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The Power of Music | The Nation

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The Power of Music

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Playing a benefit for a cause is one of the main ways musicians do politics. At this point, though, the rock benefit has become something of a cliché. Do you think benefits have lost their effectiveness?

About the Author

Ann Powers
Ann Powers is a senior curator at Experience Music Project in Seattle. The author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America...

Amy Ray:

I think it's always valuable to do benefits, but I think it's the type of benefit you do that establishes what your value is. We [the Indigo Girls] do very hands-on benefits--we'll do a three-week tour and half of it's actually in the communities where we're learning where the money's going and we're doing cultural exchange. It doesn't raise a million dollars, it raises $100,000. But it also raises a lot of awareness and we learn more about what's actually going on.

With big benefits, there's just this tendency for the show to become a parody of itself. Artists are there and they don't even know why. They're there because their manager told them it was the hip thing to do.

Morello:

I'd have to say, there's nothing wrong with a benefit concert. Rock and roll generates cash, and whether that money is used to feed starving Ethiopians or whether it's used to open a clinic somewhere, that's a better purpose than new rims on the Bentley for the bass player. I'll tell you one thing, though--what does make me chafe is whenever there is a benefit concert, there are always these accusations hurled around that these artists are just doing it for publicity. Let me tell you, there's better ways to get publicity.

Ray:

Touring with the Butchies [the all-female punk band that played with Ray on her solo album, Stag] renewed my sense of the importance of doing smaller actions. I learned that I don't need to worry whether I can get Red Hot Chili Peppers to come to an Honor the Earth benefit. Because I can get Girls Against Boys and the Butchies and we can go play the 9:30 club [in Washington, DC] and it just builds. There's going to be fifty kids there that are going to say wow, this is cool, let's plan our own benefit. And that's the point.

Is it easy to make alliances with other politically minded artists?

Ray:

I think there's a thing in artist activism where there's the hip activists and then the ones that are just, like, not hip. And I think we've always sort of been in the not-hip category, because we champion these causes that are like, Indians, what's that? We don't do the big stuff, we don't get asked to. We would probably have done something like a Free Tibet benefit if we were asked. It gets discouraging because you want to feel like you can call those people that are in that club, which we've done a lot, and get them to help you out. Some do. Eddie Vedder has helped us a lot.

Riley:

For a long time it was weird for me because music people I knew had very little in agreement with what I was philosophically. Around 1999 I met dead prez, and there was this big similarity.

They're doing what you're doing, on the East Coast.

Riley:

There are a lot of people out there doing cool work. I went to South Africa with Talib Kweli and the Roots for a couple of weeks. And even a lot of the groups that aren't called political or revolutionary have a lot more to say than what you hear on the singles. Like [popular Southern rapper] Trick Daddy has a lot of stuff on his album that really speaks to things. The way you tell a story is the politics of it, and he's telling a story, and a lot of it comes from the standpoint that this system is corrupt. [In songs like "Run Nigga" and "Bricks & Marijuana," Trick Daddy uses the landscape of "thug life" to confront inner-city inequities.] I would suspect he probably doesn't put those songs out as videos. Not because he thinks people won't be into it, but because he thinks the programmers won't play it.

That brings up another conundrum concerning politics and pop. Many people think popular music, as part of the multinational entertainment industry, is part of the problem.

Morello:

Absolutely. And frankly, when they write the history of our time, I think that's not going to be perceived as an accident. It's a crucial part of rolling the wet blanket over us. People should be erecting barricades in the streets for what's going on. Thirty million Americans under the poverty line. Forty million without healthcare. And people are just psyched about Christina Aguilera's short shorts.

So is pop just an opiate, or what?

Vedder:

If people want to go for the guns and booze aspect of rock and roll, then it's there. And it should be. One of the best ways to deal with some problems every once in a while is to dance all over them. At the end of the day, you've done all your thinking--maybe you voted that day or you held a sign up, and you've talked with your friend and you've kind of got as far as you could get with the issues. You're not going to be able to do anything about it at 1 in the morning. So you're splitting a twelve-pack with a friend, so what do you do now? You rock out. There's a time and a place for everything.

Anticorporate activism is a big part of the left these days, and it's an issue on the music scene too. Most of you are on major labels. How do you reconcile participating in a multinational corporate entertainment system?

Morello:

Rage Against the Machine was able to deliver 15 million subversive pieces of plastic across the globe. When we were being courted by different record labels, our only condition was that we have complete artistic control over every facet of our career in perpetuity. They put that in writing, we said fantastic.

Ray:

When Indigo Girls signed [with Epic], that was my one concession to hypocrisy. I just said OK, I'm going to do this, because Emily [Saliers, the duo's other half] wanted to, for one thing, and I wanted to because I was tired. We didn't have a staff, we were just doing everything for ourselves and it was hard. I felt like, this is my choice: I can either sign to a major and have these resources and have my own indie label [Daemon Records] and put out five records a year by other people. Or I can talk Emily into staying independent and we'll spend all of our time on our own career, and we won't ever get to do anything else with anybody else. The choice was obvious.

But I'll be very excited when this record deal is over. I would never sign again with a major label, because I feel like it's run its course. Major labels right now are pretty obsolete for artists like us.

There's a lot of upheaval in the music industry right now, and a lot of activism. What do you think of organizations working to better define artists' rights in the digital age? In Washington, there's the Future of Music Coalition, a think tank that's just released an important study on the state of radio and does work on issues involving artists' rights and the Internet. In California, Don Henley co-founded the Recording Artists' Coalition to champion artists' rights in Congress and beyond. Do you think the work these groups are doing is important?

Morello:

One ambition of mine is to unionize rockers and rappers. There is no collective bargaining whatsoever. I belong to the musicians' union, and I'll tell you, if you are a symphony member, if you can play oboe with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, they'll make sure you get your scale. If you are in a fledgling hip-hop band and someone puts a contract down on the hood of their Bentley, there's no one you can go to.

The Recording Artists' Coalition is a good step in that direction, but one of my qualms about it is that the majority of the people on the board of directors are not even artists.

Ray:

I'm a big supporter of the Future of Music Coalition, because they're trying to educate people about the way the machine works. You have to know that before you can accomplish your art within the framework of consumerism. It also helps you accomplish your activism better because if you're smart about the way this machine works, you're going to understand the way other corporate structures work and you'll understand how to approach them.

Carrie, Sleater-Kinney has stayed on a small independent label, Kill Rock Stars, and that's a big part of the band's identity.

Carrie Brownstein:

I think the model that we embody illustrates what you can do by taking a different route from the completely corporate one. You can hold on to your ideals and still support yourself. But I totally understand why people sign to a major label. So many bands struggle in obscurity or struggle on an indie label for years and years. It's not a black and white issue, so even though I've said it's a political or business model, I don't really think of it as an instruction manual. It's something that has worked for us and we have been lucky.

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