I’ve been a union member off and on the past few years while working the union gigs this town has to offer. After giving thought to the challenges involved with being a musician in 2018 Seattle, I’ve decided to make my membership permanent. Here’s why:
Musicians create one of the most in-demand products on Earth. We’re surrounded by music constantly. It’s in all of our media, playing in all of our public spaces, and enjoyed almost universally. Every single person I know owns and listens to music. It’s as ubiquitous and beloved as coffee and, like any product of value, requires skill and effort to be made. And musicians produce the supply.
In past decades, the costs of production and distribution were so incredibly high that musicians were in genuine need of partners. Record labels provided the capital for production, promotion, and distribution and, in return, demanded ownership of the product and the lion’s share of profits. Short of already having massive sums of money, musicians had no choice but to acquiesce.
Fast forward to today. Production, promotion, and distribution come at a fraction of the cost, within the grasp of the average group of working musicians. But for some reason we still rely on partners who, with mixed intentions, demand unfavorable terms. Employees of Spotify and the like compile massive libraries of our collective work, pay out fractions of pennies for its use, and enjoy six-figure average salaries. Bars and venues that would otherwise be empty book musicians to draw patrons, cover their own costs first, and pay out what’s left. And because we still believe that we need these partners to be successful, we continue to accept terms no sane business person with an in-demand product ever would. We have almost no leverage when we should have almost all of it.
Musicians could collectively stop providing new music to streaming services and eventually put them out of business. We could book our performances exclusively at venues that provide meaningful compensation and transparency to the musicians they rely on to exist. We could solve lots of our biggest problems but, as it stands today, these things sound impossible. That’s because we’re not organized. Young musicians don’t know what’s reasonable to demand for their work. Musicians are afraid to speak publicly about venues and promoters that cheat and steal. Nobody is promoting and advocating for music at an industry-level and fighting the perception that it should be free. That’s why I’m joining the union permanently.
It’s impossible to realize the strength of our position if we’re not talking to each other. It’s impossible for an organization to advocate for us if we’re not providing it legitimacy and strength with membership. Though the union has been absent in Seattle in lots of ways, the best paying gigs I’ve had in town are ones the union negotiated, and the only legitimate way to ask them to do better is to join and help.
So I’m in for good. I’m going to try to stay true to the principles I outlined above, talk to other musicians about which business relationships make sense and which don’t, work with the union to improve and promote our product, and try to provide opportunities for union musicians to do what they do without being taken advantage of.
I hope my fellow musicians will join me. If you’re not on board, tell me why and we’ll try to fix it. We’re a long way from perfect but I know we can do better.