Musicians lift boycott of downtown venue

Volume 112, No. 9September, 2012

Shane Gasteyer

Musicians have lifted a seven-month boycott of the University of the Streets, a jazz venue on the Lower East Side. The boycott began in September, in response to a violent incident at the venue between a venue employee and one of that night’s performers. News spread via blogs and social media, as the boycotting musicians voiced both support of the injured musician as well as their opposition to the club’s policy requiring acts to pay the venue in the event of low audience turnout. This kind of policy has been dubbed “pay to play” by musicians seeking to do away with this arrangement at this and other clubs around the city.

After several musicians called for a boycott of the University of the Streets, the venue had to cancel the remainder of their current concert series and experienced a drastic drop in activity.

Local 802 member Marc Ribot says of the strike’s effectiveness, “This was pretty amazing; proof, if any is needed, that a group of musicians often thought of as indifferent to union concerns are more than capable of acting in solidarity.”

A few months after the strike began, several participants in the boycott saw an opportunity to negotiate a positive outcome with the University of the Streets.

With the assistance of Local 802, the musicians organized a committee and held several meetings to discuss their goals.

The committee began negotiations with management in the hopes of getting a productive outcome out of a bad situation.

In the end, the committee and the club owners came together on a basic agreement that stipulates the barring of the employee involved in the incident from the venue and removes the “pay to play” scheme from any future performances.

The conditions that spurred this action were unique: the strike began due to reports of physical violence against a musician. However, this case brings attention to some of the issues facing musicians playing in NYC clubs, and musicians’ ability to come together for positive change.

“I have been involved with several of these seemingly small independent actions over the years,” says committee member Jim Pugliese, “but each time we organize, we seem to win! This small committee of musicians was amazingly dedicated and I am always very happy to support these actions and hope it encourages more musicians to understand that they can make change!”

There are, of course, larger problems for musicians than just this one club.

Many musicians have told us that over the years, the situation in many NYC clubs has gone from bad pay to no pay to even “pay to play” in some cases.

The only proven way to set standards at these clubs is if musicians engage in collective action and use their leverage against club owners who mistreat them.

Ribot sums up the results of the University of the Streets strike this way:

“The things we did win were extremely basic and, from a union standpoint, minimal: physical security and the right not to be charged for playing. But let business owners who act against musicians’ interests be aware: this community of musicians organized a strike, and, with the help of Local 802, had the discipline to follow through on it and win. And we can do it again.”

If you want to report abuses of musicians by an NYC club, or want to get more involved in collective actions like this one, contact Shane Gasteyer at