Max Weber once described politics as “the slow boring of hard boards”; those with less patience for poetry might just call it slow, boring, and hard.
Nonetheless, I’ve found that the music community is actually uniquely equipped with the kind of long-game thinking that it takes to make substantive policy changes. That’s because there’s a basic structural similarity between the kind of slow and steady work it takes to hone your craft as a composer or performer over many years, keeping your eyes on what opportunities and challenges lie around the corner while working to address your present needs, and the slow and steady process of building movements for justice. Making an impact in either policy or music often requires the same kind of passion and perspective.
Yet for many policy areas that are important to musicians and composers, from arts funding to health care access, from media policy to affordable housing, the pace of progress can be frustratingly slow, and our institutions of power can seem remote and unresponsive. Even for issues where simple, straightforward consensus solutions exist and have been identified, it can take far too long to make those solutions real.
Here’s an example: For years, performing musicians have been frustrated by the unpredictability of airlines’ policies about flying with musical instruments. It may seem like a small thing, but for musicians whose livelihoods depend on their ability to arrive at their gig with the tools necessary to do their job, it’s been an enduring problem—one that has also impacted the composers, venues, and presenting organizations who depend on these musicians getting where they need to be. Musicians would show up to board their plane only to be surprised by arbitrary size and weight requirements, and their ability to board could be subject to the whims of gate agents. After years of advocacy, provisions to create consistent policies and allow instruments as carry-ons were attached to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthoriziation bill and signed into law on February 14, 2012. Hooray!
So, if the bill is passed, the problem is solved, right? Alas, no. Congress makes the laws and apportions funding, but then federal agencies have to implement the laws and spend that money. The FAA was given two years to prepare formal regulations, but when the deadline rolled around in February 2014, the regulations hadn’t yet been drafted, allegedly for budgetary reasons. And the horror stories kept rolling in: instruments that had to be checked and were then damaged or destroyed, musicians not allowed to board, travel plans botched.
Happily, after renewed efforts, the new regulations finally went into effect on March 6 of this year. Credit is due to the American Federation of Musicians, which has long led the charge on this issue, working with airlines, policymakers, and federal regulators to see it through to the end. (No one does tenacity like a labor union!)
But there’s a sobering element to this victory. If it can take years to really secure a win on an issue where the biggest barrier isn’t organized, emotionally charged opposition but bureaucratic process, what does it mean for issues that are more publicly contentious?
Let’s look at another issue where musicians and composers recently scored a big victory: the recent net neutrality rules, which were formally published earlier this month.
As you probably know by now, net neutrality is the basic principle that the internet should work the same for everyone, and that internet service providers (companies like Verizon and Comcast) should not be allowed to discriminate or pick favorites. This is enormously important for composers and musicians who rely on the level playing field of the open internet to reach audiences, collaborate, and communicate, especially if their work is limited in commercial appeal and unlikely to find the support of corporate backers.
This issue came to widespread public consciousness in 2014, with more than 4 million Americans filing official comments with the FCC—an unprecedented show of interest in wonky telecom policy. And ultimately the FCC voted in favor of the strong net neutrality protections that we had called for. But for a full decade before those comments flooded in, musicians, composers and other activists had been actively working on this issue. It’s been a long battle and it’s not over yet, but there are a few lessons we can learn:
You may lose a few times before you win
As part of the road to the new rules, we’ve weathered a series of serious disappointments, as when courts ruled against net neutrality rules in 2010, and then again in January 2014. When something like this happens, rather than be discouraged, you can leverage a loss as a focal point for organizing. Moments of crisis are often where values become clearest, because they remind us all what’s at stake.
Artists really can lead the way
Artists of any medium who’ve publicly demonstrated an interest in social justice issues can quickly get burdened by requests to support a deluge of causes, and it’s not always very strategic, as anyone who’s sat through a few unsuccessful benefit concerts knows. Nonetheless, the music community can lead the way on issues that impact them and everyone else. Before the issue was mainstream enough to be fodder for late night comedians, artists such as the Kronos Quartet and Vijay Iyer alongside big stars like R.E.M. laid the groundwork for net neutrality by being vocal about its implications for freedom of expression.
Coalitions get it done
An impressive array of arts and culture organizations weighed in on net neutrality, including Americans for the Arts, American Composers Forum, Association of American Arts Presenters, Chamber Music America, Fractured Atlas, League of American Orchestras, National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, National Alliance for Musical Theatre, National Performance Network, New Music USA, OPERA America, Performing Arts Alliance, and many more. Add to that list media reform organizations, civil rights groups, online activists, labor unions, and businesses large and small. Coalition work means learning to work alongside folks that you may disagree with on other issues—what other issue has brought Moveon.org together with the Christian Coalition?—but the outcome speaks for itself.
It takes sustained engagement to really make an impact, because it requires building relationships with government officials, not just communicating in times of conflict. It’s harder to get stuff done if officials only ever hear from you when you’re disappointed with them. That’s why it’s important to work to build productive, positive relationships with both the folks making the laws and those who implement and enforce them, even as we work to hold them all accountable. (I love this video of FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallett being interviewed by musician/activist Rebecca Gates; he talks about the value of hearing directly from musicians and how these direct perspectives shape his thinking.)
And while I’ve been writing primarily about politics as it plays out at the federal level, this is all equally true at the state and local levels. We have more power than we often imagine, even if it takes some time to see results.