This Week with David Rovics
This Week with David Rovics
To Sing or Not to Sing?

To Sing or Not to Sing?

A brief analysis of some of the considerations that go into deciding whether or not to have live music at your protest rally or other social movement event.

Many people have observed, for many years, how dramatically less music tends to be involved with protests in the US in recent years, and to some extent in other English-speaking countries as well, which tend to be very influenced by what goes on here.  

I have had a lot of experience singing at protests, as well as attending protests where there's no live music involved.  In my capacity as a professional protest singer (to use a term invented by the media) I've become intimately familiar with many of the reasons why protest organizers decide not to have any live musical performers at their events.  In the interest of helping people think through some of this stuff a little, and especially in the interest of aiding the pro-music contingent at any of those protest organizing meetings, I thought I'd go through some of the reasons why people decide not to have music, and consider the pros and cons of the different reasons.

But first, I want to emphasize that there is a solid logical, practical, or ethical basis underlying all of the reasons why organizers would choose not to involve themselves with musicians.  In some rare cases, depending on the circumstances, I'm sure it's the right decision not to have any live music in a protest.  From my experience it's overwhelmingly usually the wrong decision, but I don't want to dismiss the reasoning undergirding the many decisions not to have music at rallies as if they make no sense.  I just want to argue that having live music usually makes more sense, given the options.

And how much sense does it make?  This would be hard to overstate.  Many historians and participants in making history have commented on the power of music within social movements.  Many have said that without the music, the movement would have withered away or been defeated, but because of the fact that we were singing together all the time, this helped us persevere, not run away, and to feel the community that we had formed together in struggle.  The music is what kept our "eyes on the prize," to quote a famous song from the Civil Rights movement.  Therefore, if the answer is "and so we shouldn't have live music at the event," we are almost certainly asking the wrong questions.

Now, to get to some of the reasoning behind organizers deciding not to have live musicians at a rally, and my responses to that reasoning.

1)  It's a very serious issue we're protesting, and music might make us seem frivolous

The music industry has been promoting frivolous music for most of its existence in their music charts and radio stations, etc., which has colored the general perception of what music is all about.  But around the world they still know, and in social movements all over every continent you'll traditionally and currently find music at the core of things.  The US in recent decades is an outlier as far as that goes.  This very much includes the very places we may be protesting about -- the Palestinians and others across the Arab world love music, and great, politically-charged music is everywhere at protests across the Arab world, and in society generally, where singers like Fairuz and poets like Mahmud Darwish are household names.

2)  Having music at a protest seems so antiquatedly 1960's throwback

In the US, and in some other countries, music at protests, or just politically-oriented music generally, is associated with the 1960's.  In the popular imagination this is a negative thing, because the 1960's are associated with things like hedonism, frivolity, utopianism -- "drugs, sex, and rock & roll."  I and others would argue that the creation of these negative impressions about the 1960's and how deeply the movements of the period were connected to music and art has been a concerted effort on the part of the powers-that-be to put the genie back in the bottle, and overcome "Vietnam Syndrome" in all its various forms, including the cultural one.  Also, the 1960's was the last era of truly massive-scale social movement action that was heavily covered by the media, so we still associate the very act of protesting with the chants and songs we learned from the movies about the period.

3)  There's not enough time, and there are too many people we want to have speak

There are good reasons why organizers of a rally would want a representative from each of the different groups that may have been promoting the event to speak at it.  From a certain perspective that makes good sense.  From the perspective of the impact of the rally on the assembled crowd and the prospect for the rally to be a movement-building and community-building exercise, this orientation tends to be disastrous, and tends to lead to the cutting out of the music from the program.  The question should not be how do we pack in all these speakers, but how do we create a rally that will be memorable, powerful, moving, and community-building.  For a rally like that, as we see around the world currently and historically, most of the program should be music or other artistic forms of expression, rather than speeches.

4)  We don't have any politically-oriented musicians around here

If the whole program can stay on message, that can be a really powerful thing.  But if the only way to do that is to not have any live music, it's probably not worth what you sacrifice by not having any music.  You can instead focus on involving good musicians, professional sorts, who are sympathetic to the cause.  See what they come up with.  If they know they're singing at a rally about a certain issue, they'll very likely come up with a cover song from somewhere that's relevant.  You can encourage them to do that, even.

5)  All the politically-oriented musicians around here are preachy and cringe

Along with all the great musicians out there, there are also a lot of bad ones.  As with programming any other kind of event, it's good if the people organizing it have an idea about the quality of the performers they might be involving in the thing.  Just because someone wrote a political song doesn't mean they should be playing at your rally.  You can still discern whether the individual is capable of tuning their instrument and moving from chord to chord with ease before you ask them to sing at a rally.  If the only politically-oriented musicians around can barely play an instrument and the songs they write are the verbal equivalent of beating someone over the head with a bat, skip them, and have some other music in the program that may not be as on-message, but is going to get the crowd moving a bit.

6)  The musicians might go off-message

Is it such a disaster if there might be a variety of perspectives represented on the stage?  How much control do you think is necessary over every aspect of the messaging here?  In general, the concept of "artistic license" is a very good one, and one that a lot of people are familiar with.  Give them a break.  As long as you didn't accidentally end up with some patriotic, pro-war Nashville act, they probably won't go too far off-message, and if they do, chalk it up to artistic license.  If they're good musicians and they're thematically in the ballpark, the overall impact will be positive.

7)  We don't have a sound system

Rather than being a reason to not have music, this is actually a very good reason to be in touch with musicians.  The people that own the sound systems you want to use for your rallies are largely musicians.  Especially if they play in a band, they very likely own lots of sound gear.  Unlike a lectern and condenser mic, which isn't very good for public speaking and really sucks for musicians, the gear that the musicians have will work for them as well as for the speakers -- and much better, too.

8)  None of the famous musicians want to play at our protest

Famous musicians are usually very careful about public displays of politics, lest they alienate a big chunk of their audience.  For that and a lot of other reasons, they'll probably say no when you ask them to play at your protest.  But there are lots of great musicians near you who are not famous, who can serve the role the famous musicians would also have served, of playing good music and helping to foster a sense of community, make for an interesting occasion, etc.  The famous musicians are great if you can get them, and may help with media coverage and crowd size, but if they're not available, there are much better options than skipping the music.

9)  The bands want to charge and we can't pay anything

Being an independent musician, these days perhaps more than ever, is a very expensive endeavor.  A lot of bands can't afford to take time off, possibly rent a moving van, and do whatever else might be involved with playing at a rally for free.  If you're able to offer something, even if it's far less than what they may be asking for, it can't hurt to tell them what's possible and see what they say.  Otherwise you'll very likely find good musicians happy to play for free, but it's much more likely they'll be a good solo act rather than a good band, because the solo acts have much less overhead, for one thing.

10)  The solo acts or other acts willing to play for free skew towards the white and male, and we want to have a diverse roster of speakers and performers

This is a big problem, no doubt, and it's a big problem across the board in the arts in contemporary America, for a lot of reasons, including an almost total lack of support for an industry that is under siege from so many directions.  The ranks of those who can afford to be professional artists are getting fewer, wealthier, and therefore also more male and more white, with each passing year, as demonstrated by tax filing data.  If you want to have a more representative array of performers, you need to be able to pay people for their time, otherwise you end up with people who are well-off enough that they can afford to play for free.  However, if your choices are between paying a great multicultural hip-hop band that you can't afford, having a white guy with an acoustic guitar who is a good performer and will play for free, or having no music, the best option here is definitely not the "no music" option.  (The ideal option, which is the one likely to be employed in a place like Denmark, is to hire both the hip-hop band and the singer/songwriter, and to pay them all union scale...)

11)  This is a protest in solidarity with Palestinians (for example), and we want to center Palestinian voices and have Palestinian performers, but we don't know any

There are lots of good things about centering Palestinian voices at a protest about solidarity with Palestinians, of course.  There are also lots of great Palestinian musicians.  Most of them are in certain parts of the world, however, and you often won't find any nearby, wherever you happen to be.  Sometimes you won't even find any Arab musicians nearby of any kind!  However, music that is related to the struggle at hand, whether it's performed by Arabs or people from another part of the world, such as your part of the world, can be at least as powerful for an audience, especially if the lyrics are in a language they understand, such as English.  Great to center Palestinian voices, but if there aren't any around to center, the lack of Palestinians is a terrible reason to forego music of solidarity from non-Palestinians or non-Arabs.

In conclusion:  more music!

This weekend I'll be singing songs against the genocide in Gaza from my latest album, Bearing Witness, in the vicinities of Seattle, Vancouver BC, and Olympia. I'll have time free to sing at protest encampments in or between any of those areas upon request, too.

This Week with David Rovics
This Week with David Rovics
If I do an interview, whether as the interviewer or interviewee, or a livestream event, new song, audio essay or various other things, it’ll often go out as a podcast here.