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Q&A: A conversation with UMAW Philly about their gear drive and benefits of organizing music workers

Owen Lyman-Schmidt and Eleanor Linafelt are two members of UMAW Philly, the new chapter of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers here in our city. In an effort to get the word out about their new initiative, a gear drive that benefits incarcerated persons and local nonprofit Beyond the Bars, they reached out to CVZ to have a chat. We met at World Cafe Live during the load-in time before Owen’s band, Driftwood Soldier, played the Music Hall downstairs at WCL that evening to discuss the gear drive and how UMAW Philly is shaping up in Philadelphia since their inception this past May. The following is a Q&A concerning everything you need to know about participating in their gear drive this holiday season, and how important it is as a musician or music worker to be involved in the community they’re creating.

CVZ: How did the Philly branch of UMAW get started?

Owen: What happened was UMAW national–the union of musician allied workers–they were doing intro meetings on Zoom, sort of like a “get to know how you can be part of this” meeting, and I went to one. I’ve known some people who were involved for a while, they were just rolling out this idea of local chapters. Chicago had started one. LA was excited about one. Sadie was on the call, Andy was on the call, Tim was also on the call. Sadie and I were in a small group and we started talking and were like, “Philly needs a chapter.” After the meeting, Andy and Tim and Sadie and I got together and said we're gonna make it happen because UMAW national has a lot of energy behind it right now. They’ve got a “Justice in Spotify” campaign that’s been working for fair wages for streaming, and they also did a national gear drive for incarcerated folks. We wanted to take that energy and see it moving people here in Philly because we know that Philly has this incredible collection of music scenes, and a lot of solidarity and a lot of creativity and a lot of pride in Philly. We want to see that expressed as both musicians and also as workers. And widen that sense of who is part of our community to include all the people who make [music] happen. All the venue workers, all the radio people, the studio people, there’s so many people who are part of the music community here that also deserve a voice in how it all gets done.

CVZ: Eleanor, what’s your role in UMAW?

Eleanor: I’m a musician. I'm pretty new to Philly; I moved here a little over a year ago, but had heard about UMAW National when it started, and really wanted to just meet other musicians and also get involved in the things they are doing and the initiatives that UMAW was taking. I come to meetings when I can, and I'm really excited we're actually starting something.

CVZ: From your perspectives, why is it so important that musicians organize?

Owen: It’s very hard to organize musicians. We've all been pitched this scarcity mentality that there's not enough for all of us, that only a few people are going to “make it.” That no one deserves to be able to be a musician as their way of life. Puncturing that illusion I think is key for us to be able to advocate for ourselves as workers who deserve basic rights around say, our working conditions in the pandemic, that's crucial. But [plenty of issues] existed before [the pandemic]. A lot of people aren’t getting paid very much. We joke constantly about exposure, which in a pandemic has a double meaning, but it’s routine for musicians to work their whole career for under minimum wage and so making the space for that kind of organizing is really hard and really necessary.

Eleanor: Especially the Justice Spotify campaign that the national chapter has gotten a lot of attention for–that’s the major thing that they’ve been pushing lately–and that issue is just an obvious way to me that shows musicians are being exploited. And the solution is to organize because, you know, people aren't getting any money for streaming. And that has been something that drew me into [UMAW]. I think also UMAW started throughout the pandemic when musicians were just left out [of the conversation surrounding workers’ rights]. They can’t tour, and that's a major way to make income, and not having that was hard. And having this time, during the pandemic, to actually reflect on what we [as musicians] have and what we need is causing us to organize.

CVZ: Is the gear drive you’re working on to benefit incarcerated persons specific to Philly? Or are other branches working on something similar?

Owen: There’s been a couple other different gear drives. UMAW National also did a gear drive for incarcerated people. Chicago did a gear drive for, I think, a particular community space that was opening. Ours is sort of doing dual-purpose. We have some gear that is going to state facilities in Pennsylvania, so state prisons. We did a big outreach effort and talked to a lot of the facilities to see who could use things for their music programming. We have a couple places that are excited about it. And also, at the same time, because there’s such a limited range of things that can go into a facility, and we hope to get a whole big collection of different things, Beyond the Bars [will take donations as well]. Beyond the Bars is an awesome organization that works with youth who are being held as adults in prisons, and they have also been increasingly trying to intervene before people go to prisons by creating music spaces in all sorts of locations around Philly, like schools and shelters and all kinds of places where people might really benefit from having a chance to work with instruments and music. And so any gear that doesn’t go to incarcerated workers is gonna go to Beyond the Bars to outfit more music spaces. There's slightly different needs. For example, Beyond the Bars could really use laptops and all kinds of beat-making materials for a lot of their studios, like headphones and cables. That's less useful to incarcerated folks because of the limitations in prisons. We're casting a wide net, and we’re going to figure out where the stuff can be best used.

CVZ: Going back to the idea of the union and a local chapter, how is membership growing since you started in May of 2021? Do you think more people should join?

Eleanor: We’d definitely like for more people to be a part of it. We’re having this first campaign partly to get more people to be aware of the union and hopefully involve more people. At this point, people are showing up every couple weeks and we’re able to make decisions together. But it'd be great to have smaller groups focus on specific things. Like, UMAW National has focus groups for abolition or gender equality or specific things like that.

CVZ: The representation you have now in the group, is it mostly musicians or behind-the-scenes workers?

Owen: We have a core group of mostly musicians who come regularly, and then a broader list of people who came for some info sessions who are on our mailing list who are paying attention to what’s going on. But out of the core group that’s meeting regularly, it’s mostly musicians. But we’re hoping that we can get the word out and get more people involved so that the capacity of the group grows and we can take on bigger projects.

Eleanor: There’s also people who run record labels and do some journalism. Plenty of people who have multiple roles in music.

Owen: Which is sort of the truth: we all have to learn how to be “all of the things” at the same time. I never wanted to learn how to sell T-shirts, but ya know, I sell T-shirts for a living. *laughs*

CVZ: As a musician it seems, you have to have a very DIY mindset. If you don’t know how to do something that is necessary for your career, you learn how to do it.

Eleanor: That's even how i've felt about UMAW Philly. I wouldn’t have even known how to find a list of state facilities, and how to reach out to them. Stuff that I wouldn't have thought that I could really do. But we're just like, “This is what we’re gonna do, and we’re gonna figure out how to do it.” And thankfully enough people have the knowledge that we’re able to pull together all our resources.

CVZ: When/where do you guys meet?

Eleanor: We meet on Zoom on Monday nights at 7:30. Every two weeks.

Owen: Sometimes there’s special meetings in between if we have an event coming up, like this gear drive for example. Anybody who identifies as a musician or a music worker of any kind is welcome to join. There’s no membership dues.

CVZ: Good to hear there’s no membership dues and otherwise things that would discourage membership. Critically, are there any drawbacks then to joining?

Owen: We haven’t figured out whether or not Spotify’s been black-balling us *laughs*. Maybe that will be the drawback. Maybe it’s for the best. If you never hear our bands on playlists, then you know.

CVZ: Where can people drop off instruments for the gear drive?

Owen: We're going to be announcing the logistics for the drop-off on Instagram, but the best way for people to arrange a drop-off is to fill out a form we have. You can find it on our Instagram Linktree. If you fill out that form, we’ll get in touch to arrange a pick-up. The gear drive runs through January 10th. So people can get through their year-end giving and then give some more. *laughs*

CVZ: And there’s an option to give cash donations, right?

Owen: Yes, there’s a PayPal you can give to [in the linktree]. There’s going to be a lot of costs associated with actually getting the gear to these facilities. And there’s also possibly some things that we need to get new for security reasons, so all of that money goes toward the cause.

Eleanor: We have a specific list of things that places have asked for. It's a wide variety of things, cables and strings. There's a lot of different things that people could be donating.

Owen: Yeah, you don’t have to throw us a thousand dollar instrument to participate. Even a knock-off SM58 is gonna be gold in somebody’s hands. It was the first time I got one. People can also reach out to us by email if they want to get involved specifically in time to participate in the gear drive. Like moving things around and picking things up on collection days. We even could use the extra volunteer time– it’s a good way to meet us and figure out what we’re about. You can email us at if you’re interested. We have Twitter and Facebook, too.

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