Staffers at Indie Label Secretly Group Launch Union to ‘Guarantee a Better Music Industry’

Jem Aswad
·4-min read

The staff of Secretly Group, one of the largest independent music companies in the U.S., announced plans on Tuesday morning to form a union to address a list of concerns they’re hoping to correct with a union contract, according to an open letter and an article in Rolling Stone. The concerns include low wages and insufficient health care benefits, as well as “an absence of initiatives that address systemic race and gender inequality.”

“Our goal is to spotlight the rights of our staff and the health of our workplace. Working in the music industry is not an easy way to support oneself for the majority of people; this is the case for both artists and those working behind the scenes,” the letter reads in part. “Our enthusiasm for the culture in which we work can lead to exploitation in ways endemic to the creative industries: poor wages, inadequate benefits, lack of work/life boundaries, gatekeeping that obstructs professional development, and an absence of initiatives that address systemic race and gender inequality. We seek Secretly Group’s recognition of the union to address these issues that are unsustainable for the well-being of our staff and thus the company at large.”

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In a statement provided to Variety by a rep, the company’s management said: “The Secretly managing partners and management woke up to the news that some employees of the Secretly affiliates have taken steps to unionize and are seeking union recognition in the U.S. We are open to this discussion, as we share the desire to reach an outcome that continues to evolve Secretly as a progressive voice and a diverse, ethical and equitable company and workplace. We appreciate the time taken by employees to present this thoroughly. We want to respond in the right and ethical way, and doing this with the requisite care will take some time.”

While SAG-AFTRA represents employees at some major labels, smaller independent labels have struggled to achieve similar recognition. While indies often pride themselves on purity of motivation — being “in it for the music” — the independent-music world can be as full of exploitative practices as any business.

“We’ve all had friends say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. You get to work with music, you get a free ticket to a show or free drinks,’ but drinks and shows and music don’t pay our rent, and don’t provide us with the support that we need,” a member of the organizing committee, who requested anonymity, told Rolling Stone. “We obviously have a real passion for what we do. We love our roster, and we’re really proud of all the music we put out, and we’re proud of being able to work on it. But that is not a substitute for the kinds of benefits and compensation that we need to keep being able to do this.”

The Indiana-based Secretly Group comprises four independent record labels — Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans, and Ghostly International — a distribution arm and a music publishing company, as well as archival record label the Numero Group. Its roster includes last week’s Variety cover star Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, Yoko Ono, Sharon Van Etten, the War on Drugs, Khruangbin, Mitski, and Bright Eyes. The company has several U.S. and international offices and the company has weathered the pandemic remarkably well, but workers say that they were the ones who ultimately paid the price.

“There was a lot of pressure, and a lot of uncertainty about how to deal with the added workload,” one said. “I spend all of my time working. I work massive amounts of unpaid overtime because it is preferable to the petty micromanagement I’ll experience if I can’t complete my large amount of tasks.”

The Secretly union is affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 174, which represents administrative staff at several major-label groups. According to Rolling Stone, the reps did not reveal the number of employees involved in the union, but say they have enlisted a “comfortable majority.”

“[Secretly] releases music that changes the path of modern music,” one staffer said. “This is how the folks who work here change the path of the modern music industry.”

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