Stars and Strikes

Why musicians need unions

Since the early 20th century, the music industry has remained in a near-constant state of technological change comparable to that facing the overall labor market today: a gig economy in which the very nature of work shifts radically on a regular basis, and with it opportunities to make a living.

Before the advent of radio, many musicians were hobbyists, with the exception of those who lived and could perform in large major metropolitan orchestras. After World War I, however, and the rise of commercial radio, many musicians took up jobs at radio stations and silent movie theaters that needed their labor.

The increased production of commercial records in the 1930s and 1940s created new opportunities, while foreclosing other ones: they allowed for radio stations to bypass in-studio talent, while recorded soundtracks removed the need for a theater pit performance. This created a tension, where musicians arriving for recording gigs were helping to eliminate their own potential value to radio stations and theaters across the country. This is when the American Federation of Musicians stepped in.

A workforce doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, divided against the issues facing it

The AFM was started in the late 19th century, evolving out of social clubs that favored “highly skilled” musicians. By the 20th-century start, the union supported a broader range of musicians, although a bias toward “higher-skilled” workers would permeate for decades to come, primarily targeting musicians who couldn’t read music. In the first half of the 20th century, this included many black blues musicians and white country performers. The divide along race and class lines only grew over the years, and would have existential consequences for the union itself. But in the first half of the 20th century, for those artists accepted into the union, it was a constant battle between preserving the jobs that did exist and embracing technological advancements.

In the late 1930s, James Petrillo, a former trumpeter, climbed to the top of the AFM’s Chicago local. His aggressive leadership style — he led successful musicians strikes in the city — diverged from the union’s national leadership: Union president Joseph Weber was seen as being too close to Franklin Roosevelt, and criticized for not having fought hard enough during the introduction of recorded music. Petrillo replaced him in June 1940, ready to plot a new strategy on a national stage.

Petrillo set about strengthening the union’s power, unionizing the Boston Symphony (one of the country’s last holdouts of non-unionized musicians), and strong-arming members of a rival union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, into joining the AFM. On August 1, 1942, with his organization at critical mass, Petrillo led the union in a strike in the middle of World War II — not only for better wages, but to challenge the idea that a worker had to contribute to the obsolescence of their job.

To strike during the war was highly unpopular. Although the AFM holds a history of rather strong nationalism — in the mid-1960s the union fought to keep out British Invasion bands like the Beatles and the Kinks — even President Roosevelt, without his pal Weber in power, wasn’t able to get Petrillo to cede ground. The year-long strike was successful, resulting in an agreement with various major record labels called The Recording and Transcription Fund, which recycled the money made from overall record sales into public concerts for unemployed and underemployed union workers. When the government passed the Taft-Hartley law in 1947, which undercut the ability of unions to administer their own welfare funds, Petrillo organized a follow-up strike that created the similar Music Performance Trust Fund.

In Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942-1968, Michael James Roberts remarks on just how major a shift this particular victory was for the American labor movement: “Arrangements like pension plans, workmen’s compensation insurance, and unemployment benefits are all based on the premise that the social costs of technological advances (especially by labor-saving technologies) have to be carried by capital … not labor.”

He notes that this model of what is called “welfare capitalism” would spread across unionized industries like “mining, automotive, steel, and printing” as a way to properly check and redistribute corporate gains. But where automation in a way birthed those industries, to recorded music it was a new and sudden development after centuries of professional performance; the union’s aggressive tactics were an appropriate response to such massive labor shifts. Its victory didn’t dismantle capitalism, but it showed the kind of gains that could be achieved through collective action. Technology, instead of threatening the lives of workers, could instead be a force that allowed all workers to gain while they found new ways to pursue their craft.

The myth of the solitary genius — chart-topper or tech entrepreneur — further entrenches a punishing economic system

The AFM’s efforts in the early 1940s were a first step toward properly breaking down an exploitative system: The more money the industry made, the more would be given back to the workers. But this arrangement was short lived. Despite Petrillo’s efforts, the passage of the Taft-Hartley act managed to undercut the power of unions after WWII. Then the AFM faced its own self-inflicted problem, as the record industries started to lose interest in classical and jazz performers in favor of non-professionally trained R&B and country performers. The AFM fought against including these musicians in the union (though Detroit band MC5 were a member of their city’s local), and lost a cultural and political battle in the process. The AFM remains the world’s largest musicians’ union, but its power within the broader industry and labor movement has vastly diminished.

Today, headline after headline tells a pat narrative of how music streaming is providing the music industry with increased revenues not seen in over a decade. Still, the average musician struggles to find a way to make money within this new system. Much like CDs and vinyl, streaming really only benefits c-suite executives and the record industry’s upper tier. The anxiety for artists isn’t simply not getting paid money for their work, but the fact that being a musician means devoting hours and resources to a billion-dollar industry that often provides almost nothing to those at the bottom. Artists may sign million-dollar advances, but it’s the record industry’s one percent that pulls in similar sized checks without the strings of an onerous contract.

The AFM’s strike posed an alternative to what would become the all-powerful rockstar or pop singer trope, which valorizes individual talent and success over community and collective building. The “rockstar” model reflects a value system wherein solidarity is irrelevant; instead, everyone, professional and amateur, is fighting to get to the top spot. The myth of the solitary genius — chart-topper or tech entrepreneur — further entrenches a punishing economic system, wherein a special outlier finds improbable success in a harsh industry on the strength of their extraordinary talent. Record executives love this narrative, which justifies the idea that musicians aren’t workers at all, but rather starry-eyed hopefuls submitting themselves to an industry that offers great rewards to the select few at the expense of everyone else.

The same individualistic narrative drives many of the technology companies that have pitted themselves against working musicians over the past few decades. Shawn Fanning, founder of Napster, has been mythologized as the teenager who took down an entire industry, despite the fact that music CEOs today are doing just fine, while artists continue to struggle. Steve Jobs is credited for leading the shift into legal digital music consumption despite the fact that artists and record labels were experimenting with online music distribution for years before Apple entered the picture. The same godlike respect is increasingly given to Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, even though the music subscription model dates back to Napster’s original final days in the early 2000s. In each case, an individual is touted as the savior or disruptor of an entire industry, and their impact is measured in bottom lines, without reference to the lives of working musicians.

A half-decade ago, several top-tier artists including Thom Yorke and Taylor Swift butted heads with Spotify, threatening to pull their catalogs over disagreements with the company’s business model. These actions presented a rare moment when artists among the industry’s top one percent took up on behalf of less remunerated artists against a corrupt system. While musicians are often hesitant to speak publicly against Spotify, most — although often with a push from their label — continue to work with these companies and ultimately reaffirm their collective power.

In 2018, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) reached a deal with the major record labels to increase the amount of money provided to the guild’s health care and retirement plan through contributions from music streaming. The deal was a rare bit of good news that challenged defeatist attitudes around artist compensation in the streaming era and showed how if music streaming is benefitting the record industry’s bottom line it should be to the benefit of all, not just some, artists.

The deal barely received any attention, compared to more telegenic actions by the likes of Swift and Yorke. This is partly because, even when there is a contract in place to help artists, it exists in the background and doesn’t obviously affect the upper tiers of the industry. Within mainstream sectors of the record industry, there is rarely a sense of radicalism or drive to collectively push for fairer conditions. Instead, the industry privileges executives, while smaller acts and artists who don’t score massive hits are left to fend for themselves and those at the top sit back and enjoy their exclusive success. 

What the American Federation of Musicians and other industries accomplished over a half century ago wasn’t radical. The ultimate goal wasn’t to topple the music industry but rather to improve the lives of those in the field so they could continue to perform their chosen work. Today, the redistributive model of the AFM still provides stable benefits for professional artists, feeding excess wealth at the top back down the ladder. The century-long struggle between musicians and music technology offers a much more complicated view than what is currently propagated by contemporary tech giants.

The anxiety for artists isn’t simply not getting paid for their work, but devoting resources to a billion-dollar industry that often provides nothing to those at the bottom

In Silicon Valley, technology companies design jobs with endless free perks to make work seem like not-work, as a tactic to stave off unionization. Their products threaten not only the livelihoods of those who built them, but workers already disadvantaged under capitalism: Drivers and security staff, who try to unionize at companies like Facebook; Uber drivers, who have striked in the United Kingdom; or taxi drivers in New York City standing against Uber and Lyft’s reshaping of their workplace. The Tech Workers Coalition, a group of increasingly vocal members of the tech workers community, found its start not by protesting their own labor conditions but through building solidarity with the less advantaged groups in their workplaces. Recent actions from Google workers included a 20,000-staff walkout over issues of company transparency, treatment of non-white male workers, and the Google-mandated hierarchy among non-staff workers. It showed that a workforce doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, divided against the issues facing it.

A central question this decade is what is the future of work — how will humans make a living when our jobs are increasingly automated? The question is often posed flippantly, despite, or maybe because of its seriousness. Kara Swisher, a veteran tech journalist at Recode, frames it not as a broader concern of capitalism, but a specific issue for tech companies, which are entrusted as the only solution for the problem they’ve caused. This worldview bleakly sees government and workers as too inefficient to solve their own existential challenges. Other commentators have argued that as jobs are lost, others will be created, but this line of optimism rarely includes the hope that workers themselves will organize for their own futures.

One of the industry’s proposed solutions to labor uncertainty and unrest is the Universal Basic Income, supported by tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Stockton, California mayor Michael Tubbs: a monthly stipend that might cover food, but probably not rent, especially in the cities where tech companies are headquartered. More likely it would simply subsidize the entertainment and lifestyle packages sold by the very companies promoting the policy. The UBI could accord with a more socialistic view of a world sans capitalism, or at least something close to the collective fund that AFM members fought for back in the 1940s. Instead, this potentially radical way of reorganizing society is promoted by tech elites as a supplement to, or worse, replacement of social safety net programs.

A unionized workforce can’t only ask for higher wages, but must attempt to seize control of how technology affects their lives. This fall there’s been a wave of strikes by hotel workers across the country addressing issues from low wages to sexual harassment and displacement by technology. Speaking to City Labs, Boram Shin, a Sheraton Hotel worker, said the strikers didn’t want to stop technology, but to better integrate it into the working lives of employees: “The workers are the ones in the field, doing the jobs. They know what’s needed and know maybe what doesn’t need to be there.”

This recontextualizes labor’s relationship with technology from antagonistic to cooperative. Hotel workers aren’t fighting an army of robots that want to take their jobs, which is often how automation is framed within the tech press, but rather fighting a capitalist system that would sooner replace humans than help them. Their vision cleaves closer to what Nick Srnicek and Alex William imagined in their book Inventing the Future: “We argue that the tendencies towards automation and the replacement of human labour should be enthusiastically accelerated and targeted as a political project of the left.” Slowly automating menial tasks should not only increase wages with rising profits, but also allow workers the freedom to pursue more fulfilling goals. Without worker power, technology is positioned as a blunt instrument to keep workers down, instead of as a force that could offer liberation.

The music industry has dealt with constant technological upheavals throughout its history, and its own gig economy predates the current gig economy fomented by Silicon Valley. The “freedom” that is sold by companies like Uber and Airbnb is what musicians have known for decades: inconsistent work, low wages, an expectation to always be ready for new work, all with few of the benefits afforded to full-time staff. But what if technology didn’t just form new jobs out of small market gaps — what if it also subsidized the existing workforce? The AFM, along with a much broader unionized American workforce, were ready to fight against the cold will of capitalism last century. In 2018, we can see that the future utopia being sold by industry is just a remastered version of the past.

David Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who writes a weekly newsletter on the business of music streaming called Penny Fractions.