The history of the music industry in the U.S. is dotted with unions, strikes, and collective action, from the 1942 Musicians’ Strike to the 2019 No Music for ICE campaign, but the focus has tended to land on the artists themselves. Union-minded musicians have a few options: the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) was founded in 2012, while the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) dates back to 1986; they collectively represent about 75,000 musicians, the majority of whom work with orchestras, in opera, or in musical theater. These existing structures only serve a tiny percentage, though, leaving the other 99 percent of music workers to fend for themselves. In 2020, the Music Workers Alliance was founded by a group of independent music workers to advocate for themselves and make the industry more equitable through collective action.
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SAG-AFTRA represents the office staff at several major labels, but smaller independent outfits — despite their own particular pressures and financial hardships — have largely been left out in the cold and had to go it alone. The workers at prominent indie-music company Secretly Group want to change that. On Tuesday morning, a majority of employees went public with their plan to unionize — and if they succeed, the Secretly Group Union will make history as one of the first independent record label staffs to do so.
“We’ve all had friends say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. You get to work with music, you get a free ticket to a show or free drinks,’ but drinks and shows and music don’t pay our rent, and don’t provide us with the support that we need,” a member of the organizing committee who requested anonymity tells Rolling Stone. “We obviously have a real passion for what we do. We love our roster, and we’re really proud of all the music we put out, and we’re proud of being able to work on it. But that is not a substitute for the kinds of benefits and compensation that we need to keep being able to do this.”
The Secretly Group Union committee members have a laundry list of concerns and issues they’re hoping to address and rectify with a union contract, from low wages and inadequate healthcare benefits to a desire for greater transparency and representation.
“Our goal is to spotlight the rights of our staff and the health of our workplace. Working in the music industry is not an easy way to support oneself for the majority of people; this is the case for both artists and those working behind the scenes,” the group wrote in an open letter released Tuesday. “Our enthusiasm for the culture in which we work can lead to exploitation in ways endemic to the creative industries: poor wages, inadequate benefits, lack of work/life boundaries, gatekeeping that obstructs professional development, and an absence of initiatives that address systemic race and gender inequality. We seek Secretly Group’s recognition of the union to address these issues that are unsustainable for the well-being of our staff and thus the company at large.”
The half dozen workers who spoke with Rolling Stone for this story all requested anonymity, citing concerns about retaliation; several are based in the flagship Bloomington, IN location, while others are employed in the company’s three other U.S. offices.
“So many of us had been trying to bring up these issues and solve them individually, and they were not being heard” – Secretly Group employee
The Secretly Group comprises four independent record labels — Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans, and Ghostly International — a distribution arm and a music publishing company, as well as archival record label The Numero Group. The group’s overall roster represents a host of critically acclaimed artists, including Yoko Ono, Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten, The War on Drugs, Khruangbin, Mitski, and Bright Eyes, and has expanded rapidly over the past several years. (It now has offices in several countries, though only the U.S.-based workers are involved in the current union drive.) That growth helped keep the company afloat as the pandemic ravaged the industry all around it, but workers say that they were the ones who ultimately paid the price.
“There was a lot of pressure, and a lot of uncertainty about how to deal with the added workload,” one worker explains. “I spend all of my time working. I work massive amounts of unpaid overtime because it is preferable to the petty micromanagement I’ll experience if I can’t complete my large amount of tasks.”
That pressure contributed to the union drive, but organizers say it wasn’t the sole driving factor. One organizer pointed towards 2020’s racial justice uprisings as fueling their resolve to meaningfully address persistent issues around diversity and inclusion at work. They also cited other recent efforts to organize in the arts and media like Pitchfork’s successful union drive, as well as the Amazon workers’ current union fight in Bessemer, Alabama, President Biden’s pro-union messaging, and shakeups at the National Labor Relations Board.
“Along with the civil rights movement, and the pandemic, and how people know that they are working very hard and they deserve more, it all sort of came together at the same time,” they explain.
After months of discussion, the committee reached out to the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU)’s Local 147, which represents administrative staff at several major label groups, last August. “When we started talking to them, we saw a lot of frustration and determination to make their workplace a better working environment,” OPEIU International organizer Andom “Nati” Kahsay tells Rolling Stone via email.
“So many of us had been trying to bring up these issues and solve them individually, and they were not being heard,” one organizing committee member tells Rolling Stone. “There was a point where you think, what are the alternatives here? What is our other option other than to come together and collectively advocate for ourselves, and to make sure that we have the backing and the power to do so?”
In the letter, the group chastises the company for “performative allyship” that “is not enough when the voices of our most vulnerable employees — people of color, women and gender non conforming staff — have become increasingly marginalized.” In one example given to Rolling Stone, the company hired a third party “HR compliance company” to run a series of diversity trainings, but the workers felt that the efforts rang hollow.
“There are a lot of unwritten expectations of jobs where people are quietly punished or retaliated against if they don’t adhere to them,” Secretly Group employee
“Without actionable items, or without self-reflection that is confirmed to the staff, they largely feel performative, like a checkbox that they did something,” one worker explains. “It’s very easy to sign your name on initiatives to publicly say that you’re supporting things but when it comes down to the way that you treat your staff, the things that people don’t see, that’s often more indicative of your true character.”
“Your value and growth in the company is dependent on how buddy-buddy you are with management,” adds one warehouse worker. (Members of Secretly Group and a rep for the company did not respond to requests for comment.)
Workers claim that certain squeaky wheels at the company were ignored or frozen out. “There are a lot of unwritten expectations of jobs where people are quietly punished or retaliated against if they don’t adhere to them,” one employee says. “Right now, someone could be working really hard and meeting all their goals but still never be rewarded for that because of implied expectations, and that’s not right.”
While they declined to provide an exact number of employees who are involved in the union drive, organizing committee members say they have already secured a comfortable majority. The hope is that Secretly Group will honor their request for voluntary recognition, but if the company declines, the workers won’t be backing down.
“We have the numbers to win an election already,” one organizer explains. “A lot of people in this past year, whether you’re onstage or behind the scenes, have come to the same sorts of conclusions: that the people in power are not accountable. They don’t compensate us fairly. And there’s no representation for us. So I feel very proud of the fact that we might be part of a movement, and that we’ve been able to be inspired by other people in our industry working towards these goals, because ultimately, we’re all part of the same fight.”
“I want Secretly Group to be a place where people are treated fairly; I want being passionate about music to be a reason people are treated well, not a reason people don’t receive a fair wage,” a worker who grew up in Indiana says. “SG releases music that changes the path of modern music. This is how the folks who work here change the path of the modern music industry.”
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