The music industry has always thrived on its lawless atmosphere, with aspects of it – even right here in the UK – worth comparing to the Wild West. It’s a landscape that seems to promote individuality, with its ruthlessly competitive streak being accelerated in the 21st century by the emergence of social media and the endless chase for clout. Perhaps John Niven encapsulated this mindset in the title of his loosely fictionalised A&R fable: Kill Your Friends.
Recently, however, this cynicism has been challenged by the growth of collective action in the United States. Last week saw two flashpoints, with employees in the Secretly Group – which encompasses Secretly Canadian, Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar, and other interests – signalling their intention to form a union. The mission statement from those workers struck a chord with many who have spent the past 12 months pushing, pushing, pushing to be heard above the dim of the perpetual grind.
In part it reads: “Our enthusiasm for the culture in which we work can lead to exploitation in ways endemic to the creative industries: poor wages, inadequate benefits, lack of work/life boundaries, gatekeeping that obstructs professional development, and an absence of initiatives that address systemic race and gender inequality.”
We are forming Secretly Group Union because we love the work we do and the music we share with the world. We are committed to building a truly inclusive, progressive and ethical work environment to guarantee a better music industry for all.https://t.co/YtvkHobPl0 pic.twitter.com/uaS6L13mrm— Secretly Group Union (@secretlyunion) March 23, 2021
These are sentiments that ring true, certainly to this writer. The continued acceleration of the music industry into the digital environment may have garnered increased revenues via streaming, but all too often the manner and means of the way these monies are distributed seems out of sync with the work being done on the ground. PRs are worn down, label staff are over-stretched, and titles – those that remain – are often pieced together by skeleton staff.
Another event in the United States brought this to light. Staff at Pitchfork – the Stateside website founded by Ryan Scheiber in 1995 – unionised with other titles under the Conde Nast umbrella, and opted to authorise a strike following the break-down of negotiations with the publisher. The move follows a half-day strike last summer, one that aimed to bring attention to “clear, demonstrable union-busting by Condé Nast and Pitchfork management.”
BREAKING: Pitchfork Union has voted 100% in favor of authorizing a strike. We stand with our @CondeNast colleagues in @NewYorkerUnion and @Ars_Union, which have also overwhelmingly authorized a strike. Our statement: pic.twitter.com/o7MSdk0SCF— Pitchfork Union (@p4kunion) March 26, 2021
Something, it seems, is in the air. The increased appetite for unionisation by American music industry workers is a clear and lasting trend, with each new announcement seeming to spur on the desire for organisation and collective action on the ground. The question remains, however: could it happen here?
In a way, this process has already begun. Workers at VICE unionised in 2019, a process that saw spokespeople urge others to follow suit. Speaking to the Guardian, Ruby Lott-Lavigna said: “It’s indicative of a wider change. We want to see repercussions across the new media industry.”
What’s both remarkable and depressingly familiar is the similar language being used by these activists on both sides of the Atlantic. The music industry is sitting on top of a mental health crisis, with every survey being done showing that more and more workers are stressed, worried about the future, and struggling to maintain their income.
For larger companies, unionisation is certainly a bold and highly progressive step. The anarchic realm of new music and the old ‘Wild West’ ethos of the music industry at larger needs to be challenged, brought up to date with the day-to-day consequences wrought on those at the frontline.
The industry as a whole, however, feels much too fragmented – certainly in the UK – for unionisation to take hold. Many PR companies exist as one or two person bands, while the concept of a label in the DSP era is increasingly nebulous. It’s clear, however, that a need for collective support and an urge for unity does exist – whether that’s PR WhatsApp groups or Facebook groups designed to provide a platform for freelance journalists.
Perhaps something looser than a formal union should be considered. The music industry could launch an outside, third party ombudsman, funded on a subscription model by employers. This ombudsman could then be an access point for advice – legal or otherwise – and step in to resolve complaints. It could become a source for counselling, a place for legal information; it could have access to professionals who can deal with matters of sexual assault or racial discrimination, for instance. In short, an umbrella HR team free at the point of access, funded by the larger bodies within UK music.
Events in the United States have illuminated a need for progress and a desire for collective action. As the music industry begins to emerge from lockdown, more must be done to tackle endemic issues of over work, poor mental health, racial bias, and countless other issues. In a post-pandemic world, we need to build something better.
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Words: Robin Murray
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