Every day, Joey DeFrancesco hears from fellow musicians who see actors and screenwriters on strike, and wish they were on a picket line too.
“A lot of musicians are really angry now. I get messages all the time asking ‘Why aren’t we on strike?’ ” said DeFrancesco, guitarist for the rock band Downtown Boys and co-founder of the activist nonprofit group United Musicians and Allied Workers. “Writers and actors are on strike demanding changes in how streaming platforms compensate labor. They’re fighting at the bargaining table. Most musicians don’t even have a seat at that table.“
All the fears and complaints that Hollywood actors and writers have about low streaming-service payouts and threats of digital replacement are an ever-present reality for musicians and songwriters, too. Yet the rockers, pop singers and hip-hop artists who create the vast majority of music we consume are not on strike to protest their paltry royalties or AI inroads. One big reason? They’re not unionized.
“We have to overcome some legal hurdles, but we could unionize musicians tomorrow,” DeFrancesco said. “SAG is like an alternate history for musicians. We’ve done all this before and won, just not within recent memory.”
Some musicians are in fact unionized. The American Federation of Musicians, with 80,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, collectively bargains for orchestra, film and live theater musicians. The L.A. Phil’s summer calendar is proceeding as normal under their contract through AFM.
But the vast majority of artists who dominate the streaming charts and fill nightclubs, arenas and stadiums have no such counterpart.
Under current law, without a National Labor Relations Board-recognized union that can collectively bargain for them, pop musicians and songwriters are treated as independent contractors licensing their work.
David Lowery, frontman of the rock bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker and a music business professor at the University of Georgia, said that “if musicians and songwriters collectively bargain, that’s seen as price fixing, the same as if Ford, Dodge and Chevy were to all get together and say all pickup trucks are now the same price,” Lowery said. “That’s seen as anticompetitive. Songwriters can have unions, they just can’t do the most important part without federal intervention.”
After generations of anti-labor court rulings and restrictive laws, coupled with the diffuse nature of the music business, only orchestra, film and theater musicians have equivalent representation to what actors have in SAG-AFTRA and screenwriters in the WGA. Most musicians earn income from a variety of different sources, which each have different rules around labor.
That wasn’t always the case in the U.S.
In 1942, the then-136,000 members of the AFM authorized a strike, fearing that radio stations and allied record labels would take advantage of the new technology of vinyl records to siphon away their performance earnings.
The musicians’ union won — hundreds of labels, and later movie and TV producers and advertisers, signed contracts paying a portion of sales into a fund that would hire live musicians to perform free concerts. After a second strike in 1948, for decades, the Music Performance Trust Fund was the single largest music buyer and employer of musicians in the country, and the AFM had 250,000 members at its peak in the 1950s.
Yet after the second world war, a conservative federal government passed a pair of laws — the Lea Act in 1946 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 — that limited the AFM’s ability to negotiate for better pay and hiring practices.
In the ‘50s, the AFM, owing in part to racist beliefs about Black music, didn’t organize then-emerging rock and R&B acts. Black musicians organized valiantly, but segregation limited their abilities to perform and benefit from the trust fund.
Union infighting split the group’s allegiances across class, and in the ‘70s, courts ruled that gigging acts were actually independent contractors, with the singer or bandleader as the nominal employer, kneecapping unions’ ability to organize. Labels dramatically cut payments to the MPTF in the ‘80s, and in 1984, the National Labor Relations Board declined to give the Society of Composers and Lyricists the ability to collectively bargain with film and TV producers, saying its members like Henry Mancini, John Williams and Quincy Jones were independent contractors.
Moreover, federal laws like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act limit artists’ and songwriters’ ability to collectively withdraw their music in protest of streaming platforms and other companies. Federal copyright law sets a standard royalty rate for songwriters, who have pushed to raise it over time, but songwriters cannot withdraw published songs in protest.
Performing rights organizations such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (which collect and distribute royalties when an artist’s work is performed in public) would be another place to look for collective organizing. But ASCAP and BMI operate under a federal consent decree that limits, among other things, their ability to bargain on behalf of members for better deals.
Other musicians fear retaliation or blacklisting from services like Spotify should they stick their necks out around organizing. In an industry where every act is its own small business, it’s confusing to know where to turn for solidarity.
Many of the industry’s most marginalized artists are also the most disconnected from established labor organizations.
Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, co-founder of Black Music Action Coalition, is collaborating with the Hip-Hop Alliance (founded by Chuck D, Kurtis Blow and KRS-One), Songwriters of North America and the Music Artists Coalition (which counts Anderson .Paak, Irving Azoff and Maren Morris as board members).
“All these other advocacy groups represent the interests of labels and publishers,” Stiggers said. “There have been advocates for artists, but there hasn’t been this collective bargaining play that I feel is happening right now.”
BMAC formed in 2020, in the wave of protests following George Floyd’s murder. They’ve partnered with SAG-AFTRA on the FAIR Act, a proposed California bill that would have removed a record label’s right to sue artists if they leave a seven-year contract before delivering a required number of albums. (The bill stalled in the California State Senate in 2022.)
Stiggers relates to SAG-AFTRA’s concerns, especially around artificial intelligence. “The music industry can solve some of these problems without legislation,” Stiggers said. “But policy needs to ultimately be in place. The idea that there isn’t a basic pay scale for songwriters is insane.”
So in this summer of labor unrest, where can artists and songwriters turn if they’ve caught strike fever?
Orchestras in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Chicago, among many others, have gone on strike in recent years, and the AFM is staring down its own negotiations with the film and TV producers’ group AMPTP in November.
“Thousands of musicians work under union contracts daily on film and TV scoring,” said Marc Sazer, the vice president of the AFM Local 47, based in Burbank. “But our inability to make a sustainable living in the streaming economy is in a similar place with the actors and session singers in SAG-AFTRA.”
The union welcomes pop musicians and other performers to join, if they want to see the impacts of labor organizing and find community, though for now its bargaining ability outside of film and TV, orchestras and theater is limited.
“Union membership is open to everyone,” Sazer said. “We’re not in the business of turning people away, and we want to make ourselves more and more relevant.”
A few in-progress bills would open up significant new paths for organizing and create pressure for better pay. A broad-based labor bill like the PRO Act would expand workers’ rights to organize in ways that would help musicians too.
Other industry-specific bills would make an immediate difference. Under a loophole in current law (one that the National Assn. of Broadcasters fought to keep), artists in the U.S. do not get paid when their music is played on AM/FM radio (only songwriters receive payments from terrestrial radio spins). The American Music Fairness Act would update that to better match the rest of the world’s practices and pay performers for broadcasting their work.
Even more significantly, the Protect Working Musicians Act would update federal antitrust law to allow an exemption for musicians to collectively bargain with streaming services and other companies.
“There’s a lot of energy in the songwriter and composer world to do that,” Lowery said. “They’re inspired to see the WGA and SAG strikes fighting for their members. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can revitalize organizations like AFM and the Songwriters Guild of America. I want younger songwriters to join these older organizations and advocate to collectively bargain.”
Some new unions have emerged in the music industry, like recent drives at Bandcamp and indie label conglomerate Secretly Group. Organizations like the Future of Music Coalition and United Musicians and Allied Workers have successfully mounted pressure campaigns, like the Justice at Spotify picket campaign and another to raise performances fees for artists at South By Southwest, whose meager payouts were a bane of touring artists.
Many high-profile musicians have shown solidarity with striking writers and actors. Weezer, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and Imagine Dragons have performed impromptu sets on picket lines, and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav brought pizza to protesters outside the Warner Bros. lot. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre canceled two planned shows at the Hollywood Bowl celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Doggystyle,” saying, “We continue to stand in solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters in the WGA and SAG/AFTRA during this difficult time and remain hopeful that the AMPTP will come back to the negotiating table with a REAL proposal and we can all get back to work.”
After generations of pain from piracy, low streaming service payouts, pandemic-era blows to touring income and now threats of inflation, AI and other worries, musicians don’t have much more to lose, DeFrancesco said.
“The very term ‘gig workers’ connotes musicians’ precarious workplace. They have few rights, they’re fairly unorganized with low pay at whims of their employers,” DeFrancesco said. “Actors are well organized, and the only way to get power is understanding that we’ve got to do this together.”