The music business is booming again, thanks to streaming—and musicians are fighting for a bigger, better piece of the pie.
The music industry, at just about every level below the C-suite, has had enough.
The recording business is still haunted by its 2000s slump, which resulted from a rapid decrease in physical and digital unit sales as well as the fallout from multiple economic recessions. Yet it’s largely recovered from those lows: The industry has been consistently profitable as a whole since 2014, thanks primarily to streaming and, in part, still-growing vinyl sales. But both artists and label staffers have time and again made clear that the industry’s newfound wealth is not trickling down to most of them; unjust label deals and the complicated mechanics of streaming finances have excluded them from this economic turnaround. And, after experiencing decades of career precarity while falling back on a fragile safety net, receiving little to no government support, and facing relentless deprivation due to the pandemic-induced economic crash, musicians and music workers in all sectors of the industry have come to embrace collective action against the forces working against them.
These efforts have been varied and wide-ranging. Among the many organizations that have banded together to speak out against this inequity:
• The Music Workers Alliance, formed to provide resources for out-of-work contractors within all facets of the industry
• The U.K.’s #BrokenRecord campaign, which is lobbying Parliament to legislatively restructure the industry
• Catalytic Sound, a small streaming service run by a cooperative of 30 avant-garde musicians with the goal of paying its artists fairly
• The Pact, a group of hit songwriters who’ve publicly declared they will not grant songwriting credit to performers, or anyone else, who did not actually have a substantial writing role in a song’s conception
All these efforts have found increased support and interest throughout the pandemic. Yet, perhaps more powerfully, many musicians and music workers have looked to another now-marginalized institution of American society to further their cause: the union.
In May 2020, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers launched in response to insufficient government aid for artists who lost work due to the pandemic; hundreds of independent musicians signed a letter to Congress with a list of urgent demands. So far, UMAW has organized campaigns to call Congress to extend unemployment benefits, established multiple subcommittees on issues ranging from accountability in classical music to police abolition, and protested at Spotify offices worldwide, in a highly publicized event that prompted the company to start publicly breaking down streaming payouts. (Other streaming platforms, fascinatingly, have followed suit: A month after Spotify launched its “Loud and Clear” transparency initiative, Apple Music claimed to pay a penny per stream to artists, which would far exceed Spotify’s payout rate and nominally match one of the pay rate demands of the protesters.) UMAW is not close to being done with Spotify: On May 4, it banded with more than 180 artists and advocacy organizations to demand that the platform abandon its controversial speech-recognition patent technology.
Though it has provided an organizational base for mass action, UMAW is not a formal union aligned with institutions like the AFL-CIO. Damon Krukowski, a former member of the dream-pop band Galaxie 500 who sits on UMAW’s Provisional Steering Committee, explained to me that the group had planned on institutionalizing, but the hurdles that have prevented many others from unionizing still stand in the way. “We’re drawing up bylaws, we’re not yet collecting dues, we don’t yet have formal membership, and—this is also why this hasn’t existed before—we’re independent contractors,” said Krukowski. “We’re not salaried workers,” a fact that makes them ineligible for many unions.
But it’s not that labor and music are in any way a new or incompatible match. Symphony orchestras in cities from Chicago to Knoxville, Tennessee, instrument sections in theater and backup bands, in-house performers at live venues, stage workers—all have long used their unions to their advantage in negotiating performance contracts (and are still doing so). Many of these are affiliated with the historic American Federation of Musicians, which famously led a yearslong musicians’ strike in the 1940s to demand fairer royalty payouts from radio and jukebox broadcasts. “There were a lot of labor victories in the 20th century for music, for songwriters protecting royalties,” Krukowski told me. However, while effective, these solutions were never perfect.
“Even the institutions that supposedly protect these people have a long history of excluding those who most need support,” music historian Ted Gioia wrote to me over email. “Consider the peculiar fact that the famous musicians’ union strike of 1942–1944 didn’t include singers, because vocalists weren’t considered real musicians. Or look at the problems African Americans had with performing rights organizations and the long-segregated unions.”
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Today, even beyond the struggling classical music sector, there are current opportunities for musicians to gain union protection and more equitable representation as well—but either they aren’t aware, or the system is so convoluted that it makes the arrangement infeasible. As Elias Leight reported in Rolling Stone in 2019, prominent musicians have increasingly spoken of unionizing, unaware that their major label contracts already make them eligible for representation through the performers’ union SAG-AFTRA, which includes more than 5,000 vocalists. But Sadie Dupuis, best known as the founder and frontwoman of the indie rock outfit Speedy Ortiz, told me that “a lot of musicians wouldn’t qualify to be represented by SAG-AFTRA” due to their contractor status.
To fix this, Dupuis has lent her voice to all facets of UMAW’s mission, in some cases literally. “The thing that’s interesting and important is the ‘AW’ part, allied workers”—including tour managers, label workers, arts critics, DJs, “and other curatorial positions that have been replaced by, basically, a robot tracking you and selling your information,” Dupuis told me. She also said there’s a fundamental difference between the members and structures that animate UMAW’s mission versus those of other unions: “UMAW consists of a lot of people who are coming from DIY, who are coming from playing basements and churches and bookstores. We have a different understanding of labor, and I think it’s often a cooperative and a socialist one. We all know that experience of being asked to do undercompensated labor.”
That connection also leads to another effort Dupuis and Krukowski pointed to as inspiration: the Freelance Solidarity Project, a division of the National Writers Union that seeks to organize freelance writers, many of whom are poorly compensated, and raise industry standards within a brittle landscape for print and digital media. Another influence was Cartoonists Against Amazon, which organized nearly 200 people in the comics industry in September to petition comics festivals not to partner with Amazon because of the conglomerate’s involvement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A month after the cartoonists’ campaign, more than 1,000 musicians—including Dupuis and Krukowski—supported the No Music for ICE initiative, sending a letter to Amazon pledging a boycott of its events until the company severed ties not only with ICE but also with other immigration-focused government departments and companies.
Only a few months after these efforts, the pandemic shutdown compounded the labor crisis facing musicians. Since most performers have come to depend on touring for their livelihoods, the COVID-induced pause on all in-person live events made even more of them realize their precarious position. “It’s caused a number of artists to take a hard look at their recorded music income and put an end to Spotify’s long-standing excuse that you can just make it all up on tour,” Krukowski said. Dupuis also mentioned that “a lot of artists spend most of the year in a grind of constant travel and gigging, which doesn’t leave mental energy for conspiring towards change or reflecting on where our working conditions could be improved.”
These are the circumstances that birthed UMAW, whose drive for better compensation and willingness to argue for it publicly have trickled outward and helped other independent workers begin to organize. Case in point: the Secretly Group Union.
Secretly Group is a collection of multiple independent record labels that also features in-house publishing and distribution apparatuses, all based in various cities; it’s home to acclaimed indie artists like Angel Olsen, Bon Iver, and Phoebe Bridgers. In late March of this year, the nonartist label workers across Secretly’s various branches publicly announced the formation of their union with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 174, which also represents “administrative staff at several major-label groups,” as labor and music writer Kim Kelly reported for Rolling Stone. The SGU has seen astonishing, fast success: Just days after its public announcement, the union began racking up endorsements from several Secretly artists and was formally recognized by Secretly’s management. In April, SGU achieved legal certification, putting it on the path for contract negotiations.
Two SGU organizers who work in Secretly’s label department—Elise Barbin, a social media coordinator, and Harlan Kelly, a radio promotions manager—spoke with me about the impetus for their union drive.* Barbin traced the spark not only to the pandemic’s economic effects, but also the wider cultural and political moment: “[Last] summer, there was a huge confluence of events,” she said. “We were still in the pandemic, we were really in the thick of it with the continuing Black Lives Matter movement, and at work, we were merging with Ghostly International, another step to our company expanding. So we all started getting together to lean on each other for support. During that time, we realized a lot of us were fighting these individual but parallel problems.”
These problems ran the gamut. There were concerns over the safety of the warehouse employees, who were still going into the labels’ various warehouses in person as other positions that could go remote did so. Friends had entirely left the industry. Music jobs in general had been constantly changing in the new tech-dominated age, and the industry remained rife with inequitable and insufficient salaries and benefits—not to mention heavy-weighing career precarity.
Though Secretly didn’t face any pandemic-induced layoffs like so many companies did in 2020, as Barbin told me, the economic devastation on the business at large led many within the company to take another look at their own positions and status. One example was laid out in a testimonial from project manager Mary O’Reilly, provided to me by the Secretly Group Union:
I’d never really examined the implications of “at-will” employment until the pandemic hit and job security felt more uncertain than ever before—no one knew what kind of blows the music industry would suffer. It became clear that under such terms, my protections as an employee were pretty limited, even though I felt like I was working harder than ever.
The union provided another testimonial from an anonymous employee regarding Secretly management’s “open door policy,” where workers are supposedly allowed to “raise any concerns” with management:
Even with the proposed open door policy Secretly management prides itself on, raising the subject of raises and wage transparency still feels taboo to me within the culture of the company. Promises around management’s prioritization of employee growth and mobility in the company feel empty and vague. Voicing concerns and attempting to prompt conversation around standardizations of a fair living wage often feel unheard, unacknowledged, and void of concrete action. I hope the union will be able to address these issues in a structured and truly productive manner with full transparency.
This shared hesitancy led Secretly workers to find solidarity with one another, and many of them, in the process, befriended colleagues within divisions of the company they’d previously rarely interacted with.
What helped in the cross-department organization effort: reaching out to UMAW for consistent support and assistance, and finding the right national representative—which is where the Office and Professional Employees International Union came in. “They represent office workers, and that is the commonality between all of us,” Secretly’s Harlan Kelly told me. “There are people in the warehouse who work at Secretly, there are A&R reps, there are people who have accounting positions, there are graphic designers, all these different types of work—but we all fall under the blanket of an office worker, which was beautiful to kind of figure out.” Since OPEIU covered other major label workers as well as those in the movie industry, working with the group seemed like a perfect fit.
What makes SGU’s organizing effort so significant, in part, is its lack of precedent: Rarely, if ever, have small label staffers successfully come together like this. Both Kelly and Barbin told me workers at other independent labels have also reached out to them regarding their efforts, though they declined to go into specifics as to who specifically asked. That may yet be a sign that, should SGU prevail in its contract negotiations, it could provide an essential model for other independent labels.
Both UMAW and SGU mentioned finding motivation from the media industry’s union wave, which emerged over the past few years to protect workers in an industry that has shed more than 60 percent of its jobs since 1990. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Writers Guild of America, East through Slate’s editorial union.) Music-focused publications have been especially harmed by this media recession—and one of the most iconic of the bunch that’s still standing has organized in response.
In 1996, Pitchfork was a scrappy music blog focused on covering independent music. In 2021, it’s a multimedia journalism outlet that has expanded the scope of the genres it reviews, reports on developments within the music world, runs multiple video series, and holds an annual music festival (that was paused during the pandemic). Even as the influential, controversial website has significantly changed over the past 25 years and now operates under the purview of glossy-media empire Condé Nast, it remains a dynamic source of music criticism.
In the summer of 2018, Pitchfork workers started to eye unionization, exchanging ideas outside of work and through WhatsApp. Staff writer Quinn Moreland, a member of the bargaining unit, told me the biggest issues revolved around low wages (“I think people were maybe expecting to get raises after the acquisition, and I don’t think that really happened, at least not significantly”), diversity, and creating a firmer structure for career advancement. These beliefs gained further traction, and formalization, after fellow Condé outlet the New Yorker announced it was unionizing with the NewsGuild around that time—spurring Pitchfork’s organizers to formally align with the guild too. Pitchfork’s union went public in early 2019, as did that of another Condé publication, Ars Technica. The unions of all three publications have worked closely over the past three years, even concurrently announcing strike authorizations in March of this year; Moreland said that hearing of the New Yorker Union’s experience with Condé Nast helped inform the Pitchfork Union’s own strategy, and that the prestige magazine’s organizers have been “nothing but supportive” of Pitchfork’s own efforts.
Pitchfork is still the only major music publication engaged in this kind of labor effort; Moreland mentioned to me that the unionization of the entertainment-heavy MTV News in early 2017 provided like-minded inspiration, even as many of those organizing staffers left the publication or were let go later that same yearas MTV overhauled its editorial coverage. Pitchfork has also undergone its own tribulations. In late 2019, the site’s in-house video team was laid off. When the pandemic hit, some members of the festival team, based in Chicago, were furloughed indefinitely, Moreland told me. Then, in May 2020, Condé Nast announced mass layoffs across all properties—but the only Pitchfork Union member to be affected was Stacey Anderson, who’d chaired the bargaining unit and was its sole senior editor of color.* In response to what it called “a blatant act of union-busting,” the Pitchfork Union engaged in a half-day work stoppage on June 18, refusing to publish or promote any new pieces on the site for a four-hour period.
In spite of such struggles, the publication’s union has had the backing of public support. “When we announced the union, there was a really great response from other writers and other people in media, especially people who have freelanced or worked full time at Pitchfork,” Moreland said. In the lead-up to a bargaining session last month over fair pay, the union shared anonymous statements from a few former Pitchfork staffers, many of whom lamented the company’s skimpy salaries and poor benefits. The organizers even reached out to musicians who’ve been covered in Pitchfork’s pages to make visible statements of support, establishing a cross-industry platform of solidarity. (As seen in links throughout this piece, Pitchfork has also closely covered unionizations and collective efforts in all aspects of the industry.)
An important aspect to note, when describing the 21st-century music industry and its collective-action drives, is the omnipresence of the tech industry.
“Musicians have to helm so many different kinds of work, but we are also tech workers,” Sadie Dupuis told me. “These changing laws and lack of worker support that are the byproducts of quickly accelerating tech industries that are exploitative to independent contractors—it’s crucial for musicians to have a stake in that fight.” Independent musicians, after all, are essentially gig workers; whatever labor laws affect the so-called gig economy also leave their mark on artists’ livelihoods. (And Spotify is already pursuing its own sort of Uberization for artists, as music writer Liz Pelly has reported for the Baffler.)
The dominant players in the music scene are no longer labels or artists but Spotify and the Big Tech conglomerates that have monopolized so many other sectors. “We’re dealing with Apple, with Google for YouTube, with Spotify. None of these are music companies, and none of them come to us for negotiation,” Dupuis said. It’s not that artists don’t appreciate the ease of availability streaming affords—it’s that the payout system is unsustainable for them. “We’re not going to escape streaming, and I wouldn’t want to,” Dupuis added. “I just don’t want to be solely lining the pockets of the upper execs of one company.”
Damon Krukowski began his music career in the late ’80s, predating the information age. He remembers the exploitative business models of yesteryear and how they screwed artists; he also finds there’s something uniquely pernicious about the techified industry. “Spotify, they sell themselves as a music company, but are they really? Would a music company sink all their profits into podcasting and then into A.I. and voice recognition for data collection?” he asked. “They’re not sinking their money back into music. For all their ills and mistakes and poisonous activities that can happen in labels when they get huge, they always had to sink their money back into music, because that’s their business.”
Lending credence to Krukowski’s comments is the fact that Spotify has certainly made a hard pivot to podcasting, acquiring companies like Anchor, Gimlet, and the Ringer, the latter two of which unionized and recently ratified their first contracts with their parent company (subscribe to Slate podcasts on Spotify, by the way). The company has also made inroads into advertising, tech patents, and exclusive offerings with celebrities, while expanding further into international markets.
It’s been clear for years that music is not Spotify’s No. 1 priority. So where does that leave the artists and workers who’ve come to Spotify because they do care about music?
Perhaps one solution for them is entirely sidestepping these models. In 2019, a music cooperative named Ampled was established, bringing together “artists, developers, designers, technologists, marketers, and creatives” in a worker-owned system with the goal of making decisions together and supporting creators directly. The tech workers and artists who work there together—many of whom came to the platform after pandemic-induced layoffs—are partners; there’s no prioritization of one sector over another. The point for those at Ampled is to be able to own your work. As co-founder Austin Robey told me, “Instead of working to monopolize as big of an addressable market as possible, can we just serve a constituency the best that we can? Can we operate a platform like a neighborhood bar, where people keep showing up and having fun and paying to keep the lights on? Is that a success?”
It could be. After all, the goal of Ampled is mutual benefit; there’s no overarching profiteering. It’s based on the centuries-old cooperative models that many workers in sectors as varied as agriculture and banking used to better their prospects. Robey mentioned that some of the tech workers (as well as the musicians) now at Ampled hail from popular crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter, having left those companies to seek something different from the venture capital–funded crowdfunding vacuums. (“If you’re an artist on Patreon, you have to ask if you’re comfortable with investors or hedge funds owning more of your creative practice than you do,” Robey mentioned.) Not to mention, several Ampled co-owners/co-workers “are also members of UMAW,” according to Robey.
It all goes back to the ideal that’s animated so many creative moments over the past few years: that creators are workers, that those who support creative enterprises are workers, that making art in any which way or form should be considered a form of formalized labor that can support individual livelihoods. Like Sadie Dupuis says: “Musicians are not considered that way, but we are labor, and we deserve fair compensation, and we deserve the protections that the government extends to labor, because this digital space is leaving us very, very vulnerable in all kinds of ways.”
Correction, May 13, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Elise Barbin’s last name and misstated that Stacey Anderson was the only Pitchfork staffer affected by Condé Nast’s May 2020 layoffs. It has also been updated to clarify a source’s testimony regarding how many members of Pitchfork’s festival team were furloughed, and to clarify that Anderson was the only senior editor of color in Pitchfork’s union.
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