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With Gigs Canceled and No Relief, Musicians Form a Nationwide Union

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Musi­cian Josephine Shet­ty, aka Kohi­noor­gasm, was prepar­ing for her West Coast spring tour in March when the pan­dem­ic-relat­ed can­cel­la­tions start­ed rolling in.

Like many musi­cians, Shetty’s liveli­hood is pieced togeth­er from part-time work. She per­forms at under­ground spaces and small clubs, releas­es her own music and teach­es mid­dle school music class­es. ?“When you’re a per­son who works so many jobs, that’s already a very unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion,” Shet­ty says. With live shows being can­celled, it became clear how dif­fi­cult the road ahead would be. The inde­pen­dent venues that most work­ing musi­cians rely on were some of the first to close (and will sure­ly be some of the last to reopen).UMAW differentiates itself from similar unions through its vast scope, seeking systemic shifts industry-wide, inclusive of various genres and practices.

When fel­low musi­cian and orga­niz­er Joey La Neve DeFrancesco reached out to Shet­ty, just a few weeks into the pan­dem­ic, about union­iz­ing musi­cians and relat­ed music work­ers, Shet­ty signed up. On April 22, a group of about 20 musi­cians met vir­tu­al­ly to dis­cuss sol­i­dar­i­ty and how to build a more just indus­try, inau­gu­rat­ing the Union of Musi­cians and Allied Work­ers (UMAW).

“Very quick­ly, every­one had all of these dif­fer­ent visions of what a dif­fer­ent music indus­try could look like when it was being built col­lec­tive­ly by the work­ers involved,” says DeFrancesco, who is based in Prov­i­dence, R.I. UMAW already boasts about 25 steer­ing com­mit­tee mem­bers and 80 sub­com­mit­tee mem­bers, with top­ics rang­ing from stream­ing and venue rela­tions to police abo­li­tion. More than 1,000 musi­cians have expressed inter­est through the group’s web­site and peti­tions. Mem­bers are locat­ed in Los Ange­les, Chica­go, New York, Port­land, Ore., Boston and beyond. So far, the orga­niz­ing has hap­pened entire­ly online.

On March 25, hun­dreds of musi­cians cir­cu­lat­ed a let­ter to Con­gress demand­ing the expan­sion of unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits under the CARES Act. The let­ter also demand­ed relief regard­less of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, nation­al rent and mort­gage can­cel­la­tion, Medicare for All and fund­ing for the Postal Ser­vice and the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts.

UMAW grew out of that momen­tum. For UMAW’s first orga­nized day of action, May 14, musi­cians across the coun­try made near­ly 1,000 calls to House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi (D?Calif.), Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer (D?N.Y.) and local representatives.

“That was how we start­ed?—?think­ing, ?‘How are music work­ers and gig work­ers going to be pro­tect­ed dur­ing this time?’” Shet­ty says.

But the very first seeds were plant­ed years ear­li­er. Some mem­bers were involved in the 2017 effort to force the South by South­west fes­ti­val to remove a ?“depor­ta­tion clause” from its artist con­tract. Oth­ers are asso­ci­at­ed with the No Music for ICE coali­tion, which encour­ages the indus­try to cut ties with Ama­zon unless it can­cels con­tracts with Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment. These cam­paigns cre­at­ed a blue­print for ?“how you could do actions col­lec­tive­ly as musi­cians,” DeFrancesco says, pro­vid­ing a foun­da­tion for UMAW to come togeth­er quickly.

UMAW dif­fer­en­ti­ates itself from sim­i­lar unions through its vast scope, seek­ing sys­temic shifts indus­try-wide, inclu­sive of var­i­ous gen­res and prac­tices. Tra­di­tion­al union orga­niz­ing would be dif­fi­cult for UMAW’s inde­pen­dent musi­cians because they often make a liv­ing through numer­ous con­tracts and employ­ers. In that sense, UMAW’s work is more com­pa­ra­ble to efforts by the Nation­al Writ­ers Union’s Free­lance Sol­i­dar­i­ty Project than, say, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians (AFM).

“We’re just try­ing to orga­nize the unor­ga­nized, which is the vast major­i­ty of musi­cians right now,” DeFrancesco says. ?“There [are] so many sim­i­lar­i­ties if you look at [efforts to] orga­nize Uber, free­lance writ­ers, adjuncts. …It’s the same prob­lem, where it’s so hard to orga­nize because you have so many employers.”

Shet­ty agrees. ?“If musi­cians are the orig­i­nal gig work­ers … we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to orga­nize with­in that realm,” she says.

Cody Fitzger­ald, a film score com­pos­er and mem­ber of the Brook­lyn-based band Stolen Jars, says UMAW stands in sol­i­dar­i­ty with mem­bers of oth­er unions, such as the AFM. But, Fitzger­ald adds, those orga­ni­za­tions don’t ful­fill the needs of all work­ing musi­cians because they cater to ses­sion and orches­tra play­ers, not independents.

“UMAW rep­re­sents the musi­cians that the AFM just doesn’t care about,” says bas­soon­ist Patrick John­son-Whit­ty, a mem­ber of the AFM and of a UMAW clas­si­cal music sub­com­mit­tee focused on con­fronting the lega­cy of white suprema­cy in the genre. Vio­list Clara Takarabe, anoth­er AFM mem­ber, is par­tic­i­pat­ing in UMAW’s polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion com­mit­tee. It aims to help musi­cians devel­op a polit­i­cal con­text around the labor of music. ?“I want to be involved in those types of cen­tral­ly impor­tant ques­tions,” Takarabe says.

UMAW is cur­rent­ly plan­ning a cam­paign to pres­sure stream­ing giant Spo­ti­fyto treat artists more fair­ly. The pub­licly trad­ed com­pa­ny is val­ued at more than $40 bil­lion, but infa­mous­ly pays artists about half-a-cent per stream. UMAW mem­bers also hope to help democ­ra­tize infor­ma­tion relat­ed to music contracts.

“I’m excit­ed about the idea of a world where peo­ple come to this union to look for infor­ma­tion about how to not be exploit­ed as an artist,” Fitzger­ald says. For many, just hav­ing UMAW as a space for sol­i­dar­i­ty is a ben­e­fit. As Shet­ty puts it, ?“The exis­tence of our cam­paigns, and our union, feels like a huge win.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Liz Pelly is a music and cul­ture writer based in Brook­lyn, NY.


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