Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition, says this interpretation of antitrust means that even though many musicians own the copyright to their music, they can’t organize against Spotify because they don’t have no articulated working relationship with the company. . “If these musicians worked together to bargain collectively with Spotify or threatened to take their music down for better rates, they would risk being sued as an illegal cartel,” Erickson says.
Even in cases where musicians are classified as employees, Golub points to a Reagan-era court ruling that decided that bandleaders, not venues, are considered employers. Golub says this effectively made it impossible to organize concerts or recording studios. « [In a lot of bands] you’re talking about five people working for a friend,” he says. « You are not going to create a five-person union against your friend. »
While some artistic unions like SAG-AFTRA have taken a approach to the big tent which has welcomed and addressed the concerns of everyone from A-listers to extras, music organizers say musicians’ unions have failed to integrate the vast majority of new music workers. DeFrancesco says this retreat into « closer guild unionism » has bolstered the working conditions of unionized musicians who have a single employer, such as an orchestra. « But when you have musicians like my band [Downtown Boys], you have four different record labels, each place you play is technically a different employer,” says DeFrancesco. « Given the current labor law, it is difficult to organize, but not impossible. »
Erickson says there are a few policy prescriptions that could improve the situation. One of them is the Working Musicians Protection Act, a bill introduced in 2021 that would create « an explicit and narrowly targeted exemption in antitrust law » to allow musicians to bargain collectively with massive music streaming services. The bill seeks to update antitrust « to align with workers rather than target workers, » Erickson says. But aside from a Democrat co-sponsoring the bill in April 2022, it hasn’t moved forward.
At the same time, the confusing web of legal and policy frameworks at play indicates that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “We must simultaneously push for changes in copyright law, antitrust law and possibly labor law, and also work to put in place social safety nets,” adds Erickson.
If the mobilization of the WGA is not yet within the reach of independent music workers, it remains instructive and motivating. « I think a lot of us as musicians look to the WGA fight as an example of what we can do and what needs to be done, » DeFrancesco says. « We need to organize and fight these corporations to share in the profits created by these technologies rather than allowing these giant corporations to get it all. »
Even without legal and policy fixes, organizers say the emergence of powerful organizing groups like the Music Workers Alliance and UMAW suggests that musicians are ready to fight again. Years ago, Ribot opined that if unions don’t stop the siphoning off of profits by tech and streaming companies, rank-and-file music workers would revolt, within or without the constraints of job classifications. « This grassroots revolt, » Ribot says, « is happening right now. »