Indie Musicians Gather Strength

How to organize recording artists in a postmodern economy

Volume CX, No. 4April, 2010

Claudia Copeland

Marc Ribot

Stanley Aronowitz
Photo by David Shankbone.

Indie musicians get organized! Local 802 recently sponsored a discussion entitled “Indie Music as Labor,” which was attended by 70 indie music artists and supporters and presented by the Brecht Forum.

At stake was the question of how indie musicians – including many working in nonunion venues or recording for non-signatory labels – can, through collective action, effect change and, if so, how to best tackle the obstacles they all too often confront.

A diverse panel of labor experts and artists was assembled for the event. They included:

  • CUNY professors Dr. Stanley Aronowitz and Dr. David Harvey
  • Guitarist and Local 802 member Marc Ribot,
  • Jazz vocalist Iqua Colson, a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians
  • Hip-hop artist Hasan Salaam
  • Trombonist and AFM staff member Matt Plummer, creator of “Venuology”
  • Jeff Mansfield, organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY).

The evening’s moderator was Local 802 Executive Board member Andy Schwartz, who has worked to focus the attention of the union on this large but underserved community.

Over the course of the evening, panelists discussed the difficulty of organizing indie artists, often using the perspective of workers struggling in a global, postmodern economy.

While the term “indie” can connote a wide range of musical genres and performance modes, the problems facing most artists seem to be universal.

As the major record labels continue to figure out how to operate in the Internet era, indie musicians are becoming the majority. All Local 802 members who sell their own music on their own Web sites are, in some ways, “indie” musicians.

Stanley Aronowitz and Davi Harvey provided a theoretical framework to discuss what is going on in the indie community. Harvey’s use of the description “The Precariests” to describe the precarious nature of artists’ work, elicited much recognition in the house.

Marc Ribot, a veteran of numerous indie organizing efforts, and ROC-NY’s Jeff Mansfield, discussed creative ways of approaching the inherent problems. Ribot engaged the professors in a dynamic discussion on the roadblocks to organizing, the postmodern condition, and the use of secondary boycotts.

ROC-NY ( organizes restaurant workers in its capacity as a nonprofit, unofficial “union.” It has the freedom to utilize certain solidarity-building worker actions that labor unions are prevented from engaging in due to the prohibitions of the Taft Hartley laws. Mansfield noted that to address the issues affecting the indie community, it is important to do fieldwork in order to build the support needed to address the injustices that are occurring.

Matt Plummer spoke about Venuology, which he created as a means of musicians anonymously rating clubs throughout the city. Plummer explained that his Web site allows for musicians to be honest without fear of retribution from venues. See

Iqua Colson, a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, discussed the importance of musicians confronting injustices in the indie music scene. The AACM was formed in Chicago at a time when a community of black jazz artists felt the need to organize outside the union framework to ensure their music was heard and properly compensated. Colson discussed the evolution of the AACM over the years and explained the approach of AACM with regard to promoting its artists and the ensuring of scales on a par with those of the Chicago local at their organization’s events.

Hip-hop artist Hasan Salaam discussed the reality facing indie artists in regards to work conditions and pay. He acknowledged the importance of organizing the artists, but pointed out a number of obstacles to organizing an “underground” community.

He focused on the problems of compensation and noted that indie musicians are essentially looking to simply maintain a roof over their heads and clothing on their backs. These artists are not necessarily concerned with the formality of payrolls, contracts, and tax issues because they may see these as a hindrance to getting immediate cash.

Following the formal presentation the event was opened up to the audience for questions to the panelists and, not surprisingly, also resulted in strong statements from the artists in attendance on their condition and hopes for collective action.

The point is to make sure that all indie bandleaders and their musicians enjoy the compensation, benefits, protection and respect they deserve. How we do that will be a collaboration and a dialogue between the union and indie musicians.