My letter to the Bernie campaign in response to their email requesting “ideas and experiences”, with the subject header “What am I going to do? How am I going to take care of my family?”
Dear Team Bernie,
Thank you for this invitation to share. I have to admit that I now receive every email from the campaign, along with every Tweet and headline regarding it, with added anxiety. I understand that the senator has not dropped out of the race and I’m sure you all understand that for him to do so, particularly with a Biden endorsement, would devastate the unprecedented movement that Bernie has galvanized.
Although the economic issues we face have obviously reached a critical point in the last week, I can’t help but feel as I did when the media finally acknowledged the recession a decade ago; as a music professional of 25 years, it’s long been clear to me that non-traditional workers are the canaries in the economic coal mine as many of us provide goods and services that can be considered “middle-class luxuries”, among the first to be eliminated from the budgets of financially pressed consumers.
Independent musical artists have faced a particularly bitter situation in which the public consistently pays lip service to the value of our cultural contributions even as they participate in devaluing it to the extent that, before the Great Recession entered the official narrative, the IRS reported a full fifty-percent fall in returns that declared “musician” as job description. This massive shift in any other industry would have seen at least half a news cycle, but was totally ignored.
We attempted to diversify our income streams. We embraced technological changes. Trusting the messenging from the exploding industry built on our desperation, we blamed ourselves for feeling entitled to a modest income from our work and dutifully accepted the responsibilities of booking and PR agents, webmasters, social networking strategists, distributors and, above all, consumers of the products and services created by the speculative investors who convinced us to carry the lion’s share of the risk and to accept increasingly smaller cuts of the reward.
Almost a full decade before this shift, I took it on myself to call the Phoenix local of the American Federation of Musicians, who sent representatives down to Tucson to discuss reviving the abandoned local there. I organized dozens of players, sidemen and songwriters, and by the end of the meeting had secured most of their initial membership dues for the Phoenix local. Soon after, I moved to Los Angeles and joined Local 47. I have long since resigned, as the AFM has failed all but those fortunate enough to secure a position in an orchestra, on the very short lists of studio backing musicians for the dwindling studio sessions requiring them, and of course among the elite winners of the lottery economy – In short, this union works for those workers who are the most profitable to support, and has for decades abandoned the rest of us to make due with the poverty wages for live performance that we take an oath to defend and are encouraged to negotiate with venues on our own. For independent recording artists and others for whom travel is not a part of their business model due to physical or financial limitations, the AFM’s efforts seem to have ended with their fight to make sure Lars Ulrich of Metallica could join the RIAA in suing college students.
In fact, the only action of any value the AFM has taken on behalf of the vast bulk of their membership in at least twenty years is their long-delayed endorsement of Bernie Sanders.
That’s where organized labor stands now for our place among “gig workers”, a term now applied to the armies of people reduced to drivers as their second or third job and with exceedingly rare frequency to the musicians, actors, and stand-up comedians who coined the word “gig”.
It should be emphasized that most of those who no longer file their tax returns as musicians had no illusions of fame and fortune when they did. Like me, they had modest expectations for the future that the investments they made in their education and skill development, their instruments and other equipment, and in every other cost of doing business would manifest equitable returns to secure the basics of a life; a life dedicated to, if not a passion, at least a fierce pride in our work. We proudly accepted that we would never see the minimal costs required to engage in a typical day job, the reliable pay, health insurance, or a pension, outside of the half measure afterthoughts provided by a union that gave us few other incentives to join.
So, “What am I going to do? How am I going to take care of my family?” These are questions that the original gig worker, now ironically called “non-traditional”, has been asking herself for decades as she felt the first repercussions of what would become a gutted middle class.
As I write this, Tulsi Gabbard has just endorsed Joe Biden. This will no doubt deepen the demoralization of the movement to value people over profit that it appears Elizabeth Warren has also chosen to abandon at a time when we can’t afford to lose even the least influential support. I don’t pretend to understand the political cost of endorsements, the viability of a third party run, or just about anything of what it’s like to be a politician aside from how easy it seems to be for them to sacrifice their integrity. I’m not suggesting it is remotely easy to do, just that it appears that way in an arena that consists almost entirely of optics.
People like me are becoming accustomed to being betrayed by those who claim to fight for us. We felt betrayed in 2016 when Bernie endorsed the campaign that systemically sabotaged ours. We struggle to sustain our outage when Bernie’s campaign team refuses to even acknowledge when it should be aggressively condemning the election fraud that is virtually transparent to those of us who find and verify data outside the profit-driven corporations responsible for the propaganda that makes it possible. And we find it impossible to support the one of the two faces presented by the political duopoly that takes their name from the process their activities are designed to destroy.
We understand that no politician can do this for us, to demand our right to meaningful and consequential participation in the political process and to take control of our government. But peaceful revolution requires highly visible, unrelenting leadership.
I conclude with a statement from the Wikipedia entry for “Demoralization” under the section dedicated to defense and its dependence on leadership:
“Credibility is the bedrock of defense against demoralization”