Seattle musicians grab Portland idea to seek fair treatment

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A scene from the Nectar Lounge, one of the venues that has signed an agreement with Fair Trade Music Seattle.

You’ve heard of fair trade coffee--the idea to promote more equitable business practices for coffee growers in developing countries. Well, in Seattle, what many call “The City of Music,” a fair trade music movement is underway.

Fair Trade Market Seattle (FTMS) is developing the means to address issues that affect the music community, said Nate Omdal, a local musician among those spearheading the organization.

“Hopefully, as we progress, we can comprehensively cover money and wage issues, but for now there are myriad immediate problems that can be fixed,” he said.

FTMS already has reached a simple but effective agreement with 25 music venues, including the Seamonster Lounge (the first to sign the agreement), Nectar Lounge, both Showbox venues and the Royal Room. The agreement stipulates that the music employer will provide a written agreement outlining terms of the night’s business and supply the best sound support possible. If the night’s pay is based on revenue, the employer will provide a receipt at night’s end. The employer also agrees to openly discuss any issues resulting from the engagement with FTMS and anyone else involved.

Once the agreement is signed, venues receive an FTMS sticker to put on their door, indicating the partnership.

“As we establish our brand regionally and nationally, we hope to link all of the Fair Trade Venues together in a sort of ‘Safe Tour Schedule,’ ” Omdal said.

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The initiative has been so well received that the Seattle City Council recently voted unanimously to support it. It even dubbed May 20 as “Fair Trade Music Day.” Other supporters include 91.3 KBCS, 4Culture and numerous local musicians.

FTMS has established Seattle’s first four Musician Loading Zones outside clubs in Ballard and other neighborhoods. It also has taught classes on how to negotiate fair working agreements.

To help venues with their sound systems, FTMS set up a “healthy” fund to create a “Sound System Diagnostic and Repair Program,” according to Omdal. The program allows organizations to request free sound-system inspections at their venues.

“Once we have a work order,” Omdal said, “we will discuss what work should be done and we will pay for the parts and labor.”

While no one has come out against the initiative, FTMS has received a fair amount of skepticism from club owners, Omdal says. That’s partly because FTMS intends to challenge “pay to play” as well as club (and perhaps even festival) blackout dates, or non-compete clauses. Clubs and festivals, including some major local ones, often make bands sign contracts that preclude playing within a certain radius of a gig for a certain amount of time — sometimes up to 200 miles and 90 days.

“It’s a pretty unpopular business practice among most musicians,” Omdal said.

Seattle, whose chapter was founded in 2012 by pianist Jay Kenney and the late guitarist Bill Charney, is not the only city working to get an FTM effort off the ground, according to Omdal. Other cities working toward a Fair Trade Music chapter include Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York and Washington, D.C. The idea came from Portland, but the Seattle chapter has seen the most growth.

Thanks to FTMS, there is a lot of momentum for fair trade practices in the Seattle music scene.

“Many venue owners have expressed relief that an organization is committed to recognizing fair play,” Omdal said. “Especially if that recognition is also coming from the artists they hire.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti is the co-founder and Managing Editor of The Monarch Review. He plays in the band, The Great Um, and works at The Pub at Third Place.