For Unpaid Artists, It’s a Not-So-Super Bowl

For Unpaid Artists, It’s a Not-So-Super Bowl
MetLife Stadium

When Super Bowl XLVIII swept through MetLife Stadium in New Jersey three weeks ago, big money was involved. But not everyone got a piece of the pie.  

Winning Team: Seattle Seahawks. Earnings per player: $92,000.
Losing Team: Denver Broncos. Earnings per player: $49,000.
Halftime Performer: Bruno Mars with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Earnings per musician: $0.

The saga of the disrespected musician plays on.

For a hilarious take on the performer’s dilemma, read Bill Bruford’s autobiography. Bruford was the drummer for Yes and King Crimson, one of the most respected rock and jazz drummers in modern music. He recounts the history of second-class citizenship all the way back to the days of the court jesters. Every musician has had a similar encounter to Bruford’s as he recalls a conversation in a hotel elevator:

Stranger: “So, what do you do?”
Bruford: “I’m a musician.”
Stranger: “Yeah, but what do you really do?”

The idea being that music can’t possibly be taken as a serious career endeavor.

The fact that no Super Bowl halftime artist has ever been paid is a particularly perplexing discovery. The likes of Paul McCartney, Beyoncé, Prince, the Who and others have all performed over the years. While it’s true that the audience can be as large as a staggering one hundred million people, it’s just another case of misplacing the value of “exposure.”

Ahead of last year’s Super Bowl, TIME ran an article on the NFL’s practice of not paying its superstar halftime acts. In the article, NFL Director of Programming Lawrence Randall said, “We’re putting someone up there for 12 and a half minutes in front of the largest audience that any television program garners in the United States. It’s a pretty good deal. It’s the famous win-win for both parties.” 

Given that a majority of the games have been decided by halftime over the years, the NFL, and the television network, definitely win by using high-profile performers to keep viewers tuned in. Oh, and those increasingly creepy and increasingly expensive commercial advertisements. It should also be noted that Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL (a nonprofit by the way, the exempt status of which is frequently being called into question) earned $44.2 million in 2012. He’s definitely a winner.

The notion that artists would recoup on record sales is greatly over exaggerated, especially in the digital age of streaming services where sales are plummeting. Gold albums are rare and platinum sales are unheard of. (2013’s bestselling album, Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, was “also the smallest-selling year-end No. 1 album since SoundScan began tracking music sales in 1991,” reported Billboard.) Even in times of robust record sales royalty rates have always been ridiculously low and labels recover the upfront costs first so the musicians, as always, are on the short end of the stick. So the other side of the win-win? That belongs to the labels, distributors and people in suits, not the artist. Bruno Mars’s sales reportedly jumped a mere 42,000 the week after his performance, which was as good as any I’ve seen.

With little economic payoff, why do the artists do it? Good question. Is it hubris? Possibly. Is it exposure? I like to quote Madison music luminary Clyde Stubblefield on that one: “Exposure? People can die from that, man!”