I see labor organizing as a way out of this situation we are in – an interview with Marc Ribot

Marc Ribot; Photo: Stanislav Milojković / Belgrade Jazz Festival

Marc Ribot’s excellence as a versatile guitarist, an improviser and a composer is well known among fans and music lovers. What has received less attention is his activism for labor rights of musicians, his view on and experience with labor organizing. After his exciting concert with The Young Philadelphians at the 33rd Belgrade Jazz Festival, Mašina had the opportunity to discuss with him a subject – he says – he gladly talks about: politics.

Let’s start from Bread and Roses. It’s a workers’ and women’s rights song. The lyrics are a poem written by James Oppenheim and the title is a phrase associated with a successful textile workers’ strike and a speech given by Rose Schneiderman, socialist, feminist and labor unionist. Why did you cover this song years ago with Ceramic Dog, did it have a political importance for you?

Yeah it did. First of all, I think it’s a beautiful song and we covered it partly because of that reason. And it’s also about beauty. It says that beauty is also a right, that culture is a right. I covered that song because I was also writing about subsidy for music, and I was involved in organizing musicians both locally and as a member of my union. For example, we unionized Winter Jazz Festival in NYC and took minimum rates of pay that for some people used to be $30 for a concert or even nothing, to $200 (next year). It’s not only a question of winning something for my friends, it’s also a question of showing that a certain kind of worker, people who work gigs, people who are in this post-Fordist economy, can also in certain conditions get together and actually win things. I see labor organizing as a way out of the political situation we are in. And the reasons labor organizing is not happening more often are very specific. Musicians and music are, strangely enough, at the very center of these reasons.

We want to talk more with you about organizing, but could you first specify what are the main socio-economic challenges for musicians?

If you look at the big picture, the biggest problem is digital exploitation. And that is a kind of indirect exploitation. In other words, YouTube is not my employer, they didn’t hire me. It’s not possible for me to make a contract with them. They make money by selling advertisement on things other people upload on their site. So it’s a kind of indirect profit taking. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. The real reason they are able to make money is because they are insulated. For example, I know it’s unlikely, but let’s imagine I wanted to say Let’s boycott YouTube, let’s make a boycott of people who advertise on YouTube. Everyone knows Taylor Swift withdrew her material from Spotify. But she did it alone. Let’s say that she had said Hey other rock stars, come with me and we all take our material off of Spotify and we negotiate with them to pay us better. If she had done that she could be put in jail, all her money could be taken, because Spotify is not her direct employer. So this is the real problem, people who make money have found ways to make money indirectly and this means they are protected from unionizing, protected from boycotts, protected from strikes. Because if you make a strike at a place where someone is not your direct employer, they can take your house, they can put you in jail for violating the 2ndry boycott provision of the Taft Hartely law. I’m talking about American law but this has it’s parallels in Europe. So capital has learned how to profit indirectly in a way that it is protected from unions, and labor has not figured out a way to deal with that.

What do you see as possibilities for organizing musicians – from your experience?

First of all, it’s very hard to get people to act against a small club or a small band leader who calls people by their first name. It’s almost impossible to organize in this situation. But what we’ve noticed is for example, nobody ever wanted to do anything about Knitting Factory, which was a local club we could play in, but then they got corporate funding for a festival. And the minute they got corporate funding people said Wait a minute why are we playing for $50 when they got $800000. So once they saw corporate funding going on, people changed what they felt: they were willing to sign a petition, go to meetings, and we won things.

Many indie musicians are frightened of the union because in most countries a musician union only represents big theatre people or the symphonic people. In the US it also represents major recording label musicians and people who play weddings and things like that. But the economy of touring indie bands has nothing to do with this. So I think the important thing for anybody who is organizing is to remember that a union is not a building or an official organization, it’s whenever people get together. So if the official union is not representing the people you know, make your own.

Every time we fight for better pay for people in the culture industry we also fight for participation of working class kids and that also means, in many cases, the participation of black kids. It’s interesting when you look at what types of musicians are organized and what types of musicians are not organized. It’s the same all over the world and it conforms exactly to what David Harvey was talking about. The musicians that are organized work in the Fordist model, in a simple employer-employee structure, in a big orchestra not in a rock band with four people, or a tiny club. So the problem of organizing not musicians, but indie musicians, people in bands, is really close to the heart of the problem why things are fucked up in general. Like all the Uber drivers, auto industry, the trend in the restructuring of all industries has been to centralize control, but decentralize ownership in order to insulate it.

And while political and economic problems are expanding, it seems that the sphere of art and culture is increasingly depoliticized.

It’s not only about being depoliticized. The very word ‘independent’ – independent labels, indie bands – I think is politicized in a terrible way. In my generation and slightly younger generations what was seen as The political act was to form your own label and/or to sign with your own label. The idea was that this was something anarchist, that you’re free, independent. I’ve done records with many many independent labels, and the idea on the surface is very wrong. You don’t overthrow capitalism by making small businesses.

Not that I consider overthrowing capitalism the only worthy goal. I’m a boring social democrat really. But you don’t challenge capital by creating a small business, you don’t overthrow capitalism, there is nothing anarchist about this, it’s neoliberalism in disguise. I’m not against starting your own label, but the idea that it’s an inherently politically progressive act is just a lot of shit. So culture wasn’t exactly depoliticized: it was falsely politicized: the indie movement is the Gramscian false consciousness of our times.

What indie means is you don’t get a health plan, you don’t get paid, all the responsibility devolves onto you. The indie label phenomena is post-Fordism in the music industry. But something like 80 or 90% of indie labels are distributed by major corporations. So they talk about “our little label”, but they are distributed by big companies that make a lot of money. Their product is making rich everybody down the line: YouTube, Google, the distributor… Everybody, except the musicians.

Another disturbing phenomenon we can detect in culture is cultural racism, a degrading view on working class cultural needs, an erroneous criticism that the poor are only capable of consuming reality TV and its equivalents in music or other arts, and that this also means that the working class is easily manipulated in its political reasoning. Do you see a progressive political potential in culture or music itself?

It’s a good point, and it’s a really interesting question of where the intervention on a cultural level will come. I’m not sure the political interventions we need at this moment will come on a cultural level; and there are many contradictions creating ‘political’or radical’ art’. In the 80s I was with the Lounge Lizards, I was enjoying it musically, it was fun, and also it was a big party. But when I reflected on it I saw this as a kind of mating ritual for professional managerial class people. Because we made counter-intuitive music, it was our job to be counter-intuitive, a normal person wouldn’t understand why somebody is making so much noise: they would run away! So it’s a symbol for those with access to the code, you have to have access to the special code that makes you special, that makes you know why something that sounds so horrible is good. So there is a lot of contradiction in this.

Marx noted that popular culture is not necessarily the culture freely chosen by the people.

I’m an American musician on tour with a jazz band. Now, look at the history of this touring circuit. It began in the Cold War. After World War II the US was making a bid for big parts of the world. The two things everybody knew about the United States: one – there’s a lot of money, and two – they treat black people very badly. So the State Department started to fund tours of black musicians, black jazz musicians, funded these tours in Russia, all over Europe, they were saying We treat black people wonderfully, look, they are artists, they are not slaves, they are free. They are playing free improvisation, free soloing. It was a language designed to convince the rest of the world that the US wasn’t racist.

Great PR?

Yeah, it was PR, that’s exactly how it was originally funded. The State Department funded tours of Ellington, Basie, Louis Armstrong, many other musicians, these circuits were created by that. So here I am, playing free, showing how free we are…

Marc Ribot
and The Young Philadelphians; Photo: Stanislav Milojković / Belgrade Jazz Festival

Will you record and perform other political songs?

I’m doing two records simultaneously, one with Ceramic Dog, also for the first time very political. Well, not for the first time, cause we did Bread and Roses, but for the first time we are dealing with Shahzad Ismaily’s Muslim background. So we have a song Muslim-Jewish Resistance, we hope that it will shake things up. And also there’s another song called Pennsylvania 6 6666, about what it was like for Shahzad to grow up in Pennsylvania getting beat up all the time. Stuff like that.

And then there’s a second record, Songs of Resistance, that I hope will be out soon, which is all directly political stuff. I didn’t sing mostly. Tom Waits sings Bella Ciao, but in English, you know the Italian partisan song – and he changes the melody a little bit. I changed the melody a lot on Fischia il Vento, but Meshell Ndegeocello’s going to sing it. In the original version it was “The wind that howls, the storm outside is raging, our shoes are broken, still we must go on”. I keep that part, but my partisan is someone engaged in clandestine environmentalist actions and it’s a woman not a man. I also recorded some civil rights tunes, and a Mexican romantic ballad: Rata de Dos Patas (Rat with Two Legs) which we dedicated to Trump. And I have a Mexican singer singing, but I also have a rap built in, it’s kind of a disco tune.

So pure provocation?

Yeah, but that song might actually get some play in Latin American communities in the US cause people are so pissed at Trump and that song is actually very popular so a lot of people will right away recognize it.

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