Music Industry Workers Fight for a Collective Voice
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Like so many others, music industry workers are taken advantage of by their employers and struggle to make ends meet. It happens on a widespread scale in the industry because most workers are considered independent contractors and, therefore, have almost no legal avenues to stand up for themselves or collectively bargain.
“The very term ‘gig workers’ connotes musicians’ precarious workplace,” explains musician Joey DeFrancesco, who is a cofounder of United Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). “They have few rights, they’re fairly unorganized with low pay at the whims of their employers.”
But, inspired by the successes of other gig workers over the last couple years and the growing public support for unions, music industry workers are finding their voice and joining the ranks of others who are organizing for greater protections in the workplace.
Workers at Bandcamp Win Union Election
Workers at digital music distribution platform Bandcamp started having conversations about organizing in July of 2022. “Folks just started talking more about what they were experiencing at work,” says Eli Rider, former senior technical analyst at Bandcamp and union organizer. “It was mostly talk, but then someone had the idea of getting organized.”
According to Bandcamp United’s website, the discussions centered around unionizing to address pay disparities and benefits as well as the ability to communicate with management without fear of retribution. “Forming our union is critical to our ability to do our best work and make good on the promise and mission of Bandcamp to provide fair economic conditions, direct support, and transparency for ourselves and all of our users.”
In May 2023, the workers took the first step toward addressing those issues when they voted 31-7 in favor of unionizing with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Tech Workers Union Local 1010.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing since then, however, as the company’s new owner, music licensing platform SongTradr, has refused to recognize the union and has laid off nearly half the staff, reports Raphael Helfand, an editor at The FADER. Of those laid off, eight were members of the union’s collective bargaining committee and 40 were members of their 67-person collective bargaining unit, writes Helfand. In response, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against SongTradr.
YouTube Music Contractors Join CWA
After months of campaigning in the face of strong union-busting, workers at Google’s YouTube Music, who are contracted by Alphabet subcontractor Cognizant, voted 41-0 in favor of unionizing with Alphabet Workers Union-CWA.
It was a hard road to victory for the workers, many of whom work multiple jobs to earn a decent living. The company not only posted anti-union messaging throughout the workplace, but also mandated a return to office policy for the remote-working staff after workers announced their intention to unionize.
“In an act of retaliation against our organizing efforts, our employer is forcing an end to remote work before the vote, which would dramatically interfere with the fair voting conditions mandated by federal law,” said YouTube Music generalist Sam Regan during the strike.
The action only made workers more determined to win the election.
“No one working for a multi-billion dollar platform should have to juggle three jobs to make ends meet, and no one should have to give up their livelihoods due to a retaliatory Return-To-Office mandate,” says YouTube Music contract worker and union member Maxwell Longfield.
The fight to address those issues isn’t over: Google refuses to bargain with the union, which refusal prompted workers to participate in a one-day unfair labor practice strike.
Music Workers Unions and Allies Rally to Support Musicians at SXSW
For more than a decade, South by Southwest (SXSW) has paid performing musicians the same amount — $100 for a solo artist and $250 for a band. The application fee has been increased from $40 to $55. Performers also have the option of choosing an event wristband in lieu of monetary compensation.
But neither option pays the artists what they are worth. To increase pay at the 2024 festival, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) started the Fair Pay at SXSW campaign earlier this year.
“When we demand that [SXSW] pays us more, we are demanding that music workers are taken seriously when we demand our power and resources back,” said musician Victoria Ruiz during a May 2023 rally outside Penske Media Corporation’s offices in New York.
Their actions are producing some positive results. While the festival hasn’t met the union’s suggested compensation rate of $750, it did increase the pay to $150 for solo artists and $350 for bands. It’s what Pat Buchta, CEO of Austin Texas Musicians calls a “step in the right direction” while asserting most musicians don’t think it’s enough.
As each of these unions continues their fight for more pay and better benefits in the music industry, organizers and leaders can use UnionTrack® ENGAGE® to keep members updated on progress and engaged in collective actions.
Images used under license from Shutterstock.com.