Back in 2014, I wrote a piece about my disillusionment with New York City Pride. If you’d like to read it, you can find it here, but the gist of it is that NYC Pride – not the month, but the series of events that have been trademarked by the organization Heritage of Pride as the “official” NYC Pride™ (I’m not joking — although this is so misguided that it could be a parody — they have actually trademarked, and litigated over, the phrase “NYC Pride,”) has become a corporatized, de-politicized, inaccessible and unrepresentative mess of an event and it depresses me so I started going to the beach instead.
Well, I started going to the beach and I started performing at Everyone is Gay’s annual All-Ages Pride Event. The EIG event (full disclosure: organized by my friend Kristin Russo), is a sober space and a welcome alternative to corporate Pride events whose focus on alcohol make them less accessible to young people, even if the events themselves aren’t explicitly 21+. The EIG event is also historically hosted in independent New York City spaces who equally benefit from the partnership, namely: Bluestockings (a feminist bookstore) and Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (a volunteer-staffed bookstore/cafe that funnels 100% of their profits to Housing Works — an organization specifically dedicated to community advocacy and services regarding homelessness and HIV/AIDS).
Despite this party being a grassroots event, its organizers still pass the hat for its performers and, even when the financial benefit is minimal, they make us feel valued. Kristin has reached out to NYC Pride for support many times over the years, proposing ideas for collaboration and asking to be listed in official materials. Each time she has been ignored, turned down, or asked for money. Remember this, I’m going to circle back to it later.
As for the state of the larger, “official” NYC PRIDE, it saddened me, but I resigned myself to it. “They can have their pride and I can have mine,” I thought. It’s a meaningful space for a lot of people, maybe I’m just not one of them anymore. Perhaps I’d just outgrown it. Perhaps Pride just wasn’t meant to represent me any longer. I’d somewhat made my peace with it.
Imagine my surprise, then, when last month I received an email from Heritage of Pride, described in the email as a “non-profit, volunteer run organization,” asking me to perform at their Pridefest event which they noted is attended annually by “upwards of 350,000+ people!”
I was not optimistic, but cautiously considered that this could be a good thing. Maybe they want to represent and make space for people like me after all. Maybe they’re trying to reach out to more trans people and therefore specifically want a queer band, fronted by a non-binary person, on the bill. That’s cool! I’d be psyched to be a part of that.
The email promised “180+ booths and vendors” and a “full day of performances by LGBT performers.” Okay, also very cool! They call it “a community event.” Still, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it did: “I am hoping to fill the stage with artists who are willing to donate 20 minute sets.”
Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought twice about this were I not aware of NYC Pride’s corporate affiliations, or the fact that requests like this are a common method of exploitation within the music industry. But I am. Asking artists to play for “exposure” — that is, to play for free — is a well-known and nefarious practice. Often, promoters levy events of a large magnitude or a national headliner as justification and claim there is “no budget” for support bands.
Sure, many musicians make exceptions to the “not playing for free” rule: for music industry showcases, for established press/marketing machines like SXSW (which at least gives performers passes to the otherwise very expensive event), for benefit shows, for our friends and personal communities, for our favorite bands in the world, and mostly, before we know any better. Those are the exceptions. Corporate sponsored parties for almost half a million people are not exceptions.
“But Mal!” you say, “It’s a community event! It’s a non-profit with a huge staff of volunteers! It’s for LGBTQ people! Representation!” Okay, then you’ll be pleased to know that I didn’t immediately tell them to f*ck off. Instead, I told them I’d donate my performance, but I’d at least need a small stipend to pay my band. I value my band members and their time and energy. I recognize they are making livings, that they could take other gigs that day and I won’t ask them to play an event for “exposure.” This, I was told, was not in the budget. Nothing was in the budget. “There is no stipend to pay musicians.”
Yet, when I asked if the headliner for the event, famed country singer, and cisgender straight woman, LeAnn Rimes is “donating” her set, I received no response. Because of course she isn’t (although she’s probably one of the few people on a line-up like this who could afford to). Because that would be ludicrous and we all know it. They know they have to pay her. They also have to pay for the stage and the lights and the sound system and security and advertising and every other minute detail that an event of this magnitude requires. In fact, according to their financial records, publicly accessible on guidestar.com, Heritage of Pride paid over $90k just for advertising in 2014, and grossed over $2 million in program revenue, contributions and grants.
When I brought this piece to Autostraddle, they reached out to Heritage of Pride to get more information on their financial situation and their choice not to pay local performers. Many Pride celebrations worldwide have been cancelled due to lack of funding, but 2013/2014 tax records suggest HOP is doing quite well, even turning out an extra $500k-$600k in revenue at year’s end, leading to a $1.2 million surplus at the end of their last publicly available tax form’s year. As a non-profit, its employees are paid reasonable salaries for their positions and experience, and nobody is pocketing the additional revenue. So what’s up?
According to James Fallarino, Media Director of NYC Pride, HOP is directed through their membership to set aside a portion of proceeds for Stonewall 50 / WorldPride 2019 NYC because “as the recent controversy surrounding the cancellation of World OutGames Miami 2017 has shown, careful non-profit financial planning is crucial to international LGBTQ events such as ours.” They also maintain reserve funds to get started on next year’s planning before sponsorship money comes in.
Autostraddle echoed my question about if LeAnn Rimes was being paid for her set and were told that NYC Pride “does not discuss specific agreements that we have in place with our event talent.” Which is essentially just corporate event publicity speak for “yes, obviously,” but let’s break it down further, just so we’re clear:
Reportedly, at least 16 musicians have agreed to “donate” sets to this year’s pridefest celebration. LeAnn Rimes is typically paid $50k-$75k per appearance. Although many musicians accept lower fees for Pride events specifically, the bottom line is that New York City Pride is asking local LGBTQ artists to donate their labor to their massive event, while still presumably paying many thousands of dollars to a straight celebrity to headline it.
Regardless of whatever diplomatic PR response HOP gave to Autostraddle, the issue remains: NYC Pride generates too much revenue to claim they can’t afford a few thousand more for their roster of LGBTQ performers who’d gladly show up for a few hundred bucks or less.
The truth is that when an event like this tells you there is “no budget” to pay the artists, what they are really saying is “we decided to use our budget elsewhere because we know we can get you or someone like you to do this for free.” Which is exploitative, or at least opportunistic. To try to justify it, or frame it in any other context, especially, for example, as a donation to a queer non-profit organization’s community event, is disingenuous.
In my own exchange with HOP, I asked if any corporations sponsored this event and I was told, “there is a corporate presence but no corporate sponsor.” Which is, again, purposefully evasive gibberish, but to be fair, not technically a lie, because according to Heritage of Pride’s website, they don’t have ONE sponsor for this week of events: they have 36. The “presenting sponsor” is T-Mobile. Cool.
When I pushed back, I was told that the stage was an “opportunity for up and coming local, queer talent! […] Most artists who take the stage at Pridefest are HONORED to donate their performance.”
I’m sure that’s true. I would have been one of them at one point in my life. It doesn’t make what they’re doing any less exploitative. It doesn’t mean they’re saving some dollars on the backs of local queer artists any less. Sure, it’s an opportunity. It’s also an opportunity for somebody who doesn’t know any better, or doesn’t believe they deserve fair compensation, to be taken advantage of.
Autostraddle received the same justification when they reached out:
“For many people Indy and Queer artists seeking to perform on the PrideFest stage, that crowd size, and the opportunity to perform at an iconic event like PrideFest in NYC, is more valuable than an appearance fee. We also respect that for some performers, an appearance fee is necessary, and wish them success in securing bookings that work for them.”
Let’s not pretend this is an either/or position for Heritage of Pride. Putting money into the hands of LGBTQ performers should be a goal of any organization specifically dedicated to promoting LGBTQ Pride. A non-profit solely dedicated to promoting LGBTQ+ Pride, let alone one of the few LGBTQ+ non-profits or for-profit companies that are actually succeeding financially, should relish the opportunity to put that money back into their community. It’s absurd that covering travel expenses and paying artists and contributors whatever they can is a priority for Autostraddle/A-Camp and Everyone is Gay — companies that are barely surviving — but not for Heritage of Pride.
What about their claim that exposure is more valuable than actual compensation? Aside from the fact that this is, as previously stated, a point of contention in most music spaces, let alone events that claim to foster community (just google “no, I won’t play for exposure” and you’ll get dozens of articles to sort through), it’s also rarely successful. Sometimes, “exposure gigs” are worth it, but it’s hardly a sure thing that any indie artist would gain new fans at a chaotic and multi-genre event like this.
“I can’t recall one gig where they promised exposure and it was like, ‘Oh god, it worked out’,” Out singer-songwriter Eric Himan, who has played multiple Prides, told The Washington Blade in 2015.
In that same piece, Pittsburgh Pride Producer Gary Van Horn said this about paying Melissa Etheridge, to play their celebration: “There is a thought process out there that they should be doing this for free since it’s a non-profit Pride event, but this is their job. This is how they pay their bills, they go and perform.”
My primary issues with Heritage of Pride’s exposure pitch are as follows:
First, a lack of transparency. If you’re paying Leann Rimes $25k-$75k and asking everybody else to “donate” a set, don’t pitch me like you’re asking everybody to donate.
Second, the incredible disparity between the top and the bottom. One person is presumably being compensated at levels equivalent to what many of us make in an entire year (if we’re lucky: let’s be honest, most of us earn far less than LeAnn Rimes’ appearance fee), while the rest of us are told “we don’t have any money, we can’t afford to pay you.” Then there’s the larger system of oppression and value through which an LGBTQ group that purports to “celebrate” our LGBTQ history is assigning greatest value to a cis white straight person.
Third, the tone of their pitch — the implication that they hold the value, and we are lucky to be solicited. Actually, involving this community DOES benefit Pride, and just because some of us are hungry for representation and affirmation doesn’t mean Pride shouldn’t value us, or act like they’re the ones doing us a favor. Because if all of us walked away from this, what would they have? They would have a LeAnn Rimes concert with a rainbow on it.
Still, I would’ve signed on to be one of the performers at Pridefest back when I knew a little less about the industry. In fact, I have played and and would continue to play at many smaller-budget regional prides for free or cheap.
Technically, PrideFest has billed itself as a non-ticketed, community space, and they want our help to create a free space where the community can gather, right?
Well, let’s revisit the independent youth party thrown annually by “Everyone Is Gay,” which NYC Pride has had zero interest in supporting or acknowledging. This year, NYC Pride has decided to throw its own, very first, NYC Youth Pride, sponsored by Target. Everyone is Gay’s annual event takes place the same time and date every year. I’ll give you one guess as to the exact day and time our gay “corporate-affiliated but not corporate sponsored” overlords decided to throw theirs.
The only option available for EIG to be officially involved in or listed by NYC Pride remains as it has always been: to pay $895 to table at Pride (plus $160 for the tent, table and chairs) or to buy ad space from NYC Pride. Even non-profits are charged $500-$600 to table at Pride.
It is encouraging to see that in spite of essentially co-opting a grassroots youth event, NYC Pride is collaborating with Dapper Q on a fashion show for NYC Youth Pride. Full disclosure, I’m a DapperQ fan, and I’m sure their show will be a really impressive event that will change lives. But again, never get your hopes up that NYC Pride(™) is working on behalf of community values of their own volition. According to Anita of Dapper Q, Heritage of Pride had been unresponsive for years and the organization that finally coordinated this collaboration between DapperQ and NYC Pride was never Heritage of Pride, it was Target:
“Target pulled us in after years of approaching NYC Pride with no answer […] we were unaware that [NYC PRIDE] had scheduled their event to conflict with [Everyone is Gay] […] we are VERY grateful for Target’s support and excited that the youth models will be receiving outfits courtesy of their generosity.”
This is great, truly. I’ll tell you what sucks: it sucks that it takes a corporate partner for Heritage of Pride to pay attention to organizations that have been doing community work for years (kudos to Target for doing more to uplift the community than the NON-PROFIT LGBTQ org, by the way). It sucks that many community members will have to choose between this event and the EIG party. It sucks that NYC Pride has no interest in collaborating with already existing community events and thus pits them against each other.
But back to the original issue at hand, which is one of compensation and ethics. Ultimately, my question is this: is this year’s NYC Pride somehow different than other events seeking to exploit artists by asking them to play for “exposure”? Is this different than the bars and music festivals and promoters that aren’t specifically catering to the queer community that continually solicit us? To which I would answer: yes, it is different because it is worse.
It is worse because of the extra slap in the face that is the element of guilt laden on the queer person you are reaching out to by insisting that they “donate” their work in service to their community. It is worse because NYC pride continues to pretend this is a LGBTQ+ “community” event while not adequately valuing its LGBTQ+ community members. It is worse because this is the rule, not the exception, with LGBTQ+ pride events.
It is worse because touting the size and the reach of this event (350,000 annually) in order to dangle an exposure carrot, while telling artists there is “no budget” to pay them, communicates that you value everything else about that event before them.
It is worse because it purports to be better. It is worse because I shouldn’t have to choose between being a representative to queer youth at an event for my community and performing for free for an enormous audience, brought in by the enormous advertising budget supplied by the enormous corporations supporting Pride.
LGBTQ+ people are often asked to perform labor for free, and we often do, because it is important and vital community work. But that work should be qualified as volunteer work or a true donation of services that ultimately feeds our community, not as a trade for some elusive non-monetary reward that doesn’t actually exist for an organization with a sizeable and vaguely purposed annual net surplus. If the point of pride events is to benefit the LGBTQ+ community, then what better place for the corporate money to go than into the pockets of queer artists and back into sustaining our community spaces and local organizations throughout the rest of the year?
However, ultimately, this whole situation is completely appropriate and truly epitomizes what NYC Pride has become. What better way to represent the LGBTQ+ community and its struggle than by celebrating a straight celebrity who is cool with us (see: “ally”) at the expense of local queer artists within the context of a grandiose event sponsored by 36 corporations? Or to edge out a grassroots organization’s Youth Pride event after years of ignoring them or soliciting them for advertising dollars? Heaven help us. I can think of a few better ways, but I guess in the meantime I’ll take my queer ass to the beach for yet another year.
The Everyone is Gay All-Ages Pride Party will take place at the Housing Works Bookstore on 6/24 from 2-4pm, of course, which this year is co-hosted by Kristin and Gabby Rivera, and will feature performances by Be Steadwell, Julia Weldon, and the slam team from Urban Word NYC.