Strike A Chord: Why Musicians Should Hit The Picket Lines Pronto

Make money, save the world, and look awesome in the process.

French postal strike circa 1909 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Aside from Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement a couple weeks ago, the last few months have felt especially bleak for much of the American populace (and even the world at large). Armed with a Century II pen — ironically sold by a company which manufactures almost exclusively out of China — Donald Trump has been a signing machine since Day One.

Between restructuring both the Homeland and National Security councils, trying to implement an immigration ban, planning for his beloved wall, fast-tracking new infrastructure projects at the cost of environmental review, defunding sanctuary cities, exiting the TPP, restarting the DAPL, and a litany of other executive orders, Trump’s first few weeks have been the start of a fascist hellscape like few others before.

But there is an upside that has nothing to do with any future HOV’s and Bey’s sauntering around.

People everywhere have faced Trump’s bullet train to 1938 Germany head-on, organizing massive, record-breaking protests as each new horror is unveiled. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of such events, but in this current climate, it’s clear that people need this outlet to focus their efforts and continue the fight where it’s needed. As much pride as I’ve felt over the efforts of average Americans, most musicians have tackled the Trump onslaught with extra stoicism. Some have been a constant voice of reason a la Bruce Springsteen. (Though not every group was quite as mature.) Others, like Grimes and Sia, used their rock star wallets to help out. Meanwhile, Iraqi rock group Acrassicauda is taking a more direct approach, planning special concerts to aid artists from banned countries. Even retailers got involved, as Bandcamp donated its entire share of sales from February 3rd to the ACLU.

Despite the wells of cultural currency these gestures hold, you have to wonder if they’re going to be enough. Because musicians are facing problems outside those shared by the normal public. So while Obamacare repeals threaten musicians and average folks alike, Trump’s plot to cripple the National Endowment for the Arts would pose unique economic challenges to many artists — like paying rent and buying groceries. Same goes for those bands who find themselves unable to tour as they once did. But what can people do to voice their concerns? Even if the masses assemble by the millions, you can’t always be sure a collection of fools and degenerates like the Trump administration will pay heed. (See Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway.)

In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, novelist/academic Francine Prose had a novel idea: a national strike day. A time for Americans to “make our economic and political power felt, a day when we make it clear: how many of us there are, how strong and committed we are, how much we can accomplish.” Already some activists have rallied around Prose’s call, planning a massive New York strike for February 17. But let’s not use this as an excuse to skip out on the $5 coffee or ditch work to play ultimate Frisbee. No, striking should extend to everyone who wants to exert some form of power beyond marching with clever signs. And that most certainly includes the musicians of the world.

There is at least some precedence for a wide-scale musical strike. It’s happened at least twice in the last few months with orchestral/chamber musicians from Texas and Pennsylvania. Even a group of Broadway unions picked up the pickets over four stressful days in March 2003. But perhaps the biggest, most popular such strike actions date all the way back to the 1940s.

From July 1942 to September 1943, the American Federation of Musicians went on strike after months of disagreements over whether record labels needed to pay artist royalties. It didn’t have perhaps as dramatic of an impact as the AFM had hoped, as many labels used stockpiled recordings from big names like Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller, and they got creative by replacing orchestra sections with groups of back-up singers. It did, however, cause the labels to finally see the light, and the AMF was able to receive royalties it later pooled into a “relief fund” for union members. The AMF would strike again for the entirety of 1948. This second ban had everything to do with the passing of the Taft-Hartley Bill, which would have invalidated the Recording and Transcription Fund. The RTF was meant to divert portions of record sales to a fund for musicians who played free concerts (part of a larger civic outreach effort). The AMF returned to work just days before Christmas 1948 as the RTF was maintained in full (thanks to it being distinguished from the rest of the actual AMF).

“The ’40s music industry was structured in a way to make strikes fruitful.”

The music industry of the ’40s is very much different from the one in the here and now. For one thing, it was quite profitable. (Zing!) But more so, it was structured in a way that such strike actions had a larger impact. Especially given that there were only maybe a dozen or so labels, all of which required the efforts of the AFM’s members to function. Even with that tricky bit of stockpiling, the music industry of yore wouldn’t have been able to hold out forever. Yet even with the AMF having something like 80,000 members, a strike doesn’t seem obviously viable. Mostly because that which ails the entire industry — properly monetizing streaming, addressing an uneven market obsessed with vinyl and downloads, etc. — affects musicians, labels, and union groups alike. So at least they have some sort of shared misery to bond over and unify certain efforts. It’s also a matter that, where labels once tried to “replace” certain players, a similar swap-job is now infinitely easier. The marketplace is flooded with labels and bands and eager rockers and rollers with their own Bandcamp site, ensuring a flow of music that would rage on long past any strike.

That’s not to say that, in theory at least, strikes can’t work. Back in late 2011, thousands of U.K. public workers went on strike over their retirement benefits, leading to the closure of nearly 60% of England’s schools. There was load of flack over the move — and some doubted its effectiveness — but one key supporter was journalist/political aide Seumas Milne. In an op-ed for The Guardian, he explained that the workers of England had every right to strike, and in doing so highlighted a few of the more subversive benefits of this unique protest. It’s not necessarily about extra money or better treatment — though these things are clearly nice — but rather altering people’s perceptions about a given cause, moving arguments into the level of public discourse, and shaking the branches of an individual power structure. The true strength of most strikes is about the larger societal context, and that space is where issues are exposed to the forces that exert genuine influence.

So, if the musicians of the world (or mostly those in the AMF) went on strike today, what might their goals be? And how exactly would it all work? To that end, it’s essential to look at other strikes and what they have to offer if only for planning purposes. Anyone else looking to strike — butchers, mimes, Latin translators, etc. — feel free to follow along as well.

In fall 2011, Insider High Ed released an insightful report about the effectiveness of strikes by professors and other faculty. At the time, there were strikes either happening or on-deck at Rider University, Southern Illinois University, and Lewis and Clark Community College. But whether it’s about education or coal-mining or pop music, strikes are most valuable at a symbolic level. Specifically, that symbolism has to move beyond the group that’s striking, to “reach out to stakeholders in the community” in a way similar to public campaigns — something actionable beyond mere conversation. That might be hard for teachers to accomplish (for whatever reason), but seems like a more than achievable goal for rock stars. Generally speaking, fans are great not only for buying t-shirts and attending shows, but transferring some of that strike momentum into a greater, and thus more successful, context.

Fans did much of the same footwork when streaming became a major issue for artists, and people waved the flag of better fees and greater artistic control for acts of all genres and earning powers. This loyalty makes sense — music matters to people, and they’re willing to do a lot of the pavement pounding in order to create a truly prosperous environment for artists. The fact that many artists, both mainstream and indie, can rely on touring as a major source of revenue is proof positive of that very dynamic.

It’s that very earning power that is at the heart of most strikes. It’s also where musicians have a lot in common with the burger flippers of the world. Whereas some industries struggle with competitive minimum wage, Business Insider noted that the fast food industry has long since addressed this issue. (And is perhaps why fast food’s at the forefront of the $15/hour movement.) At fine establishments like Sonic’s, workers can make up to $9.99, compared to the national average of $7.98. Part of that success is that ast food is an essential part of American culture (no matter what that says about us, or objections people might have), and that’s something these employees can hold over the burger-hungry public. You could make a similar argument for musicians: We need pop songs as much as we do triple cheeseburgers, but the world’s a lot less enjoyable without either. But you can’t dismiss the strike efforts of these service workers, with hundreds of employees hitting streets across the globe.

However, as CUNY professor Ruth Milkman told The Guardian, these burger strikes go deeper: People are reworking outdated union models to achieve more than just a temporary or finite boost in wages. For instance, by joining forces with home health workers, these strikes have greater leverage to make meaningful changes. With all new ways to approach working conditions and benefits, union members are making life easier in the long run, and that’s essential to achieving workplaces that don’t require regular action to maintain. Of course, reaching that state takes a distinctly progressive attitude, and it’s almost comical how the music industry has shirked similar changes. Even to this day there are fiery debates and arguments about how to address something elemental like streaming music revenue.

But that profound, wide-scale change is essential to those strike actions that are genuinely worth a damn. It’s about not settling for meager winnings or incremental shifts in the industry; there must be movement on a tectonic level or the same inequality and confusion will abound further. Inevitably, that means a longer haul were musicians to commence their strike, and that time-frame and necessary level of commitment could make all the difference in terms of impact and sustainability. If nothing else, musicians have the energy and focus to continuously strive toward these goals, as once more witnessed during the Great Streaming Cluster of the 2000s.

But time isn’t just some annoying obstacle, and it’s changed how strikes operate. Gone is the idea of the Great American Strike, this grand, romantic gesture that saw workers hit the streets en masse. Per data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers’ reliance on strikes has changed sharply in recent years. In 2014, there were 11 major lockouts or strikes (any events involving 1,000-plus employees). That number jumped to 12 in 2015. So whereas huge chunks of the American workforce were born from the sweat of these massive demonstrations, this modern work culture just doesn’t have that same sort of cultural DNA.

But why the shift? Speaking with Quartz, sociology professor Jake Rosenfeld noted that strikes nowadays are much riskier. A lot of that has to do with issues about how unionization has changed, and its value within the marketplace. Whereas private union membership was once at 30% in the mid-1950s, its dropped to 6.6% by early 2015. You can thank a shrinking American industry, which has made outsourcing easier and, as an extension, given companies the ability to better counter any union activities.

As much as things have changed for the (conceivably) worse, there is an upside to the so-called de-unionization of the U.S. As the job market as a whole improves, unions are already achieving their goals, at least relatively speaking. It may be that, given their rarity, a properly planned strike could have some real impact, if only via shock-and-awe. Plus, unions have favor among the public. Those ratings — 51% as of early 2015 — aren’t quite at the peak (63% in 2001), but that does mean that everyday people support the rights and actions of these groups.

That support is essential, and even a positive perception by Joe and Joanie American can bolster a union’s efforts. As an extension of that, people are more willing to accept huge decisions like a strike as a means to an important end. If you’ve got everyone and their siblings willing to hit the streets during the Women’s March, that creates a climate of acceptance that unions need to be prosperous. But it’s so much more than reaching out to other communities as mentioned above; you also have to strike while the iron is hot. Given everything that’s happened in the last few months alone, musicians dropping their guitars and mics doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched after all.

In his fall 2012 essay about the power of strikes, Gawker’s own Hamilton Nolan made a most interesting point: Strikes don’t always work as people intended. Not only do the benefits never arrive, but you fail to make impact at a foundational level. But that’s OK, because the best strikes — the ones with the greatest chances and that make the most noise in the media — all have value outside of those primary goals. As Nolan describes it, a perfect strike “acts as a check on that imbalance of power by inviting a very powerful third party to the table,” citing the millions of screaming parents who helped end Chicago’s teacher strike in September 2012 (and may have averted another crisis this past October).

In this case, it’s a whole lot of sound and fury signifying everything: Disturbing the system and the public is an important goal. It shows that people and unions aren’t going to take things lying down. That enough noise can scare off a corrupt corporate management, or shock an otherwise apathetic or uncertain citizenry into something resembling action. One strike may not accomplish much of anything, but it primes the world for what’s to come. Thinking about the long game is nice, but those that strike must also recognize failure is a likely option. It tempers the nerves and helps streamline the process toward success. Anyone who wants to throw down the gauntlet needs to be aware of this sizable margin, and be truly willing for the accompanying peaks and valleys (a la the Chicago teachers’ efforts). It helps to have some power or to create a great need with your absence, and that once again seems to be the noticeable upsides of a possible musician’s strike.

Part of this musician strike isn’t just about the overall feasibility of strikes in the current societal climate. It’s also a matter that there is a substantial disconnect between what musicians and other unions have to offer. Without under-valuing some of these groups, the world could probably do without carpenters, elevator constructors, or theatrical stage employees — at least for a brief period. (Or, we don’t consider their absence so often.) But when it comes to music, the world would be a much darker place after even the briefest of lulls. And thus, there is almost this holy charge placed upon musicians, to keep the light of humanity ablaze and deliver the hits ad infinitum. That’s certainly romantic, and a great potential bargaining tool, but it’s mostly a massive strain on the people who make music at every level of the process.

It’s nothing new, though, and it seems like a lot of the issues the music industry has experienced in recent years (certainly streaming and revenue sharing) have to do with this same sense of emotional weight. As if inspiring humanity and soundtracking our most emotional moments wasn’t enough, it has to be done in a way that maximizes artist struggles all without impacting the listener. Sure, it’s the fans that have all the money and decision-making power, but no other industry seems to have quite as much malice toward its “workers” than professional musicians. If autoworkers or air traffic controllers weren’t getting enough money, it wouldn’t take many violent crashes until amends were made posthaste. Just because music has mostly emotional value and not a concrete, definable sense of worth (though even that’s questionable, given album sales and the industry’s financial infrastructure) doesn’t mean its workers should be left to the wolves.

“Action is essential, even if it might ultimately seem fruitless.”

When it came to streaming, most artists wrote letters or complained to media outlets, all while hoping money would finally trickle in. (Though some, like David Lowery, took legal action.) If I’ve learned anything about the world we live in now, it’s that quick and forceful action is essential, even if it might ultimately appear fruitless. To not do anything is to let the worst kinds of savages continue to rise to the top and plunder the Universe’s resources as they see fit. But it’s not enough to just stand up, you’ve also got to be calculating and relentless. To strike the enemy right where it hurts the most. To go beyond gestures and be unafraid to get bloody. This all seems counter to the feel-good nature of popular music, but we’re not on the same planet as we were one or two years ago. There’s early promise in the visceral reactions of pop stars, but it’s just the beginning.

To quote the incomparable Mike Ehrmantraut, there can be no more half measures, lest the beasts of the world get the rest of their jagged nails in the door. The power to strike or not rests in the hands of musicians, unions, and those with something to lose. There has to be a profound shift in the way these entities behave and interact with fans and the world as a whole. Strikes are ugly business, and people might be afraid what these actions do to people’s perceptions or how we treat this specific entity once the dust settles. It might be time to break a few eggs to see if we can finally solve issues like artists earning money or actually backing up some of that political power they hint at with every tweet and public statement.

Otherwise, there won’t be a meaningful or even economically viable music industry when the Carter twins ready their debut LP circa 2037.