WE NEED A ROCK BAND UNION!!!
a pamphlet by Mark Ludas

For too long, rock bands have relied on outdated, pop-culture ideas of fame to direct their efforts towards “success.” Gone are the Jimi Hendrixes, the Robert Plants, the Beatles, the Lovin’ Spoonfuls. Here are the Maroon 5s, the Coldplays, the Paramours, and the Evanescences, taken up by massive billionaire record companies, forced into creative and financial corners by A&R departments, and squeezed for every last cent of their worth before being either tossed aside or relegated to Top 40 radio mediocrity, their rock as dead as the dream itself.

Gone are venues like the Fillmores or Whiskey-a-Go-Gos or CBGBs of the past, scouring the East and West alike for new rock talent, booking them incredible shows and even residencies, and providing financial compensation worthy of groundbreaking new music. Now, we have venues scattered about like spiders in a massive web, extorting money from artists in a heinous scam called Pay-to-play (PTP), where young bands place their scarce dollars into the hands of the venue-owners for one meager show and are expected to sell tickets to that show despite the contradiction of being young and without an established public to purchase the overpriced tickets to see an underdeveloped band at an unknown venue, often in MiddleofNowheresville, USA.

It is not wrong for a band to want to play a show. It is wrong for venues to expect the bands to pay for it. A venue constitutes the means of production: the capital (real estate) required for the public performance of music. Venues, like any other real estate, have multiple means of producing income: admission fees, food and beverage sales, alcohol sales, equity. Not without effort, the cost of real estate generally increases.
A band has very few resources or sources of income. A band expends its labor-power to play the show, loading vans with heavy black boxes, setting up, playing the music of their hearts, breaking down, and leaving. But there is unpaid labor still when they are required to promote the show themselves. And what are they promoting? Their band? Their music? Their talent? No. To the venue-owner, they are only promoting the venue.

This has the counterproductive effect (for the artist) of alienating the potential audience from seeing the band play. Pay-to-Play tickets are often overpriced: 10 dollars or more, to see, as I said, an underdeveloped band (established bands rarely do PTP) at an un-notable venue (large venues rarely use it either). And those who do pay will rarely pay more than once. A band that plays 2 or more shows per month will rarely receive more than one unique ticket-buyer per show after the first, because that’s too many shows and too much money to shell out, even for moral support.

Let’s say for one show, the band puts up 200 dollars in exchange for thirty tickets. The band gets paid after selling 10 tickets. In order to BREAK EVEN, the band needs to sell twenty tickets. Any money they make after that is “profit” for the band (and sometimes, the band is only entitled to a percentage of this amount). So, in order to “make” ANY MONEY AT ALL, the band is forced to “promote themselves,” usually amounting to asking friends and familymembers to buy tickets to the show. Because the price is not worth the product, this alienates these audience-members from the idea of seeing the band play for their music, and compels them to do it largely as a favor, or in the case of parents, for moral support.

They go to the show, but none of the money they spend goes to the band. It all goes to the venue, as does any food or drink money spent there. So, all promotion for this type of show is, in fact, promotion for the venue above and beyond any exposure it gets the band. Since the shows are Pay-to-Play, and most of the other bands are in the same boat, and well-established bands don’t need Pay-to-Play venues to get gigs, the value of this exposure is dubious, since the band is mainly being “exposed” to other young bands and alienated and uninterested audience-members who AREN’T there for the music but rather as a favor to someone.

The prospect of so-called “profit” as mentioned above is also false. The band is spending time, effort, and money just going about the task of selling the tickets and promoting (ostensibly) their show. This is actually a further expenditure of uncompensated labor-power on the part of the band. Were this a “conventional” show where the venue has a Promoter working for them who promotes the show, and the artist received either a guarantee or a percentage of the door, the time and effort the band put forth promoting the venue in a PTP scenario could be put towards rehearsing music, getting other shows, making and selling merchandise, networking, or a host of other activities that actually increase their value as a band and are themselves not net expenditures.
Further, few bands actually sell all of their tickets. Hence, the ability to earn back the band’s investment, plus any overhead costs (travel, gear repair, guitar strings and drumsticks, et cetera) is dependent on their ability to sell merchandise. This merchandise is, itself, a further expense, and often requires the assistance of an unpaid “merch girl” (I am not making this term up) who sits at gigs and sells CDs, t-shirts, pins, and other items to genuinely enthusiastic music fans, most of whom are young and unmoneyed. The band’s ability to recoup its financial losses are dubious at best; the uncompensated expenses in time and labor-power cannot be recouped.

Touring while playing such gigs is a guaranteed loss-creator, because the value of the exposure at PTP gigs is so severely limited. There is an aggregate value to the band playing the shows in that its performances grow tighter, but this could be accomplished in extended rehearsals, without paying for high travel expenses and enriching greedy venue-owners in West Bumble-F, USA.
There is another version of PTP that I call Modified PTP, wherein the band puts up no money but is still required to sell tickets and promote the show. Usually, in order to make that so-called “profit,” a higher percentage of tickets must be sold. Therefore, a greater expenditure of unpaid labor-power is required on the part of the band to make any money. Even worse, bands on a night’s bill are often paid according to which band brings in the most audience members, i.e. which bands have done the most promoting of their own show. Rather than alienating potential audience members and creating antagonism between them and the bands as PTP does, Modified PTP pits the band against other bands, when in fact NO band–including the kinda famous one–gets paid the value or anything near the value of the work it is doing because its labor-power must be expended on promotion. Remember that reimbursement is not guaranteed; only ticket sales past a certain amount will create income.

The only bright side of Modified PTP is that notable or famous bands are more likely to play them, hence the possibility of gaining valuable “exposure” goes up. Admittedly, with enough of these gigs, a band can attain adequate exposure to bring in a good amount of people. That band will never headline a show, though, because only famous bands are guaranteed to always bring in enough audience members to reimburse the venue for its expenses. In so doing, they monopolize the amount of money that bands can possibly get paid. Also, as long as bands are willing to accept the terms of PTP, Modified or otherwise, it will always be around.
Truly successful bands don’t really play these kind of gigs; they play venues with guarantees and door percentages. Such venues have promoters who are well paid to create audience inflow. The bands have roadies or techs to do the heavy lifting and setting up, publicists to handle publicity, and booking agents to do the actual booking. All of these services cost money, but the artists aren’t paying for it. Rather, their financial backers cover these costs as an investment, whether they be record companies or talent representatives. Such bands don’t have time to waste on shows that might not produce a high profit margin because these investors expect returns on their investment.

Apologists for the music performance industry as it currently is apply the same concept of “return on an investment” to small club owners. “They have expenses too,” say these apologists, “and if they paid bands fairly, they’d go out of business.” (I will come back to this claim in a moment.) Since club owners invested in music venues and the associated costs, music must create returns on that investment. But, rather than paying for promotion, publicity, heavy-lifting, or booking, the cost they choose to absorb are the costs of owning the means of production, i.e. rent, payroll, property tax, alcohol license, et cetera.
However, these services–promotion, lifting, et cetera–are still required in some form in order for music to take place. Upon whom does it fall to perform them without direct compensation? The artists. Rather than pay artists anything resembling fair compensation for their music alone–which is presumably the commodity the club-owners intended to exploit to earn their returns when they invested in music venues in the first place–they now no longer pay for music, but become alienated to the product the artist produces and see the artist only as a source for as much guaranteed income as possible when traditional means of paying for rent or property tax no longer cut it.

This long-term exploitation limits music’s viability as a livelihood, and with it the artists’ ability to make music for an extended period of time. Club-owners resort to relying on young, unknown acts–who just want a show and don’t know any better–to make their monthly nut, no matter how many pitifully small crowds the bands play to, or how many bands break up after struggling to subsist, considering themselves a failure in the face of a corrupt system because they didn’t “want it bad enough.”

Moreover, it is considered a convention of the times that young bands and musicians must “eat dirt” like this in order to “make their bones,” to “learn the ways of the road,” because that’s “just the way it is” and “the way it’s done.” “Why should you get paid lots of money when you’re untried, un-practiced, un-proven?” apologists say. Like an unpaid internship in an office, or a Production Assistant on a non-union film set, artists are expected to just make music “for the love of it” without any expectation of fair compensation except in the realm of cover band or session musicians. Then, when the idea of fair compensation becomes so far off and outlandish, they give up their dreams of musical stardom and go about “making something of ourselves.” But since when does “for the love of it” mean for free? It would be great if we could all make music and art “for the love of it” indefinitely, but unfortunately, we have material needs, bills, expenses, and the social stigma of unemployment to worry about, just like anyone else. Is life simply a series of compromises, where one trades one’s values for someone else’s in deference to the need to make money, only to become alienated enough from one’s “art” that he or she becomes like the club-owners who created this exploitation in the first place?

A more concrete question: What is the answer? For rock bands, the answer is simple:

UNIONIZE!

What do I mean by “unionize”? I mean we should form a labor union for rock bands. Theoretically, a labor union is an organization dedicated to creating a balance of power between the more-numerous workers and the less-numerous but vastly more financially resourceful employers, or owners of the means of production. This balance is created through the union’s ability to demand certain rights, benefits, and compensations based on their superior numbers and the fact that they possess the skills and knowledge necessary to make business possible.

When your workplace is unionized, it means that the employers must negotiate with the union to create “union contracts,” meaning contracts that apply to ALL employees in that workplace, not just one employee or another, as is usually the case.
Unions also provide a forum for workers to air their grievances regarding the employers and provide resources to best handle the grievances. For instance, if a worker feels he or she has been discriminated against at the workplace, the union can provide the worker with direct guidance regarding his or her rights and legal recourse.

Lastly, unions provide benefits and member services such as healthcare, immigration assistance, pensions, and legal representation. They provide these benefits by collecting dues payments, much of which are also used to maintain organizational infrastructure. The collection of dues also pays into a “strike fund” or “rainy day fund,” to be used in the event of a strike so that workers can continue getting paid while striking, or to handle legal costs in the event of litigation against the union or its members by employers, the government, or other destructive forces. The guiding virtue, and strength, of any union is “The Common Good.” Increased pay and better working conditions more than outweigh the cost of membership in any successful union.

Now, the history of unions in America is extremely long and complicated, with brilliant flashing high points of massive worker power, and miserable humiliating low points of corruption and scandal. But the fact remains that all worker benefits–the eight-hour workday and forty-hour workweek, weekends (yes, weekends!), paid maternity leave, child labor laws, stock options, 401(k)s, fire safety codes, and innumerable others–are the legacy of organized labor in America.

No concession was ever won from an employer without a fight from the workers. Why? Because the intrinsically contradictory nature of capitalism pits the worker against the employer. Workers sell their labor-power to the employer, who buys the labor-power in the form of wages. The employer requires profits to remain in business, and wages are the first and largest depleter of those profits. Therefore, it is always in the immediate financial interest of the employer to keep workers’ wages and benefits as low as possible.

How does all this relate to rock music? Rock bands are being exploited for their labor-power right now! Not only are our wages–or payment for playing shows–being cut, but we are actually PAYING TO PLAY SHOWS! We don’t own capital! We don’t own real estate! We don’t own liquor licenses! We’re lucky enough to be able to afford instruments and the gas in our cars that get us to the gig at all! And WE’RE the ones paying to make music! That’s as backward as a rearview mirror.

A strong union, made up of hundreds of rock artists across New Jersey and beyond, all working to demand good pay for good work and an end to exploitation, could force the exploitative venue-owners to pay us for the labor we sell them, without which rock music would be impossible. If we were to demand the end of Pay-to-Play, vowing that no more rock shows would happen until this demand was met, WE COULD DO IT! Then, we would have a precedent, a demonstration of worker power, that makes our stance clear:

YOU WILL NOT HAVE MUSIC AT THE COST OF OUR LIVELIHOODS!
YOU WILL NOT HAVE MUSIC AT THE COST OF OUR DIGNITY!
YOU WILL NOT HAVE MUSIC AT THE COST OF OUR MUSICAL FUTURES!
YOU WILL NOT!

Some may argue that a unionized rock band workforce, demanding good pay for good work, would put some venues out of business. My answer to that is this: GOOD! Those venues whose monthly nut is dependent on exploitation should never have been in business in the first place. The moment those venue-owners decided to gouge rock musicians instead of cutting corners elsewhere was the moment they became the enemies of rock music.

And you may say, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, you live in the tri-state area where there are plenty of venues everywhere. What about the guy or gal who lives in a one-venue town, who just wants to play a show? Should he or she just not play shows then?”

My first answer to that is this: if that venue wants shows, and they have a monopoly on music in that area, then it will ultimately be profitable to pay musicians fairly because more musicians will want to play there. More people will come to shows FOR THE MUSIC, and not as a favor. Music culture will flourish, and demand will increase.

My second answer: DIY! Do It Yourself! The workers can create their own venues that pay good union wages to bands. Backyards, basements, living rooms, VFWs, public spaces, church basements….the rock bands don’t need the venue-owners for music to happen; just the opposite! Rock lives on whether the exploiters live or die!

Eventually, pro-union venues will arise, whose goal and purpose is to provide a place where exploitation-free rock music always has a home. The network of pro-union artists, venues, and audience-members will provide an alternate marketplace for goods and services, such as instruments and gear, repair, CD manufacture, and recording services. Famous artists will come out in favor of the union, and concerts that are entirely union-run will become commonplace. The massive media and entertainment companies that currently control these resources will be given a run for their money.

If the union became large and strong enough, it could change the entire music industry, allowing musicians of all stripes–everything from pop rock to avant-garde progressive metal–to thrive and produce music on a grand scale, undermining the exploitative, illusion-dependent music industry we have now, where dreams are pedaled to the impressionable, and the prospect of self-caused failure looms at every step, when in fact the system is designed to repress innovation and guts while encouraging conformity and alienation and the ultimate commodification of art that pits band against band.

So what is to be done now? First and foremost, the ideas contained in this pamphlet must be disseminated and talked about far and wide to create support for a rock band union and to identify an active core of union organizers who are willing to put the necessary time and energy into building its strength. Their first priority would be creating an infrastructure to allow rock bands to communicate with each other. A vast online network of bands must share resources and contribute to a common database of venues that pay, venues that pay well, and venues that exploit. The owners of the venues must be researched and that information must be disseminated on the internet. So-called “promoters” must also be databased, and assessed as to which ones actually PROMOTE music, and which ones just take the band’s PTP money, extracting a cut for themselves before handing the rest over the venue-owner, like true “middle-management.”
This information would need to be protected with technical means, because when the union gets any power, the venue-owners and their allies will do whatever they can to disrupt and corrupt it, including misinformation. This is an absolute fact. We must not short-sell ourselves and assume our organization might never be powerful enough to be worth their bother, therefore such security measures aren’t yet necessary. Just the opposite: our organization won’t be fully in power UNTIL our information and resources are secure and UNTIL our message is clear and completely under our control.

After there is a database in the works and communications are functioning full-power, actual membership must be determined. Who is a true member, and who is merely a supporter?

Membership means a level of dedication to certain principles, not willy-nilly “whatever” attitudes that change in a heartbeat based on one’s current needs. Dedication requires a sound understanding of the relevant principles, yes, but also on one’s willingness to ACT on these principles. Hence, a willingness to act in the interests of the COMMON GOOD, not the individual good, is a prerequisite to being considered a union member.
The process of decisionmaking highlights the importance of ascertaining true membership. Members must make decisions about how to proceed democratically, whether to begin having in-person meetings and how to structure and coordinate them, or to stage a protest outside of a non-union venue. A union is always based on worker democracy. Every decision is democratic and every position can be argued for or against without the threat of reprisal of any kind. Sexism, racism, homophobia…these have no place in a union. The purpose of the union is to unite us against the common adversary–the exploiters–not into factions against each other. That is the ultimate goal that must be kept well in mind, and that’s why the COMMON GOOD must be the governing principle for all true members.

This means, then, that if a venue decides to go around the union and hire non-union workers–a practice commonly called “scabbing”–it is our job, not to harass or intimidate these non-union workers, but to educate them about the benefits and prospects of being a member and welcome them into the union. They must be taught to understand the value of long-term goals over short-term immediate gratification: that with full union power and backing, an entire generation of rock musicians, including themselves, could be paid to make music for as long as they choose to make it, rather than a few focus-group-led billionaire record companies funneling all of the money in music to a tiny group of bands and keeping down the innovation that rock music so sorely needs to prevent becoming totally “dead,” if it isn’t already.

Rock band “scabs” will pose an interesting problem, because unlike scabs in conventional workplaces, rock band scabs will not be allowing themselves to be exploited in exchange for money. Also, unlike conventional scabs, non-union rock musicians aren’t taking advantage of the workplace benefits won by unions past (at least not yet. Maybe once the rock band union has won some victories, that will change, and true “scabbing” will take place.)

All these non-union bands want is to play shows, in theory. Their decision not to associate with the union is most likely due to ignorance, not opportunism. They might not know about or understand the rock band union or its goals, or they might have anti-union sentiments, for whatever reason. The single question that they must be asked is, “would you rather pay for a show, or be paid for a show?” “Paid, I guess,” they will say. “That’s all we are trying to accomplish,” is the beginning of their greater understanding, and impending pro-union stance, if not membership.
Then what? The directions the union could take are numerous, and to be decided by its members: whether to legally register with the government as a union, whether to demand union contracts from venue-owners, whether to collect dues in one form or another, and so on.

Probably the first decision to be made, though, is the least important: the name of the union. Having admitted to its lack of importance, I have a suggestion. The first incarnation of the union could be called AURA: Association of United Rock Artists. In New Jersey, it would be called AURA-NJ. And someday, perhaps there will be one AURA local in every state, or every county, or every town where rock music still gasps, screams, and struggles to be heard, and to move people.

Mark Ludas has a B.A. in English from Montclair State University. He has been playing drums for 22 years and has been in various rock bands for 15 of them.

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