hysterical laughter and send the contract back with ‘FUCK YOU, PAY ME’ written in red ink across it. Because it’s not just the NFL that’s pushing the idea that artists should pay for “exposure” with their time or their actual money, and I’m getting completely fed up with the notion that exposure or appreciation is a goal in and of itself. Yes, artists need exposure. Yes, artists appreciate fans. Yes, they should still be paid to play shows and for their music. This is not a difficult concept, yet it’s one that people keep trying to work around in ways that are at best misguided and at worst downright insulting.
Since Napster blew up in the early 2000s, the music industry has been scrambling to figure out how they’re going to make money going forward. A lot of that is their own fault, as anyone who was buying CDs in the late 90s remembers the frustration of almost never being able to buy singles, and being forced to pay $20 for twelve songs, only two or three of which you actually liked. They were taking advantage of their consumers, and they deserved to be punished for not fully adapting to changing technology. But the dangerous idea that music doesn’t need to be paid for, that it is worthless in the most literal sense, has spread far beyond people downloading tracks for their own listening pleasure. Last year PJ Bloom, who selects and licenses music for shows like Glee and CSI: Miami said that he was “shocked” that TV productions still paid for music since it’s such great “exposure” for the artists and will help them get more fans. Except those fans aren’t paying for their music either, they’re listening to it through streaming services that pay fractions of a cent per play (and are fighting to pay less), on AM/FM radio (which still doesn’t pay royalties to performers in the US), or illegally downloading tracks for free. “But there’s touring!” you might be saying. Except that for a lot of small to mid-level artists, it’s hard enough getting a tour to break even, and originally touring was done to help promote album sales. Which can’t be counted on anymore. And new record deals will take a significant cut of merchandising too, a revenue stream that used to go almost 100% to artists.
This brings me to my biggest point: it’s easy to justify not paying for music when the people you point to are Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Coldplay. They have money. They’re not going to want for anything, and a few downloaded tracks here or there or a “promotional” appearance aren’t going to hurt them. But they are not the only people involved in music. This trickles down to smaller artists and venues, and if Rihanna is paying to play the Super Bowl, why should your local bar owner pay a band that’s just starting out to play their bar? Play for exposure! That’s what all the big names do, after all, and it seems to work out great for them! Oh, and we’ll be taking a cut of the merch sales too.
If you’re someone who bitches and moans about how music is all just corporate-produced pop and there’s no innovation anywhere, this is part of the reason why. At the end of the day, people have to pay rent, buy groceries, and take care of their families. If your band that you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into for years is spinning its wheels in this awful run around of “letting music go for free -> performing for free -> more people listen to you music for free -> more performing for free” you can’t live like that. You’re going to take a job that will leave you less time to rehearse, less flexibility to go on the road, and less energy to devote to making your music better or running the business side. I know that a lot of graphic or visual artists are also familiar with the problem of assuming they want to work for free for “exposure”, and some of them are speaking out about it.
If the NFL is looking for a way to wring money out of halftime shows, perhaps they should figure out another way to do it, maybe by getting rid of the musical performance altogether and selling the time for “long form” commercials since they obviously don’t actually care about the music. We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar industry that’s asking established artists to essentially pay a finders fee for the chance to perform. Yes, artists do see some increased sales following a Super Bowl performance, but they see increased sales following their participation in ANY big media event. There’s always a bump in album sales after the Grammys, and the fact that album sales go up following an artist’s death is well known. Almost ANYTHING that gets the general public to pay attention to an artist will result in increased sales. The Super Bowl isn’t special in that regard, and they shouldn’t act like they are. So, NFL? Fuck you. Pay artists.