Op-Ed: The Musical Left with Bernie and Beyond

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COVID-19 has exposed America’s fragile social safety net and crumbling infrastructure. As layoffs increase, more and more Americans are without health insurance or a steady source of income.  For musicians and freelance artists who live gig to gig, many of whom are uninsured, they are without any stable source of money. Entire tours have been canceled, leaving artists, photographers, and personnel without pay. Many of them rely solely on the entertainment industry to pay for rent and bills.

In response, Bandcamp waived their fees for a day in a special promotion, so all sales went directly to the artists and labels, and many listeners have since been sending money to artists to help them pay for gas and food, but individual actions and charity cannot fix a structural problem. Essentials like food, healthcare, and housing are guaranteed in other countries, but the wealthiest country in the world is somehow incapable of providing the most essential things for their people.

Our favorite Socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, is a bit of a punk himself. It’s no wonder that Joyce Manor, Vampire Weekend, Lucy Dacus, Ratboys, The Strokes, and Soccer Mommy have all played at his rallies. Bernie was the first presidential candidate in modern history to see art and especially music for its revolutionary potential. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate with a demonstrated understanding that all Americans are worthy of healthcare and a home, regardless of socioeconomic status or their career choice.

When he was mayor of Burlington, Bernie understood the need for a creative space. Along with his then-girlfriend Jane, he converted the old Burlington Water Division into what’s now the country’s oldest DIY venue. What originally started as a way to defy the city’s ban on live music transformed into an all-ages space that hosted legendary punk bands like Fugazi and Operation Ivy. Student volunteers led all of the programs.

Flyer from the venue that Bernie and Jane ran in Vermont.

Back in 2016, Bernie stressed his commitment to the arts, an area of funding that is commonly seen as unnecessary by presidential candidates both Republican and Democrat. In a 2015 video to the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, he expressed unwavering support for the arts. “I will be an arts president,” he said. “When I look back on my eight years as mayor, founding the Burlington Arts Council is one of my proudest achievements.”

Not only do the arts provide a necessary creative outlet, but they create a healthy community space for both artists and listeners. A theme of Bernie’s campaign is that all labor has value and dignity. Many see art as a hobby or side hustle, but Bernie understands art as a career. He sees artists as workers, just like cashiers and doctors, all of whom are deserving of basic human needs. Recently, he included an amendment in the coronavirus stimulus bill that guaranteed relief for gig workers, such as Uber drivers and the self-employed. This amendment crucially made many musicians and music business workers eligible for unemployment for the first time in the nation’s history. The Amendment King.

Bernie realizes that the Coronavirus pandemic leaves millions without work. In a country without guaranteed healthcare or paid leave, musicians and personnel are at risk. Policies like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, housing for all, and student loan debt relief directly benefit musicians, venue workers, and freelance photographers. Under a Bernie Sanders presidency, they would no longer have to worry about losing their homes or their health insurance if they lose their jobs or another pandemic strikes. Unfortunately, with Bernie suspending his campaign, that movement is left for us to continue.

In order to create real changes to this broken structure, we need to understand the depth of the problem and acknowledge that surface level changes will never be sufficient. You can Venmo the band you saw a few weeks ago, but no amount of individual donations will change the fact that the three richest Americans hold more wealth than the bottom 50% of this country. Your band isn’t making enough money because your bassist isn’t showing up to practice. It’s because our political system allows a select few Americans to hoard wealth at the expense of everyone else.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar from Jacobin’s “Forgotten Country”

Why does capitalism teach us to only value labor that creates a profit over labor that creates a feeling? It’s this system that values the ability to sign off on loans above the ability to make an audience swell with emotion until we all burst and synchronously wave our limbs in a sweaty frenzy. It takes more talent to make people forget that their boots are sticky with PBR and lose any conception of time than it does to further the system that keeps us all in poverty.

Whether you realize it or not, Bernie and the entire Left movement (socialist or otherwise), has been fighting for you for your entire life. Whether you’re an artist or not, someone in your life or your friend’s life is. We need to look out for each other because we are all worthy of health and dignity. We need a political, economic, and moral revolution, and we can’t do it without you.

If you’re heartbroken about the news of the end of Bernie’s campaign, you’re not alone. Local activists are running for office on a platform similar to Bernie’s so they can put their constituents at the center of every policy decision and create a government that works for all of us, not just those at the top. Down-ballot races are often overlooked even though they allow politicians to directly help the people in their constituency.

But elections don’t shape history, as they say, electorialism has it’s limits. People shape history. We have accomplished more through demonstrations and direct action than electoral politics could have ever dreamed of. Now more than ever, mutual aid organizations need your help. There are DSA chapters in every state teeming with organizers who are turning their despair into action and fighting for someone they don’t know.

Keep organizing, keep making calls, keep spreading the word, never stop. Never surrender. The world and your favorite artist’s life are at stake.


Giliann Karon

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