Collectives come in all shapes and sizes; housing collectives, film collectives, sex toy collectives, child care collectives, book collectives, bee-keeping collectives, collectively owned businesses, media collectives, bike collectives, car-sharing collectives, food-growing collectives, etc.
Collectives can be as informal as a potluck where there are simple agreed upon terms— you bring a dish and therefore reap the benefit of indulging in other attendees dishes. Or collectives can be as formal as a collective community center with finances, long-term planning, neighborhood support, outreach, rehab and carpentry work, and resource management...just to name a few elements.
Collectives are based on the idea that working together is mutually beneficial to each member rather than working in competition with each other (a commonly revered capitalist notion). Competition does not leave room for collaboration or solidarity, it limits the potential of individuals by discouraging the exploration of cooperative achievement and collective interest. Competition also overlooks the individual needs people have according to their own abilities. Overall, working together for a mutual interest beats working alone for the sake of one’s own benefit.
WHAT IS RIOT FOLK? Riot-Folk began as an idea floating around the ears of some radical musicians in the summer of 2004. With the aid of modern technology, word of mouth, and mutual friends— a small group of folks had a chance to explore this idea and become a part of creating a radical music collective. We (Kate Boverman, Ryan Harvey, Tom Frampton, Brenna Sahatjian, Mark Gunnery, Ethan Miller, Evan Greer and Adhamh Roland) had been dreaming for months about this project before we had our first conference call, setting the tone for a cooperative, trusting, communicative group that we would commit to working with and supporting through the collective.
The group decided that sharing resources like contacts, a website, recording equipment, and funds would help us promote each other’s music while being promoted by each other. By assuming collective identity, riot folk, we could reach a broader audience that would have access to each member’s music. Riot-Folk created a built-in network of folks to tour with, record with, bounce ideas off of, and give and receive support from. It also gave us the opportunity to be a resource for other radical projects—performing shows as benefits or in solidarity with an action.
Working as a collective means several things. We agree to have a collective fund wherein members can give what they can and take from it what they need. our group decisions are made by consensus and all withdrawals from the group fund over fifty dollars must be agreed upon. Because we are collectively represented, it is important that no one in the collective disagrees with another’s politics or expression to the point of non-association. So at the onset, we got a feel of everyone’s politics and music and have since, tried to be communicative about such matters. We often have conference calls to check-in, bring up new ideas, plan tours and albums, and talk about finances. We also try to have all of the members converge at least once a year to discuss large issues.
Maintaining the collective structure of riot folk requires a lot of trust and communication (which is usually in the form of emails ‘cause we’re kinda decentralized and the eight of us are spread around the country). Some folks in the group prefer to make their music a central part of their income and lives while others would rather not be known for their music but other political action they can take. Some riot folkers have qualms with being represented by certain publications and media outlets while others appreciate any coverage the collective can get. These differences must be navigated and, when it comes to representation of the collective, a consensus must be reached. In order to work in the context of riot folk we need to check each other on how we represent each other and the choices individuals make that reflect the collective and we need to trust each other, not only because we share money but because individual’s choices will reflect the collective.
Riot-Folk was founded as and remains an anti-profit music collective working from the principles of anti-oppression and anti-capitalism. We do not wish to capitalize on our music, but use it as a tool or a weapon against capitalism.
We do make money on our music which is mostly recycled as funding for tours or albums. We feel that music should be accessible and have all of our music free for download and free/donation at shows. Though some consider music as work, and workers should receive returns for their services, we also recognize the mutual privilege between an audience and a performer and that returns aren’t always monetary.
Throughout the history of struggle, music has been used to incite and inspire masses—movements have been fueled by music and music has been fueled by movements. Music has been a threat to capitalism and other systems of oppression in the past and riot folk aims to make folk a threat again!
Wielded with care, conviction and clear aim, a song can be a powerful weapon of social change. Generations of successful struggles have taught us this lesson, from the IWW worker's movement to South African and U.S. freedom struggles. In our daily efforts to challenge oppression, and to create worlds of joy and dignity in its place, the music that we make together can serve to root us in our histories and communities, affirm our experiences, and kindle our loving and fighting spirits.
The Riotfolk Collective, made up of eight radical young folk musicians from across the U.S., has come together in this very spirit to create a web of support for grassroots, movement-based music and musicians. As a troupe of acoustic artists dedicated to mutual aid and solidarity, we aim to support each other as individuals while also building a strong, collective political voice that can provoke, educate, challenge and inspire. "A singing movement is a winning movement," says Pete Seeger. We agree.
Riotfolk came together in December 2004, in an attempt to break the isolation that many of us felt as solo political artists. Despite its short existence, the collective has already succeeded in organizing five sucessful tours in the U.S and Europe, playing numerous benefit shows in support of grassroots organizations, building an often-visited website with free mp3s and lyrics (www.riotfolk.org), and supporting a number of new releases from the collective's artists.
While our primary focus is to create and share musical tools for social transformation, Riotfolk is also working to create a different model for how music can be made, supported and shared.
Before the era of commercial recording and musical copyright, folk music was truly a collective affair. Songs were written to be shared, to be passed along freely and sung by all who were moved by their lyrics and melodies. The artist was the initiator of a kind of "gift circle" in which the song moved beyond the control and profit of its creator and became a part of a larger commons, the "property" (if we should even use the term at all) of society itself.
The advent of musical recording and mass-production brought new opportunities for music to be shared, new ways in which songs could be used as tools for social critique and transformation; yet it also ushered in a new relationship between the artist and their music--capitalism found a new commodity and a new market. The commons of folk music was enclosed as artists became owners of their new musical property. Now, where the song once stood as the central focus, stands the artist, the singer, the star.
One consequence of this transformation is that artists themselves become commodities--names to be marketed, promoted, bought and sold. Competition (both economic and artistic) is the name of the game, and (with a few exceptions) those who are not "purchased" by a deep-pocketed record label are drowned out amidst the din of commercial, profit-centered music.
Challenging this model of capitalist music-making, Riotfolk works to support individual artists as creators rather than commodities, as contributors to the musical commons rather than as owners of musical property. We hope to build a sucessful model for truly cooperative and solidarity-based folk music.
Instead of competing for shows and venues, or struggling as independent artists to get our music out into the world, we support each other's individual work and performance through income-sharing, collective promotion and ongoing tours. Performing as a collective also places the emphasis on the content and message of our music--as part of a larger movement for social transformation--instead of on the names and personalities of individual people.
Structurally, Riotfolk combines elements of a cooperatively-run band, circus troupe and record label. Like a band, we travel and perform together, sharing the stage as a single song-swapping "act." Like a circus troupe, we maintain our identities as individual creators and performers, while sharing our art collectively. Like a record label, we financially support our collective music. Significant portions of our income from shows and CD sales goes to a common fund that is distributed democratically (by consensus) to support tours, recording, CD production and promotion.
In opposition to the private ownership of musical creations, our songs are anti-copyright: free to be distributed, copied, sung, re-written and recorded by all. Some Riotfolk artists have registered their songs directly into the Public Domain through Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org). Our CDs are sold on a sliding scale (usually from $0-$20) based on people's ability to pay. At our website, all of our music is available in mp3 format for free download. At every turn, we are trying to kick capitalism out of our music.
Does it work? Can this kind of structure be economically and artistically viable? Our answer so far is an emphatic, "yes!" Collectivizing our music has amplified the ability of each of us be heard more widely (and therefore be more useful) and has boosted our energy and ability to continue our musical work. In creating this collective, we have also taken further steps in our lives towards breaking the culture of isolation and competition, while building new relationships of solidarity and mutual care.