Over 150 countries around the world celebrate Labor Day, or International Workers’ Day, on 1 May. With origins in the mid–19th-century eight-hour workday movement, this date (May Day) was established in 1889 by the first congress of the Second International to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. Today, the holiday functions largely to recognize the struggle and achievements of laborers everywhere. The criteria by which music making is judged as work, the power of collectives to safeguard the rights of music workers, and the determination of appropriate remuneration for musical services are constantly being negotiated by musicians and institutions. Simon Frith’s article “Are workers musicians?” (cited below)—an exploration of how UK musicians’ unions have been shaped by the conceptual division of the musician as laborer-craftsperson, or professional—ends with a familiar opposition: music as work versus music as play. Frith elaborates:
The belief that music—making music—is in itself, fun, a pleasurable activity that shouldn’t be thought of as work is embedded in our culture. Music is something humans do; we are all musicians—hence the vast number of amateur musicians, people who play for love. Such love of music is, of course, why people are willing to pay for musical labour in the first place, but it also means, perhaps, that they don’t really regard or music as work. Its value is precisely as non-work. Musicians may, then, be workers, but they shouldn’t be!
Aside from the reductive tone of this quote’s opening sentence (one might rightly question, “Whose ‘cultures’?” and “In which contexts?”), the musician as non-laborer (or player, rather than worker), is a common trope encouraged by the music industry, fans, journalists, and even pop musicians themselves. To cite just one examples of the latter, Lou Reed, in an interview for the documentary Rock & Roll, recounts the conditions that led to his place in The Velvet Underground. He recalls, “I had a real problem with authority. Always have. I had a real problem with being able to hold a job, a normal job. I only had, I think, three in my life. Some lasted a half hour and some half a day. I had often thought, like, ‘What are you going to do, for a job? You can’t do anything’. And I fell into the band thing.” The positioning of popular music making as a desirable alternative to the repressive power structures foisted upon those with “normal” jobs facilitates the notion that pop offers a high (or relatively high) degree of autonomy to its practitioners. Reed’s experimental—some would say, and did at the time, “unlistenable”—1975 album Metal machine music would serve as just one of innumerable sonic examples of musicians complicating this putative autonomy. Whether resulting from an interest in drones, noise, minimalism, and the postwar avant-garde, or a defiant gesture to RCA Records, pop audience expectation, and genre boundaries (or some, all, or none of these), it made a statement on the (perceived or real) options available to a pop musician.
Frith’s remarks on music’s pleasurability and Reed’s appeal to autonomy are tenacious elements of discourses surrounding popular music making that have at times led to pop musicians being denied the status of worker. This denial is worthy of inspection and holds implications for other forms of music-related activities, but it is also glaringly limited. A more complete picture of a topic as complex, wide-ranging, and wide-reaching as music and labor would include numerous genres (traditional, art, and pop musics), activities (composition, performance, editing, recording), organizations (unions, libraries, private companies, state institutions), and functions (entertainment, ritual, edification). And of course, in the spirit of the holiday, it is worth remembering that music may be mobilized to serve the struggle for workers’ rights more broadly, through protests and activist movements that operationalize the emotionality embedded in chants, songs, and melodic speech. People sound defiance, and that too does work.
The following bibliography presents a selection of texts taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature that may advance our knowledge and awareness of specific aspects of music and labor. It comprises publications that are international in scope and that detail varying perspectives, genres, collective activities, and economies. It is hoped that they will serve as a spark for further research. But perhaps leave that for tomorrow and take today off.
Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor/Marketing and Media, RILM
- Absher, Amy. “Traveling jazz musicians and debt peonage”, American music: A quarterly journal devoted to all aspects of American music and music in America 37/2 (summer 2019) 172–196. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2019-18326]
Abstract: The story of three brothers—Charles, Chester, and Morgan Jones—and their lives as itinerant jazz musicians in the 1930s reveals the ways in which Black musicians were still effectively enslaved by white club owners and law enforcement. In 1937, they were jailed as a result of debt peonage, wherein an employer, Dewey Helms, withheld pay supposedly in the service of debt owed by the musicians. Rarely does jazz scholarship document this system of debt peonage, and in this case, the documentation relies heavily on records of the FBI, who interviewed the brothers, Helms, and others as part of an FBI investigation. The kind of coerced labor involved in this story is well-documented in histories of the Reconstruction through World War II. Stories of Black musicians during this period, however, are often colored with a romanticized illusion of freedom rooted in the creative nature of their work. The difficulties in studying musicians such as the Jones brothers without access to oral histories, accounts of their performances, or memoirs are explored. One of the only ways to examine a story such as this is through the lens of slavery and labor culture.
- Alisch, Stefanie. “‘I opened the door to develop kuduro at Jupson’: Music studios as spaces of collective creativity in the context of electronic dance music in Angola”, Contemporary music review 39/6 (December 2020) 663–683. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-61691]
Abstract: Demonstrates how studios producing the Angolan electronic dance music (EDM) kuduro (hard arse) in the capital Luanda are usefully investigated as social spaces of collective creativity. Interviews, observations, close listening, and ethnographic participation are triangulated. Researchers often portray kuduro and other EDM styles in the Global South using what I name the–scarcity-resilience narrative. This narrative gives short shrift to the rich cultural resources that feed into EDM styles. It perpetuates problematic stereotypes about African people and occludes the deliberate labor that kuduro practitioners (kuduristas) invest in their craft. As kuduristas routinely affirm that sociability drives their interpersonal creative processes, kuduro studios are portrayed as social spaces and kuduro’s collective creativity is construed through extended mind theory (EMT). In the analysis, first kuduro studios in Luanda are introduced broadly and then the focus is on two influential kuduro studios: JUPSON and Guetto Produções. It is shown how kuduristas mobilize their collective creativity inside the studio by tapping into aesthetic strategies and conventions of the rich popular culture that surrounds them. Via EMT, aesthetic dueling is portrayed through puto-kota (elder-younger) relationships, call-and-response, and urban vocal strategies as collectively maintained social institutions. Inside the studio, kuduristas translate these rich resources into the sonic materiality of kuduro tracks which, in turn, are designed to achieve maximum audience response through mobilizing the social institutions when radiating out into the world. The scarcity-resilience narrative of Global South EDM is de-centered by focusing on collective creativity and, as such, a fresh epistemological position is offered on the study of music studios, Global South EDM, and popular music in Angola.
- Ayer, Julie. More than meets the ear: How symphony musicians made labor history (Minneapolis: Syren Book Co., 2005). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-7672]
Abstract: A history of the grassroots movement that transformed labor relations and the professional lives of U.S. and Canadian symphony musicians. The struggles and accomplishments experienced by many visionary leaders of the 1950s to 1970s offer inspiration to new generations of musicians, students, teachers, music lovers, labor historians, and orchestra administrators. Minnesota Orchestra case history documents the growth of a major American orchestra in dramatic detail and anecdotes, showing the profound effect the musician’s labor movement has had on the profession.
- Bezuidenhout, Andries. “The best anthem for Workers’ Day? ‘Stimela’, a tale about apartheid’s migrant labor system”, The conversation (Africa) (30 April 2018) https://theconversation.com/the-best-anthem-for-workers-day-stimela-a-tale-about-apartheids-migrant-labour-system-95794. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-51632]
Abstract: What is the ultimate song to celebrate Workers’ Day? Many will suggest “The Internationale” which had its roots as a poem written in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871 by Eugène Pottier, a transport worker. Set to music a few years later, it became the anthem for the wider progressive movement. But I would argue that trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s iconic and internationally popular song “Stimela”—the coal train—is perhaps a more appropriate anthem for Workers’ Day in southern and Central Africa. The song speaks about local history and the migrant labour system on the mines. “Stimela” reminds everyone that South Africa’s wealth and infrastructure was built on the back of labour from all over Africa. They were the force that modernized the country. But the song is also internationalist in focus. Later recordings of the song typically begin with bass rhythms and percussion mimicking the sound of a train on its tracks.
- Dedić, Nikola. “Muzika između proizvodnog i neproizvodnog rada”, Challenges in contemporary musicology: Essays in honor of prof. dr. Mirjana Veselinović-Hofman/Izazovi savremene muzikologije: Eseji u čast prof. dr Mirjane Veselinović-Hofman, ed. by Sonja Marinković, Vesna Mikić, Ivana B. Perković, et. al. Muzikološke studije: Monografije. (Beograd: Univerzitet Umetnosti, 2018) 472–484. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-11468]
Abstract: Identifies three models through which music is connected with the economy. Autonomy of art is shown as utterly relative autonomy, while the labor in art (music) is treated as a socially and economically determined labor. Those three models are: art (1) as a simple commodity exchange that rests on the law of simple supply and demand, then art as (2) redistribution of income through the intervention of modern state that carries with it a certain social division of labor (productive and non-productive classes) and finally, (3) it is art as a social practice of forming a monopoly rent. In our contemporary, capitalist society all three models coexist. However, in the history of Western art this was not always the case, and that is why our three-part system can be applied historically: the first model, we call it premodern, is characteristic of most precapitalist societies (at a time when there was no art, only techne, and when there was no idea of the autonomy of art which is obviously a consequence of a very specific social division of labor); the second model, we call it modern, appears with the administrative, bureaucratic state; the third model arises with the evolution of capitalist forms of production that, at one point, through art markets and the culture industry, begin to co-opt and commodify cultural products. The second and third models are, therefore, historically extremely specific and occur exclusively in bourgeois, capitalist societies.
- Dreyfus, Kay. “The foreigner, the Musicians’ Union, and the state in 1920s Australia: A nexus of conflict”, Music and politics 3/1 (winter 2019) 1–16. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2009-3759]
Abstract: In September 1929, the general secretary of the Musicians’ Union of Australia (MUA) announced in the official journal, “there are no orchestras of any foreign nationality here now…the fight is over”, an extraordinary statement given that the nonindigenous musical traditions of this former British colony are entirely transplanted. The proximity of the date to the advent of sound films suggests a causal relationship, but the facts are more complex. The issue of foreign musicians became the site of a struggle for control of the labor market, a struggle rooted in the institutionalized racism of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (the infamous so-called White Australia Policy), legitimized by the distinctive structures of the arbitration system and sanctioned by legal recognition of trade union autonomy with regard to membership regulation. The evolution and consequences of the MUA’s policy on foreign labor through the 1920s and its efforts to mobilize legislative support by appeals to popular concerns are examined.
- Frith, Simon. “Are musicians workers?”, Popular music 36/1 (January 2017) 111–115. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-20901]
Abstract: Discusses working musicians in light of being considered laborers versus being considered professionals, and the historical role played by musicians’ labor unions.
- Hildbrand, Sebastián Mauricio. “‘Todos unidos triunfaremos…’: La música para los gremios en el Teatro Colón durante el primer peronismo”, Recorridos: Diez estudios sobre música culta argentina de los siglos XX y XXI, ed. by Omar Corrado and Jorge Dubatti (Buenos Aires: Editorial de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras UBA, 2019) 273–309. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-27072]
Abstract: In 1946, Colonel Juan Domingo Perón came to power legitimately through the efforts of various sectors of society that promoted his presidential candidacy; among them the fundamental support of an as yet dispersed and inorganic labor movement. From then until the coup that ended his first period in office in 1955, he served as an effective channel for union demands on the state, as is well known; less familiar are his efforts on behalf of labor rights for the musicians’ union, in particular at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, which constitutes a significant chapter in the reconstruction not only of the history of the opera house, but of musical life during those first Perón years.
- Kahn, Si. Habits of resistance: Cultural work and community organizing (Songspeech) (Ph.D. diss., Union Institute, Cincinnati, 1994). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1994-4550]
Abstract: Songspeech is a communication mode that is useful in multicultural communication and consciousness-raising. It draws on a number of traditional cultural forms, such as oral poetry, southern storytelling, midrash, theater, preaching, and unaccompanied song. Songspeech is located at the crossroads of cultural work, community organizing, and power, where multicultural communication forms an integral part of social change organizing. At the heart of this work are issues related to race, gender, class, and the complex interplay between them. Three southern contexts are discussed: black studies (emphasizing the 1960s civil rights movement), women’s studies, and labor studies. Examples are drawn from popular culture, multicultural studies, and social change theory and practice, including oral history, poetry, storytelling, and musical performance styles. Additional examples of the use of songspeech include the Dutch resistance to the Nazis, occupational stress, the relationship between social work and social change, the relationship between culture and community, and the need to develop habits of resistance to injustice.
- Karmy, Eileen. “Musical mutualism in Valparaiso during the rise of the labor movement (1893–1931)”, Popular music and society 40/5 (December 2017) 539–555. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-28773]
Abstract: The Musicians’ Mutual Aid Society of Valparaíso was active from 1893 to well into the 20th century in what was then Chile’s main port city. I examine the characteristics of this social organization of Chilean musicians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its relationship to the rising labor movement. Moreover, I report some relevant findings based on a range of archival material. To conclude, I discuss the role of the Mutual Aid Society of Valparaíso as a forerunner to the creation of the country’s first Musicians’ Union in 1931.
- Milohnić, Aldo. “Performing labour relations in the age of austerity”, Performance research: A journal of the performing arts 17/6 (December 2012) 72–79. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-15379]
Abstract: Discusses labor in relation to the performance projects Call cutta (2005) and Call cutta in a box (2008) by the collective of theater directors Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, and Daniel Wetzel, know as Rimini Protokoll.
- Scherzinger, Martin. “Music, labor, and technologies of desire”, Sound and affect: Voice, music, world, ed. by Judith Lochhead, Eduardo Mendieta, and Stephen Decatur Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021) 197–223. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-3926]
Abstract: Speculatively and critically diagnoses new forms of labor, affect, and technology that have taken shape in recent decades, arguing that musical practices are at once historical precursors of current mutations across these domains, key players in the crystallization of their new contemporary forms, and sites where their new shapes may be discerned and critiqued today. In particular, the ways are critiques in which the indeterminacy of affect, along with the kinds of connection that such open affective experience can facilitate, might now fall prey to new forms of harvesting, extraction, and exploitation, which were unforeseen in earlier affect theory and in some musicological literature that valorized affective and emotional experience. Writing with an eye to recent developments at intersections of machine learning, advertising, and cognitive science, it is cautioned that affective arousal could be colonized by militarized adaptation in the same way that interactive instincts could be colonized by industrial interpellation.
- Schinasi, Michael. “Zarzuela and the rise of the labour movement in Spain”, Popular entertainment studies 8/2 (2017) 20–37. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-26626]
Abstract: Zarzuela—Spanish lyric theatre—traces its extraordinary popularity on the Iberian Peninsula to the reign of Isabel II (1844–68). Thereafter it never lost its public appeal. In the 19th century cultural commentators debated its debt to 17th-century antecedents. Notwithstanding differing opinions on this, clearly its modern form emerged from Spanish musicians’ attempts to found a new national opera. When they failed to popularize a genre entirely in music, what remained was the zarzuela, which has both singing and spoken dialogue. This article focuses on the social nature of musicians’ hopes for a national opera, the way this arises from their difficult material situation in the face of competition from foreign music and artists, and the politics of early Spanish liberalism. After documenting the depth of artists’ concern with material life and the social language of their plan for action it suggests that we view the rise of the mature zarzuela in the light of Spain’s incipient labor movement. By doing so we in turn gain insight into an important aesthetic feature of zarzuela.
- Schwab, Heinrich W. “Das Lied des Berufsvereine: Ihr Beitrag zur ‘Volkskunst’ im 19. Jahrhundrets”, Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 63 (1967) 1–16. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1968-2481]
Abstract: Investigation of the song repertoire of the labor organizations from the standpoint of the history of the genre and in its sociological and qualitative aspects. Describes the various organizational song books (chemists, post and telegraph assistants, railway workers, surveyors) and interprets the textual and musical symbolism of the special club” or “class” songs.
- Stahl, Matt. Unfree masters: Recording artists and the politics of work. Refiguring American music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-9073]
Abstract: Examines recording artists’ labor in the music industry as a form of creative work. It is argued that the widespread perception of singers and musicians as free individuals doing enjoyable and fulfilling work obscures the realities of their occupation. Stahl begins by considering the television show American idol and the rockumentary Dig! (2004), tracing how narratives of popular music making in contemporary America highlight musicians’ negotiations of the limits of autonomy and mobility in creative cultural-industrial work. Turning to struggles between recording artists and record companies over the laws that govern their contractual relationships, Stahl reveals other tensions and contradictions in this form of work. He contends that contract and copyright disputes between musicians and music industry executives, as well as media narratives of music making, contribute to American socioeconomic discourse and expose basic tensions between the democratic principles of individual autonomy and responsibility and the power of employers to control labor and appropriate its products. Attention to labor and property issues in relation to musicians and the music industry can stimulate insights about the political, economic, and imaginative challenges currently facing all working people.
- Toynbee, Jason. “The labour that dare not speak its name: Musical creativity, labour process and the materials of music”, Distributed creativity: Collaboration and improvisation in contemporary music, ed. by Eric F. Clarke and Mark Doffman. Studies in musical performance as creative practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) 37–51. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-34150]
Abstract: Explicitly offers a predominantly macro-social account, with musical creativity approached through the lens of labor. The author presents a broadly Marxist critique of the traditional romantic ideology of creativity (IOC), pointing out some of the contradictions of a capitalist system that presents all labor as alienated while regarding creative production as no kind of labor at all. As a consequence, creativity is conceived of and presented as entirely individualist and psychic, despite its organization in terms of an industrial labor market (the cultural industries). This organization of labor is manifestly a system of distributed creativity, which nonetheless clings to the radical individualism of the IOC. Through an analysis of the creative labor processes in diverse musical genres (the symphony orchestra, singer-songwriters, rock bands), the author points out the ways in which musical production, though thoroughly assimilated into contemporary capitalism, demonstrates outlier, or eccentric, tendencies, in which the primary creative agents operate with a high degree of autonomy, and in which artisanal forms of working are perpetuated. From this macro analysis of the contradictorily distributed nature of musical creativity, the essay moves to material production, making extensive use of the idea of coded voices. He points to both the abstract (schematic) and the concrete character of the coded voice, and he identifies translation (intercultural borrowing) and intensification (intercultural development) as the two primary generative processes that act upon them.
- Woolhouse, Matthew and Jotthi Bansal. “Work, rest and (press) play: Music consumption as an indicator of human economic development”, Journal of interdisciplinary music studies/Disiplinlerarası müzik araştırmaları dergisi 7/1–2 (spring–fall 2013) 45–71. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2013-39541]
Abstract: Human development is addressed with respect to the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI), a composite statistic ranging from 0 (undeveloped) to 1 (highly developed). Rather than merely industrial output, the HDI expresses the level of human wellbeing within a country (and is therefore arguably better suited to the study of music downloading than a purely monetary indicator such as Gross Domestic Product). HDI depends on three main factors: life expectancy, educational opportunity, and standard of living. We explore relationships between music consumption, human development, work and leisure, and unemployment levels in 27 geographically and economically diverse countries. We hypothesize (1) that countries with high HDI values will have increased download variability between periods of work and non-work, due to elevated levels of consumption-based leisure, and (2) that countries with high levels of unemployment will have decreased download variability between periods of work and non-work, due to a decrease in the population for whom there is a clear distinction between work and non-work. A music database, consisting of over 180 million mobile-phone downloads, is used to investigate our hypotheses. We discuss our findings in respect of HDI, the European Sovereign Debt Crisis, literature on paid and unpaid work, and the types of leisure enjoyed by people in different countries.