Huffpost UK Politics uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Adam Jung Headshot

iOccupy: Occupation Records Challenge to the Music Industry

Posted: Updated:

When we announced that we would be launching Occupation Records this month we couldn't have asked for more support from the music industry. Artists have been eager to get involved and we've been overwhelmed with offers of advice and guidance from folks in the industry. For a bit there it seemed this was going to be easier than we had thought.

That lasted all of one day.

The following day we were meeting with distribution companies for our first album, Folk the Banks, slated for digital and physical release in mid March. The ethical discussions around digital distribution have mainly centred around Digital Rights Management (DRM), artist compensation, and piracy, issues we were confident we were addressing with our potential distributors.

Digital distribution should be simple enough. Your distributor acts as an aggregator to the various download services, getting your album or track to as many outlets as possible, people download them for a price or through a pay what you can model, and the funds are transferred to you. It should be straightforward. Its not. The values of profit over people which typifies the system of global capitalism have permeated every industry.

Two companies control over 80% of the digital download market. Apple, through iTunes, claims around 70% plus with Amazon accounting for another 10%. If you want your music to reach the most people you have you go through them. Hell, even the Beatles finally gave in. No one asks questions. If you're distributing, you use iTunes and Amazon.

And that's a problem. By not asking questions, the music industry has become an unwitting partner in human rights abuses abroad and hurting workers at home.

Apple

Last month Apple released its 2012 Progress Report of Supplier Responsibility. These reports are a step in the right direction, transparency plays a core role in democratic society, but the baseline Apple uses to decide what is ethical is so flawed as to make their efforts, or lack of, laughable if not for the suffering experienced by the workers of their suppliers.

The report states that at over 90 of their facilities assembling Apple products, over half of workers "exceeded weekly working hour limits of 60." One assumes, with facilities violating a target of 60 hours, that if a weekly working hour limit of 40 (as is standard throughout the US and Europe, where the majority of Apple's consumers live) was expected, every supplier they contract with would be in violation. Further, according to the report, 108 facilities didn't pay proper overtime.

Foxconn is the most important supplier to Apple, as well as other companies (they make Amazon's Kindle.) They employ about 230,000 workers - housing them in on-site dorms (don't think of your days at university, think homeless shelter with dozens of ratty cots per room) so they are available 24 hours a day. Over 10% of employees, 24,000, quit each month.

Last month, over 150 workers at a Foxconn factory in Wuhan, China, climbed to the roof of their factory and threatened mass suicide over working conditions and wages. This is a year and a half after Foxconn started hanging nets around the factory in an attempt to stop the increasing number of suicides. When that didn't work, they made employees sign pledges not to kill themselves. Seriously. WTF?

Apple claims that when a supplier violates its code of conduct they are forced to comply or the contract is terminated. But the continued suicides have been happening for the last three years and Foxconn is still the largest supplier of Apple. The Progress Report details hundreds of violations just in the last year, but according to the New York Times, only 15 suppliers have been terminated since 2007.

What you won't find in Apple's report is what Alternet's Arun Gupta referred to as "iSlaves." Due to the horrible working conditions at Foxconn the company can no longer rely on recruitment to fill its factories. As Gupta reported, and according to Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM,) through Chinese government intervention and agreements signed by hundreds of vocational schools and universities, hundreds of thousands of students from fields as diverse as journalism, nursing, and automotive maintenance, some as young 16, are forced into months long "internships" or denied their degrees. Students are forced to work up to 11 hours a day, 7 days a week, for less than $80 a month - the majority of which may be taken as a commission by their schools.

Apple could end these conditions. As one former Apple executive told the New York Times "Non compliance is tolerated, as long as the suppliers promise to try harder next time. If we meant business, core violations would disappear." The bar for compliance is set so low that even enforcement would still mean 60 hour work weeks, 6 days a week, in dorms that make the occupation at St. Paul's look like the Ritz-Carlton.

iTunes accounts for only a small fraction of Apple's income, but it's hard to calculate its value in supporting the sales of iPods, iPhones, and iPads. It is even harder to calculate the benefits from notable deals with iTunes, such as the one with the Beatles. As Billboard magazine pointed out in a post last April, iTunes is a good reason to become and stay an Apple customer and adds value to its most expensive hardware. The music industry plays a large role in polishing Apple's image and can and should play a big role in pressuring Apple to sort its labour and human rights violations.

Amazon

The other major player in digital downloads, in a distant second but still commanding a considerable share of the market, is Amazon. As with iTunes, the music industry appears to be largely unaware of the labour abuses being committed by their partner. Apple can be given credit for at least acknowledging some of their failures to tackle human rights abuses. Amazon won't even admit to it. Amazon's Kindle is manufactured by Foxconn and they're directly guilty of ignoring or outright opposing labour rights in the UK and US.

The Amazon.com warehouse in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania is the very definition of a sweatshop. According to an investigation undertaken by the local paper, The Morning Call, employees are forced to work 11 hour shifts in temperatures up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) with one unpaid hour long lunch break, and two breaks of 15 minutes.

Workers reported people passing out at the water fountain, workers being carried out on stretchers and wheelchairs - by paramedics Amazon hired to park outside. In one day 15 employees collapsed. Conditions are so bad the local hospital called federal regulators to alert them of the number of patients coming from the warehouse.

In the UK, complaints from employees at their Marston Gate warehouse include mandatory overtime, forcing employees to work seven days a week, punishing employees for sick days even with a doctors note and receiving only two breaks of 15 and 20 minutes for an eight hour shift.

Complaints over the working conditions at Amazon have been coming for a decade. In 2001, Amazon in the UK hired US firm The Burke Group to assist in a union busting campaign against organisation by the Graphical, Paper, and Media Union (now Unite the Union.) The same year Amazon laid off 850 workers at their Seattle warehouse following a unionisation drive there. Working conditions have not improved in ten years.

Amazon is much more vulnerable to pressure from their content providers. Most analysts agree that Amazon is taking a loss of the sales of their hardware and putting all their bets in content sales. This puts the music industry (and the publishing houses) in a position to demand changes in the way Amazon operates if they want to continue their relationship.

While its possible the labels who licensed their catalogues to Apple and Amazon were unaware of their labour and human rights violations - I'd like to think that's the case with The Beatles - there are many artists and people in the industry who are aware and want to do something. Artists shouldn't have to choose between opposing sweatshops or getting their music heard. Either should their labels. People shouldn't have to accept the necessity of seriously fucking over someone half way across the globe, just to do their job. That's what the current global system has reduced everything to.

Unrestrained global capitalism has grown into a cancer, spreading into every market and industry. Having to worry about if our decision for distribution is supporting a company whose workers would rather kill themselves than continue is not something you should have to deal with when releasing a record.

The music industry must play a role in improving working conditions under these companies, and they've done it before. 20 years ago most band merchandise - t-shirts, patches, hoodies - was, like most apparel, manufactured in sweatshops in China. Now most bands use fair trade certified suppliers for their merch. Companies like Sandbag and 3Fish trade solely in ethically manufactured apparel, primarily band merchandise, and thrive thanks to both the artists and consumers desire to be ethical.

The industry can also claim a victory with Apple previously - forcing them to offer DRM free content. There is no reason they couldn't force both Apple and Amazon's hands on human and labour rights.

Digital downloads

With digital downloads the primary competition to legal downloads is the website the Pirate Bay, the worlds go to site for illegal downloads. While it can be argued the primary draw of the site is the fact downloads are free, it has much more going for it. Many users of the the Pirate Bay feel a sense of community and see the site as a defender of internet freedom, free speech, and a David against the music, movie, and software industries Goliaths. That's the real advantage they have.

Most people who illegally download would prefer to compensate the artists. They don't feel much affinity for the labels - and after the RIAA's ruthless assault on 14 year old kids and grandmas, who could blame them? If the options are to spend money on a legal service that, in their eyes, primarily benefits a company with a horrible human or labour rights records and a label they feel basically hates its customers, or download for free from the Pirate Bay, the Pirate Bay will win every time.

Business as usual vs. the medium is the message

The music industry is still desperately trying to find a new business model in the post-Napster world. Taking on a role to defend the rights of those under the thumb of its business partners would be a start in the right direction and could perhaps herald a new industry that begins to re-imagine all it's relationships - with distributors, between label and artist, and between label and customer.

Occupy opens the space to create solutions, both large and small. The music industry is one of the most powerful and persuasive industries and doesn't and shouldn't allow the conditions allowed, and sometimes encouraged, by Apple and Amazon to represent it. The music industry has willingly, though sometime unwittingly, partnered with movements for social justice in the past. With Occupy, they can again.

For our part, Occupation Records will not distribute through Apple's iTunes or Amazon until these companies begin to value people over profit, and we call on the music industry to join us. Let's occupy the music industry.

Update: Apple announced today that the Fair Labor Association had began auditing Foxconn's facilities. Occupation Records response is below.

While Occupation Records welcomes this development, we will be following these audits closely, and are especially interested to see how Apple reconciles the Fair Labor Association's (FLA), Workplace Code of Conduct with their Supplier Code of Conduct.

Specifically, there is a gap between what Apple considers an excessive work week (over 60 hours) and what FLA considers excessive (over 48.) More concerning is Foxconn's "internship" program which collaborates with the Chinese regime to force over a hundred thousand students of vocational schools and universities to work in its factory for free - a direct violation of the FLA's Code of Conduct concerning forced labor.

We are excited about the possibility that Apple is beginning to take responsibility for the human and labour rights of the workers that supply their products, but will be waiting to see how the audits play out. The abuses carried out by their suppliers has been brought to Apple's attention repeatedly over the last few years. As we've seen, it takes public pressure to force a company has large as Apple to act. We must keep that pressure on them until these issues are resolved.