Monday, April 27, 2009

Do DJ's need a union or a trade association?

As a former (not so former) DJ who paid his dues in Virginia Beach and Richmond, Virginia, I was often confronted with questions of copyright law, fair use, and so on. I did not have the answers. I did not know where to turn for answers. I'm sure my DJ colleagues were in the same boat. And who was around to advocate for us? The record companies have a voice in Washington. The artists, composers, producers, and writers all have a voice. The anti-hip-hop groups have a voice, but who's on the side of the DJ?

In 2008, the International DJ Trade Association was founded. It claims to be "an advocacy group for the DJ industry on a range of public policy and rights issues. The association is especially committed to improving the understanding, respect, and compensation for the role of the DJ in the entertainment industry and being a powerful, unified voice on behalf of DJ’s rights." That all sounds good to me.

We often hear of hip-hop containing four central areas of expression: emceeing, DJing, break dancing, and graffiti. It only seems logical that these four pillars have a voice in our government. The artists are well represented, but the DJs, many of whom work closely with artists are often left without representation. It seems that the only way a DJ might have a voice inside the political machine is if they are a member of another artistic association: ASCAP or AFM for example.

The IDJTA doesn't have much going on on its website, but it looks like there's a solid foundation for success. It will be interesting to see what legislative priorities the group will come out with. It will also be interesting to see if they engage in the sort of advocacy that, like it or not, maters in Washington, DC -- writing letters to Members of Congress, making phone calls, getting to know key legislative staffers, publishing op-eds and letters to the editor in response to stories that affect the DJ's craft.

It's great to bring together like-minded people and discuss policy, passion, and politics, but it's another thing to have an effective lobbying group that influences legislation, regulatory policy, and others. Will we see IDJTA reach out to ASCAP or AFM? Will we see something like the Davis-Bacon Act (prevailing wage requirements) passed for DJs? Will collective bargaining be next?

It seems that a union might actually run counter to much of what DJs do. The organization and rules of a union stand in stark contrast to the mashing, remixing, and recreating DJs engage in. Is the very idea of a union antithetical to the art of DJing? It's also unlikely that IDJTA will be able to recruit many DJs. I don't know too many DJs that can find the time to worry about legislative priorities, dues, or board meetings when they're trying their best to schedule new work, finish a mixtape, and potentially even work a day job.

The IDJTA plans to offer health plans and even legal representation when membership goals are met. That's a great idea considering most DJs do not work for corporations with health benefits. Spinning in smoke-filled clubs and house parties, being out all night, and the all too common alcoholic drink can take a toll on the body. As we've seen on this blog, legal issues abound in hip-hop and it would be powerful if DJs had a way to counter hegemonic copyright forces.

Well intentioned? Yes.

Politically powerful? No.

Something to look for in 2009? Absolutely.


  1. Great post Nick. I have spent some time over the last week or so thinking about ways DJs interest can be better represented in the music industry. I didn't start researching so this article is a great foundation for diving more into the topic.

    My specific question/comment was sparked by your point about DJs not having the time to worry about legislative priorities, etc. when their primary concern is trying to find gigs to play at to make money. I agree with that completely and that point describes the DJs I know perfectly. However I really know any big name DJs, and I was wondering how the big name DJs would react to the idea of DJs forming a union?

    It would seem to me that if the International DJ Trade Association could get some of the big DJ names (DJ Drama, DJ Envy, DJ Clue, DJ Khaled, etc.) on board it would go a long way with getting the little guys to join the association. And it would also seem to be in the best interest of the big DJ guys to become a part of the IDJTA if the association can truly help better the environment (both IP and physical) for DJs, because they are the most likely candidats to get hit with IP issues and lawsuits (as we have seen with DJ Drama). While the little guys fly under the radar.

    Let me know your thoughts.

  2. As with any trade association or industry group, when you have big names join, the little names are likely to follow. Big names are also the best source of funding. Say DJ Envy can give $50,000. You would need 500 DJs giving $100 to equal that. That’s more than I pay for membership to the West Virginia University Alumni Association, University of Richmond Alumni Association, and Smithsonian Museums combined.

    Superstar DJs are more likely to be the focus of legal action, but that doesn't mean that distributors of mixtapes or local DJs are off the hook. An aggressive Justice Department could easily find many DJs breaking IP laws.

    If we saw a large increase in DJ prosecutions, then the case for IDJTA would be great. As it stands, I don't think we're quite there yet, but it makes sense to get out in front of the storm. The last couple of years China's IP rights violations have been a major concern for the U.S. In that climate, who knows if the Justice Department will begin looking at our own soil?

  3. You write that, "It seems that a union might actually run counter to much of what DJs do. The organization and rules of a union stand in stark contrast to the mashing, remixing, and recreating DJs engage in." Would you please explain what "organization and rules" you are referring to? From your post, it seems to me that DJ's are forced to sell their labor power just like everybody else. Just because you're mixing and mashing up songs doesn't make you a special class worker. In fact, most of modern capitalist runs on the gas of re-creation, innovation, and other forms of immaterial labor. So, what makes you so special that you don't need a union?

  4. Ursa,

    Thanks for the close read. I am not arguing that DJs are not in need of a union. I do argue that the structures of unions, all of which have been cooped by capitalism's sticky hands, are not what they once used to be. In some sense my critique of capitalism is more radical than most and in so believing I am drawn to critique the machinations of society that are traditionally viewed as battling capitalism's abuses and excesses.

    The argument I make stems more from a reading of Deleuze and Guattari than it does from Marx or even Hardt & Negri.

    Being fortunate or not fortunate to work in politics now, I have seen unions use public policy issues as bargaining chips with little regard for the workers they claim to represent. I have seen groups that claim to represent the downtrodden and under-represented throw their support to the highest bidder. Am I opposed to unions? No. Do I believe unions have value? Yes. Do I feel that capitalism has infringed upon unions to the extent that unions do not rest on as strong of a moral basis as they once did? Yep. I see capitalism for what it is and I see capitalism unfortunately in those things that we hope are working against capitalism's power.

    You are correct in asserting that DJs are forced to sell their labor in ways that divorce them from their production and product. DJs are in a bad way. Their ability to earn money, avoid legal trouble, work in a healthy environment, and so on are all compromised.

    DJs are not a special class of worker and DJs may very much need a union. If I were still active in the game, would I join a union? I likely would. It is important to have a voice and organizations can in some instances strengthen an individual's voice. My criticism of unions is that they are becoming tools of capitalism, but it is also about the way that they structure space in response to capitalism's structure of space. Does that mean we should do away with unions? Absolutely not.

    The argument you make about innovation sounds very much like a reading of Adam Smith who wrote extensively on the power of laissez-fare to bring about innovation, which he in turn argued would eventually benefit all.

    Thanks for opening this dialogue and I hope it continues.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Nick. I agree with the criticism of business unionism as you have described it. In fact it seems to me that much of the history of US labor illustrates that unions function to mediate rather than accelerate class struggle. Of course, there are interesting exceptions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World for example that depend on direct action and worker power. Autonomous or Solidarity Unionism, as we call it, would most certainly be the reference point for a Deleuzo-Guattarian critique of the mediating function of business unionism--which, btw, they pick up from Mario Tronti. It seems to me that if there were to be organization around DJing it would most likely *have* to be with somebody like the IWW as I can think of none of the major unions would take the risk (as the dues pay-off would probably be too low). Thanks for your comments.



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