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Essex concert series needs to pay its performers, say local musicians

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If musicians are the sole focus of a commercial event, those performers should be paid for their efforts.

That's the key argument from local musician Kristopher Marentette who set up an online petition in response to the Town of Essex seeking unpaid performers for their annual summer concert series.

"This is a skilled trade. It requires years of dedication and practice. It requires thousands of dollars in equipment, not unlike minor hockey, a carpenter or mechanic," said Marentette.

The Town of Essex recently posted a call for performers to participate in the Tune Up The Parks concert series for 2024. The registration form makes clear that "similar to an 'open mic' night, performers are not paid."

For Marentette, along with more than 100 people who have signed his petition, the Town of Essex should provide some sort of compensation to performers.

"The reason for this festival is the music," he said. "Everybody seems to be onboard with making it successful, except when it comes to supporting the very reason that you're having them in the first place."

In response, Essex Mayor Sherry Bondy said while she understand no one wants to work for free, any person involved with Tune Up The Parks — including those working behind the scenes to put the event together — does so as a volunteer.

"We have to find a balance between providing programs, services and events for the town with low budgets," said Bondy, adding the town's budget for 2024 has already been spent.

One solution Marentette suggests is for the town to pursue sponsorships which could offset the cost of compensating performers.

While Bondy agrees with the idea, she said implementing it isn't so straightforward.

"We have limited resources in terms of staff to hunt for sponsorships and to put these packages together," said Bondy. "Tune Up the Parks was always intended to be free ... It was really a chance for people just venturing into the music industry to have a practice round in front of a live audience."

"We're not forcing anybody to come out and play with us. It's voluntary. We're trying to do the best we can with the limited resources we have. We are a small municipality in Essex and we don't have a lot of money."

In the decade since the event started, Bondy said, the popularity of Tune Up The Parks has led to waitlists for artists hoping to showcase their talents.

Musicians have the option to collect donations from the audience through a "pass the hat" arrangement, she added.

The "pass the hat" option allows musicians to earn money based on audience contributions, but it's not a guaranteed source of income and depends on the generosity of attendees.

In the past decade since the event started, Bondy said some musicians have walked away with a few hundreds of dollars using this method.

The Tune Up The Parks series for 2024 features 18 performances at Heritage Gardens Park at Essex Centre and the Colchester Harbour Pavilion from July 1 to Aug. 28.

As for Marentette, he said his goal behind the petition isn't to get Tune Up The Parks cancelled. Rather, he said it's meant to ensure community-supported events "benefit everyone mutually."

"I'm not suggesting that every time an artist performs, there needs to be a money aspect, especially for a charitable event, fundraiser or benefit," said Marentette, adding there is clear distinction between those types of events and the Tune Up The Parks festival.

"This is a commercial event meant to drive tourism dollars into the community."

Marentette points to other events across Windsor-Essex which pay performers for their time, such as the Windsor-Essex Pride Fest on Ottawa Street, the Corn Festival put on by the Town of Tecumseh and Lakeshore’s Summer Parks Concert Series.

Marentette performed at the Lakeshore series last year and said he was paid "rather handsomely."

In its 2024 budget, the Town of Essex did not allocate funding to pay its Tune Up The Parks performers. Chris Borshuk, president of the Windsor Federation of Musicians, said he's disappointed by the lack of allocated funding.

"This is a dedicated concert series. Music is the main focus of a concert. For them to suggest they don't really have the budget for it — something wasn't really thought through," said Borshuk.

"It would be like deciding to replace your sidewalk and not having a budget for the contractor."

As for the fate of the 2024 Tune Up The Parks festival, Bondy said it's too early to say if community outcry will have any impact on whether or not the event moves ahead.

"The only challenge would be if musicians don't want to sign up. Then, we'll see how it goes."

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