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Musicians Can and Should Organize to Improve Their Pay and Working Conditions

The music industry is making money hand over fist, but life for average musicians remains incredibly precarious. But musicians aren’t temporarily embarrassed millionaires — they’re workers. And like any other worker, the solution to their problem is collective organizing.

Courtesy AFM Local 47

The music business is making more money than ever. A 2019 Goldman Sachs report estimated the industry could top more than $41 billion annually by 2030, as compared with $25 billion per year in the 1990s. But, as in the larger economy, that money is only going to those on top, to executives and their few dozen chosen stars. Working musicians have seen stagnant or declining wages and power for decades, exacerbated by already paltry public funding further drying up.

Artists have largely accepted this grinding inequality as an inevitability of the music industry’s tough but fair meritocracy. To adapt John Steinbeck’s observation, musicians see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed pop stars. Each musician is taught they will make it big with their unique combination of hustle and talent; a united movement to fight for their collective interests is nowhere on their radar. The result is a vast pool of cultural workers battling one another for increasingly small resources as the top earners rake in unprecedented profits.

While the current landscape seems grim, musicians do have a proud history of collective action. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) led successful strikes for royalties in the 1940s, and it continues to play an essential role to protect certain sectors of musicians. Artists have repeatedly united as part of solidarity movements, such as against South African apartheid.

The last three years have seen an inspiring resurgence in musician organizing, with artists uniting to force concessions from SXSW and other major festivals. Most recently, this October, more than a thousand musicians created No Music for ICE, pledging to fight Amazon’s music wing until the company ends their technical support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In November, organizers escalated the movement and led a mass takedown of music from Amazon, the first time artists have orchestrated a collective removal of music — or any product — from a digital distributor, an important labor milestone in the digital cultural landscape. Last month, the group pledged to picket Amazon-sponsored events at SXSW in March. Those real-life protests would mark yet another first for musicians.

The new musician movement is still in its infancy, but its victories and new tactics demonstrate artists’ potential to organize, build power, and win, even in the internet age.

Musicians on Strike

Artists were not always so weakened. During the first half of the twentieth century, musicians were a well-organized sector with significant bargaining power, largely through the AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Founded in Indianapolis in 1892, the AFM was originally a very large tent, with “any musician who receives pay for his musical services” eligible to join. From its early years, the union had to organize around dramatic industry changes in technology and management, such as the introduction of recorded audio in film screenings, which put silent films accompanists out of work.

The AFM grew in its first few decades, and in 1942–1944, it led the longest strike in US entertainment history for its members to receive royalties. Commercially available recorded music was still a relatively new technology, and labels had been refusing to pay musicians any portion of record sales. As profits grew, musicians began demanding a cut. The AFM launched a strike in August 1942, and union members refused to record with commercial labels until they agreed to pay royalties, shutting down a significant portion of the industry. By November 1944, musicians claimed victory when all of the major labels — including Decca, RCA, Columbia, and Victor — ceded to the union’s demands for royalties.

The AFM struck again in 1947, and it continues to exist as an 80,000-strong organization that plays an essential role in protecting rights for orchestra, theater, session, and other professional musicians. And even these organized musicians face constant attacks. In a recent piece for the Baffler on the instability faced by orchestra musicians, Kate Wagner describes symphony members who “schlep their instruments around in substitute gigs from orchestra to orchestra, unable to get a full-time job, teaching their students, paying off their debts with poverty wages from performing or adjuncting, and walking the picket line.”

That precarity has led to a recent uptick in AFM actions. From March through April 2019, the union members with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led a seven-week strike, winning wage increases and compromises on benefits and pensions. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra also went on strike this September, after management presented a contract with significant wage decreases after having locked out musicians since June.

The AFM, then, maintains power in certain sectors and deserves continued support. But its decline as an industry-wide player began in the 1950s with the rise of rock and roll, as a huge influx of workers in popular music genres entered the business. Now, instead of hiring formally educated, seasoned musicians operating out of hiring halls, labels turned to untrained pop musicians to create records.

Conventional union models no longer functioned, and rather than adapt to organize the new workers, the AFM sank into a craft union model, ignoring or actively working to box out the newcomers. Retreating from their member definition as “any musician who receives pay for his musical services,” the AFM fought the introduction of rock and roll, maintained racially segregated Locals that often barred black musicians from work, pushed for immigration laws to keep foreign rock musicians out of the country, and continues to largely ignore popular music. Given the AFM’s abandonment of workers in pop genres — now the vast majority of musicians — a recording strike bringing Sony, Warner, and Universal to their knees seems unimaginable.

While they lack formal union representation, popular musicians have nevertheless attempted to develop their own models for collection action. Battles over royalties continue, with musician-connected nonprofits like the Future of Music Coalition, and performance-rights organizations like BMI, ASCAP, and SoundExchange leading fights for legislation to bring more money into musicians’ pockets. Collectives like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — founded in the 1960s by members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago — advocate for music education, provide grants, and more.

US artists also have a history of united solidarity actions. In the 1980s, musicians created Artists United Against Apartheid to meet the African National Congress’s call for a cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, staging numerous concerts and creating the protest track “Sun City.” Thousands of artists have signed onto the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement’s boycott of Israel.

Outside of the United States, artists are often far more organized, frequently taking part in strike actions to preserve benefits such as pensions, health care, public arts funding, and more. Unionized performers in France, for example, shut down the country’s 2003 festival season with a massive strike over threatened cuts to the intermittents system, which gives special unemployment benefits to artists. The UK-based Musicians’ Union (MU) lobbies for fair pay, arts education, and musicians’ rights, recently launching a post-Brexit campaign to “retain mobility, funding, copyright and workers rights” for UK musicians touring in the EU, and for EU musicians working in the UK.

Thriving at the Top

While musicians’ collective action was never fully killed off, the lack of modern grassroots organizing is glaring. Musicians have largely failed to build significant power within the industry, or to unite in solidarity with the rest of the working class.

Much of the disorganization is due to the ever-increasing exploitation and inequality in the music business. The industry has seen massive growth in recent years, but in line with the overall economy, those resources are only accumulating at the top.

As Astra Taylor documents in The People’s Platform, the internet was pitched in its early days as a way to democratize and redistribute resources within the industry. But instead, the top three labels (Sony, Warner, and Universal) and their small group of star artists have sucked up an ever-increasing percentage of money. The three major labels today control a larger portion of the market than they did in the late ’90s. According to Taylor, “in 1986, there were thirty-one number one songs by twenty-nine different artists; by 2008, six artists were responsible for almost half of the sixty-six songs that had risen to number one.” Today, a major label backs every one of Spotify’s top ten artists with the most followers.

As the private sector directs resources upward, already paltry public arts funding is under constant threat. Democrats have fended off the Trump administration’s attempts to completely cut the National Endowment for the Arts, but the organization’s $150 million budget is still below its 1992 peak of $172.6 million. Only $8 million of that is dedicated to music for a US population of 321 million people, as compared to France, which dedicates $307 million in public music funding to its 67 million people, or England, which gives $227 million for a population of 43 million.

Without state support and with only a tiny fraction of the private industry’s resources, smaller artists are struggling. According to a 2017 survey by the Music Industry Research Association, the median income of a working musician was just $21,500 from music related sources. A Future of Music Coalition survey found that 43 percent of artists had no health insurance whatsoever. A survey published last month by the Creative Independent had similar findings, showing that “Just 12% of musicians reported that 80%–100% of their income came from music-related work.”

Yet somehow the conception of artists as fully independent, individual creators and businesspeople persists. Even in the age of algorithmically determined streaming, artists are taught that the path to success is a matter of smart entrepreneurial moves.

A recent Pitchfork article paraphrases Brian Message, cofounder of ATC Management, as saying the key for bands is that “new bands start small, set achievable goals over a number of years, and maintain decision-making control as the fanbase swells.” Similar pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps advice fills endless space across music business sites and conferences, always emphasizing the artist is a solo pilot who only needs to play the game correctly to access the industry’s capital. University music departments now devote significant resources to arts entrepreneurship courses. As musicologist Andrea Moore writes, this omnipresent neoliberal logic discourages collectivity and serves to “habituat[e] musicians to precariousness and insecurity through its rhetoric and institutional endorsement.”

Artists become blinded by temporary treats like press profiles, social media followers, and Spotify playlisting, which feel glamorous but offer no lasting income or power. New Museum union campaign leader Lily Bartle observed the difficulty of organizing cultural workers in this context: “There’s an individualist ethos that’s totally oriented around the possibility of upward mobility. In that way, the industry is a little bit allergic to organizing.”

The small-business framework limits musicians’ political possibilities to a set of individualized yes-or-no decisions. Sign the contract or not? Play the show or not? Social action is reduced to personal morality, and collective protest is largely unheard of. Any band performing even slightly angry music in the Trump era has faced a variation of the interview question, “Is your music political?” Usually, the journalist is speaking to the music’s lyrics, probing whether they address any social justice themes. Maybe the interviewer also wants to know the band’s personal business ethics: do they work with major labels, play corporate festivals, or license their music to distasteful companies?

Always, though, the questions are meant individualistically, addressing the musician as a small business producing a product that is either woke or not, either operating with principles of ethical capitalism or not. Collective action is not even considered.

SXSW

Despite these structural and ideological obstacles, and in line with growing movements across the working class, musicians are finally showing signs of organizing. A notable flashpoint occurred in 2017 over a clause in SXSW’s artist contract, wherein the festival threatened to work with ICE to deport foreign artists who performed at unofficial SXSW showcases. When artists began noticing the clause, several snapped into action.

Musician Told Slant first announced they were dropping off the festival, then an ad hoc group of musicians formed to capitalize on the momentum, organizing hundreds of artists to sign an open letter to SXSW demanding that the festival drop the clause and disavow any future collaboration with ICE. The unprecedented protest so frightened the festival that, after just one week, SXSW conceded to the artists’ demands. It was a significant victory for a network of indie musicians to so rapidly claim victory over one of the largest and most corporatized music festivals.

Since then, musicians have also shown their ability to exert power by working in coalitions. This year, many of the same artists joined nonprofit Fight for the Future’s (FFTF) campaign to pressure music festivals to ban facial recognition technology. The artist coalition’s participation again garnered headlines across a music press surprised by the united protest, and by October, every major music festival, including Coachella, Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, and Primavera pledged to ban the invasive technology.

Once again, an informal group of smaller artists acting collectively forced concessions from some of the largest players in the industry.

#NoMusicForICE

Similar efforts have recently been launched against Amazon. The company began selling music in its earliest days, but recently accelerated its encroachment into the industry. The company launched their first streaming service in 2016, expanded this year to offer HD and ad-supported free versions. They have dabbled in exclusive content since 2015, but last year began ramping up their “Amazon Exclusives” section, commissioning bands to create unique content only available on Amazon.

The company’s most significant move into music came with the October 16 announcement of Intersect Fest, a massive music festival put on by AWS in Las Vegas over December 6–7. The festival featured headliners like Foo Fighters, Anderson .Paak, Kacey Musgraves, and Beck, and promised attendees experiences “combining art, music, and technology,” including “Flying Lotus’s next-generation 3D live experience, Gesaffelstein’s otherworldly Vantablack VBx2 show, and . . . [a] Kacey Musgraves perform[ance] alongside a fleet of over 500 Intel drones choreographed by an all-female team.”

The festival’s theatrics came in stark contrast to the company’s deep complicity in human rights abuses. In 2017, the Intercept published a report on the Peter-Thiel-cofounded company Palantir, documenting its Investigations Case Management (ICM) program, a vast system that compiles public and private data to help ICE track down and deport immigrants. According to MIT Technology Review, ICM is “fueling the mass surveillance and targeting of immigrants at an unprecedented scale.”

Amazon Web Services operates as the technical base for Palantir, hosting the company’s massive operations on its servers. Amazon also hosts the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) other immigration-related databases, including USCIS and biometric data for 230 million individuals, and provides cloud services to the CIA.

Exact numbers are not publicly available, but Amazon makes profits in the billions off these government contracts, far more than any other tech company. As immigrant justice group Mijente explains, “Through intense lobbying of policymakers and law enforcement officials, Amazon and Palantir have secured a role as the backbone for the federal government’s immigration and law enforcement dragnet, allowing them to pursue multi-billion dollar government contracts in various agencies at every single level of law enforcement.”

In response, immigrant rights groups and tech workers have demanded Amazon cut its contracts with ICE and the DHS. Tech workers launched the #TechWontBuildIt campaign in 2018, and early in 2019, Mijente launched No Tech for ICE. (Of course, Amazon also commits abuses beyond its ICE contracts, notoriously overworking and underpaying its warehouse workers, and holding vastly outsize influence in local politics in Seattle and other cities where its offices are concentrated.)

So, when Amazon announced Intersect Festival, artists and fans immediately expressed outrage at the unprecedented movement into the music industry. An informal network of musicians — many of the same artists who spearheaded the SXSW and facial recognition efforts — quickly connected to plan a reaction, and a few days later, they launched the No Music for ICE, in explicit solidarity with No Tech for ICE.

Within a week, the group had organized more than a thousand musicians to sign onto a pledge to boycott all Amazon festivals and exclusives until the company ended its support for ICE. The action was picked up by every major music website, leading more bands to join the campaign. At least one artist, Black Madonna, dropped off the festival bill in protest; another, JPEGMAFIA, also quit the festival, though without explaining why.

A month later, the campaign escalated with a coordinated mass takedown of music from Amazon’s digital marketplace and streaming services. The action was the first such collective withholding of music in the digital era — a smaller protest than the AFM’s 1942–1944 strike, but nevertheless an important milestone for digital-age cultural workers.

Seemingly due to the widely publicized movement, Intersect Festival received no national media coverage, and the artists performing were virtually silent about their participation on social media. While measuring victory is difficult, it seems musicians’ organizing effectively halted Amazon’s attempt to use Intersect to expand and further cool their music brand. On January 15, No Music for ICE announced that artists would hold pickets of all Amazon-sponsored music events at SXSW in March. Those actions would mark the first artist-led in-person protests ever at a major music festival.

The Future Is Unwritten

The successes of the SXSW and facial recognition fights, and the new tactics developed in the ongoing No Music for ICE battle, show that musicians can organize and win even in a highly precarious and monopolized cultural industry. The small ad hoc groups of largely independent artists leading these efforts were able to quickly enlist hundreds of other bands and utilize the press to bring these companies to fast concessions. These collective actions worked, and they accomplished far more than the individualistic, entrepreneurial decision-making typically offered to musicians as political action.

Importantly, the SXSW, surveillance, and Amazon fights all share a broader connection with national protests against ICE and the prison-industrial complex. As Future of Music Coalition director Kevin Erickson told me in an interview, “One of the things that we’ve learned over the years is that musicians seeking change in any aspect of our business are going to be most successful when we are able to build coalitions with other movements for change, to explicitly draw connections between the needs and concerns of working creators and broader movements for labor justice and media reform.”

Those national fights directly affect many artists, but musicians can also fight directly for their own interests. Having built the skeletons of organization, we can imagine these informal groups of artists solidifying into a more lasting movement, creating a big-tent union that proactively organizes all music workers. Any new organization would likely not focus on forging contracts with record companies, as did the AFM of old, but rather use collective action to win concessions and redistribute resources in the modern music landscape. These musicians’ unions could intensify existing solidarity actions, but also make demands that directly serve artists: more revenue from Spotify streams, increased public arts funding, Medicare for All, larger advances from labels, pension funds, and more.

Recent articles about artist labor action typically focus on millionaire superstars, such as Taylor Swift’s battle with the aptly named Big Machine Label Group over whether she could perform her songs owned by the company. While actions like Swift’s call-outs of Big Machine and the private equity behind it are heartening, it seems more likely that any redistributive change will necessarily come not from music’s highest paid artists, but from musicians in the industry’s lower economic strata. These are the most exploited musicians, those most affected by recent industry shifts, and as low-income workers, they are those most likely to act in solidarity with the rest of the working class.

Musician collective organizing is still rebuilding from decades of inaction and destruction, but the victories of the past three years demonstrate it is possible for artists to build power and win. A movement from below can and must further transform the industry, forcing companies to direct resources downward. Given the industry’s increasingly stark inequality, either musicians will join a collective mass struggle to force necessary change, or we will slowly witness the complete destruction of artists’ working conditions.