Best of 2020: Dougie Poole Got Into Organizing This Year

The country singer talks the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers.

The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers started earlier this year, in March or maybe April. It started initially as an offshoot of the No Music for ICE campaign — which was musicians organizing around the idea that we didn’t want our music streaming on Amazon platforms for a number of reasons, the most notable being that Amazon Web Services is the back end upon which ICE tracks and oppresses people on the basis of their immigration status. A lot of people signed that petition, and pledged to keep their music off of Amazon streaming services. 

That made me aware of a growing contingency of progressive-minded musicians who were willing to organize seriously, and take action around issues that affect us. Later in the year, once COVID took hold, we issued demands for COVID relief. It’s basically an extension of unemployment benefits — a lot of musicians and music workers are gig workers, and weren’t eligible for unemployment. 

My role within the union is website design. I basically do the tech stuff for it. I haven’t done a ton of organizing work before. I’ve done some volunteer work for mutual aid groups, I’ve done some work similar to website work for a cool record label called Die Jim Crow, which is a label for currently and formerly incarcerated artists. I learned to code recently, so I had been talking to my friend Victoria [Ruiz], who sings in Downtown Boys, about how to get involved. She reached out to me when the union was building their website, and that’s sort of how I got involved. 

Other than the birth of the union this year, the other exciting thing that happened in the last month or two was the Justice At Spotify campaign. As far as I know, it’s this first instance of musicians collectively organizing for better treatment from Spotify — very basic demands: 

  1. Pay us at least one cent per stream.
  2. Adopt a user-centric payment model rather than the pro-rata model — the difference between that, as I understand it, is right now roughly 70% of revenue gets split up between all of the musicians on the platform divided by their percentage of total streams. This model favors musicians who get way, way more streams. A different model would be distributing royalties to musicians based on their percentage of a given user’s streams. So like, if someone listened to like 10 songs one month, and nine of them were the Backstreet Boys and one of them was Britney Spears, then nine of their ten dollars would go to the Backstreet Boys and one dollar to Britney Spears. Which is not how the pro-rata works. 
  3. Make all closed door contracts public. So, Spotify has closed door contracts with distributors and major record companies that they do not publicize. Presumably it affects how the algorithm works, and whose music it favors. 
  4. Reveal any existing payola and end it. Because payola is bullshit.
  5. Credit all labor in recordings, including engineers, songwriters — people who deserve to be credited and compensated for their work. 
  6. End all legal battles. Spotify has a lot of ongoing legal battles with various artists. They wield their wealth and power over individual artists in this way that’s totally unfair. 

This was organized by the union remotely through weekly meetings. At this point, there’s roughly 20,000 signatures to the petition, which is a lot of artists and music workers. There are plans to how we’ll move forward with this, and one is to deliver them in-person to a Spotify headquarters. They haven’t as of yet responded to the campaign, and the plan is to, when it’s appropriate, escalate if they don’t respond or make changes. I don’t personally know what [escalating would be] yet. 

The main goals of the union are demanding fair deals from streaming services, ensuring musicians receive royalties, establishing more just relationships with record labels — which is more for musicians working with larger independent labels — and creating safer guidelines for venues to ensure the survival of good and beloved venues. There are a few subcommittees which include label relations, venues, police abolition, accountability in classical music, streaming — which sort of designed the Justice At Spotify campaign — and more. Justice At Spotify is the big main action so far. 

Right now I’m working full-time, but this definitely has me feeling revved up about it. I plan to be working with this for a long time, and it seems like a lot of musicians are pretty committed.

You can learn more about the UMAW here, and check out Dougie’s album The Freelancer’s Blues here

As told to Annie Fell.

Dougie Poole is a country musician and songwriter living in Brooklyn, New York. Coming of age in Providence, Rhode Island he dabbled in heavier and more experimental music before maturing into a country auteur. He writes earnestly about his experience (life in the big city, heartbreak in the digital age) and approaches country music with honesty and a deep respect for the genre’s traditions.

Poole has long had ties to several artists in the experimental music scene including Jerry Paper with whom he toured nationally while playing in Paper’s live band, and in 2019 he appeared on the Drugdealer album Raw Honey, drawing praise from Pitchfork for his “sad-eyed Elvis croon” on the track “Wild Motion.” Poole’s solo debut, 2017’s Wideass Highway, was his first public experiment with country music and was an immediate favorite of publications like The FADER, who praised his ability to bring classic country songwriting into a “contemporary space” with an album that “articulated a generational self-consciousness.”

On his sophomore album, The Freelancer’s Blueswhich is out June 2020 on beloved Brooklyn indie Wharf Cat Records (Palberta, Bambara, Public Practice), he graduates from drum machine and synthesizer bedroom country to a full band with honky-tonk harmonies, wailing pedal steel, and carefully constructed arrangements that whole-heartedly embrace the country sound he only hinted at on his debut. Produced by Jonathan Schenke (PC Worship, Gong Gong Gong, Public Practice) the album does the seemingly impossible by staying true to Poole’s heritage in the DIY scenes of New York and Providence, while simultaneously certifying him as a bonafide country songwriter, and captures the lived experience of Poole and his contemporaries in a way that resonates with both the current moment and his classic country forebears. On The Freelancer’s Blues Poole approaches the storytelling backbone of country music for an audience that is city-dwelling, romantically alienated and financially precarious, using the same threads spun by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson before him to write anthems that will resonate with hardline country music fans and newcomers alike.