Jacobin - February 1, 2020

"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."

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. ...
Read full report at Jacobin