MusicWatch Monthly: Mayday!

Strikes, unions, and the unpaid labors of love

Today we’re going to talk about one of the oldest musical traditions in the world: getting screwed. But first, we’d like to invite you to open a new tab and go cancel your account with Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel, Computers, Books, DVDs & more, Inc. If you can’t bring yourself to do that (but why not?), you should at least boycott them today, along with all the other government-sized corporations that can’t be bothered to attend to their employees’ needs. The virtual picket line is the easiest to cross–don’t give in, dear reader.

And now, here’s Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives with a Sarabande:

Alrighty, let’s talk about Music and Labor. We’ll start with Portland Musicians Union Local 99 and their page of resources for musicians. These folks (led by trombonist Bruce Fife) are a part of the American Federation of Musicians, who in 1942-44 prosecuted the longest entertainment strike in modern history. The strike itself is worth looking into, and you can do that right here (and read about the 1948 follow-up here), but there’s one specific part of the story we’d like to call attention to on this unusually bizarre International Workers’ Day: the divide-and-conquer part.

Two typical corporate D&C counterstrategies emerged from these strikes: the rise in importance of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, and the development of long-playing records. These are both fine things which would have happened anyways, of course, and besides that we really wouldn’t want to live in a world where Ol’ Blue Eyes never released In the Wee Small Hours.

But the old saying, “we can always pay half the poor to kill the other half” (attributed to steampunk supervillain Jay Gould) applies here. We would never dream of accusing The Chairman of being a scab, naturally (we do value our lives). No, our point is simply that we must always be vigilant about how stricken companies and industries respond to workers’ demands.

Because, see, strikes are not necessarily a matter of socialist/anarchist/communist ideology versus capitalist ideology–if struggle and competition are written into our society’s source code, then one of the things we must struggle against is the abuses of capitalism. This holds true even if–perhaps especially if–you believe fervently in the virtues of capitalism.

That is, you can be the biggest anti-union free-marketeer on the planet and still believe that companies should be accountable to the workers who sell them their labor. You can hate populist politics with all your heart and still recognize that sometimes rich assholes abuse their power and try to get away with shit. Regardless of mundane things like wealth distribution and ownership of the means of production, it’s always up to the workers to keep the bosses honest and well-informed about their own businesses. It’s nothing more than a variation on the SNAFU principle: the workers have the most accurate ground-level picture of how the company is actually running, and smart business owners listen.

But none of that matters, really, because in 2020 the Big Nasty end of the global business world is full of multi-nationals and other post-human entities that are a lot better organized than the workers are. Internet helps them more than it helps us, because they don’t even have to catch you comparing salaries by the water cooler; they can track your anti-corporate fear-mongering on the farcebook and everywhere else. Thanks to the gig economy anyone can get screwed at any time for any reason, and we all know that in practice “employment at will” means nothing more than ensuring companies never have to legally admit the real reason they just so happened to fire that troublesome employee. And let’s not even get started on the marketing and public relations issues.

To make a long rant short (too late!) we’re saying that the institutions we’re striking against show a greater degree of solidarity with each other than we ourselves do.

Music, sweet music

But what the hell does all that have to do with music? Only this, dear reader: We musicians have long since lost the war against the evils and excesses of the recording industry. The musician strikes of the forties get a sort of side-eyed anti-luddite glare, as if it was recordings per se (and The Glorious Future in general) that the musicians and their unions had a problem with–rather than the little matter of royalties, job security, and economic justice.

Today, that looks like the familiar stories we’ve all read about artist rights and streaming royalties and other issues with eyetunes, spatify, and the rest, but one recent exception whom we simply adore (on every day that isn’t International Workers’ Day) is the Oakland-based Bandcamp. We use it ourselves, both as composer and audient, and generally have a favorable view of the company’s ethics and style. It has a nicely decentralized peer-to-peer vibe, like what Napster could have been with better lawyers and an art department.

Artists set their own prices, the company takes a cut of the proceeds, and fans get to download the music they buy–meaning the listener owns the actual audio files, not just the right to stream the music without ads. The near-universal consensus amongst Bandcamp aficionados is that they’re not only good for musicians but one of the Decent Companies (as opposed to the kind that likes to play at being good while covering up ecocide with greenwashing–and no, I’m not going to tell you exactly who I mean).

So when the enchilada hit the floor and Bandcamp waived all their fees for one day in March, it was both encouraging and disappointing. Our first thought was, “okay good but do that every month.” Now that they’ve decided to do exactly that, we’re wondering whether that should be enough or if we should all continue pressing our advantage.

Probably we should just leave poor Bandcamp alone, although this sort of one-day philanthropy seems like the exact shade of virtue signaling that desperate companies tend to engage in. For now, though, we’re inclined to trust and appreciate them, as evidenced by the cluster of album links you’ll find below: the Bandcamp pages of various Oregon musicians who could really use that extra buck-fifty in royalties from the one album they’ll sell this week.

But there’s a much bigger problem here, and it brings us finally to our real point. As soon as we raise these questions about whether Bandcamp should waive their fees more often, or whether streaming services should rethink how they calculate and allocate streaming royalties, or whether we should just venmo funds directly to our musician friends in exchange for dropboxed wav files….well then we jump immediately to the question “how are these companies supposed to stay in business?” and from there we go directly to “why do we even have record labels and streaming services in the first place?” It’s an old and thorny question with a long, complicated, morally subtle answer, but there’s also a short, snarky answer:

It’s because you can always hire half the musicians to rob the other half.

The following list is utterly arbitrary and almost completely subjective, although these are all Oregonian artists and we have endeavored to include mostly new releases:

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