LOS ANGELES —Musician Josephine Shetty, aka Kohinoorgasm, was preparing for her West Coast spring tour in March when the pandemic-related cancellations started rolling in.
Like many musicians, Shetty’s livelihood is pieced together from part-time work. She performs at underground spaces and small clubs, releases her own music and teaches middle school music classes. “When you’re a person who works so many jobs, that’s already a very unstable situation,” Shetty says. With live shows being cancelled, it became clear how difficult the road ahead would be. The independent venues that most working musicians rely on were some of the first to close (and will surely be some of the last to reopen).
When fellow musician and organizer Joey La Neve DeFrancesco reached out to Shetty, just a few weeks into the pandemic, about unionizing musicians and related music workers, Shetty signed up. On April 22, a group of about 20 musicians met virtually to discuss solidarity and how to build a more just industry, inaugurating the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW).
“Very quickly, everyone had all of these different visions of what a different music industry could look like when it was being built collectively by the workers involved,” says DeFrancesco, who is based in Providence, R.I. UMAW already boasts about 25 steering committee members and 80 subcommittee members, with topics ranging from streaming and venue relations to police abolition. More than 1,000 musicians have expressed interest through the group’s website and petitions. Members are located in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Portland, Ore., Boston and beyond. So far, the organizing has happened entirely online.
On March 25, hundreds of musicians circulated a letter to Congress demanding the expansion of unemployment benefits under the CARES Act. The letter also demanded relief regardless of immigration status, national rent and mortgage cancellation, Medicare for All and funding for the Postal Service and the National Endowment for the Arts.
UMAW grew out of that momentum. For UMAW’s first organized day of action, May 14, musicians across the country made nearly 1,000 calls to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and local representatives.
“That was how we started — thinking, ‘How are music workers and gig workers going to be protected during this time?’” Shetty says.
But the very first seeds were planted years earlier. Some members were involved in the 2017 effort to force the South by Southwest festival to remove a “deportation clause” from its artist contract. Others are associated with the No Music for ICE coalition, which encourages the industry to cut ties with Amazon unless it cancels contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These campaigns created a blueprint for “how you could do actions collectively as musicians,” DeFrancesco says, providing a foundation for UMAW to come together quickly.
UMAW differentiates itself from similar unions through its vast scope, seeking systemic shifts industry-wide, inclusive of various genres and practices. Traditional union organizing would be difficult for UMAW’s independent musicians because they often make a living through numerous contracts and employers. In that sense, UMAW’s work is more comparable to efforts by the National Writers Union’s Freelance Solidarity Project than, say, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).
“We’re just trying to organize the unorganized, which is the vast majority of musicians right now,” DeFrancesco says. “There [are] so many similarities if you look at [efforts to] organize Uber, freelance writers, adjuncts. …It’s the same problem, where it’s so hard to organize because you have so many employers.”
Shetty agrees. “If musicians are the original gig workers … we have a responsibility to organize within that realm,” she says.
Cody Fitzgerald, a film score composer and member of the Brooklyn-based band Stolen Jars, says UMAW stands in solidarity with members of other unions, such as the AFM. But, Fitzgerald adds, those organizations don’t fulfill the needs of all working musicians because they cater to session and orchestra players, not independents.
“UMAW represents the musicians that the AFM just doesn’t care about,” says bassoonist Patrick Johnson-Whitty, a member of the AFM and of a UMAW classical music subcommittee focused on confronting the legacy of white supremacy in the genre. Violist Clara Takarabe, another AFM member, is participating in UMAW’s political education committee. It aims to help musicians develop a political context around the labor of music. “I want to be involved in those types of centrally important questions,” Takarabe says.
UMAW is currently planning a campaign to pressure streaming giant Spotify to treat artists more fairly. The publicly traded company is valued at more than $40 billion, but infamously pays artists about half-a-cent per stream. UMAW members also hope to help democratize information related to music contracts.
“I’m excited about the idea of a world where people come to this union to look for information about how to not be exploited as an artist,” Fitzgerald says. For many, just having UMAW as a space for solidarity is a benefit. As Shetty puts it, “The existence of our campaigns, and our union, feels like a huge win.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Liz Pelly is a music and culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY.