“The key to success is not how many people we put in, but how many we keep from coming back."
On Sunday, May 14, the San Francisco Chronicle published my open letter to Neil Young, “Hey, Neil Young, We Young Singers Are Hog-tied, Too.” I tried to explain how the corporatized music industry has censored protest music in the past several years. The letter went viral on the Internet, and I was flooded with enthusiastic responses from all kinds of people. Even Neil and his team posted it front and center on his blog for the entire week.
What prompted my letter and the outpouring was Young’s comment about why he felt compelled to write his new anti-Bush album, Living with War. “I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer eighteen-to-twenty-two years old, to write these songs and stand up,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I waited a long time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the ’60s generation. We’re still here.”
As the first protest singer to rise from the streets of anti-war and WTO protests and get a major worldwide distribution deal, I felt compelled to explain that today’s Dylans, Ochses, and Neil Youngs are here, but they’re being silenced by an industry that has for years derived its profits from kiddy porn and dreamy boys.
Just two days after my article came out, MTV, which has refused to play anti-war videos even by the biggest stars, published an article addressing the need for political consciousness in mainstream music. In a flourish of Bush-like hubris, one of the country’s chief purveyors of military recruitment ads to youth posted the article, “Where Is the Voice of Protest in Today’s Music?” The webpage boasted an Army video game in the bottom right corner. (MTV, by the way, refuses to air anti-war ads produced by organizations like Not In Our Name and Win Without War.)
Where’s the voice of protest? It’s in MTV’s trash can.
Where are today’s protest singers? They’re on the “don’t add” list at corporate radio stations, where they’ve increasingly been placed since FCC deregulation paved the way for the monopolization of the industry.
Just ask Scott Goodstein. He heads the great music/political advocacy group PunkVoter, which, with Fat Wreck Chords, released the Rock Against Bush compilation CDs. Those CDs, which included songs from Anti-Flag and Green Day, sold 650,000 copies combined. When Goodstein approached MTV about getting airtime for Rock Against Bush, they rebuffed him. “They told us, ‘Your project’s not relevant. Or, it’s not mainstreamy enough,’ ” he says. “And Rolling Stone’s no better.” Meanwhile, Green Day’s current anti-Bush album, American Idiot, has sold five million copies.
Finally waking up, MTV has the nerve to extol Green Day and include Anti-Flag in its story on political bands!
PunkVoter immediately posted a retort titled, “MTV, Still Completely Worthless,” stating that political bands “will be there, waiting, when MTV is ready to start covering some protest music. Not that they’re gonna.”
Pete Seeger told me that the floodgates to freedom of expression were opened in the 1960s when the Broadway and Hollywood monopoly over the music industry was broken by Rock and Roll, Motown, and Nashville.
Now, the subsequent monopoly that Rock and Roll, Motown, and Nashville constructed is being broken by the Internet, where artists and organizations are creating networks that transcend corporate genres.
“Most corporate industry professionals just don’t understand it,” says Molly Neitzel, executive director of Music for America, a nonprofit organization that engages music audiences in political issues. “We’re a generation who doesn’t fit into boxes,” she says. “We listen to all kinds of music, and that just doesn’t fit into the old corporate model of selling records to kids this age, that color, this demographic.”
Considering how damaging target marketing has been for our democracy, it’s great that today’s protest singers span all genres: from the anti-cool subtlety of indie-rockers like Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes, to in-your-face hip-hop artists like the Coup, Mr. Lif, and Immortal Technique; from punk bands like Anti-Flag and NOFX, to country and folk artists like Liza Gilkyson and Merle Haggard; from rally regulars like David Rovics, Pat Humphries, and Chris Chandler, to genre-bending artists like Thievery Corporation and Manu Chao.
Some labels are already picking up on the pulse. Andy Kaulkin, who runs a label called “Anti-” for Epitaph, tells me he’s become fascinated by the civil rights movement and contemplates what we could do with music to create such a movement today. Accordingly, he has signed artists across corporate music genres that converge instead in political consciousness and spirituality. The label’s roster now includes Billy Bragg, the Coup, Tom Waits, and Spearhead.
Speaking with Billy Bragg after my article came out, we agreed that the modern “broadside”—the protest song that actually has political effect because of its timely ability to affect public opinion—is the free mp3. “In the corporate model, it’s all based on sales, not on social consciousness, and even the Internet releases are exploited as promo for upcoming releases, so singles are still held up in this four-month lag time the record industry requires for printing, publicity, distribution,” he says. In today’s sound-bite world, no one wants to write a song about a war that might be over by the time the album comes out.
My conversations with Goodstein and Neitzel inevitably veered toward the idea of a nationwide tour of a diverse selection of artists to bring together a raucous, mixed, and attentive audience. But we also spoke of how to expand the kind of touring I and a few other artists have been doing. We use our shows to support local peace and global justice groups. Kind of like what SNCC and SDS did in their day, except for the global, Internet generation.
Where’s protest music today? It’s here, it’s on the Internet, and it may soon be coming to your town to build an international movement for peace, civil rights, and equality.
Stephan Smith-Said is an Iraqi American songwriter whose father’s family lives under the daily threat of bombing in Baghdad and Mosul. His newest single, “Another World Is Possible,” has been released for free at his website www.stephansmith.com.