Are you familiar with the Music Workers Alliance and their efforts on behalf of music practitioners? For insights we turned to the extraordinarily diverse bassist Jerome Harris. Diverse discography? Besides his four releases as a leader, Jerome has recorded with such artists as Ray Anderson, Jack DeJohnette, Marty Ehrlich, Oliver Lake, Michael Gregory Jackson, David Krakauer, Bob Moses, Amina Claudine Myers, Sonny Rollins, Bobby Previte, Bob Stewart, Bill Frisell, Jay Hoggard, Julius Hemphill Big Band, Jeanne Lee, Roy Nathanson, Jaki Byard and a raft of others.
Given that it appears the genesis of the Music Workers Alliance efforts was first launched in 2020, did this effort first begin as a response to the hardships imposed on the live music arena by the pandemic?
Jerome Harris: Not quite. The org actually predated the pandemic–I only became aware of it when Marc Ribot reached out to a number of musicians and DJs in the spring of 2020 (April or May, as I recall), seeking new members to help meet the clear and major challenge of COVID-control measures shuttering all in-person performing-arts work. Voicing the interests of independent musicians among policy makers and the general public discourse was an obvious need.
Here’s a rundown of MWA’s pre-pandemic activity (from the “information at a glance” link at https://musicworkersalliance.org/about-page):
JUNE 2019: MWA is founded as an indie musician and DJ committee of NYC Artists Coalition. Its founding members included two members of the NYC Nightlife Advisory Board who noted the lack of public discourse of the plight of working musicians and DJs in the local policy space.
OCTOBER 2019: The group, still under the NYC Artists Coalition umbrella, meets with the Commissioners of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor’s Office on Media and Entertainment to discuss four areas where New York City can move towards a more musician and DJ – friendly ecosystem. These areas included: a potential venue rating system, a music census for NYC, establishment of a workers center, and a commitment that publicly-funded venues would honor a minimum wage for artists and workers.
NOVEMBER 2019: The group, still under the NYC Artists Coalition umbrella, works with NYC Council Member Brad Lander to give input on the potential impact of proposed Freelance isn’t Free legislation updates, particularly around the unique conditions of music that require special consideration when designing labor protections for freelancers.
FEBRUARY 2020: The group, still under the NYC Artists Coalition umbrella, meets with Governor
Cuomo’s office and members of the NYS Legislature to give input on the potential impact of proposed gig-worker legislation, and begins meeting with labor and advocacy groups to discuss possible unintended consequences for musicians and potential ecosystem solutions that would strengthen the social safety net for all freelance workers, including musicians and DJs.
MARCH 2020: Music Workers Alliance is established as an independent entity, with a steering committee that has grown to include representatives from local NYC musician and DJ organizations including Arts for Art, Building Beats, Discwoman, Indie Musicians Caucus and the Jazz Committee of Local 802 AFM, MOMENT NYC, Musicians for Musicians, Sound Mind Collective, Underground Producers Alliance.
What were the “impediments to musicians performing on COVID-safe” outdoor platforms? And what were the results of your “prodding”?
Things like NYC restrictions on setting up outdoor paid-ticket events; an unwieldy process for getting “sound device” permits required for using amps & PA systems for outdoor performing; restrictions on using public spaces–sidewalks, Parks Dept. areas–for any performing, including “pass the hat/tip jar” income earning. For one journalistic portrait of outdoor “guerrilla” performing in NYC during the height of the pandemic, see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/20/nyregion/coronavirus-nyc-jazz-concerts.html; I’m quoted in the piece. NYC did loosen some of the above impediments after a while, formally and informally. The City’s Open Streets and Open Culture initiatives were part of the formal side of this, allowing some compensated outdoor performing in a regulated manner. MWA met with City Council members and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and others in NYC government, voicing our interests and presenting ideas. Zooming out a bit, MWA found out about an innovative program in Tulsa OK which funneled federal CARES Act funds to music venues there for paying performers’ fees (they set a wage scale) who agreed to stage COVID-safe performances; they even found private funding to extend the program into 2022. MWA wasn’t successful in getting anything like that going in NYC, however.
What lessons learned and advancements did you make in light of these marches?
There were marches, but also many many online meetings with city and state officials–and even a meeting with House Speaker Pelosi’s arts-policy staffer. Lessons? While MWA arguably “punched above its weight”, having the means to establish an ongoing presence with policymakers would help immensely (in terms of presenting info and ideas in a steadier flow than when faced with a crisis, and for getting early info about what plans and bills are forming. It’s hard for a group of volunteers to do that, but we do what we can. Also, being too merely reactive–running from crisis to crisis–isn’t sustainable for us; it saps too much limited resource. Keeping our work focus tight and building our resources (active membership ranks; finances) is necessary.
What resulted so far in your “Economic Justice in the Digital Domain” efforts at calling online services such as Facebook, YouTube, and Google to task?
Perhaps not so much. We got some press coverage (example here), and raised some awareness among musicians, but no meetings with YouTube/Google/Alphabet on the issues.
Tell us more about your “Streaming Justice” campaign.
What were the overall findings of your surveys?
2020 survey report: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1mAMv2N6xQ-oPCE4gpsd4_658L8_lPTkZ/view?pli=1
What are the goals/intentions of that “$200M grant program”?
I think we’re referring to the New York State Seed Funding Grant Program, which was intended to help “early stage” small businesses recover from the economic impact of the pandemic (BTW, there was also a private initiative aimed specifically at NY state’s arts workers; MWA had minimal and peripheral input into the design of that program; one of our now-former Steering Committee members was involved in it). MWA found out about that program late in the process of it being set up; we managed to get language inserted stating that performing-arts professionals could apply to it. However, the design of the program criteria didn’t really fit indie musicians well at all, especially those who weren’t in the “early stage” of their careers. We did help guide folks through the application process, and a small number of applicants who we helped managed to get grants.
What were the results of your efforts on behalf of Winter Jazz Festival performers?
MWA actively supported the caucus of WJF performers who, in league with Local 802 AFM, successfully negotiated a c. 16% raise in pay for performing at the 2024 WJF (over the 2023 rate); we actually voted to ratify the new contract in a Zoom meeting this afternoon (I attended). BTW, Marc Ribot, who’s currently on MWA’s Steering Committee, led the WJF performer caucus’s negotiating committee.
What has been the response of the U.S. Copyright Office toward your formal statement?
Aside from having our remarks entered into their record, I think MWA is just one of their informants; I’m not aware of any specific response. But the Copyright Office issued a long and through report in 2020 supporting reform of Section 512 of the Copyright Act, which allows “safe harbor” shielding of platforms like YouTube as they host posts that infringe on copyright holders, weakening (killing?) the market for purchasing music recordings and sapping musicians’ income from selling our recorded work. MWA supports Section 512 reform–unlike United Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), a larger and better-known org which we sometimes have worked in coalition with.