Taking a Deeper Look at Indie Musicians

Let's follow through on a proposal to study how we can succeed

Volume CX, No. 10October, 2010

Marc Ribot

As the article “Indie Musicians Come Together” in the last issue of Allegro makes clear, the current administration at Local 802 is making an effort to “become a resource and help give voice” to indie musicians.

In order for this to happen, the union needs to better understand the situation of indie musicians, and avoid some of the misconceptions that have prevented effectively engaging indie musicians in the past.

It might be helpful to begin with a definition: the term “indie” refers to “musicians working on recordings released by independent labels (any label other than major) and/or in the network of clubs and touring circuits which serve as development and promotion for these recordings.”

“Independent artists” are not an aesthetic community, like jazz or polka musicians. We are jazz, polka, rock, classical, country, free improvisation, Latin, marching band, hardcore and every other genre of musicians who sometimes do sessions for indie labels.

Beginning in the late 70’s, an increasing amount of record production began to be financed by “indie” labels not directly owned by “major branch” companies (which continue to control most distribution).

This situation was not our aesthetic decision or lifestyle choice.

It was a form of industrial restructuring with parallels in almost every other industry, part of the pattern of globalization and outsourcing know as “post-fordism.”

As Stanley Aronowitz and Mike Robert’s 2001 study “The Irony of the Indies” has shown, union avoidance was almost certainly the intent and indisputably the result of this restructuring.

And the more it worked (for management), the more it was and will be repeated.

This phenomenon has not affected all musicians equally. String players, for example, have been better able to resist “indie” de-unionization because of a classical music/live performance economy linked more to local philanthropy and public subsidy than to global markets.

However, they too have suffered from the globalization of those parts of their work that are not local – for example, in film score production.

Similarly, Broadway pit and club date musicians have had the advantage of fighting on a local terrain better suited to traditional union organizing.

But though the experience of these groups is very important within the union, they don’t reflect the realities of those who work in the record industry or the network of clubs and touring circuits which serve as its development and promotion.

In this world, musicians who work in indie situations are not marginal, or necessarily struggling: we are the large majority of working musicians.

And we are not necessarily “estranged from the union.” All working recording guitarists I know – and I know many – who do major label work also do indie label work. Some of us, myself included, would welcome a credible union plan to organize indie labels. However, neither I, nor anyone I know is going to pass up work in the absence of a feasible plan to win us benefits without getting us fired.

Last year, as a means to this end, I submitted a proposal to study indie label organizing, which would:

  • Research the literature on how the “post-fordist” phenomenon of which it is a part has been dealt with in other industries both in the U.S. and abroad
  • Learn about the successes and failures of musicians’ unions both here and in Europe
  • Research legal strategies capable of winning in a post- fordist landscape
  • Begin developing the database of contacts with other musicians and musicians’ organizations needed to create real leverage in a global industry.

I hope the current administration will reconsider this proposal.