Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Nazis, IS, Antifa, the YPG, Democratic Landlords, the Spanish Civil War and Fake News

There's been a lot happening this month.  I don't have any great plans of action as to the way forward, but I have some knowledge of the background, in terms of how we got here, that seem worth sharing.  Basically I just need to process, and thought I'd do that out loud.  So here are a few reflections on the events of August, 2017, that may be intimately related to one another.

Note:  any links that appear below will take you to songs on the subject, mostly written in the past few weeks...

*     *     *

The Spanish Civil War has been discussed in the media more in the past few weeks than I can remember in my lifetime.  The media has said more nice things about anarchists in the past few weeks than ever in my lifetime as well, and I'm pretty sure they have covered protests more lately than at any time since 1970 or so.

At the beginning of the month I wrote a song, "Rojava," after getting encrypted messages from the front lines of the war against Islamic State in Syria, sent by an anarchist from the US who is there fighting with the YPG.  Which is the male version of the YPJ, which together makes up the biggest chunk of the military wing of the struggle for the freedom of the people of the region known as Rojava.

Most of the people around there are Kurdish, as are most of the fighters, but there are many others involved, including dozens of anarchists from the US.  One of them, Rob Grodt, died last month.  Rob was the fourth anarchist from the US to die fighting in the ranks of the YPG.  He and the friend of his who contacted me had sung a song of mine together at a gathering of YPG fighters and officers just before Rob was killed.  His friend thought I should write a song, and I agreed I should.

The YPG/YPJ are fighting a war against oblivion.  I probably avoided trying to wrap my head around this movement, because in some ways it's very complicated.  For example, the armed struggle there has received support from both the US and Russia -- and that's only the tip of the iceberg.  But Rob's friend summed it up so well, in one of his text messages.  To paraphrase, the Yazidis were being slaughtered, and the people that came to their aid were the PKK, with air support provided by the US.  When there's a slaughter going on and someone steps in to stop it, you don't argue about politics -- you help stop the slaughter.  At least, if you're as dedicated to humanity as these folks are -- or, in Rob's case, were.

Robert Grodt's memorial is in New York City on September 4th.

*     *     *

Another fighter for social justice, Heather Heyer, died this month in Charlottesville, when a white supremacist plowed his car into some of the folks who were marching against them (I wrote a song -- "Today in Charlottesville").  Like Rob, Heather had been involved with the social movements of her day for justice and equality, which is what she was doing when she was killed, and others were maimed for life.

In the course of the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville around the controversy over the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, Antifa has been mentioned in the news more than ever.  Generally in glowing terms, in stark contrast to the way Antifa and similar groupings of people were discussed in the media just prior to Charlottesville, when they would more commonly be referred to as thugs -- or "anarchists," which used to mean the same thing to the corporate media (and will again soon enough, I promise).

Listening to Amy Goodman interview someone on the subject of Antifa recently, it occurred to me that maybe most other people in the US know as little about this group as Amy seemed to know.  No one in the media seemed to have anything to say in response to Trump's "on many sides" response to Heather Heyer's untimely death, other than to condemn his statement as both insensitive and wrong.

Antifa is more a philosophical approach to the world than any kind of organized group.  Local chapters can have meetings and agree to sets of principles and rules of conduct, goals, etc., but there are many differences between groups within nations and between nations.  For example, in both Germany and France, people who identify as Antifa regularly disrupt events involving speakers or performers who they decide are anti-Semitic, including yours truly, on many occasions.  In doing so they regularly employ violence, threats of violence, property destruction, and threats of property destruction.

But mostly Antifa is known in Europe for fighting Nazis and their ilk.  This often means defending refugees from being attacked by Nazis who are laying siege to their apartment blocks while the police stand by in places like Rostock, Germany.  But as many Antifa in many different European cities have told me proudly, when they see someone on the street who they know is a Nazi, they beat them up.  Being a Nazi is considered to be sufficient provocation -- the Nazi doesn't have to be attacking refugees to be a fair target.

Whether or not you agree with beating up Nazis whenever and wherever you see one, that's what many people who identify as Antifa do with their time -- along with drinking a lot of beer, wearing black clothing, and listening to punk rock.  Many of my favorite people in the world are Antifa fighters from across Europe and the US (active duty or retired) -- but when Trump says violence was committed by both sides, he is stating a simple fact.  He is also a racist, etc, but he is stating a fact when he says that, and any media that pretends this isn't the case should look at how they were reporting on Antifa and similar groups for the century or so preceding Trump's election.

I remember on NPR after 9/11 a commentator said, "last week they were protesting the World Trade Organization, and this week they're bombing the World Trade Center."  That pretty much sums up how they used to report on us.

*     *     *

The media is participating in a United Front against Trump, Bannon and white supremacists.  Black Lives Matter and Antifa are no longer highway-blocking hooligans, they're resistance fighters.  The Democrats are no longer your landlords (even though they are), they're the #Resistance against those other landlords.  The Democratic landlords of the #Resistance and the white supremacist landlords are all raising the rents, gentrifying the cities, and driving out people of color, artists and other marginal people, but they're otherwise very different.

While the principle involved with forming a United Front is fairly obvious -- that the more people who are united against a common enemy, the more likely the enemy can be defeated -- it's also fraught with problems.  That is, reality doesn't necessarily work that way.

Democrats (and Republicans) starting imperial wars, spending half of our tax money on the military, imprisoning millions, and consistently failing to provide for much of the population in the US is how we got to where we are today -- a terribly divided country, whose people (of all genders and colors) are largely illiterate and impoverished (some more than others).  And while the media is blanket-covering every gathering of a small handful of white supremacists and every anti-Trump protest involving more than six people (as well as those that are bigger), the gentrification and impoverishment of the country that the Clintons and the Bushes and the Obamas presided over continues apace.

On September 10th there's a "free speech rally" being held by the far right here where I live in Portland, Oregon.  If these people can manage to get a few hundred people to come to their rally, they'll be doing very well.  By European standards it's really a pathetic little far right movement.  When Europeans ask me why there doesn't appear to be a relatively large, organized far right movement in the US the way there is in many European countries, I always say that if someone really wants to harass and torture and kill people of color and other undesirable elements on a daily basis, all they have to do is join their local police force.  I'd still say the same thing in August, 2017.

Anyway, the "free speech" rally will be opposed by a much bigger crowd of counter-protesters.  If the local, national and international media gives blanket coverage to the counter-protests like they just did in Boston last week, maybe we'll have tens of thousands coming to the counter-protest here, too.  If the organizers are as confused as the folks who organized the last two protests I attended in downtown Portland since events in Charlottesville, there will be no audible sound system for the rally.

In short, the protests recently looked just like other protests in recent years in the US -- small and quiet.  And that was the case even though they were announced in advance on the radio, which almost never used to happen.  If you recall, it used to be the case that if you wanted to publicize a protest, you could always count on the corporate and "public" media doing nothing to help.  And usually, if they weren't actively ignoring you, they would run fear-mongering pieces encouraging everybody to stay away from the protests so they wouldn't get hurt by crazed anarchists.

Why so small and quiet?  Because, as far as I can tell, the #Resistance is more a creation of Facebook and the corporate media than real life.  Why is that?  Because most people can smell the fish.  They know that their landlord is a Democrat, and that if Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer are claiming to be part of a #Resistance, then that must mean they're not in it.

That's how the United Front can backfire, in my view, and already has.  If the #Resistance is ever to find its feet, it will do so after it manages to differentiate itself from the Democratic landlords.

*     *     *

In Spain there was a United Front against Fascism.  Well, sort of.  It was mostly a not-very-united front between anarchists, communists and others who would typically be identified as somewhere on the Left.  The enemy was a big chunk of the Spanish military, which had launched a coup against the democratically-elected socialist government at the time, in 1936.  These forces, led by General Franco, were supported by the fascist governments in power at the time in Germany and Italy.  The UK, France, the US and other "western" powers were officially neutral, but in reality were providing aid to the fascists both by selling them much-needed oil, and by preventing Soviet tanks from arriving in Spain, in the name of neutrality, while German and Italian troops and tanks poured in.

Although there were many foreign soldiers involved with the fight in Spain, including many Germans, Italians and people from (Spanish-occupied) Morocco on the fascist side, there were also many volunteers fighting on the side of the Spanish Republic, including similar numbers of communists and others from across Europe, North America and elsewhere -- particularly German and Italian communists.  But mostly the war was fought by people from Spain.  (Which is a short-hand term for saying people from what we know of as Spain, who might or might not themselves identify as "Spanish" as opposed to Catalonian, Basque, etc.)

My friend Bob Steck was one of the folks from the US who joined the fight in Spain.  After 16 months on the front lines and 16 months in a concentration camp, he was one of the half or so of the volunteers from the US who came home alive.  He spent the rest of his life involved with the same sorts of social justice struggles that brought him to Spain in the first place.  He also touched many lives in the course of a long career of teaching high school history in New York.

I had many conversations with Bob on many different subjects over many years, but one that stands out for me in recent months in the course of all the discussions about united fronts is something Bob said one day about the united front in Spain.

Bob was a life-long, self-described communist (though he quit the Communist Party for political reasons in the 1950's -- not because of the Red Scare).  He said, though, that the anarchists in Spain had the right approach, and that if the rest of the Republican movement in Spain had adopted the anarchist approach, maybe they would have won.

His explanation for this argument went like this:  most of the anarchists were from the cities, and most of Franco's support came from the countryside.  Then as now, one of the biggest contradictions within Spanish society (like US society then and today) had to do with the question of land -- who owns it, who rents it, who has lots of it, who has none.  When the anarchists liberated a town, they immediately distributed the land so that those who had lots of it suddenly had a lot less, and those who had none suddenly had some.  (They also often burned down the local church, among other memorable activities.)  These land distribution policies made the anarchists very popular wherever they went, Bob said -- and dried up Franco's base of support in towns where the land had been distributed.

The communists in Spain, and the socialists elected to power there, had a "after the revolution" policy of land distribution.  That is, they'd settle the land question after they won the fight against fascism.  This did not make them popular in the countryside, and allowed Franco to have a steady supply of troops.

*     *     *

Last week began with a white supremacist plowing into a crowd in Charlottesville and ended with an IS cell doing the same thing in Catalonia, with deadlier results.  Islamic State -- in Iraq, Syria, and Europe -- is a direct outgrowth of US imperialism.  The organization wouldn't exist without the US invasion of Iraq, just as Al-Qaeda wouldn't exist without the US funding the resistance to the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in the 1980's.

White supremacy and white supremacists, along with xenophobia and other things, are an intimate part of US history, from way before the founding of the country, right up to the present.  We can beat up all the Nazis we want to and we can get run over by them, too, but they won't go away until certain white people stop feeling disenfranchised.  And when the landlords are both Democrats and Republicans, then a united front against Nazis that includes Democrat landlords is doomed to failure, since it consists of the same forces that created the need for it.

Of course, the same principles apply to IS and Al-Qaeda -- fighting them will not defeat them.  Ending imperialism (draining the swamp, so to speak) will.  But if Yazidis are being massacred, someone (thankfully) is going to try to stop it from continuing.  Just as some people will try to stop Nazis from marching through your local university with torches, chanting racist and anti-Semitic taunts.

If I'm not ending this rant with a tying together of the various strands, it's because I believe the situation is too complicated for such an ending.  But I hope these reflections might give you just a tiny bit more substance with which you might draw your own conclusions.

Monday, August 14, 2017

If You Post a Protest

Feedback from a Sound Guy on being inaudible...

Yesterday I attended a protest in solidarity with Charlottesville at Portland City Hall.  It was well-attended given the short notice, but it otherwise had at least one very common and sad shortcoming -- there were people speaking and singing through some kind of amplification device, but they were both inaudible and invisible from where I stood, about fifty feet away.

If you leave the house, you usually put clothes on first.  If you throw a birthday party for your child, you usually make or buy a cake in advance of the kids coming over.  If you're going to meet someone to play tennis, you bring a racket.

By the same token, if you post an Event on Facebook and you say you're holding a protest that will involve people giving speeches and singing songs and such, you should bring some kind of a sound system, or make arrangements for someone else to do that.  Otherwise, why would you make a public announcement that you're holding a protest?

That's a rhetorical question, I'm not going to try to answer it.  What I can say is that if you want to mobilize people, to build a movement of any kind, or even just to be taken seriously, you need to know how to project the human voice so that a few hundred people can hear it clearly.

This is not rocket science, but it is more complicated than turning on a bullhorn.  Rather than going into detail about what's involved with this on a technical level, I'll just cut to the chase:  in every major city in the country there are many thousands of musicians who are sympathetic to the cause (whichever cause) and who are acutely aware of how to operate a small sound system.  Musicians who habitually play in bars often own sound systems themselves, and they can also be rented cheaply from music stores.

You don't need to know about sound systems.  But you do need to know someone who does, and if you're the host of an event, you need to coordinate that -- just as you need to line up the cake for the birthday party if you're going to throw one.

And lastly, a shameless plug:  one of the musicians in Portland, Oregon that you can ask about providing sound for free or cheap for your next protest at City Hall is me.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Do Not Kill Your Landlord WORLD TOUR

From mid-September through mid-November I'll be touring Europe, including gigs in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  Then in late November and early December:  the west coast of the US and Canada.

If you might be willing to organize a show somewhere, please drop me a line!

Whether you're the organizer of a gig or not, you're always more than welcome to print out a tour poster, fill in gig details from the details provided below in the blank space on the bottom of the poster, and share them widely! And of course if you can share this blog post with folks who might want to come to a show somewhere, that would be fantastic.

I'll do my best to bring enough t-shirts this time, but if you want to make sure I have your size, the best thing is to get your Do Not Kill Your Landlord t-shirt through the post by ordering one online.


THE TOUR:

Saturday, September 16th, noon
Croc'Espace
rue de la Station 35
4800 Verviers
Belgium

Saturday, September 23rd
Odense -- TBC
Denmark

Friday, September 29th, 6 pm
Sidesporet -- Facebook Event page
Skovgårdsgade 1a
8000 Aarhus C
Denmark

Saturday, September 30th
Enhedslisten HQ
10 Mindegade
Aarhus
Denmark

Sunday, October 1st
Gothenberg -- Facebook Event page
Sweden

Thursday, October 5th, 5 pm
Oktober Books
Copenhagen
Denmark

Friday, October 6th, 9 pm
SF Ungdom conference
Hoje-Taastrup Gymnasium
Frøgård Alle 2
2630 Taastrup
Denmark

Saturday, October 7th
Café Zähringer
Zurich
Switzerland

Sunday, October 8th
Rossli Bar
Reitschule
Bern
Switzerland

Monday, October 9th
KTS
Freiburg
Germany

Wednesday, October 11th
Esperanza
Schwäbisch Gmünd
Germany

Friday, October 13th
Media Innovation Studio
Uclan Media Factory
Kirkham St
Preston, Lancashire PR1 2XY
England

Saturday, October 14th
Bolton Socialist Club
16 Wood St
Bolton  BL1 1DY
England

Sunday, October 15th
House concert
Barnoldswick
Lancashire
England

Thursday, October 19th
Y Cwps (The Coopers Arms)
Northgate St
Aberystwyth SY23 2JT
Wales

Friday, October 20th
Nottingham -- details TBC
England

Saturday, October 21st
Cellar Bar
The Braes
14-18 Perth Road
Dundee DD2 4LN
Scotland

Sunday, October 22nd
MacSorley's Music Bar
Glasgow
Scotland

Thursday, October 26th
The Grove
Stockingate
South Kirkby
Pontefract WF9 3QF
West Yorkshire
England

Friday, October 27th
Royal Sovereign -- with the Commie Faggots!
London
England

Saturday, October 28th
London Anarchist Book Fair
Park View School
West Green Road
London  N15 3QR
England

Tuesday, October 31st
Rostrevor Inn
Rostrevor, Co. Down
(Northern) Ireland

Wednesday, November 1st
The Sunflower
Belfast
Ireland

Thursday, November 2nd
Sandino's
Derry
Ireland

Friday, November 3rd
Hanlon's Bar
Hanlon's Corner
189 N Circular Rd
Cabra East
Dublin D07 KW3P
Ireland

Saturday, November 4th, 6 pm
Russian Revolution Commemoration
Nordic Black Theatre & Cafeteatret
Hollendergata 8
Oslo
Norway

Sunday, November 5th
Blitz
Oslo
Norway

Wednesday, November 8th
House concert -- ring Christoph Allemand
Jülicher Str. 114a
52070 AachenGermany


THE TOUR THAT WAS:

Tuesday, July 18th, 7:30 pm
Community Church of Boston
565 Boylston, 2nd floor
Boston, Massachusetts

Saturday, July 29th, 8 pm
University Christian Church
4731 15th Avenue NE
Seattle, Washington

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Global Consequences of Inequality -- from Portland to London to Mosul

"...He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game"

Bob Dylan
"The tactical, or if you will, 'technical,' task was quite simple -- grab every fascist or every isolated group of fascists by their collars, acquaint them with the pavement a few times..."
Leon Trotsky
"The pundits on the TV will talk of integration
Most of them agree there's too much immigration
They'll talk of social policies, things they should've done before
Whatever you say, don't mention the war --
If you bomb somebody, they might just bomb you back"

David Rovics
I'm sitting at a cafe in the north of England.  I landed at the Manchester airport the night after the suicide bombing there.  The normally bustling airport was almost completely empty -- life is anything but normal here.  Soon after that event, I got the news about the multiple stabbings by a white supremacist on a train in my home town of Portland, Oregon.  Then last night as I was going to bed in a hotel room in Leeds, I turned on BBC only to hear the breaking news about the van-and-knife attacks that were ongoing at the time.  (Actually they were over by then, with the three attackers killed by police, but nobody knew yet when I tuned in whether or not there were more of them.)

These events represent only a tiny fraction of the death that has been meted out by suicide bombings, aerial bombings, stabbings, and gunfire by state and non-state actors in many other countries over the same week, with scores killed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Cameroon, Mexico and elsewhere.  This, of course, is to say nothing of the many more who have died in the past week due to malnutrition and car accidents.

With the fast-moving nature of this multitude of violent events, it's easy to get lost in the details, and overlook the blaringly obvious fact that all of these things are very intimately related, and all of this ongoing violence is ultimately -- and often directly -- a consequence of endemic and growing inequality, both within and between societies.

Today in Portland there is a white supremacist rally that is scheduled to happen downtown, and an anti-fascist rally will confront it, with lots of riot cops in between the two groups, presumably.  Masked, primarily white youth will destroy property, get beaten and arrested by cops, and this will dominate the news cycle.

I sat down to write this now because all day I've been thinking about the stabbings in Portland and the attacks in London, and all the similarities between these two events.  The fact that they both involved knives and happened within a week or so of each other helped to make the connections for me, but there are many other, far less superficial connections that need to be made.

And then I was thinking about the planned antifa protest in Portland today, and whether I would go to it if I were there.  While I have no moral problem with following Trotsky's advice on what to do with fascists, he was, as he would have been the first to explain, talking about appropriate tactics at a certain place and time -- and if you read the rest of the essay that the oft-quoted bit above is derived from, he makes that context abundantly clear.

But whether or not Trotsky would agree or disagree with Jesse Jackson on whether or not antifa should protest the "alt right" in Portland today, and what kinds of tactics they should attempt to employ if they did, the thought of attending that rally also got me thinking about whether I would go to a rally in London or Manchester against Islamic State, if anyone were to organize one.

I wouldn't.  But why?  Isn't Islamic State a horrible bunch of genocidal killers?  Well, yes.  But the young Englishman who blew himself up at the Manchester Arena last month was, just like the extremely troubled racist on the train in Portland, a pawn.  People like them are the predictable result of divided, unequal societies with hysterical, racist pundits and politicians -- politicians who have a longstanding tendency to "solve" many of their problems through militaristic violence.

Obviously, anyone in any society, confronted by a knife-wielding attacker of any color, creed, religion, etc., should ideally defend themselves and others against such people.  It is entirely right to praise any such efforts as heroic, and entirely right to mourn and remember the dead.  But this doesn't mean falling victim to the divide-and-conquer tactics of the ruling class.

Most politicians are not the bumbling idiots they appear to be.  (Whether Trump might be an exception to this rule is not the point.)  Insurgent campaigns within some political parties notwithstanding, for most of US history and most of modern British history as well, the powers-that-be have consisted of two main political parties, both of which have ruled in the interest of capital and empire.  In both countries (and many, many others) these ruling classes have systematically, cynically created and exacerbated divisions in society in order to maintain those divisions, so that people will fight over crumbs, rather than going for the whole loaf.

These neocolonial powers have also systematically used these divide-and-conquer tactics to create and/or exacerbate conflicts within different groups in societies they control (or seek to control), such as the Sunni/Shia divide in many predominantly Muslim countries.

At the same time, the wars and the very real refugee crises in the Middle East and the so-called refugee crises in Europe and the United States -- all largely manufactured by US foreign policy in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America over the past century or so -- are also used to foment racism and division in western societies as well.

My understanding of history and my experience traveling extensively in 25 or so countries leads me to the conclusion that, at least among the more prosperous nations in the world, there is no country more successfully divided and conquered than the United States.

While there are many other countries ruled by two main political parties that have few significant differences between them, both parties and their policies are much further to the militaristic right in the US than anywhere in Europe.  The way this plays out in terms of people's lives is we have a shorter lifespan, a vastly more huge problem with poverty, homelessness, property speculation, housing costs, police brutality and endemic violence of all kinds -- the biggest prison population in the world, and so many other problems that were created by bipartisan consensus.

It seems clear to me that the main way the US ruling class has been so much more successful than its European counterparts at screwing its own population, as a rule, has been the rulers' ability to take advantage of the racism that they systematically created over the course of the past centuries.  For a long time this division was a largely black-white one in most of the country.  As the whites-only immigration policies have very slowly given way to allowing immigration from places other than Europe, the dynamic of racism in the US has evolved to include other marginalized groups.

If I or any other self-styled anarchist intellectual could tell you how to get from point A to B, I would.  I don't know, and nobody else seems to know, either, otherwise maybe we'd be making some progress here, rather than just watching an ever-increasing series of imperial wars and terrorist attacks combined with austerity budgets, even more privatization, "free trade" bills, bank bailouts, rapidly increasing stratification of wealth, mushrooming homelessness, etc.

But where point B is located is abundantly clear.  And knowing where we need to get to is extremely important, for this is a very large part of the equation in terms of who controls the narrative.

We need to remember that the "alt right" is our main problem just as much as Al-Qaeda or Islamic State is.  These movements are real, they're terrible, and terribly violent, but they are just symptoms of a much, much bigger set of problems.  Those problems -- the problems that have given rise to these movements -- are the same problems.  And if I were to try to boil down all of those problems to one word, it would be this:  inequality.  And how inequality can be exploited by ruling classes, racists, and terrorists alike.

This state of ever-increasing inequality in the US, the UK and much of the rest of the world has inevitable consequences.  The vast majority of people in most societies won't take the bait, but a significant number will.  And this number will grow, unless we can manage to change the course of the future in this particular respect.  If we can do that, then the consequences of inequality will begin to dissipate until they become insignificant.  If we fail, we'll have lots more weeks like this last one, and much, much worse.

Once the political "choices" in places like France and the US are between a capitalist and a fascist, supporting the capitalist against the fascist will only delay the inevitable.  I am not here taking a cut-and-dried position on whether or not one should bother supporting the capitalist vs the fascist, whether or not one should go protest the "alt right" when it manages to gather more than a couple dozen testosterone-poisoned young men in one place, etc.  These kinds of tactical choices can vary depending on the situation, and I don't know the answers to these questions.  What I do know is that the problems, divisions, violence, etc. will grow as long as inequality and poverty continues to grow.

And I also know that the solution is equality.  Neither May or Macron's Clintonian capitalism nor Trump's neofascist politics of deception will bring us forward -- on the contrary, these sorts of rulers will only guarantee everything gets much worse, very quickly.  And if we busy ourselves primarily with arguing with the pawns of the game, it seems clear to me that we'll achieve less than nothing.

Now more than ever, we need to remain focused on the goal, rather than on the consequences of not achieving that goal.  I don't pretend to know how we get there, as I've said -- but I'm sure there are many different ways that societies can move in that direction, through large, militant, visionary and well-organized social movements, whether those movements are regional, national or global.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

DIY Tour Promotion -- How You Can Help

I've got a big tour coming up, and poking around on my website I realize I'm missing a quick run-down of what regular folks in different towns can do if they have a little bit of time to put into helping to promote the tour, or a particular show in their local area.

Almost every show I do involves at least one main person who has kindly agreed to be the main organizer of that show.  This involves finding a venue, nailing down a date with me, and being the main person who gets the word out about the show, and maybe helps coordinate the efforts of other people willing to do that.  But there is never any need to ask for permission to help publicize one of my shows, if it's a public event listed on my website, as almost all my shows are.  Any efforts you can make will undoubtedly be appreciated by me, the gig organizer, and perhaps even other folks as well.

The best publicity is always word-of-mouth, one-on-one, direct, personal communication.  This has probably always been true, but it's probably never been more true than now, in age of Too Much Information.  So here are some very useful things that you can do to allow people like me to this sort of thing for a living.  It's oriented specifically towards promoting my stuff, but change a few words and it's applicable to any indie performer, traveling speaker, etc.


  • Especially in the couple weeks leading up to a show in your town (or in a town where I'm playing where you know somebody) tell them why you think they'd like the show, and share the details with them in a personal email, phone call, over dinner somewhere, etc.  Details about the tour and each gig on the tour are on this Punk Baroque World Tour blog post, among other places.
  • Whether or not the main organizer of the show gets around to printing out flyers, you are very welcome to do so!  You can just print out this tour flyer/poster, fill in the local gig details, make some copies, and put them up in locations where the sorts of people who might like to come to one of my shows might tend to frequent.
  • You can carry around those flyers so that when you have occasion to mention the gig to someone in the physical world, you can hand them one.  If you're going to a protest, a meeting, a concert or some other event where there might be folks who might want to go to my show, you can bring flyers and hand them out to folks.
  • In the age of TMI people might not see most of your tweets or Facebook posts, but if you share a different song each day with your friends and followers accompanied by a message about the upcoming show, that might generate a bit of attention.  You can find almost any of my songs by searching online for my name plus the song title plus either Soundcloud or Bandcamp.  Also in alphabetical order at www.davidrovics.com/songbook.
  • Usually there will be a Facebook Event page for most of my shows.  Facebook makes it difficult to promote a lot of things without paying for the promotion, but if you live in an area where a show is happening, they still make it really easy for you to invite all the folks who live in that area.  From the event page you just click "share," then "invite friends," then on the left side of the window that comes up, click where it says the name of your city.  Then you'll see all those folks listed, at which point you "invite all" and finish.
  • Encourage other folks in town to invite their friends on the Facebook Event page, too.
  • If you or anyone you know is involved with community or activist groups oriented around issues that I've written a song about, share a specific song with them, and ask them if they wouldn't mind announcing to their local email list that I'll be doing a show and singing about the struggle their involved with.  With most of my shows, folks are very welcome to make short announcements about upcoming local events -- cross-pollination is good for everybody.
  • If there's a community radio program, whether it's a music program or a news/information show, call in and encourage them to mention that I'm doing a show in town coming up, give them the relevant information, and request that they play a song of mine.  You could even suggest a specific song that's related to the subject of the show they're doing that day.  Tell them that whether or not they have my CDs in their library, they can find most of my songs for free download on Soundcloud and elsewhere.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Proposal: "A Penny A Play" Campaign

I was looking around on the internet today, and maybe I'm almost fifty years old and I still can't effectively use a search engine, but as far as I can tell there is no campaign happening anywhere in the US right now to drastically increase internet royalties for musicians.  But it seems to me that the future of independent musicians (and perhaps the music industry in general, not that I give a shit) may very well depend on such a law being passed.

A law, you say?  Yeah.  The good kind -- one that a mass movement forces to get passed.  It'd be very unlikely to happen otherwise, unless we had, like, a democracy or something.  A law that says all online streaming services that are making money from advertising or subscriptions must pay at least one cent per song streamed, which would go to the artist or whoever holds the rights to the song.

OK, backing up slightly, it is laws that determine how much law-abiding streaming services such as Spotify or Google Play must pay artists for the use of their music.  According to a recent article in Fortune magazine I just read, they basically have to pay the artist a little more than one-tenth of a cent per song streamed.  And according to an article I read elsewhere, Spotify pays about what they legally must, and no more.  Other services, like Google Play, pay much better -- seven-tenths of a cent per song streamed.

The problem is, it's still shit.  In many other countries it's better, I think.  (Does anybody know the specifics on that?)

Why a penny?  It's a good, round number, for one thing.  It serves, I think, to highlight just how little musicians make from their music, when people discover that we're paid much less than a penny by streaming services today.  My hope would be that it could become a meme as much as an organizing campaign, that works its way into everyday consciousness, like the $15 minimum wage campaign, or the successful farmworker campaign a while back to make companies like Campbell's Soup pay one penny per pound more for tomatoes in order to allow the farmworkers that harvest them to make a living wage.

But also, it would make a huge practical difference in the lives of countless musicians in the world.  I don't know how typical I am as an independent musician, but I can certainly say for me that it would make the difference between streaming royalties being financially significant for me and my family, as opposed to more something of a joke.  Approximately the difference between $120 as it is now, and something closer to $800 if Spotify and the rest paid a penny per play.  (And I'm not saying that $120 as a number is a joke, but compared to the $1,000+ per month in CD sales that streaming services have now replaced, it is.)

Why not just get more famous and solve your problem that way?  In another article I read today, a mathematician calculated that in order for an artist to make the minimum wage solely through Spotify royalties, that artist would need to get 1.5 million plays per month.  There are only so many  people out there, even in the English-speaking world.  The $120 or so I get each month from the streaming services represents tens of thousands of plays each month, if I'm doing the math right.  That seems like a significant number to me.

The pie is only so big.  Only so many people are going to become pop stars, or become YouTube sensations with some outrageously viral video.  In our celebrity-obsessed culture we can all feel terribly inadequate for not having millions of views on YouTube.  And perhaps the "penny a play" formula should be adjusted for those who get more than a million plays per month, if that makes the math work a lot better in one way or another.  My concern are all of us who get a lot less than a million plays a month -- the 99% (or probably much more than that) of working musicians.

Technology is changing fast -- whole professions become obsolete overnight, or suddenly the bottom drops out of one.  Like CD sales being replaced by streaming internet services.  Of course, in between there was the "anything goes" period of sharing music, or stealing music, or both, or neither, depending on how you look at it.  I gave away all my music, and why not?  I never got on the radio to speak of, and here was a new way to get my music out there in a big way -- and perhaps undermine the broken music industry at the same time.

But now people mostly are getting their music from streaming services.  I don't know how they'd have to adjust their business model if they were required to pay a penny a play to artists, but I'm pretty sure the consequences for the music consumers out there would ultimately be fairly minimal.  (Especially if those who get more than a million plays a month continue to get much less than a penny per play.)

What saddens me is that there does not appear to be a campaign like this already in existence.  Am I just a dreamer who needs to come back to his senses?  Is what I'm proposing so impractical?  If not, then why isn't such a campaign already happening, led by, say, the national branch of the American Federation of Musicians?

Maybe folks running the union just haven't thought of such a campaign yet, but it seems to me the explanation might be the same kind of reason why what's left of the labor movement has been so slow to embrace service workers and the $15 an hour campaign.  When I get the monthly AFM magazine, I get the impression that the musicians that matter to AFM are the ones that draw a steady paycheck -- symphony musicians working for film studios and whatnot.

And to be clear, I have no ill will towards either pop stars or symphony musicians.  Some of my best friends and favorite cousins are symphony musicians.  But any self-respecting union of musicians needs to represent the vast majority of working musicians, who would be affected by royalties paid by Spotify far more than they are affected by the local symphony's union contract.

As with the $15 campaign, a campaign like this wouldn't be the sort of thing where the union would get more dues-paying members out of it, necessarily.  But it would be huge for the actual musicians out there.

Whether such a campaign happens or not, and whoever leads it, it won't be me.  But here's to the concept, anyway.  Feedback, particularly from other working musicians, most welcome.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Trump Protest Playlist

I wrote recently about how to have a good rally (hopefully as a small component of a broader movement that includes lots of other tactics).  I emphasized the importance of music and culture in any successful social movement.  

Now I'll get more specific, and share with you my own songs that are especially relevant to the current situation.  Lots of other people have written relevant songs as well, and you'll find some of them on my Song News Network feed.

Here's my Trump Protest Playlist on Soundcloud, all in one place.  Below, links to individual songs, and an explanation for why they're in the playlist.


When Trump was campaigning for the presidency and he first talked about banning Muslims from entering the US, Islamic State started using him in their propaganda videos, as anyone could have predicted.  I wrote "God's Gift to the Caliphate" at that time, in late 2015.

It was only a couple weeks after that speech that Muslim passengers on a bus on the Kenya-Somalia border prevented Al Shabab from massacring Christian passengers (which they had done almost exactly a year earlier).  I wrote "One Day in Kenya" as a tribute to the courage of these Muslim bus passengers who risked their own lives to save others (and as a sneaky way to criticize the xenophobes like Trump).

More recently, riffing off of Trump's main campaign slogan, I wrote a critical but hopeful appraisal of my homeland -- "America Has Never Been So Great" (but it could be).

Continuing on that theme, here's "Make the Planet Earth Great Again."

When Trump banned Syrian refugees from coming to the US, regardless of where they might have been at in the long, arduous process of applying for asylum in the United States, it reminded many people of other times the US had banned groups or nationalities from entering the country, such as in the years prior to 1944, when European Jews were an unwanted element, and the St Louis was turned away.  "Send Them Back" is about that episode in 1939.

Another time that people in the US were collectively punished for their national origins was when FDR signed the decree that all people in the continental US of Japanese descent should be imprisoned in camps.  Trump has expressed his deep approval of this sort of thing.  Here's "Liberty and Justice For All."

As the presidential decrees continue to be announced, people across the US are pouring into the streets and airports in solidarity with their fellow human beings who are being targeted.  Back in the 1840's, when the US targeting of Mexicans involved making war on the country and annexing most of it, there were many US soldiers who deserted from the ranks of the military, rather than fighting, once they saw that they were participating in a nakedly imperial, unprovoked attack on a neighboring country.  Some of them expressed their solidarity by joining the Mexican Army.  They were called the San Patricios -- "The St Patrick Battalion."

Trump is far from the first US president to target Mexicans and others from Latin America for abuse, expulsion, etc.  Around 2000 I wrote "No One Is Illegal" about this longstanding discrimination against so many people in the US on the basis of the color of their skin, their national origin, etc.

Mexicans being institutionally second-class citizens in the US is a longstanding bedrock principle of the US economy.  Lots of would-be migrants die trying to cross the border every year.  "Guanajuato" is about one of them.

During the George W Bush administration, many people were asking the same questions that are being asked on a widespread basis today.  Namely, is it possible to stand by in the face of such horrors?  In Bush's case, those horrors involved witch hunts in the US against many Muslims -- which continued under the Obama administration, incidentally -- and daily massacres committed against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military and military contractors.  In 2003 I asked, did you "Strike A Blow Against the Empire."

Along those lines, many people were asking whether there was grounds to impeach Bush for his war crimes, or for him to be arrested by some international court perhaps.  I asked a question then that many people were asking then, and now -- "How Far Is It From Here to Nuremberg?"

I predicted Trump's victory and I was not surprised when he got elected.  The Democratic Party had long ago abandoned the working class (aside from Sanders and a few others), and many people voted from Trump who used to vote for Democrats, in the assumption that they might defend their interests more than the (other) party of big business, the Republicans.  I wondered how they would be feeling once they realized that they voted for their class enemy, in reality, and I wrote "The Biggest Landlord."

Just before Trump took office there was huge speculation in the media and society at large about what he would actually do -- how would his tweets be turned into policy?  I wrote "What's Gonna Happen."

Many people in the US and abroad identify with the idea of the US as a haven for refugees, as represented eloquently on the Statue of Liberty.  I grew up thinking like that, too.  As the Obama administration was deporting huge numbers of Honduran and Guatemalan refugees during the wave of emigration that followed the US-sponsored military coup in Honduras in 2009, I wrote "Statue In the Harbor."

Trump's whole narrative around Muslims involves Muslims being barbaric terrorists with a general tendency towards backwardness of all kinds.  The historical reality is very far from this narrative.  No situation more eloquently presents this dichotomy than the events of 1492, when the Ottoman Empire sent its navy across the Mediterranean to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews -- "1492."

Trump rails about terrorism, without acknowledging the basic, obvious fact that if you bomb somebody, they might just bomb you back -- "If You Bomb Somebody."

Under George W Bush, the US opened up lots of unofficial "black sites" where the CIA tortured people.  Bush officially said torture was wrong, but that was just the official line -- the reality was completely different.  Trump openly supports torture.  When the Abu Ghraib scandal hit the press I wrote "After We Torture Our Prisoners."

Trump thinks patriotism is very important.  He's even decreed that there should be a day where we show how patriotic we are -- in addition to July 4th and Flag Day and Presidents Day and all these other ones.  Here's "God Bless the USA."

I wrote "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" a long time ago, but with an actual billionaire in the White House it seems even more appropriate than usual.

It's long been a desperate situation vis-a-vis the environment and climate change, and that's probably never been more true than today, both because we have never made the reforms to our society and energy grid that should have been made a long time ago, and because we now have an actual climate change denier in office -- "Here at the End of the World."

The Obama administration did too little, too late to help the folks at Standing Rock.  Trump owns stock in the company that's building the pipeline, and is determined to see it built.  Here's "Standing Rock."

Fracking has been banned in some parts of the US, because it's a terribly destructive practice that destroys the earth, air and especially the water.  Trump is hoping to reverse these bans and impose the corporate will on the people.  To which we say "No Fracking Way."

With deregulation and the promotion of ever more extraction of oil, gas, coal, etc., we will have lots more accidents such as the one that destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec -- "Oil Train."

As soon as Trump took office, Israel announced a massive program of settlement expansion.  This is apparently not a coincidence.  When the Israelis were building what is widely known as their Apartheid Wall in the occupied West Bank, I wrote "They're Building A Wall."

Some say Trump's election is evidence of severe divisions within the US ruling class caused by the desperation of their situation since the 2008 financial crisis, climate change, and other things.  If that's true, then we need to kick capitalism while it's down -- "Kick It While It's Down."

Trump wants to deregulate everything even more than Reagan, Clinton and Bush did already.  Which is really saying something, since those administrations collectively destroyed much of the regulatory infrastructure that this country used to have.  Deregulation of industry will directly lead to people dying in larger numbers in industrial accidents such as this one in Hamlet, North Carolina that I wrote about in "Sometimes I Walk the Aisles."

There has been extreme violence meted out before and during the Obama years, directed at people of color, certain ones in particular.  While Obama talked about bringing the country together and mitigating the racial divide and relationship between "law enforcement" and the general population, Trump wants none of that subtle stuff, and just proudly proclaims himself to be the "Law and Order" president.  Under Trump, we can expect many more police killings such as that of Eric Garner -- "I Can't Breathe."

With the unleashing of the "Alt Right" and other white supremacists these days, combined with Trump's desire to weaken gun laws even more, we can expect many more massacres of all sorts.  Such as the one in Charleston, South Carolina which I wrote about in "The State House Lawn."

Trump is emboldening the anti-abortion movement with his vice presidential pick especially.  Elements of the anti-abortion movement are very violent.  They kill doctors and nurses and bomb health clinics "In The Name of God."

Traditionally, when you're being oppressed by rich people trying to get even richer, you have to rebel to get anything changed around here.  That's what the tenant farmers of upstate New York did in the 1840's, against massive property owners like Trump and his daddy.  Except the Drumpf family was still in Germany in the 1840's, during the Rent Strike Wars.  Here's "Landlord."

If Wall Street ever needed to be Occupied, it's now, with more billionaires in the cabinet than ever before.  Many of them former Goldman Sachs officials.  Here's "Occupy Wall Street."

Years before the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, the people of Iceland rebelled against the deregulation and corruption that had resulted in the Global Financial Crisis that Trump and his policies personify -- "Iceland, 2008."

Since Forecloser-In-Chief Mnuchin is part of the cabinet, we can forget about any People's Bailout.  Here's "A Dream Foreclosed."

I don't know where Trump's intense hostility towards China is going to end us up, but I know what happened during the first trade war against China led by the UK, the US, France, Russia and others back in the 1830's -- lots and lots of Chinese people died, in order to force the Chinese government to allow the UK to export their deadly opium.  Here's "Trade War."

In the darkest times it's crucial to remember that well-organized, big, militant social movements can change everything, anytime, anywhere -- "Everything Can Change."

One of the popular sayings during the anticapitalist movement that I was involved with at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency was "We Are Everywhere."  An important thing to remember, when it can seem not to be the case.

Trump's cabinet picks make it very clear who he thinks the world belongs to -- other billionaires.  Lots of the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties seem to agree on this principle.  Many of us protesting Trump don't.  We think the world is a commons, that should be shared.  It's "The Commons."

Trump is the quintessential bully.  Here's "Bullies."

Love -- combined with an inclusive, militant, massive mass movement -- can conquer all.  Here's "Behind the Barricades."

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Advice from a Protest Singer on Protesting

Many, many people are hitting the streets in recent weeks in the United States.  For most of them, my guess is they're doing it for the first time.  I say this because every time I go to a major protest, I ask lots of random people if they have been to many other such protests.  Most people, young and old, tell me this is their first one.

Since the recent upsurge in protest activity, a lot of long-time activist types have been writing helpful things about what kind of movement we need, and which way forward.  Other people have been writing distinctly unhelpful things.  And then whether their perspective is helpful or not, it can easily run the risk of seeming patronizing.

Those of us who have been involved with different social movements for a long time who have learned anything from the experience probably have a universal desire not to see mistakes we have made many times before get repeated again.  Of course we know that many of these mistakes will be made again, and to no small extent we are now watching that happen -- and we're preaching condescendingly about it in some cases, or participating more usefully in ongoing developments in other cases (or some of both).

I do have a lot of opinions on what kind of movement we need to take on Trump and his cabinet of xenophobes, racists, and former Goldman Sachs employees.  Namely, the same kind of movement we would have needed to take on the last cabinet full of former Goldman Sachs employees.  The kind of movement that has brought governments and corporations to their knees in the past -- big, inclusive, militant, with lots of very frequent bouts of mass civil disobedience, which can take different forms at different points in history and in different societies.

But as a professional performer who specializes in singing at protest rallies for the past 25 years or so, I feel like the most useful thing for me to focus on in terms of any advice involves the nitty gritty -- the logistics of pulling off that oft-maligned aspect of pretty much all social movements known as the protest rally or demonstration.

I'll be the first to say that effective movements always involve a lot more than just holding rallies in some public square for an afternoon and then everybody goes home.  If such rallies are all that a movement involves, you can be sure it won't go anywhere.

But as a part of a broader social movement, the spectacle of the protest rally can play an important role in movement-building, if it's done right.  If not done right, it can have exactly the opposite effect, and play an important role in movement-killing.  In the interest of building the movement rather than killing it, I offer the following thoughts.

First a question:  in the act of holding a protest rally, exactly what are we trying to achieve?  And then the obvious followup:  how do we achieve that?

Well, there may be many things we're trying to achieve through having a protest rally -- and some of them may be at cross-currents with each other.  We often must prioritize one thing over another.

For example, one goal may be to have a really big demo.  Another may be to use the occasion to educate the public about the issues at hand.  Another may be to make sure we have an occasion where someone from every organization that came together to make the rally happen gets a chance to address the crowd.

While these are all sensible goals, they all risk losing the forest for the trees.  It seems to me that the over-riding goal of this particular, small element of a social movement -- the protest rally -- should be to build the movement.

So the real question is, out of all the different strategies a social movement can employ to build itself, what role can a protest rally play in that?

My answer:  it can foster a sense of community -- and with that, a sense of optimism.  Optimism is the oxygen of social movements (and perhaps, to extend the metaphor, repression is the nitrogen).  A social movement that is inclusive rather than cliquish, inspirational rather than preachy -- a movement with a culture, rather than an ad hoc collection of otherwise unrelated organizations coming together for a little while.

Most people attending the rally are already familiar with the situation.  They don't need more people to tell them about it.  That's depressing.  They want people to talk about what plans they have for the near future in terms of future actions, protests, acts of civil disobedience, strikes, whatever is coming up.

Different people and organizations involved with the protest can find lots of ways of identifying themselves and their groups aside from taking up time on the stage telling us about their organizations.  We need a movement that sees beyond that, and demonstrates this vision in many ways, including on the stages at the rallies, by prioritizing movement-building over station identification.

If movement-building requires optimism, and optimism requires a sense of inclusive community, then culture is the appropriate medium for the message.  This can include really good speeches -- as long as the speakers are well aware that what they are doing, fundamentally, is theatrical in nature.

But it is music, poetry, skits, street theater, public art, giant puppets, marching bands that produce the oxygen at a rally.

These things don't all have to be political, but as long as the quality is there, it's usually better to prioritize politically relevant performers over performers who may be professional, or perhaps even really famous, but who don't have a powerful message that is related to the situation at hand.

The artists, musicians, comedians, actors, etc., are out there in huge numbers, all around you.  If you don't know where to find them, where to connect with them, how to involve them in the rally you're organizing, then find out.  Don't give up -- just go outside of your normal social circles and look in that cultural sphere.  They'll be excited once you meet them -- they're already looking for you.  They just don't know where to look for a protest organizer any more than you know where to find a horn player.

A bonus of protest organizers becoming well-connected with the cultural spheres is that stage hands know how to set up stages, musicians often know people who own sound systems, and they can teach you good microphone technique, which is essential for any speaker who wants to be taken seriously (and be heard).

In order to make this work well (that is, work), you need to think about things like whether you need to hire a sound company to run the stage (which obviously requires a budget of some kind), or whether this is something people with bits of equipment can cobble together themselves.  If you're expecting crowds in the thousands, you'll definitely need to have a budget of at least a few hundred dollars to hire a sound company.  If you're organizing something smaller than that, you may be able to easily cultivate the connections within the music scene that come with sound equipment.

In terms of attracting this kind of talent to your protests, you should know that what the artists who can make the protest an inspiring, worthwhile occasion want from you is to be taken seriously.  That's all, really.  Taking an artist seriously means understanding that they have needs in this situation.  They need a sound system that is adequate for whatever they're doing -- which can vary wildly depending on whether we're talking about a 10-piece band or a singer with a guitar -- and they need an audience.  So don't put the band on before the rally starts or after it ends.  Put them on during the rally.  Ideally with great frequency, and for long periods of time.

Keep your rally short.  Leave them wanting more.  This is theater, and all performers know these maxims.  You need to, too.  Two hours is a good maximum.  Even that is long.  All rallies, in my humble opinion, should be mostly music and other forms of culture, in terms of what happens on the stage.  This is doubly true of any rally that's longer than two hours.  If you're doing something like that, then you should look at it more as a festival than a rally.  Which, really, is equally appropriate for the shorter rallies, as well.

If a rally is really good, well-timed, well-executed, and mostly cultural in nature, it shouldn't lose people as it goes.  It may even grow in size as it goes on.  This is a sign that there is an energy being created by the confluence of successful factors you have brought together that day.  The kind of energy that makes people want more, want to come back.

If you are losing lots of people as the rally is going, you need to face the reality that you have failed to organize a good rally.  You need to ask yourself what went wrong -- because, to be sure, something did.  If you lost half the crowd over the course of your two-hour rally, something went very wrong.

Maybe people in the back couldn't hear anything because the sound system was too small.  Maybe the speakers were preachy.  Maybe there were too many speakers.  Maybe they didn't know how to use microphones and couldn't be heard, even though the sound system was adequate.  Maybe they were reading their speeches from pieces of paper that they couldn't see very well.  Maybe there was barely any music, or the music that you had wasn't any good, or lacked sufficient mass appeal.  Maybe you were focusing too much on letting everybody say something, rather than focusing on how the overall rally should flow.

I have attended a few rallies like that very recently, in the interest of full disclosure, which is really what inspired me to write this, as a form of self-therapy.  I feel a little better now.  If anybody reads this, shares it with their friends and tells me they found something useful in it, I will feel even more better.

See you on the streets.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why Do They Keep Begging?

More Forgotten Folk:  Reflections on Subsisting as a Musician in 2017


I was driving across Oregon yesterday, thinking about whether I might be able to afford to do another recording project this year -- like in a studio with a band over the course of a week or two, the kind of recording project that costs many thousands of dollars to do right -- when it hit me.  This year is really different from other years.  If you're a touring musician and you're reading this, I'd be really curious to hear from you.  

Because for me, the last big tour I did was the first time I've ever toured for two months, doing forty gigs or so in several different countries, and barely sold any CDs.  I think I sold around 100 by the end -- about 10% of what I used to sell on a tour like that.

It takes me a long time to really notice these things, but it seems we have now truly entered the post-CD era.  For those of you who are not trying to make a living as performers -- from a consumer perspective you could say -- this may not mean much.  We're all overwhelmed with data of all kinds, including streaming music services and YouTube videos.  Most of us don't have CD players anymore, and we listen to music online.  Maybe we subscribe to a streaming service so we can listen to whatever we want without ads, or maybe we put up with the ads to avoid paying any monthly fees, or maybe we find our free music in innumerable other corners of the web.

And somehow, regardless of whether there's anybody left in the world who is able to make a living as a musician, the internet will be full of great, free music.  When independent musicians stop touring and find another line of work, they may still manage to record -- they'll spend money they earn from their day jobs on that.  They'll do it because it satisfies some need, maybe various needs -- but for most formerly professional independent touring musicians that I know, making a living is no longer one of those needs that they can satisfy.

When they stop touring, they're generally not going to announce to their email lists that they can't afford to tour anymore, that nobody buys their CDs anymore, that they're not making any money with the streaming services, that they have failed to deal with the new post-CD reality.  No matter how well they may understand the impossible math involved with the new reality, on some level they feel like they have failed -- presumably because they're not good enough -- and they will go quietly into semi-retirement.  You may notice that they stop sending emails about their upcoming tours, because the tours aren't happening.  Or, more likely, you won't notice, because you already get way too many emails.

I enthusiastically embraced the new technology.  The system was totally broken before the internet came along, so what did I have to lose?  Like way over 99% of other professional, independent musicians who never got commercial or "public" radio airplay, approximately nothing -- but much to gain.  And many of us did gain -- we gained bigger followings out there in cyberspace.  To some extent, for some of us, this increased attendance at some of our shows, sometimes.  In the early years, it might have caused an uptick in CD sales for some artists -- but no longer, in the post-CD, largely post-download, streaming service era of music.

I enthusiastically embraced the new, old ideas for how we indy musicians can survive in the modern era.  I crowdsourced a recording project before Kickstarter existed, and I started up a CSA before Patreon existed.  And I think crowdsourcing is really cool, to be sure.  It has allowed me to continue to make a living as a musician, and I'm very thankful for that, and thankful for all the support.

But the whole situation is very troubling to me.  Not so much my own situation, but what I see around me.  Because what I see around me is most musicians falling through the cracks, so to speak.  They quietly stop touring, they mostly stop recording.  They make a foray into the world of crowdfunding, but they don't do it with sufficient enthusiasm and it doesn't work out well and they give up again.

It's long been the case that being good isn't good enough for musicians -- you can't just be good at your craft, you also have to be good at marketing, if you want to have a hope of making a living at it.  The difference now is that there are whole other levels of marketing you have to be good at -- and one of what used to be your two main income streams no longer exists.

A lot of people just haven't been able to cope with this, or haven't wanted to try.  Because the new economy for musicians is all about begging.  Not just trying to get gigs and trying to get audiences anymore.  Audience members used to buy your CDs, depending on factors like whether they were blown away by your performance and whether you have a new CD since the last one they bought.  Now we also have to try to get people to pay for us to make recordings -- so that we can give them away.

With all the "everything is progress" propaganda out there, it's easy to get swept up in the popular new crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon.  There are lots of real success stories -- and those are the ones you hear about.  But it occurred to me as I was driving yesterday that these platforms didn't become popular for no reason.  They didn't become popular because the concepts were just invented and people thought they were cool.

They became popular, mostly, I'm pretty sure, because of the desperation of those of us trying to cling to the idea that it may still be possible to make a living as a touring performer.

That desperation has gone through phases.  The first phase coincided with the rise of Kickstarter.  That was the phase when CD sales were drastically down, but not totally gone.  

The next phase of desperation coincided with the rise of Patreon (and Bandcamp and others).  That's the phase we're in now, with the almost total elimination of the phenomenon of physical recordings.  (Never mind whatever you've heard about the rise of vinyl, etc.  It's statistically irrelevant, as far as I can see.)

To demystify and perhaps slightly oversimplify the math that used to be involved with being an indy touring musician, it went something like this:  if you were someone with a small but loyal following and you knew how to work with your fans and supporters and could successfully organize tours, you might do 100 gigs in a year, which effectively means spending most of the year on the road.  Let's say you manage to average $300 per gig, and you're supporting a family of four and you live in a rapidly-gentrifying US city, and your rent has doubled over the past ten years.  And then let's say that out of that $30,000 you've made from your gigs, you're spending a third of that on travel costs, leaving you with $20,000.

You might be able to support your family on $20,000, but you certainly will have nothing left over for anything other than food, rent, and clothing from Goodwill.  Ah, but this is before the post-CD era, so in addition to doing those gigs, you're also selling CDs.  I used to sell around 3,000 CDs in a typical year.  After spending $5,000 making the CD at a studio and giving away a few hundred CDs to community radio stations, that still left me with another $20,000 in income every year from CD sales, the vast majority of them at shows.

So, when that $20,000 turned into $10,000 -- for me and I suspect for thousands and thousands of other indy touring performers -- along came Kickstarter.  OK, so now we can make up for the losses by crowdfunding the expenses of making the CD.  Or at least those of us who are willing to spend much of our time begging for money can.  Those of us who didn't want to, or weren't good at it were out of the game at that point.  Or working other jobs in order to fund their recording habit -- but no more touring, except maybe in a very limited way, during work vacations.

But then that annual $10,000 turned into $2,000, and the floor dropped out from under us in terms of that essential second stream of income, CD sales.  

Around the time that this was happening, along came Patreon, and other platforms using this old NPR/Pacifica concept of supporting someone that produces a free service by subscribing to them at a rate of $5 or $10 a month.

This was then the next process of elimination for indy touring musicians, and I think it will ultimately result in a much greater wave of extinction than the wave that coincided with the rise of Kickstarter.  Because before, you could tighten your belt.  You, if you were like me, might have been making enough money that you had some room for belt-tightening that didn't end you up in a tent on the sidewalk.

Now, there's no more belt-tightening.  The sales are just gone.  Replaced by streaming services that pay virtually nothing.  I don't know the stats on the average touring musician out there -- the ones like me that have enough of a following to make a living, who used to sell thousands of CDs in an average year.  But for me, those $20,000 in revenue from annual CD sales have been replaced by a trickle of about $120 per month on average from royalties, when you add it all up, between Spotify, iTunes, etc.

Now, unless you can survive solely from ticket sales for shows, without selling any merch, you're out of the game unless you're really good at begging.  You're not just trying to replace the lost income required to make recordings every now and then.  You need to replace the income you lost from all your CD sales -- which is far greater than the cost of making the recordings.

I've been thinking a lot about why it's so hard for so many musicians to do this begging for money.  Aside from pride or just lack of interest in engaging in such activities for whatever other reasons, there's the fact that you have to convince your fans -- many of whom might not even make as much money as you do -- to donate money to fund a recording project which costs many thousands of dollars.

Regular people who aren't professional musicians look at this $5,000 or $10,000 goal and they think, really?  Can't you just put your phone on a tripod and hit "record"?

One of the many maddening things about being a musician is the knowledge that most people will only notice something when it's not working.  They'll hear a bass note that's horribly out of tune, but they won't notice the bass line at all if it's all in tune.  It effects them subliminally, but not consciously.  And to try to explain to them why it's so important for the bass line to exist, and to be in tune, and to be recorded with a really good microphone in an isolated room in a building that was built for the purpose of being a recording studio, and why it should take hours of your time, the bass player's time, and the time of a producer and an engineer, to record one bass line for one song, well, it's hard.  In the end they just have to trust you that it really costs so much to make a good recording.

I know that the situation I'm describing applies not just to really indy musicians like me, but also to more established performers, like the kind who attract crowds in the hundreds or low thousands, who typically might spend more like $50,000 to make and promote a new recording.  They're feeling the hit, and they're making lower-budget recordings in many cases, I know for a fact.  Whether the pop stars are feeling the hit is not even a matter of question -- they are, and they sometimes complain about it loudly, such as Taylor Swift's recent spat with Apple.  Of course, for them, a hundred million views on YouTube still results in pretty good money, but nothing like the profits involved with selling physical merch.

And as for the other 99.99% of musicians, who might get a respectable hundred thousand views on YouTube in a given year if they've got a serious DIY following?  YouTube is secretive about their method for determining royalties, but I can tell you from personal experience that 100,000 views on YouTube or 100,000 streams on Spotify translates into approximately jack shit.

So when Trump talks about the forgotten people who don't have those factory and mining jobs anymore, nobody's going to mention the statistically irrelevant class of people known as professional touring musicians.  But we musicians have also been put out of work by the free market, essentially.

Maybe the unemployed miners should try crowdsourcing their income, too?  Ah, but they probably don't all have enough fans they can appeal to for mercy (aside from other unemployed miners).  That makes us musicians the lucky ones, I guess.  It's all relative.

By the way, would you like to join my CSA or help fund my next album?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Touring Against Trump?

I vacillate between being horrified by Trump and being horrified by all the people who are actively trying to make sure I'm horrified by Trump.  Specifically, the ones that run nonprofits, NGOs, and other money-grubbing "activists."  I don't know what they do with the rest of their lives, but whenever it involves my inbox, it has to do with fear-mongering and raising money, in equal measure.

Evidently, these groups are making more money than ever before since the election.  (This has been all over the press.)  They can presumably use all the money to raise more money, and to have the occasional protest, to make sure we remember that they're "activists," so we can give them more money.

I'm trying to organize this year's concert tour.  It's what I do, regardless of who's in the White House.  I thought for about two seconds about figuring out how to make it a specifically anti-Trump tour, but then I felt nauseated and had to stop thinking about doing that.  See, I'm absolutely certain I could get lots more gigs if I jumped on the bandwagon.  But my principles are more important to me than money, so I can't do it.

I'm so tired of referring to the political parties and their figureheads by their meaningless names.  From now on I'm going to use my own invented names, which make more sense.  The Party of Capitalism and Imperialism #1 and the Party of Capitalism and Imperialism #2 -- POCI1 and POCI2 (pronounced "pah-kee," I think).

POCI1 has been in power for the past eight years.  While in power, they have helped turn the USA into the fracking capital of the world.  There's no more clean water left in several states.  We had the worst environmental disaster in the history of the world -- and I'm not talking about fracking, I'm talking about the Gulf of Mexico.  After that, deep water off-shore oil drilling continued.  POCI1 deported millions of undocumented human beings back to war zones south of the US border.  POCI1 facilitated a violent military coup in Honduras, violently overthrew the government of Libya, continued military occupations of several countries initiated by POCI2 before them, tried hard to negotiate a massive "free trade" treaty, launched innumerable drone attacks against civilians in many different countries, and pushed hard to expand the anti-Russian military alliance called NATO.  And that's only a few of the things POCI1 did, only in the past eight years!

During the eight years before POCI1, when POCI2 was in power, in a nutshell, they did all the same shit.  They didn't deport as many people or jail as many whistleblowers or launch as many drone strikes, but they very violently invaded and occupied two countries, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.  They didn't do as much fracking, but it was early in the fracking era when they were in power, and the VP of POCI2 ran the company that invented the practice.

While POCI1 was in power -- led for the past eight years by a handsome, eloquent black man from a massive, impoverished, extremely violent US city -- the NRA raised more money than ever, by fear-mongering.  By telling their constituency that POCI1 was going to take away our guns.  Now that POCI2 is coming back into power, other "activist" groups are telling us to give them money because POCI2 is going to deport even more people than POCI1 did -- though they don't put it that way.  We should give them money because POCI2 is going to be even more friendly to the rich, to neoliberalism, to big business -- but they don't put it that way.

They don't put it that way at all.  They would have us believe that there is a battle between good and evil going on.  On one side, POCI1 and the "activist" groups defending our civil liberties and the environment.  On the other side, the evil POCI2 and the haters and deniers and their army of orcs.

I wish reality were so simple.  But it's not.  And as long as these "activist" groups are trying to convince us it is, just so they can make more money from our fear, they are part of the problem.  I don't know how to jumpstart a militant mass movement for real social change any more than you do.

But I do know this:  the way forward will not involve the leadership of morally bankrupt, cynical people or organizations that would have us believe there are sufficiently significant differences between POCI1 and POCI2 that we should give a shit which one is driving the train that is speeding towards the cliff.  Don't mistake reality for Middle Earth.  There is no Lothlorien among these politicians and their hangers-on.  Only Mordor.