Musicians Need to Organize Collectively, as Workers
Like every other industry under capitalism, the music industry is currently organized to make a small handful of people very rich while the vast majority of working musicians benefit little from their recordings and performances. The only way to change that is through collective action.
- Interview by
- Alexander Billet
Launched in the spring as the coronavirus pandemic shut down music venues across the country, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) seeks to, per their website, “organize music workers to fight for a more just music industry, and to join with other workers in the struggle for a better society.” In October, the union launched its Justice at Spotify campaign, seeking to increase the streaming giant’s abysmally low payout rate for musicians. The campaign currently has the support of more than 26,000 recording artists.
The union also stands for more equitable treatment from record labels and venues, and publicly supports Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, abolishing the police and ICE, and a host of other left-wing causes. Josephine Shetty, an organizer with UMAW and one of its cofounders, who also records under the name Kohinoorgasm, spoke with Alexander Billet about organizing music workers, UMAW’s aims, and its vision for a liberated music industry.
I want to start by addressing some of the myths and stereotypes about recording artists. There’s a persistent notion that artists and musicians are either incredibly successful or consummately lazy. Along those same lines, there’s the implication that those who are successful, who are living comfortably, are supposedly in that position because they’re making the “best music.” This ignores the sheer amount of money and marketing that goes into the recording industry behind the scenes. What’s your take on this? What has your own experience as a musician and performer shown you about them?
I definitely don’t agree with those stereotypes, but I do think that there’s a huge wealth gap in the industry, where all the work of so many people is really only reflected in the wealth of the top few in the industry: CEOs, pop stars, huge label owners.
It makes me think of when Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO, said it’s not enough for artists to be releasing music every three to four years. They need to be working harder. Which speaks to how intense the industry has become for working artists. Every year, we’re expected to do more and more and more to push ourselves up. We’re fed this narrative that with the right combination of hustle and talent, we could get chosen as the next big star. When in reality, today, a major label backs every one of Spotify’s top ten artists. The global record industry made $18.8 billion in 2018, and 31 percent of it went to Universal Music Group, 18.3 percent went to Warner Music Group, and 21 percent went to Sony Music. So the wealth gap is the result of a gigantic power imbalance.
It’s a myth of individualism. UMAW has a different vision of how we gain success for everybody. I think for the full community of music workers to be truly successful, we need to organize together so we can create sustainable solidarity economies, where all of us have our needs met and all of us are able to make our art. We want to do our work without being exploited or feeling this pressure of the narrative that we rise to the top by pushing other people down and ourselves to our limits.
Right now, the music industry has these little tokens and treats that they throw us, like being featured on a Spotify playlist. I was recently featured on a big playlist, and it got a lot of attention for this one track. I was so excited! “Oh my god, I’m going to get some money from this! And I’m going to get some new listeners!” I did get a couple new listeners, and I got my little chunk of change from Spotify, but it wasn’t a lot. Those treats offer no sustainable support structure for a working artist.
What’s the reality of making a living when you’re an artist?
Like a lot of working independent artists, I work multiple jobs. I teach middle school and high school music classes. I’m a grad student, so I work as a teaching assistant, too. Then I have my music. My main source of income from music used to be touring and playing shows, which is true for a lot of artists.
Now that we don’t have that because of COVID, the question is, how are most working artists going to make a living?
I’ve actually found more work in teaching now that we’re in quarantine. So I’ve been working more as a teacher, but I’ve been playing a lot less. Even when I do play shows, virtually now, I don’t make nearly as much as I would have without the pandemic.
How are musicians making a living right now? That question was a big catalyst for our union.
This gets us to the question of whether musicians are workers or not, which is connected to these myths and conceptions about how music is actually made. The prevailing conception is that artists are selling something directly that’s just “their own,” that they have a different relationship to production than, say, a retail worker. But that overlooks how collective the production of music often is, doesn’t it?
There’s a quote from this amazing book called Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ’n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968, by Michael James Roberts. It poses that exact question: Are musicians workers? In it, he writes:
Were they artists who happened to work, or workers who also made art [music]? Which mattered more, working or being an artist? Indeed, how could there not be a conflict, if being an artist meant not compromising your expression under any circumstances, including receiving a paycheck? From this point of view, receiving money for your “art” means that someone else controls your activity and therefore your art becomes a means toward an end, not an end in itself; as a consequence, your artistic integrity is compromised, not “authentic.”
We are workers in those terms. And we are workers as exemplified by how we’re able to mobilize our labor power. The strength of workers comes from our ability to collectively advance fairness and justice in our field, and there is so much unfairness and injustice in our field.
We are subject to a power imbalance, not just as musicians. A big project of UMAW is to include all music workers: venue workers, label workers, the person who works the door, the person who sells the merch, everybody who’s involved in this industry.
It seems to me that what you’re talking about is something that’s always been the case under capitalism. Even in the best of circumstances, an artist’s product has to become sellable, has to become a commodity. Which means, to one degree or another, it has to be alienated from the artist and other people who made it.
There’s a casualization of labor in the music industry that has been increasingly adopted by other industries. If you work in rideshare or door-to-door delivery, increasingly, you’re legally considered an independent contractor and are subject to all sorts of instabilities that you have no control over. To me, it seems no coincidence that when we talk about “the gig economy,” we’re also using a term that artists have used for performances for several decades.
Artists are some of the original gig workers. As I said in an interview I did with Liz Pelly for In These Times, we definitely have a responsibility in UMAW to be part of the movement to organize those gig workers. At the start of the pandemic, we wrote a letter demanding more relief for gig workers and freelancers and other people who weren’t included in the initial relief packages.
When you look into the labor history of musicians, starting with the American Federation of Musicians in the late 1890s and early 1900s, you see musicians understanding their power as gig workers, organizing to secure things some people take for granted today, like royalties and decent working conditions in studios. But it’s been harder over the years to organize independent music workers, including independent musicians. So, to include other music workers who aren’t only musicians but who are also engineers or working for a label is crucial.
That’s something that struck me about the demands of the Justice at Spotify campaign: the demand for Spotify to publicly credit all the workers involved in the making of a song or album, which currently they don’t do. When you think about the massive amount of work from so many other people that can go into a release, it’s incredible Spotify is able to get away with that. Could you go into some of that work that has to happen?
It’s different for every project, but I’ve seen projects where there’s an artist who’s “the name,” whose name is going on the album but who may not have written a majority of the content on the songs. Then there’s other instrumentalists and players who play on the album. They might write their parts, too — the artist who wrote the lyrics and played the leading instrument, and then they invite other instrumentalists and players to come in and write the parts for the drums or other backing instruments. So there could be any combination, from the smallest to the largest, depending on what the track looks like.
I think about this Bjork documentary The Inner or Deep Part of an Animal or Plant Structure, about her album Medúlla, where almost everything is constructed with the native voice. Or just think about watching a documentary about any artists making an album, really. You’ll see these different instrumentalists coming on, and even if they don’t write the part, they’re still playing the part.
Then there’s an engineer. Sometimes there’s multiple lead engineers. Sometimes there’s an assistant engineer. Sometimes, if you’re in a studio, there’s a person who’s working the desk at the studio, or managing the admin and operations at the studio. Maybe there’s an intern who’s helping out with the flow of things.
That’s just the recording phase! That’s just when you’re in the studio making the tracks. Before that, the artist might have a manager or might have some kind of assistant, who’s working with them to secure the studio space and set up that session. After you’ve recorded, artists might have a label, or they might have their own label where they work out how to release the album. If you’re an indie label, there’s probably multiple people working on artwork and all kinds of things.
I work as an assistant engineer from time to time. I’ve seen other people’s work get produced with other combinations of resources and people in the studio. And then you have touring — maybe someone booked your tour, you have all the different people in venues that are working the show: the sound tech, the security, the bartender.
I’m probably aging myself here, but when I first started to care about music, it was the early ’90s. The main way you would consume music was either through radio, cassettes, or CDs. The cassettes and CDs would have most of those credits in there — the sound engineers, session musicians, and others like them. That’s still the case for CDs or vinyl records, of course, but the dominance of streaming has really changed the way we interact with music. On the one hand, it’s easier than ever for us to have access to music; on the other, it’s not sustainable for artists.
Do you think streaming can be made equitable? Will making things better for artists mean making them worse for listeners?
Our campaign is definitely not meant to decry streaming as a bad model for listening. The popular model for listening is great, but we need to make it work for users and workers.
Ampled and Resonate are both worker-owned platforms trying to evolve the platform economy to be more like a solidarity economy, with more worker power in mind. It’s hard with Spotify, though. Spotify doesn’t even have the worst payout rate, but it is the most popular streaming platform in the world. To some degree, we have to adapt. We can also draw a line and say, “We’re not going to accept the fact that you’re literally exploiting us. We make the content of your platform, and yet you make all the money.”
That’s where we get organized and start to think about how we can take back the power from these people like Daniel Ek, who think it’s okay to make millions off of a platform that is supposed to be hosting music that uplifts the listener and the artist. Ampled and Resonate are both suggesting alternatives. Ampled is kind of like a Patreon model, where artists can create pages and have subscribers, but it’s all worker-owned and they have made a promise not to sell out to venture capitalists. And it has a very educational blog that talks a lot about platform economies and how to revolutionize them, and why cooperative ownership is so important for musicians. Resonate is another streaming platform that is worker-owned. Every artist who uploads their work can opt to have a share on it.
You hear this all the time in the music industry and other industries, that this current setup is both natural and how it has to be, that you have to exploit artists to stay in business. But these folks are showing that there is a tangible alternative.
It’s about something much bigger than Spotify or just streaming, isn’t it? It’s about how the whole music industry is structured.
Yes. In terms of not only the big three record labels, but in general, industry bosses have managed to continually increase their profits as the industry has evolved. These evolutions in the industry are framed as supporting artists and making music more accessible. A lot of these shifts in the industry are marketed as democratizing. Yet somehow, all of these industry bosses are accruing wealth exponentially, year after year.
In 1982, 26 percent of all concert revenue from ticket sales went to the top 1 percent of performers. But in 2019, so a year ago, the top 1 percent of performers commanded 60 percent of revenue. So there’s all this talk about things being democratized. That’s the opposite of what’s happening.
One of the committees at UMAW is dedicated to the question of equitable relationships between label and artist. That’s one thing when it comes to the big three, but what about the smaller, independent labels with fewer resources? Does there need to be any nuance when it comes to that kind of relationship?
I agree there needs to be nuance. But also, like you’re saying, anytime somebody is signing a contract with somebody else, signing away rights, potentially, it’s important to know your rights.
It’s also important to not feel like you have to make these decisions individually. One of the things about a union is that, whether or not your label is treating you great, or your manager is your best friend, you should have a union behind you, so that, if something should happen, you’re not alone in this fight for working conditions and pay.
I’m not on the union’s label subcommittee, but I know they are working on a recording contract survey, that’s just specifically so they can look at different recording agreements and build some standards for fair recording agreements. So you can see these questions like “What is the record label you’ve contracted with?” and “What does your label do best?” and “What can they improve?”
These are some of the genuine questions that can help artists figure out how to deal with in their contracts and how labels can become fairer.
I want to talk about how the exploitation of artists connects to other issues. In the In These Times piece, it’s mentioned that the connections that first led to UMAW’s formation came out of a controversy at the SXSW festival a few years ago. Could you tell me about that?
That was No Music for ICE. I signed onto that campaign. I wasn’t involved in the organizing of it, but I remember because I was also invited to play SXSW that year. It came to light that there was fine print in their agreement that the festival’s organizers would notify immigration authorities if there were any migrant musicians who “participated in illegal activity.” Which, of course, we thought was super suspicious. So a bunch of musicians organized a letter to say we don’t approve of that language and demanded it be removed, otherwise we wouldn’t participate.
SXSW responded by removing that clause from their contracts. So a lot of the founding members of UMAW were involved in that campaign, which has also evolved into the No Music for ICE coalition. Their mission statement is to say no to ICE and the tech companies that power it, because, as it turns out, Amazon web services provides some of the platforming for ICE and other government agencies. They’ve asked for musicians to start removing their music from Amazon Music and to stop participating in their events. So I’ve pulled my music from Amazon. I know a bunch of other people who did, too. A lot of artists signed onto their statement.
So many artists make these individual decisions — they don’t like Amazon, so they decide to pull their music. Why not make it a collective action?
And there are so many little decisions like this that our industry is fraught with. “That venue owner is abusive, I’m not going to play there anymore, and I’m going to tell my friends not to play there anymore.” Why not make that a collective issue, so we can all agree to address this? There are so many moral decisions that are put on individuals, when they should be issues addressed by a community of artists.
I’m also seeing several other committees that are dedicated not just to working conditions or issues related to the industry but to support for the Green New Deal, the abolition of ICE, police abolition. UMAW seems to be an artists’ union that is unafraid to take radical stances and wants to engage in broader social issues.
It’s important for workers to leverage their power wherever they can. And there are, unfortunately, so many issues of racism and policing in the music industry that we have a responsibility to address.
It’s great that we have the capacity to do this. We have a classical music accountability committee, a group of classical musicians who are examining how classical music intersects with racism. I’m part of the police abolition committee. Our aim is to end the relationship between music and policing by identifying those intersections. More recently, we’ve been trying to work in solidarity with incarcerated musicians who don’t have access to equipment, or helping with mixing or releasing their music, in cooperation with Die Jim Crow Records, a record label that is entirely run by and for incarcerated musicians.
I feel like we often take presence of police at shows and performances as a given. One of the things in the document that the committee put together that stuck out was that this also can make music venues, old and new, complicit in gentrification. Which, ironically, makes it harder for working artists to live in the neighborhoods where they perform.
Policing in and around venue spaces is a big issue. There have been many instances of people in the surrounding neighborhood being impacted by the policing of the venue space, and of people in the venue itself being made unsafe by these kinds of carceral security practices. We have a responsibility to make them safer.
I want to talk a bit about your own music and how it relates to this idea that capitalism provides enough space for truly free expression. In your music, I hear a treatment of love and play and intimacy and identity that feels like it would stymie most label reps. That’s the case with a lot of artists. Ultimately, labels can’t figure out how to fit them into a category that would make the artist easily marketable, in their view.
Do you think there’s a connection between how artists are treated and their ability to both make and distribute music that is authentic to themselves as artists?
Sometimes I wonder why I haven’t been signed yet. Is it because my content isn’t aligning with whatever is most marketable? That’s an issue artists have to grapple with: “How much am I going to have to compromise my values or compromise myself in order to fit into these models that could elevate me to wherever I want to go?”
The more I feel that pressure, the more I want to rage against it. Recently, I was rewriting my résumé. I had written that I’m a cofounder of a union of musicians, and I wrote it the same way I would any other job, with my responsibilities listed. My career counselor said, “You might not want to put this on a job application.” I know why she said it, but that’s so sad.
It sounds like what we’re ultimately talking about here is an industry democratically controlled by artists. How do you think this would change the way artists and listeners relate to music?
It would be a lot different. A lot of the feelings that we most genuinely cherish about music — listening to a great song that makes you feel love, or seen, or sad — could be preserved. But because the power distribution would be so different, in a way, it would no longer be an industry! It would just be a core culture of music-making that not only centers music workers, but that also involves listeners as community members who support this work and want to partake in it.
Maybe everyone is a music worker. I know so many people who want to be musicians or who are artists or musicians, who don’t even identify as such because they feel so stifled by the upward movement they’re supposed to be pursuing in their other careers.
We invite all music workers and all musicians and allied workers to come and share their vision and make it happen with the union. Our next new member meeting is on January 17. We’re working on becoming a “capital-U” union. We have an internal structures committee whose entire responsibility is to work on our governance, developing rules and guidelines of how UMAW operates, defining membership, defining subcommittees, defining the steering committee and other governing bodies. If that’s anyone’s passion, come join.