Indie Music as Labor

This forum addresses the question: can collective economic action effect positive change in the post-modern music industry, and, if so, what form(s) might that action and the collective that organizes it take?

Writer/political economist/geographer David Harvey has argued, in “the condition of post-modernity”, that post-fordist industrial restructuring has created conditions under which collective economic action by workers is difficult or impossible. "[outsourcing] for example, opens up opportunities for small business formation, and in some instances permits older systems of domestic, artisanal, familial (patriarchal), and paternalistic ('godfather', 'guv'nor' or even mafia-like) labour systems to revive and indeed flourish...". (p.152) "Indeed, one of the signal advantages of embracing such ancient forms of labor process and petty capitalist production is that they undermine working class organization...Class consciousness no longer derives from the straight class relationship between capital and labour, and moves onto a much more confused terrain of inter-familial conflicts and fights for power within a kinship or clan-like system of hierchically ordered social relations. Struggling against capitalist exploitation in the factory is very different from struggling against a father or uncle who organizes family labour..." (p 151) [or against bandleaders, producers, local club or indie label owners who position themselves as fathers or uncles.] And indeed, there has been a decline in the labor movement- in terms of both numbers and power- that is coterminous with the restructuring Mr. Harvey and others have described.

Writer, sociologist, professor and green party candidate for Governor of NY State Stanley Aronowitz, has demonstrated (“The Irony of the Indies”) that the indie label phenomenon represents Post-Fordist industrial restructuring in the music industry: basically, an outsourcing of production by the large capital formations which still control most distribution. His findings are in marked contrast to the marketing of indie labels and the subjective consciousness of most musicians who identify as ‘indie’- both groups tending to represent the ‘indie’ phenomenon as alternative or oppositional to corporate capitalism, rather than its latest and most successful adaptation (hence the “Irony” of the study’s title).

Musician/activist, Marc Ribot has argued (in an unpublished local 802 position paper ) that a form of unionism corresponding structurally and strategically to the post-fordist situation- an outsourced, ‘indie’ union, could potentially create leverage in situations where traditional structures and strategies have failed. He has, over the last 15 years, attempted to create a praxis based on this idea through several organizing campaigns involving ‘indie’ identified musicians. A trend towards something like the above mentioned ‘indie union’ already seems to be appearing.

Sheebani Patel is a policy organizer for ROC NY, a group organizing collective action on behalf of restaurant workers. ROC NY has, as a group organized separately from the restaurant workers union, been able to effectively utilize tactics of struggle that would be risky or illegal if used by the official union. They have not, however, attempted to supplant the official union, but rather, entered into a mutually beneficial relation with it- the signing of a contract with the official union is the goal of many of ROC’s organizing campaigns. The period and areas of decline in music unionism (and its accompanying ideologies) have not been empty in terms of musician self organization or ideology. AACM, a group of Black, working class musicians involved in playing and composing Great Black Music (or “creative music”), organized to combat the effects of institutional racism in and neglect by the larger music industry and to create positive conditions for their own creative and economic survival. Although the AACM did not itself organize collective economic action against employers it did, in its mid-60s beginning, assume and support the existence of a musicians’ union that would perform these functions. In addition, the AACM’s adoption of a Do-It-Yourself model of struggle influenced several generations of jazz, rock, and experimental musicians, including punk trendsetters MRR (Maximum Rock and Roll) magazine, who in turn helped establish DIY as a political ethos of the punk movement and beyond.


<p>Stanley Aronowitz, David Harvey, Sheebani Patel, Marc Ribot &amp; Matana Roberts</p>
November 9, 2009
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