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So why aren’t musicians on strike?

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Every day, Joey DeFrancesco hears from fellow musicians who see actors and screenwriters on strike and wish they were on a picket line, too.

All the fears and complaints that Hollywood actors and writers have about low streaming service payouts and threats of digital replacement are also an ever-present reality for musicians and songwriters. Yet the rockers, pop singers and hip-hop artists who create the vast majority of the music we consume are not on strike to protest their paltry royalties or AI inroads. One big reason? They’re not unionized.

Some musicians are, in fact, unionized. The American Federation of Musicians, with 80,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, collectively bargains for orchestra, film and live theater musicians. The L.A. Phil’s summer calendar is proceeding as normal under their contract through AFM.

But most artists who dominate the streaming charts and fill nightclubs, arenas and stadiums have no such counterpart.

Under current law, without a National Labor Relations Board-recognized union that can collectively bargain for them, pop musicians and songwriters are treated as independent contractors licensing their work.

David Lowery, frontman of the rock bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker and a music business professor at the University of Georgia, said that “if musicians and songwriters collectively bargain, that’s seen as price fixing, the same as if Ford, Dodge and Chevy were to get together all and say all pickup trucks are now the same price. That’s seen as anticompetitive. Songwriters can have unions but can’t do the most important part without federal intervention.”

After generations of anti-labor court rulings and restrictive laws, coupled with the diffuse nature of the music business, only orchestra, film and theater musicians have equivalent representation to what actors have in SAG-AFTRA and screenwriters in the WGA. Most musicians earn income from a variety of different sources, which each have different rules around labor.

The times musicians organized a strike before now

In 1942, the then-136,000 members of the AFM authorized a strike, fearing that radio stations and allied record labels would take advantage of the new technology of vinyl records to siphon away their performance earnings.

The musicians’ union won — hundreds of labels, and later movie and TV producers and advertisers, signed contracts paying a portion of sales into a fund that would hire live musicians to perform free concerts. After a second strike in 1948, for decades, the Music Performance Trust Fund was the single largest music buyer and employer of musicians in the country, and the AFM had 250,000 members at its peak in the 1950s.

Yet after the Second World War, a conservative federal government passed two laws — the Lea Act in 1946 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 — limiting the AFM’s ability to negotiate for better pay and hiring practices.

In the ‘50s, the AFM, owing in part to racist beliefs about Black music, didn’t organize then-emerging rock and R&B acts. Black musicians organized valiantly, but segregation limited their abilities to perform and benefit from the trust fund. 

Union infighting split the group’s allegiances across class, and in the ‘70s, courts ruled that gigging acts were actually independent contractors, with the singer or bandleader as the nominal employer, kneecapping unions’ ability to organize. Labels dramatically cut payments to the MPTF in the ‘80s, and in 1984, the National Labor Relations Board declined to give the Society of Composers and Lyricists the ability to collectively bargain with film and TV producers, saying its members like Henry Mancini, John Williams and Quincy Jones were independent contractors. 

Moreover, federal laws like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act limit artists’ and songwriters’ ability to collectively withdraw their music in protest of streaming platforms and other companies. Federal copyright law sets a standard royalty rate for songwriters, who have pushed to raise it over time, but songwriters cannot withdraw published songs in protest.

Performing rights organizations such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (which collect and distribute royalties when an artist’s work is performed in public) would be another place to look for collective organizing. But ASCAP and BMI operate under a federal consent decree that limits, among other things, their ability to bargain on behalf of members for better deals. 

Other musicians fear retaliation or blacklisting from services like Spotify should they stick their necks around organizing. In an industry where every act is its own small business, knowing where to turn for solidarity needs to be clarified.

Many of the industry’s most marginalized artists are also disconnected from established labor organizations.

Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, the co-founder of Black Music Action Coalition, is collaborating with the Hip-Hop Alliance (founded by Chuck D, Kurtis Blow and KRS-One), Songwriters of North America and the Music Artists Coalition (which counts Anderson .Paak, Irving Azoff and Maren Morris as board members).

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So, where can artists and songwriters turn in this summer of labor unrest if they’ve caught strike fever?

Orchestras in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Chicago, among many others, have gone on strike in recent years, and the AFM is staring down its negotiations with the film and TV producers’ group AMPTP in November.