Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Fixing The Stream

Why the launch of a new streaming platform by a Berlin-based company called Soundcloud on April 1st might shake up the music business and ultimately benefit millions of artists around the world -- if Spotify were to follow their lead.

In the world of independent musicians around the planet who are still in the game and paying attention to these things, the music press is buzzing with news about the launch of a new music streaming platform on April 1st.  A recent article in Rolling Stone mentions this, quotes a bunch of record company executives, and kind of just leaves it there.  As I seem to clearly be one of those musicians that get increasingly referred to as members of the musical "middle class" -- in fact, according to the stats, I pretty much embody the term, as it is used -- I thought I'd chime in on this discussion, and provide some background for those who don't follow these sorts of developments closely and could use some context.

But first, in terms of the present context, the reason Soundcloud's new platform especially matters is because it's one more reason Spotify might potentially decide to change their payout structure.  The music industry today is largely about music streaming platforms, and Spotify is the dominant music streaming platform globally.

More about the present in a bit.  First, background.

In the 1980's and well into the 1990's, music streaming didn't exist, for all practical purposes.  Other technologies, such as cassettes and then CDs, had made it affordable for independent musicians to produce our own physical recordings, and sell them to recoup recording costs and to pay the rent, too.  Those of us who toured and did at least a hundred gigs in a given year might sell a few thousand CDs at our shows.  For a lot of artists, like this one, this amounted to tens of thousands of dollars of income each year, and made up around half of our earnings.  In most cities across the US, the UK, Germany, and many other cities, artists could live cheaply in warehouses, lofts, collectives, and even in more typical nuclear family type of arrangements in houses and apartments.  At least if they didn't mind spending half the year on the road, to pay all the bills, after paying for all the overhead involved with touring in the first place.

In the late 1990's and especially in the Naughties, downloading and streaming audio for free was becoming increasingly popular, but it was largely either illegal, or if not, it involved independent artists who were more or less strategically giving away our music, often on platforms we had control over, where we had various opportunities to stay personally connected with people who downloaded our tracks.  The music industry globally contracted in size dramatically during this period, a real industrial collapse, which continued into the 2010's.  

During the Naughties, however, many independent artists I've talked to say they still sold plenty of merch on their tours, as did I.  The damage to the music industry seemed to be focused at the top.  The more popular an artist was, the more likely you could easily find all of their recordings online for free on some pirated music site.  The less popular an artist was, by contrast, the less likely it was that you'd find all, or even any, of their music on some site like that.  And due to the illegality of the pirated music sites, many people stayed away from them anyway.

In the 2010's, this all changed, and then in 2013, with Spotify launching their free tier, it was like a 9.0 on the Richter scale kind of change.  Everything basically fell apart for so many independent artists.  

Now, all of us independent artists who had innocently been doing what everybody did, and registering our new albums for digital distribution on all platforms that paid, or some other such box we clicked on wherever we registered our songs for people to download on iTunes for 99 cents each (which was the norm as far as these things went at the time that many of us clicked that box), suddenly found that we had already agreed to make all of our music available for free streaming on Spotify, for anyone, anywhere in the world, who was willing to sit through one advertisement every 30 minutes.

Many of us didn't discover we had done this until after we went on a tour where we sold half as much merch as we expected to.  The next year, we sold 20% as much as the one before it.  With some exceptions, like with some older independent artists who either purposefully or accidentally never signed up for digital distribution, and you can't get their stuff any other way, they didn't suffer as badly.  But even for many artists in such a position, with so much free music on Spotify, their CD sales suffered as well.  Music had become really cheap for the consumer -- free -- but for those of us producing music, it was a crisis of the sort akin to that facing the modern taxi driver.  (No, I don't mean Uber or Lyft.)  What was once a decent living was suddenly no living at all.

The way Spotify pulled off the industry-shattering move it did was made possible by massive investments from the Big Tech venture capitalists, willing to pour massive amounts into a money-losing company, in order to give it a chance to take advantage of the crisis the major labels were in, and get them to agree to Big Tech's terms of surrender.  They did this by offering them an arrangement that was preferable to them, at least in comparison with the crumbs allotted to independent artists.  It was still an arrangement altogether representing a shell of what the big three labels had once been, but they had been sufficiently humbled by years of piracy that they were ready to settle.

With this textbook "disaster capitalist" move that could easily have been a chapter in Naomi Klein's classic book on the subject (The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism), Spotify simultaneously brought the major record labels into the fold of the world of free music streaming platforms, and devastated independent artists around the world at the same time -- while bragging the whole time that their company was altogether the best thing to happen to music and musicians since the advent of the phonograph.

In the same period as the Spotify-inspired industrial collapse for independent artists, beginning in earnest in 2013, the financialization of the rental market meant musicians were constantly leaving all the towns they had made their homes for decades, places that had been centers of the independent music scenes, such as New York, Boston, Austin, San Francisco, LA, Seattle, and Portland.  In response, as with any collapsed industry, formerly professional artists sought work in other, more lucrative industries, such as flipping burgers.  As indicated by tax filings, the ranks of people who claimed they were artists, from a financial standpoint, fell precipitously during this period.

Those who stayed in the game generally either had very low overhead because they owned their home or lived somewhere really inexpensive, or they lived in a country with big subsidies for the arts, or they were living at least partially on inherited wealth, or they never quit their day job in the first place -- or they became really good at the form of online begging that we have learned to call crowdfunding.  Or some combination thereof.  

The ranks of professional artists over all of this period became increasingly white, as the ranks of those who owned houses, had inherited wealth, or well-off friends from whom to crowdfund were disproportionately white, as illustrated eloquently and in great detail by Bill Deresiewicz in his 2020 book, Death of the Artist.  Platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter exploded in popularity during the 2010's, as artists who were still trying to record albums with bands in studios every year and tour while making hardly any money on these activities tried to figure out how to make up for the loss of half of their income.

That brings us up to the beginning of 2020, more or less.

During 2020, the vast majority of formerly working artists became fully unemployed.  We lost all our gigs, and those many artists subsidizing their income with jobs in the service sector lost those jobs as well.  To be perfectly honest, it was only with the onset of the pandemic and the closing of all the restaurants and bars that I fully realized that so many of the bands that are hard-working bands with a decent following still consist of band members who mostly have to go back to waiting tables somewhere when they get home from a tour.

It was also during 2020 that many of these musicians who used to largely rely on their day jobs to pay the rent looked with ever more alarm at the monthly receipts from the streaming platforms, showing that they might have hit triple digits in their earnings again this month from that source of revenue, if they were all added up, after 100,000 more streams on Spotify that month.  Even artists too young to have ever known what it was like to record an album in a real studio or sell a CD after a show could feel the injustice of the situation, now that they'd been laid off at Shoney's.  We "creatives" may be adaptable and resilient, but there are limits, and they were reached long ago.

Not only did crowdfunding once again mushroom in popularity during the pandemic, along with many other forms of mutual aid, but music streaming platforms began trying to get into the act, with donation buttons on artists' pages and loads of fundraisers to keep shuttered venues in business and so on.  But the donation buttons prompted a new round of the broader public wondering, why do they need donation buttons when they have so many fans?  Don't they make lots of money from these platforms that in many cases we're paying monthly for, on the assumption that it's benefitting our favorite artists when we do so?  (Answer:  nope.)

Enter March, 2021.

At the beginning of the month, Soundcloud announced that although after many years of trying, they had failed to come to an agreement with the big three record labels, they were going ahead with a music streaming platform that allowed their one hundred thousand members to earn streaming income based on a simple formula rooted in how much time people spend listening to a given artist, rather than the more typical, opaque and apparently complex formula employed by companies like Spotify, distributing royalties based on an artist's percentage of total songs streamed on the platform, which will always tend to skew in favor of the artists that get played all the time on commercial radio anyway -- which of course is the skew demanded by the big labels.

Soundcloud very publicly explained the results of their number-crunching, when they announced the coming launch of their streaming platform.  Under their simple system, independent artists with a loyal following that acted like loyal followings of independent artists generally do (for example, indy artist fans are more likely to listen to an album than to a single in a playlist, relative to other music fans) will stand to make as much as five times as much income from streaming than they would under Spotify's system, without really changing the size of the overall pie being sliced.

Then on March 15th, a new, global, ad hoc musician's union organized a well-publicized series of protests outside of Spotify offices around the world, to highlight the unfairness of the platform's practices, and the predatory nature of the company's modus operandi.

And then a few days later on March 20th, Spotify launched a new website called Loud & Clear, where they make some fairly inadequate efforts at being a little more transparent in terms of how streaming royalties are distributed.  Although it seems evidently to be an effort to show that, look, most artists just don't make much money, even though some of you may get a lot of streams, and here are the various reasons why, such as labels, lawyers, and other middlemen.  At the same time, they show how they have distributed many billions of dollars in royalties, and they show how there are thousands of very popular songs that result in millions of dollars being paid out annually, to some.

What they also inadvertently reveal is Spotify's relationship with what is often called the "middle class" of independent music.  There on the website they explain that there are 3 million "creators" on the platform, which hosts tens of millions of songs altogether.  While they explain that they distribute royalties differently depending on the artist and their agreement with a given label and so on, they give us a few interesting numerical tidbits to digest.  

There are, they tell us, just over 200,000 songs on the platform that are streamed more than a million times every year.  The way they introduce this bit of information seems meant to encourage us uppity musicians to calm down -- look, bro, there are loads of other people who get a million streams a year, you're nothing special.

Then they have a calculator widget built into the website, where you can enter your number of monthly listeners, and it'll tell you how many other of Spotify's three million "creators" have that many monthly listeners.  I type in my number -- 11,000.  The number that comes up is 176,000.  Meaning there are 176,000 other artists getting as many streams as I get on the platform, which is around a million streams a year.  Which more or less matches up with their claim about how many songs get streamed at least a million times in a year (just over 200,000 songs).  And there on the site they also tell us that there are just under 200,000 artists who make more than $1,000 a year from Spotify streaming royalties (including among that number those who make much more than that).

So, taking Spotify's numbers and then applying Soundcloud's royalties distribution formula to them, assuming they are as accurate as all the number-crunching types who are smarter than me seem to think they are, we come up with the following conclusions:

  1. If it is more or less the same 200,000 or so artists who are making more than $1,000 per year from Spotify as those artists who have more than a million streams per year, then Spotify is paying independent artists like me somewhere between 1/10th of a cent and 1/5th of a cent per song streamed, with the payout varying fairly wildly depending on the month.  
  2. Many artists currently making $1,000 a year on Spotify royalties would stand to quintuple their income, to $5,000 a year, under Soundcloud's distribution model.  Every working class person on the planet, musician or not, understands how much difference an extra $4,000 a year could make for any worker, gig worker or otherwise.
  3. Untold numbers of the over 90% of Spotify artists currently making less than $1,000 per year would be making more than $1,000 a year under Soundcloud's model.  Someone else can figure out exactly how many, but it's undoubtedly a hell of a lot of people -- loads of whom are living in countries where a hundred dollars goes a long way.
  4. If racial justice matters (and it sure does), then implementing Soundcloud's model is the way to go.  Unless it's only the pop stars that matter, rather than the independent artists, the ranks of whom will become more diverse as there is more money in the pot, due to the aforementioned factors involving wealth vs. income and our history of racial inequality.  Gig workers being paid matters, if anyone's life matters at all.
As all the pundits writing about these developments are quick to point out, Soundcloud launching a streaming platform that doesn't involve the big record labels is not necessarily enough to shake up the internet all by itself.  But if it might end up being the kernel of the blade of grass that eventually grows up to become the straw that breaks Spotify's venture capitalist back, and forces them to adopt a fair and transparent royalty distribution system, societies around the world will be at least a little better off -- and millions of musicians will be much better off.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Housing Crisis: One Year After Lockdown

One housing activist's assessment of where we are now with the ever-worsening housing crisis in the USA, and some lessons from 2020 on how we might begin to reverse course, with well-organized eviction defense campaigns as a primary tactic. You can also find this in podcast form if you look for This Week with David Rovics wherever you get your podcasts, or under the Latest News tab at AbolishEvictions.org.

All the folks moving to Portland from California or New York and talking about how great the real estate prices are here may not know it (note: I was once one of them), but this city is the most rent-burdened city in the United States, and it exists within a country that, like this city, is undergoing multiple long-term crises, one of which is a housing crisis. The housing crisis, like so many other crises, got much worse one year ago this week, when the country, and much of the rest of the world, shut down.

Although this is a city that lost half of its Black population to the rise in the cost of housing between the years of 2000 and 2010 alone, according to census data, one year ago this week, if we talked about the housing crisis as one neck-deep in institutional racism, we would often be met by blank stares. One year on, the fact that there is racial discrimination in the real estate and rental markets, and the fact that housing justice is also a question of racial justice is largely accepted as self-evident in mainstream circles.

Less examined are the outrageous levels of profiteering on the backs of pretty much the whole of the society, led by a class of super-rich oligarchs, in their quest for ever more profits, as they systematically engineer a constant rise in the cost of buying or renting housing, across the country, as real wages continue to stagnate, nowhere near rising along with the cost of housing, except among corporate executives, investors, and a select strata of six-figure workers. But this entire phenomenon of sucking the wealth of society constantly upwards, towards the corporate landed gentry, is finally receiving at least a bit more widespread scrutiny than it has received in a very long time -- if not nearly enough of it.

To be clear, it's easy to see that we are in the midst of an epic struggle. Several major genies have come out of their bottles, and they're not going to just go away now. How all of this unfolds is unknown, because "unknown" is the nature of the future. But it's been a year since the lockdown, and a long three months since I've written anything on the class war that we call the housing crisis (not that I wasn't thinking about it much of that time, and reposting articles about related news on anti-social media).

Of course, a major development since I wrote about what was at the time the most recent iteration of eviction moratorium and renter assistance legislation in the state of Oregon, in late December, is the Biden administration managed to take office, and even managed to squeak in with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. As I write, the latest round of stimulus checks are arriving in bank accounts across the country, unemployment assistance for gig workers like me has been extended until early September, and a new child tax credit is apparently going to lift tens of millions of families in this country out of poverty over the next year, including mine, with an unprecedented, almost two trillion dollar government spending package. (Unprecedented, but only equal to what we normally spend on the military during a two-year period.)

What we have seen up til now, prior to the lockdown, and more so since the lockdown, is a dramatic rise in the number of people living in tents on the sidewalk or in broken-down cars on the street, a dramatic rise in young adults moving back in with their parents, and a rise in evictions. The rise in evictions has been hugely mitigated by local, state, and federal eviction bans that have come and gone over the past year, depending on the locality. Although caused in particular by a combination of an already burdensome cost of housing combined with low wages, when those wages were in so many cases lost entirely, eviction bans and government aid have so far prevented the "eviction tsunami" that the business press has been concerned about. Concerned, of course, for reasons of capitalism's self-preservation in the face of this unacceptably high degree of societal chaos, if not out of empathy for the millions of people who face the horrors of eviction in a typical, non-pandemic year in this country, who are normally ignored by the corporate media.

Now, we don't have a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but significant amounts of aid is coming in, which will significantly affect the lives of many people. First of all, this needs to be acknowledged. Government response to the pandemic was largely a disaster, economic aid for suffering people has been too limited and badly apportioned, but now there's a lot more of it, and it's going to make a difference.

If we take a moment to reflect on the situation and consider the future for the still-very-much-ongoing housing crisis in the US, among other crises, we can wonder whether this new stimulus package would have passed if Biden and Harris had not won the election, and we can wonder whether it would have been as significant as it is if not for a year dominated by constant domestic unrest. And we can ask what forms of unrest might have been more influential than others, in inspiring such generosity from that gang of several hundred millionaires (with a nice little squad of righteous progressives) that we call the US Congress.

Regardless of how we got here or why this happened -- by which I mean how this society got into such a stratified mess, and how the government got inspired to spend so much money to try to get us part of the way out of it -- what we can be sure of, according to copious precedent, is that any solution to the housing crisis that just involves paying the back rent is no solution at all. Even canceling all rent and postponing all mortgages for everyone during the whole of 2020, none of which is remotely on the Congressional agenda, wouldn't solve any long-term problems.

This is because the housing crisis predates the Covid crisis, so getting us back to where we were in 2019 would mean returning us to the housing crisis we were in already. But were the rental and other housing assistance to be sufficient to meet the need that's out there -- and as far as I understand, even with this new spending package, it isn't -- then what the corporate landlords and their management companies would do is raise all the rents. Those who have studied history are aware that one of the biggest friends of the labor unions during the early years of the industrial revolution in New York City were the landlords who owned the buildings the workers lived in. Why? If they were paid better, the landlords could charge more rent.

Meaning, of course, that most of the extra tax money raised, most of the new government debt incurred, even if it is ostensibly being spent in the name of keeping the housing-insecure housed, among other things, is ultimately just going to make the rich richer. And if there's more aid, that's just more money to be funneled upwards.

So what's the solution, if not aid? Control over costs. Only this can prevent the landlords from just charging more, as we earn more, or get more government aid, or institute a universal basic income, or whatever other such programs come along. A lack of good regulation of the housing market will inevitably sabotage all such efforts.

Of course, regulating the landlords means regulating the very corporate entities that spend the money that gets most of the politicians from both parties elected in the first place, in this auction that we call democracy, so changing policies around regulating what landlords can charge -- or even questioning whether and to what degree anyone should be allowed to practice this particular form of business enterprise, of running little monopolies that "provide housing" for people who would otherwise have none – is inevitably going to be extremely controversial among the kleptocracy. So getting this kind of regulation passed requires lots of resistance. Even more resistance than was required to get the $1.9 trillion bailout passed.

And what kind of resistance is that of which I speak? People will, have, and do argue about points like this endlessly. Did all the burning buildings in cities across the country inspire politicians to spend more to alleviate poverty and address institutional racism and other endemic problems, or would the politicians be even more inspired towards egalitarianism if all the protests had been permitted marches and candle-lit vigils? Unknown.

But if we are assessing the housing struggle and wondering where to go from here, I think there are some important observations to be made about the recent past, that speak to where we might focus efforts in the future.

There are many tenants unions and other networks cropping up all over the country that are focusing on a wide variety of issues of concern to renters, but if we were to boil their efforts down to two major demands, they would be the demand for actually affordable housing in the form of real, effective rent control legislation, and the demand for an end to the practice of forced eviction, and any threats to that effect. In other rich countries housing is a guaranteed right, rent control is widespread and practiced effectively, much housing is cooperative or government-owned, and well-maintained, and forced evictions are extremely rare.

Here in Portland, the scene around the Red House on Mississippi Avenue has, overall, been a great example of the potential for eviction defense tactics to change the whole equation when it comes to whether or how often the authorities, real estate investors, landlords, etc., will consider carrying out forced evictions or foreclosures. There is clear reason to believe the local authorities are far less enthusiastic about carrying out forced evictions since their failed effort to evict the residents there in north Portland, in the latter days of 2020.

While there are many cliquish aspects to the elements of the autonomous scene that tend to be attracted to the history and practice of eviction defense -- and that's true in the US and in other countries as well -- I think we can say unequivocally that when several dozen people (with the potential of quickly becoming a couple hundred people) are committed enough to risk arrest and police violence, among other things, by re-occupying a house after an eviction was carried out, and then by occupying streets in the neighborhood around the house, setting up fencing and tire spikes to prevent vehicular assaults as people did around the Red House, then we will affect policy moving forward.

Aside from the importance of inclusiveness, and the effectiveness of the various forms of civil disobedience practiced in the course of the Red House eviction resistance, there are other things to note about how events unfolded here in Portland over the course of the past year that might help us think about the next moves.

There are clearly many reasons for Portland being one of the flashpoints of resistance over the past year in the US, and also one of those places where resistance around race and housing most naturally intertwined. I wouldn't want to under-emphasize the importance of factors like the cost of rent relative to the average wage here (what they call "rent burden"), which, as I mentioned earlier, is the nation's highest, or the long history of housing discrimination against people of color here. But I think an important psychological element on this front is that so many of the people here, activists or not, moved here after being priced out of New York City, Seattle, or California, and this experience colors their perspective on everything. Many of them -- us -- feel like we have nowhere else to go, in many ways. Cornered.

Another factor that seems worth noting is the way the local movement organized itself into different blocs responsible for different activities related to maintaining a social movement, from feeding people to caring for their wounds to fixing their cars to providing legal support to providing sound at protests. This phenomenon was not limited to Portland, of course, but was more of an organized thing in some places than in others.

Especially since the January 6th Capitol siege, people, organizations and networks across the political spectrum have been losing their social media accounts. I personally know many people around the world who are solid members of the left, not the sort to be making death threats or spreading outrageous conspiracies, who have lost their Facebook or Twitter accounts in the past few months. Long before all this deplatforming was a big news item in early 2021, the movement in Portland was actively pivoting to stop relying so much on the corporate platforms. Although Twitter is still a very useful place to stay abreast of happenings on the street here if you follow the right accounts of grassroots activists and journalists, activists in Portland increasingly do their communicating in private Signal groups and other more protected spaces, less vulnerable to disappearing at the whim of a Silicon Valley billionaire.

One of these blocs, essentially, has been an initiative I've been very involved with called PEER -- Portland Emergency Eviction Response. There are several other groups, or committees within larger organizations, involved with doing very much the same sort of thing, such as the eviction defense committee within Portland Tenants United, which itself is part of a broader network of tenants unions that has recently formed, the Autonomous Tenants Union.

On PEER's website folks can sign up to receive text alerts about evictions that may be happening. PTU's eviction defense group has a similar setup. PEER's web and text operation is very intentionally set up independently of any major corporate platforms. Anyone who can receive a text message can sign up, anonymously. As things continue to develop with Big Tech and Big Data, along with the suspensions of so many social media accounts, it becomes more and more clear how important it is for essential communication, and lots else, to be, as much as possible, independent of corporate platforms, and at least slightly less subject to mass surveillance.

As these networks here have been growing, we have made a very conscious effort to plaster the town with stickers. Posters, too, but especially stickers. They last much longer -- sometimes months, in prominent places around town. We have focused our stickering campaigns on neighborhoods and parks where protests happen often, as well as near Class C apartment complexes, which can be found all over Portland, in some parts more than others.

The focus on physical media is because we don't want to just communicate online, and we feel that the physical presence of such messages around town has a different sort of impact than a post on the web. It's also not subject to Facebook's insidious algorithms or censorship efforts. The slightly illegal nature of spreading the word by putting stickers on public property, such as on the otherwise blank, shiny steel backs of the many signs poking out of the sidewalks, seems to have a somewhat comforting effect on many people who may be wondering who these eviction defense people are. Whoever they are, they like to deface public property, so maybe they're OK. The medium communicates as much as the message does.

As the person responsible for answering PEER's email, I have developed the distinct impression that there are a few folks around town who identify with this nascent eviction defense squad much the same way people who feed the hungry in public parks without a permit identify as Food Not Bombs. In either case, what some people are identifying with is simply a tactic, more than anything else. In the case of Food Not Bombs, you needn't have met anyone else engaged in the practice, necessarily -- if you're feeding people for free in a public place and risking arrest by doing so, that's more or less the whole shtick.

And if you believe in eviction abolition, and risking arrest by trespassing or perhaps engaging in other forms of civil disobedience in order to keep people housed, rather than pitched onto the sidewalk, then you're a PEER of mine and others. It's just the basic concept of solidarity, coordinated by text mob, rather than the old tin horns of the Rent Strike Wars in the 1840's, or the telephone trees in the age of the land line.

Or to put this whole update into one sentence:

However big or well-targeted the bailout may be, in all likelihood, lasting change won't happen until we take on the corporate investor landlord class, demonstrate how much support this cause has, stop business as usual, and force the politicians to pass the kind of legislation that will control the rent, now -- not in some capitalist's imagined future.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Rebel Songs (2021): new album from David Rovics and friends

Feel free to share this press release, in whole or in part, in any form, anywhere, with or without attribution.

The first album from David Rovics of 2021 is out now on Bandcamp and will soon be up on all the usual music streaming platforms, including SoundCloud's new streaming platform, when it launches on April 1st.

The album, Rebel Songs, is a very pandemic-inspired international collaboration between Oregon, where the basic tracks were recorded at Big Red Studio in Corbett, and Ireland, where Pol Mac Adaim added various instruments to the mix and turned it all into an album, at his home studio in the Cooley Mountains.

The new album features 13 original songs, all written between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020.  The oldest song on the album was written in the days just after the last time David and Pol did an album together, though back then, in the fall of 2019, it was all made in person, in Ireland.  "The Pogroms of 1969" is a song about what is still living memory for many, when a campaign of government lies and sabotage combined with other factors to inspire a wave of mob attacks on predominantly Catholic communities across Northern Ireland, where Pol grew up.

There are two other songs about history on the album -- "When This Fertile Valley Was Stolen" and "The Pandemic of 1918."  The former speaks to the theft of the Willamette Valley by the white settlers who founded the explicitly, institutionally racist state of Oregon.  The latter highlights some of the shocking parallels between today and a century ago.

Whether about history or current affairs, all of the songs in the collection are in one way or another related to the present-day global pandemic, or to the protest movement that arose partially in response to the many inequities that were exposed by it, and the kleptocrat-led US government's inept response to it.

The songs speak to the present, and to the times we've been living in over the past year in particular.  "They Lied" explores why so many of the people dying of Covid-19 didn't believe the virus existed.  "To All the Jared Kushners of the World" is a stinging, and driving, indictment of the billionaire class that this American oligarch represents.

"Say Their Names" was written months into the Black Lives Matter uprising, and controversially puts Micah Xavier Johnson in the pantheon of Black martyrs sacrificed at the altar of white supremacy, along with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Kendra James, and others whose names are said.

"Essentially Expandable (The Death of Jason Hargrove)" highlights the plight of what we have come to call "essential workers," the last to be paid or protected, and the first to die.  "There's Water On The Moon" is escapist fantasy, inspired by one of the many scientific discoveries of 2020.  "Behind These Prison Walls" gives this tribute to Wikileaks and Julian Assange the band treatment.

"With Masks Upon Their Faces and Leaf-Blowers In Their Hands," "Don't Pay The Rent," and "Our Imagination" are all songs inspired by the variety of social movements that have grown exponentially since the events of the past year, in David's home town of Portland, Oregon, and far beyond.

In addition to David's guitar and voice, and Pol Mac Adaim's keyboards, whistles, harmonicas, vocal harmonies, and mixing prowess, Rebel Songs features Arcellus Sykes on acoustic and electric bass, and Spank Hopkins on drums, with Billy Oskay performing essential roles as both producer and engineer for the recording sessions for the basic tracks.

David is, as always, available for interviews, online concerts, etc.  You can email him at drovics@gmail.com, or call or text him at +1 503 863 1177.

Note to radio programmers:  If you'd like the album as a download, David will send files upon request to anyone who asks.  If you're a programmer on terrestrial US radio, note that there are swear words that need to be bleeped in "To All the Jared Kushners of the World" as well as in "There's Water On The Moon."

Friday, March 5, 2021

Days of '49: Remembering Peekskill

A new radio play by Tayo Aluko based on events surrounding Paul Robeson's concert in Peekskill, New York in 1949, and the racist, anti-communist riots that came before and after it, drops on Paul Robeson's birthday -- April 9th -- and it seems more timely than ever.
One of the artistic projects I've been involved with as a minor participant since early autumn is a radio play.  It's a fictional depiction of real historical events, and as I read the play, participated in the online rehearsals and recording sessions with the playwright, the director, and the other actors involved, the history we were bringing to life seemed to be getting more and more relevant by the day.

If I weren't paying close attention, it would be easy to dissociate and forget what time zone I was in.  Racist, anti-Semitic mobs laying siege to an event, attacking participants indiscriminately as police were completely absent, or stood by and did nothing.  

Their explicit aim was to lynch someone -- musician, activist, athlete, linguist, and African-American, Paul Robeson.  Though they failed in this effort, they injured many people, and destroyed a lot of property in the form of cars and buses as people were trying to leave town -- succeeding in the latter efforts particularly because of the active cooperation of the local authorities in directing traffic their way, down narrow roads.  They succeeded in creating an atmosphere of terror that resulted in events being canceled across the country soon afterwards, among many other consequences.

The mob was not only protected by the police, but they were very actively encouraged by the local press, which had a familiar, one-sided orientation -- if you didn't believe in capitalism, you were a communist, the enemy within, out to take away our freedom and prosperity.  

And it wasn't just the local press.  Although it may not have been necessary to lie in order to make people look bad, the most incendiary claims that motivated the mob to act as they did were fabricated from whole cloth, with parts of a speech that soon became globally infamous being sent across the wires before the speech was delivered -- and inaccurately.

But it wasn't just the rightwing, racist, anti-Semitic mobs motivated by ideologues, assisted by fake news put out by some combination of press outlets and politicians, with the active collusion of the local police, laying siege to established, annual, local events that seemed so familiar.  There were so many other things.

While it was a prosperous period for many, for many others it wasn't.  Especially for those struggling to find a job after so many industries were in transition in the years following the Second World War -- in Peekskill, New York, and across the country.  

Before Westchester County became the extremely wealthy New York City suburb that it is today, it was the nearest rural area north of New York City where people from the big city could have weekend and summer getaways.  Before it was that, it was a river valley dotted with factory towns and farms.

That combination of radical ideologues with control over huge propaganda machines, spouting lies, egging on mobs to create an atmosphere of terror, in the context of rapid societal transformation, with so many people sacrificing so much to live such precarious lives, is not a new one.  And it is a combination that has caused so much damage in the past.

I don't pretend to have all the answers for salvaging this society, but I'm sure wherever those answers lie, they must probably involve first understanding what led to the events of August and September, 1949, in Peekskill, New York.

Tayo Aluko's radio play about the Peekskill Riots, Paul Robeson's Love Song, drops on Paul Robeson's birthday, on April 9th, 2021.  More info about the launch will be up on Tayo's website soon.

Reflections on Singing for Wikileaks

My takeaway from the recent welcome news of Julian Assange's release from prison is that collective action works. When the news broke th...