Work Not Play

The music industry is famously precarious — but some artists are fighting back.

A few years back, a Vancouver restaurateur posted a Craigslist ad asking for solo musicians to “play [for free] in our restaurant, promote their work and sell their CD . . . only for special events which will eventually turn into nightly event . . . Are you interested to promote your work?”

Such an arrangement is not unusual in most North American or European cities, but it elicited a remarkable (and equally ungrammatical) reply: “I am a musician with a big house looking for a restaurateur to promote their restaurant and come to my house to make dinner for my friends and I. This . . . will eventually turn into nightly event if we get positive response . . . are you interested to promote your restaurant?”

The micro-protest highlighted the widespread exploitation of musicians, who work in an industry where, outside of some major orchestral and theatrical institutions, workplace trade unionism is rare. Venues, promoters, and intermediaries convince aspiring performers to act against their own best interests. And musicians are often prepared to trade wages for exposure, because getting a major break usually trumps securing humane working conditions.

But the Vancouver exchange also demonstrates that some musicians are resisting. So does a recent study we conducted. Looking at three cities (London, England; Paris, France; and Ljubljana, Slovenia) and speaking with seventy musicians, our aim was to examine how musicians survive in contemporary capitalism.

All were freelancers who cobbled together a living by performing at festivals and clubs, providing background music in restaurants or at corporate functions, and, in some cases, working in theaters or on cruise ships.

Alongside informal fightbacks, like the Craigslist example above, musicians are organizing campaigns and programs of mutual aid through trade unions and collectives to improve their work lives.

As with any other kind of job, progress in securing a better deal for working musicians starts with the musicians themselves. Many reported becoming increasingly politicized as they fought for better conditions, viewing politics and art as inseparable, rather than mutually exclusive.

The Exposure Con

Every year young musicians come to London, Paris, and Ljubljana in droves, hoping to build their careers. They compete against each other, as well as against established professionals and hobbyists.

Intense competition and a low success rate create a kind of musical reserve army of labor in which a huge number of artists pursue a small number of gigs, giving employers a powerful tool to push down standards. In our interviews, musicians routinely admitted to accepting low-paying gigs out of fear that someone else would do the same work for even less.

Musicians’ aspirations also benefit employers. One of the bosses’ tactics is to pitch a night of live music as a “battle of the bands” — a name that tempts up-and-coming groups to work for free, or even pay to play, in exchange for the dubious promise of publicity for the winner. Other popular strategies include advertising events as charity shows (so musicians waive their fee) or demanding musicians do publicity themselves (“you can play here, but only if you bring an audience”).

The extraction of labor from musicians is not always so subtle. Agreements are usually unwritten, so employers can easily renege on them, and often do. One interviewee reported being told by a bar manager that his gig had never actually taken place. Another musician recounted being taken up to an attic after the performance and told the fee was being reduced.

While these practices are obviously unfair, the public isn’t always sympathetic. For example, when the British Musicians’ Union (MU) publicly criticized the 2012 London Olympics organizing committee for expecting musicians to work for free, the London Evening Standard dismissed their concerns: “The Musicians Union is indignant that performers at the Olympics and Jubilee celebrations are being asked to perform for free. But frankly, many would pay to be invited to showcase their talents: at momentous national events, surely they should be glad to play their part?”

Yet it is not just employers and audiences who fail to see musicians as workers who deserve a living wage. In our interviews, many artists were quick to justify their poor conditions, saying things like “if you want money, get an office job.” If they pursue their passion as a career, in other words, they should be willing to forfeit their right to material security.

Other musicians rationalized taking low-paid work by repeating their employers’ arguments: that they can build networks and a reputation, finesse a work in progress, or should perform simply out of enjoyment. These motivations are widely accepted as legitimate, and so criticizing other musicians for tolerating poor conditions was viewed as taboo. But building solidarity depends on breaking this taboo.

Herding Cats

The role of musicians’ trade unions is complex.

While the Musicians’ Union (MU) is well organized and negotiates collective agreements with employers (including in London’s West End), in casualized contexts — consisting of one-off engagements with venues and collaborators — unionism tends to follow a “servicing” model. Offering discounted insurance and legal advice, the MU supports members’ passage through the labor market but does not challenge its terms.

In countries with welfare provisions designed specifically for arts workers (including France and Slovenia), unions often help workers receive and maintain support and lobby for easier access to state subsidies. But when it comes to regulating working conditions, union officials compare organizing musicians with “herding cats.”

This isn’t to say they haven’t tried. There are sporadic but important cases of trade unions trying to mobilize arts workers en masse. The most significant example is the French performers’ strike wave of 2003, which caused major disruption at the height of the festival season.

Musicians and other performers protested against reforms that would tighten eligibility for the intermittents du spectacle system of unemployment insurance. The strike did not halt the reforms, but it remains the best recent example of art-worker mobilization and will have to be reprised if the French state’s austerity policies translate into renewed threats to the intermittents system.

In Britain, where the political arena is radically different, the British MU has tried to mobilize around the issue of unpaid work, particularly after the non-payment of musicians at high-profile “national celebrations.”

The union has organized a “Work Not Play” campaign, which encourages musicians, including non-members, to report employers who ask them to work for free so they can be “named and shamed” over the internet.

There are significant obstacles to such efforts, due in no small part to many musicians’ skepticism of unions. In France anarchist ideology is also alive and well in the music scene, and we found widespread resistance to the idea of formally regulating labor markets.

Opposition could be rooted in local conditions; some musicians associate the intermittents system with the “institutionalization” of music. The low visibility of union members and the lack of an organizing culture also contribute to the problem.

Musicians typically work in highly transient settings, through single or short-term arrangements, with disparate employers and co-workers. Most of our interviewees were members of multiple bands, each with rapidly shifting personnel, making informal interactions among musicians themselves more decisive in shaping attitudes toward work than union campaigns. In addition, musicians already rely on informal organizing.

Musicians’ Self-Organization

What do musicians do when employers rip them off? Given the highly casualized nature of their work, getting the union involved only happens in a minority of cases. More often, musicians’ responses are sporadic and isolated: simply walking away, exchanging angry emails, or getting into arguments with employers.

At times, confrontations can be violent: for example, one jazz musician described how a bar manager had refused to pay her band after it had played, so she snatched his iPhone and threatened to smash it on the floor unless cash was forthcoming. The tactic was successful, but it was a response born from a power imbalance and the workers’ isolation.

Interestingly, self-organization tends to mirror trade union tactics. It’s striking how often musicians, even where unions are absent, have shared ideas about what constitutes acceptable working conditions.

But they do not always hold others to these standards. In a few cases, respondents talked about musicians who egregiously breached these informal social expectations — repeatedly acting in bad faith to undercut others — and were ostracized as a result. But this outcome was rare, suggesting the need for stronger attempts to foster organic solidarity.

We also came across several occasions where musicians used word-of-mouth and social media to publicly attack employers who treated other musicians badly. These activities are reminiscent of the MU’s “Work Not Play” campaign, but are still not the normal response to exploitative treatment.

Finally, musicians are developing new forms of solidarity. Many that we met in London and Ljubljana had been part of “collectives” — networks of like-minded musicians that create and operate new performance spaces.

Such collectives improve members’ access to venues and performance opportunities, while sharing publicity costs and cutting out profit-extracting intermediaries such as booking agents. Some groups pursue a radical vision of music-making, while others more closely resemble small businesses, with a closed-off core of members that see successful collectives as commodifiable “brands.”

In the most advanced examples, musicians are trying to create an alternative market. In Ljubljana, where the local labor market for musicians and welfare arrangements that once supported them have shrunk thanks to the economic downturn, privatization and the globalization of music and broadcasting threaten to crowd out local production.

There we spoke to members of collectives founded on egalitarian principles that had created alternative venues and production and distribution channels. They also built new relationships with venues, asking the venues to commit to pre-agreed pay rates in return for booking them for well-attended cultural events.

While these collectives fight to improve material conditions for musicians, they have also projected a radical political message against the privatization and commercialization of venues and distribution channels.

So far this kind of activity remains outside the norm. But the potential exists for more explicit, militant organizing. Our interviews demonstrated that many musicians have a strong sense of solidarity that could be channeled into more collective protests against the bad behavior of employers — making fighting back the rule rather than the exception.

Collective action, including self-organized collectives, must be part of a more clearly articulated political agenda and receive recognition and support from formal trade unions. These goals are mutually complementary, and each depends on expanding political consciousness from the bottom up. Like any other group of workers, progress for musicians will only come when they recognize their own capacity for collective change.