The Struggle for Music Worker Solidarity
Music is working-class work. There has been a cultural awakening to the healthcare crisis, the white supremacist culture in which we live, and a mass awakening to economic disparity in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, global protests in response to George Floyd's murder, and the 2020 stock market crash. The time is right for recognizing music work as working-class work in need of stronger labor protections and solidarity! Deeply embedded in the musician mode of thinking, we often think that solidarity is unattainable because we are all independent contractors in a very competitive field. But what if this was a mirage? I am here to contend that it is a mirage, and we are not in this fight alone.
We need a shift in consciousness and a transformation in acknowledging one another. Consider the Stoic concept of living a "dream life." You ARE LIVING the dream life right now, although it may not be YOUR dream. Someone has seen what you have and what you have achieved and thought to themselves, "If only I had what they had, I would be happy." Consider the apprehensions we frequently harbor against our peers: Jealousy, insecurity, bitterness, or irritability. We internally respond with depression, anxiety, and many other undesirable sentiments. We must realize that every musician, hundreds of thousands of times, shares the insecurity we all do at some point in our careers. We must abandon looking at the issue of our work? In terms of individual events and instead, consider it in terms of systems. And, at present, capitalism is the most extensive system, with its collateral repercussions of imperialism, colonialism, poverty, patriarchy, white supremacy, bigotry, the healthcare crisis, and the climate crisis.
Historically, the labor movement has championed those employed in working-class vocations (e.g., farming, construction, electricians). The world often views music work as simply a pastime, a side hustle, or an upper-class affair excluded from what we colloquially refer to as "working-class work." This is an inaccurate assessment. I argue that musicians, too, are members of the working class.
We must recognize that our friends and colleagues in the music industry are more than just coworkers; they are comrades. Solidarity transcends beyond genres, instrument choice, and specialization. We need to look to our peers in the music industry and cease contesting with them. We have all had awful gigs, some of us have had successful gigs, but we have all experienced the anguish and hardship of making a living from our art and what we love. As Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine brilliantly stated in their song Settle for Nothing, "If we don't take action now, We'll settle for nothing later. We'll settle for nothing now, And we'll settle for nothing later" (de la Rocha & Morello, 1992).
We, as music workers, must take action now or settle for nothing later.
What defines the working class?
The working class contains laborers whose compensation relies on wage or salary contracts. Working-class vocations include the so-called blue-collar and pink-collar employment. Blue-collar workers typically undertake manual labor outside of the office environment, and mechanics, electricians, and other tradespeople fall into this category. Pink-collar labor has historically been associated with women, though this stereotype is inaccurate. Examples of pink-collar labor are service-oriented professions such as teachers, librarians, housekeepers, performers, flight attendants, and receptionists (Tennery, 2012).
The most straightforward way to discern between the working and capitalist classes is to examine who owns the means of production and who determines employment. Aside from financial stability, there are many other aspects to class. The working class, or proletariat, was described by Karl Marx as those who sell their labor power for wages but do not own the means of production. He maintained that workers were fully responsible for a society's prosperity, asserting that the working class builds bridges, manufactures furniture, produces food, and cares for children but does not own land or factories. Class is a social relationship. Even affluent workers, such as professional actors and athletes, should be regarded as working-class members because they do not own their means of production and typically work under contract through the gig economy. Independent contractors or freelancers who get into contractual arrangements with on-demand contractors to deliver services to the employer's clientele are called gig workers (Donovan et al., 2016). Musicians typically work on a contract basis, frequently on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis. Per this interpretation, class is one's access to power in social relationships (Rodino-Colocino et al., 2021).
Wage laborers and those who rely on the social safety net are generally regarded to be representatives of the working class, whereas those who rely on amassed capital are not. This broad division characterizes the class struggle, and diverse communities and individuals may be on one side or the other at any given time. Such contradictions and perspectives inside people's lives and communities can actively impede the working class's ability to act in solidarity to decrease subjugation, unequal treatment, and management and ownership role in regulating people's opportunities in life, working conditions, and political power (Davis, 2017).
With greater power, we will be prepared to navigate more challenging circumstances as they emerge. The first step is solidarity. As an example of such contradictions, I draw on an anecdote from my labor training. I attended an Organizing Training with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 2016, and one of the participants posed a complex and challenging question. "What do you do if there is a bigot at your workplace?" Our trainer paused for a moment and responded with, "you unionize them!" This quote has stuck with me for a long time.
Building solidarity through radical cooperation and political education is the most tangible strategy for combating bigotry and hatred. Solidarity is the only remedy to the capitalist disaster.
To be clear, this is not an argument for tolerating bigotry or neglecting to hold bigots accountable for the consequences of their worldview. It is unjust to expect people who have suffered the most at the hands of bigotry to tolerate anyone who violates their right to exist. When someone holds bigoted attitudes or creates an unsafe environment, they must be dealt with constructively, and part of that is identifying the source of their hatred. The unconscious feeling that one is undergoing exploitation, which leads to alienation from one's labor, is a prominent source of prejudice. When it comes to building solidarity, the working class's shared insight of alienation is an excellent first effort. If a person is unwilling to make a genuine effort in good faith, they are not a comrade, but this does not mean we should completely dismiss them either. Building solidarity is a formidable challenge that takes a lot of time and energy, but the result is a higher quality of life for all.
Bigotry is not the only challenge we might face when organizing. Consider a problematic peer in the music industry and what it might take to foster solidarity with them. How would you go about doing this? Remember, this is not a duty you must undertake on your own. Part of this process entails expanding on the community you have already built. Are there individuals more equipped to address particular challenges in your immediate circle? How can you support others within this group? What coping practices can you implement when difficult circumstances inevitably go awry? We must be aware of these obstacles when forging bonds of solidarity, but the result is worth it. A stronger working-class generates more power for the oppressed.
On the Broader Labor Movement
One of the more significant challenges we may face is integrating with the broader labor movement, and as with all organizing activities, we must develop effective strategies to see success. Capitalism has molded our mental space to identify with our vocation rather than our genuine character. As Marx said, "For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic" (Marx, 1845).
We must recognize that our authentic self is much greater than our vocation. Let me put this into perspective. I often introduce myself as a composer, pianist, and music therapist. However, this presentation of identity I have created for myself bypasses many important and meaningful aspects of my life, such as being a father, a meditator, a chess player, a movie buff, a philosophy enthusiast, and so on. Due to insecurity, for a sense of identity, I often feel that I must proclaim that I am a composer, pianist, and music therapist for others to understand that music is my vocation, which suggests that my vocation is my identity. Even though my professional identity is only a component of the actuality of my self-worth, I publicly project it as the cornerstone of my existence. The explanation for this is straightforward: exploitation and alienation. According to Marx, everyone who lives in a class-based system — any class system, not only capitalism — suffers from alienation or a general estrangement from humanity's full potential.
Alienation may not be quantified, Unlike exploitation which is materially measurable in value production. It is, nevertheless, no less "real" in influencing how humans interact with one another or with the material world in nature and production.
This sentiment is not only shared by arts workers. Speak with many people in any trade; service workers, electricians, technology, construction, sex work, healthcare, and so on. It is a ubiquitous cliché that we may begin to forge solidarity – a holistic class consciousness.
Regarding strategy, I may offer a few suggestions:
We must build solidarity among our fellow musicians, whether on the job, at school, in jam sessions, online spaces, or wherever musicians may congregate. We must strengthen the bond with artists from multiple disciplines, including architecture, visual and literary arts, dance, music, theater, film, fashion, and culinary arts. We must participate in labor meetups, conferences, and social gatherings to engage with labor groups from various professions, such as service work, manual labor, research, healthcare, and technology. We must collaborate on undertakings by holding the picket line, spreading labor unity information, and visually engaging.
As artists, we can be visible in ways that many other worker sectors cannot. We need to use our platforms carefully and for the greater good. While artistic expression is essential, we can also argue for an ideal of solidarity, equity, and justice for all. Music is working-class work, and we can unite with our comrades across the entire movement to make the world a better place.
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