UMAW imagines a future with a stronger, more empowering music industry
You have to wonder what a young musician is thinking in 2020. If it wasn’t already clear over the last few years, the past months have driven home the struggles that musicians face in an economy which continually exploits their labor without providing even some of the most basic social services. You couldn’t blame a young person with a passion for music seriously considering whether it’s even worth it. But despite all this, new artists continue to pop up everyday, odds and economics be damned. Even so, there’s a breaking point and it seems the combination of years of struggle, our particular political moment, and, of course, COVID-19, has brought that moment to the forefront.
“I think people are really not only optimistic for a change, but desperate for a change, because our lives are really dependent on it,” says Sadie Dupius, the Philly-based poet and musician who performs in Sad13 and Speedy Ortiz. Thankfully, that change may be coming. Earlier this year, a group of musicians and workers announced the formation of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), of which Dupius is a founding member.
Created as a direct response to the ongoing struggle faced by musicians during this worldwide pandemic, UMAW’s first order of business this spring was sending a letter to Congress laying out some of their demands for necessary financial relief. Very quickly, hundreds of musicians signed that letter, including many of Philadelphia’s best – Mannequin Pussy, Thin Lips, Sheer Mag, and Radiator Hospital to name a few. They’ve continued advocacy in the months since via social media, and have branched out into other forms of action; tomorrow they will release a compilation, Exitos Varios, with artists like Drill, ONO, and Luxe contributing songs to benefit United We Dream, a youth led organization benefiting undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The letter that started it all lays out in detail the relief programs musicians require during this time – you can read it in full here – but their necessity is obvious. With tours cut short, record releases left in doubt, side hustles – of which almost all working musicians have – abruptly furloughed or significantly reduced, the help of social services and government relief is needed desperately. “I would say about 90% of my income is from touring or from gigs,” says Dupius. This isn’t a unique situation and the more we learn about COVID-19 the more apparent it becomes that concerts may be one of the last aspects of everyday life to return to normal. But, as U.M.A.W. co-founder and former member of Galaxie 500 Damon Krukowski reminds me, this loss of revenue stream is just the tip of the iceberg. “I think of a lot of times people can treat you like you are lucky to do something like music, but just because it is my choice doesn’t mean we don’t face the same issues that all laborers face.”
If this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that perhaps no issue is more urgent than healthcare. Healthcare expenses, by their very nature, are wildly unpredictable, far before a world of global pandemics and overrun hospitals. This presents a myriad of problems for working musicians. “I have been doing this for decades and it has been the single hardest thing about maintaining my life as an independent artist,” says Krukowski.
It’s a uniquely American system to tie healthcare to employment, presenting a distinct and grave risk to those whose income is less traditional. Kruskowski, who’s been a touring musician for decades, knows better than most the pitfalls of this inherently flawed system. It all began at a bed and breakfast in London, where he was touring with his wife and collaborator, Naomi Yang. “I fell down some stairs,” says Krukowski. “Basically, I was bleeding internally.” But rather than immediately call an ambulance, Krukowski insisted his bandmates call a cab, an assertion that shocked the confused Europeans around him.
“I would have risked going into shock because of that threat of not being able to afford healthcare,” Kruskowki now realizes. Even after the ambulance and the rather thorough care he received at the hospital, Krukowski was stunned to discover the doctor not only didn’t need his insurance information, but fully treated him without even getting his name.
“I was in pain, I was injured, I was in need of help and they helped me. End of story,” says Krukowski.
It wasn’t till he was back in the states that he learned the comprehensive care he received for free would have run him nearly ten thousand dollars if done in America. “It was such a graphic experience,” says Krukowski. “Medicare for All is just such a human thing. We need it as musicians, as do all workers.”
While less dire than healthcare, U.M.A.W.’s letter to congress made sure to mention one of the independent music industry’s most unsung heroes, the United States Postal Service. Even in thriving times of cross-country tours and record release shows, much of an independent musician’s income is generated through merch sales done at shows or record stores. With these avenues closed for the foreseeable future, many bands have shifted to makeshift shipping and distribution centers, with daily trips to the Post Office to send out t-shirts, hats, posters or vinyl records.
“We really rely on the media mail rate that the post-office charges, hence the need for government support of one of the only cool government agencies,” says Dupius.
The concerns listed in the letter to Speaker Pelosi are just some of the many tendrils twisting out from the current crisis. COVID-19 is choking what little lines of income musicians have available to them in what Krukowski calls an, “an insane economic system”, but it’s also giving musicians a chance to band together and work to solve the issues that have been eating at the foundation of their livelihood for years.
“The idea of a musicians union has been something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and never seemed possible because so many of the issues are spread so broadly across so many different sectors of our lives, “ Ithaca-based Izzy True said during a U.M.A.W. Instagram Live.
As U.M.A.W. continues to take shape, the Union has begun to address these concerns by creating a number of sub-committees meant to tackle more specific issues, many unrelated to the current crisis directly. Among the growing number are committees concerned with label transparency, venue relations, streaming and royalties, and relations with existing labor groups.
Safer-spaces, specifically, are of particular concern to Dupius, who’s been working for years to see venues take more responsibility for both artist and audience safety and inclusion. She has already personally worked to mandate that venues her band performs in have accessible gender neutral bathrooms and has, for years, distributed safer spaces literature to both venues and concertgoers. This is just one example of the types of things U.M.A.W. could work to make more commonplace as they form a united front. Individuals can only do so much, but a collective of like-minded musicians can exert a power no single artist possibly could.
Just, for a moment, imagine a future with U.M.A.W. at full strength. It’s a time years from now, when COVID-19 is something you have to remind people about rather than a daily weight on the psyche. There’s a new band in Philly. Don’t imagine anything specific. It’s a band with no specific creed, sexuality, gender, or documentation status, just a few 20-somethings with ambition. They’re in the early stages, using the flexibility afforded by the newly enacted Medicare For All bill to self release EP’s, work up momentum playing local shows in U.M.A.W. certified venues, and generally screw around with their art. Time and creativity and hard work lead to an opportunity to sign to a label. Except now, with the help of a thriving Union, they aren’t feeling their way in the dark, aren’t running the risk of stalling their careers signing parasitic record deals. It isn’t long till they sign that deal and get to hold that record in their hands, a symbol of what they’ve worked for. There’s even people out there who care, who want to hold it too. Now the band members take turns heading down to the Post Office to ship the records along with merch designed by a close friend. They may not be rich, but they aren’t holding on by a thread either, they have help. They’re entering a sustainable career, where what they do is valued and what they believe in is valued and, most importantly, they aren’t alone. This is the future U.M.A.W. wants to create.