Picket the Grammys!
An Open Letter to the Writers Guild of America
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Please allow me to start out by expressing my full and enthusiastic support for your cause. At a time when employers are permitted to run rough-shod over what little working people have left, and so many unions crack under the pressure, your strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has given us a small glimpse of what a real labor movement might look like. Almost three months in, your pickets have remained strong, few members have crossed, and you have gained the vocal support of other artists and unions. I have rarely been more proud to call myself a writer.
The strike has also given lie to the stereotype that all those who work in the entertainment industry live a life of luxury and glamour. At any given time 48 percent of your membership, almost half, are unemployed. As a freelancer, I know the feeling. Studios make billions off their shows and movies, but without the hard work of the actors, musicians, designers, technical workers and writers, not a single reel would turn.
You showed that brilliantly two weeks ago during the Golden Globes. You picketed, the nominees would not cross, and as result one of film and television’s biggest nights was reduced to a half-hour news conference! No doubt the studios were more than a little irked, but the message came across loud and clear.
Which brings me to the point of this letter. Last week you announced that you would not be picketing the 50th annual Grammy Awards on February 10th. Brothers and sisters; I tell you out of utmost respect and support that I think this is a mistake and a missed opportunity.
The Grammys are the biggest televised night in the music industry. More than 20 million people tuned in last year. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) relies on the program as a boon for its funding, and major TV studios are all too happy to add it to its award season lineup. If NBC took a hit as the Golden Globes withered, you can bet CBS will feel the heat from losing the Grammys.
It is true that the strike has suffered setbacks in recent weeks. Chief among them would be the deal struck by the Directors Guild, which compromised on royalties for programs viewed online, the central issue of your own strike. Then there is the fact that despite relying on WGA members’ script contributions, the Grammys do indeed represent a different industry, and the leadership of both the musicians and TV performers union have urged you not to picket. Perhaps with all of this combined, the decision to not picket seems a reasonable move; an olive branch for the studios as you head back into negotiations.
It is my fear that the studios will see this move not as a sign of good faith, but as a sign of weakness. Over the years we have seen countless strikes and other struggles go down to defeat trying to “make allowances,” or find “common ground” with employers. The most immediate example would have to be the disastrous agreements reached this fall between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three auto-makers. If the studios haven’t shown any flexibility, then it seems there is no reason for your union to do so.
Neither can Neil Portnow, the President/CEO of NARAS, have his words taken at face value. Portnow may talk a big game about the Grammys “always being a union show,” but this comes from the same man who mere days before had the gall to approach your union with a strike waiver for the program. I suppose it comes as no surprise that he has no idea that solidarity just doesn’t work that way.
Despite NARAS’s claim to be an organization made up of both artists and executives, it has repeatedly shown its sympathies to lie with the latter of the two. This past October, Portnow wrote an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News calling on tech companies and record labels to unite in ending “illegal” downloading in the music world.
Portnow of course insisted that he was thinking of both musicians and record companies. But nowhere in his article did he bring up the more fundamental issue of how artists are actually treated by their label. Nowhere did he mention how little has been paid to artists from “legal” downloading so far. Nowhere did he bring up that artists are paid a mere ten to fifteen percent of each album sale. And nowhere did he mention that most artists are lucky if they aren’t in debt to their label after their second album!
Musicians are taken for granted by major labels, much the same way that writers are by the studios. As the more people are choosing the internet as the place to go for their entertainment, both studios and labels are searching for ways not to pay their artists more, but to grab an even bigger piece of the pie for themselves. For this reason, it is my genuine belief that, despite being in a different industry, you may find a large amount of solidarity among the musician community.
Even among this year’s Grammy nominees, most of whom could hardly be called starving artists, you may find a great amount of support. You already know that several of this year’s nominees are members of your sister union, the Screen Actors Guild, and would be prevented from attending if you chose to picket. Jack White, Beyonce, 50 Cent, even Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake have publicly grappled with the choice of staying home on February 10th, and there is little to indicate that they would hold any anger toward the WGA if they had to do so.
Furthermore, there are several nominees this year who have a long history of supporting progressive causes. There is, of course, the obvious example of Bruce Springsteen (who had already said he will not be attending this year’s awards). But there also are artists like Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, Joni Mitchell, the Beastie Boys, all of whom have refused to cross picket lines in the past.
I bring up these examples not to give the impression that strikes are won on star-power, but to highlight the very real solidarity that exists for your struggle. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that two out of three Americans support your strike for the very simple reason that they are sick of seeing their own living standards chipped away. As we head into what looks to be a nasty recession, there is no telling how much more we have to lose if we don’t fight back. A victory for you, the old adage goes, would be a victory for us all. Your strategy and tactics are of course the choice of your own union. However, it is my belief that by not making your presence felt at this year’s Grammys, you are passing up an opportunity to further galvanize not only your cause, but the cause of other artists, and the labor movement in general.
**** Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in