There is Power in a Boycott

There is Power in a Boycott

It's not infrequent in our highly depoliticized society for an outspoken artist to be attacked for daring to take a stand. As long as profit comes before integrity, then "shut up and sing" will be the rule of the day in the music industry; musicians will be in the position of defending their views and actions. There's a difference, however, when the denunciation comes from an ally.

So it was in late June when Charlie Levy, an Arizona-based concert promoter and self-described activist criticized the ever-widening effort known as the Sound Strike. As I've written before, the Sound Strike represents the most significant collection of artists and musicians refusing to play in Arizona since the passage of the vicious, racist anti-immigrant bill SB 1070. Initiated by Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, it was quick in garnering support from Sonic Youth, Cypress Hill and a bevy of other artists. 

At the time of writing this piece, the ranks of the Sound Strike have swelled to include Steve Earle, Anti-Flag, Nine Inch Nails, Ry Cooder, Gogol Bordello, My Morning Jacket, DJ Spooky and countless others. The day this most recent crop of performers officially signed on, a statement was posted on the collective's website reiterating their reasoning: "For musicians and artists, the choice to boycott is not a simple one. But the reality has become clear that to perform in Arizona, with this divisive and unjust law on the books, is no longer a neutral act."

Charlie Levy, however, doesn't see it that way. Like the artists who have joined the Sound Strike, Levy is disgusted by and opposed to SB 1070. But in an open letter published June 24th in theArizona Republic, Levy--owner of the Phoenix-based independent concert promotion company Stateside Presents--insisted that the boycott will do more harm than good. 

"By not performing in Arizona," says Levy, "artists are harming the very people and places that foster free speech and the open exchange of ideas that serve to counter the closed-mindedness recently displayed by the new law."

"The people who will feel the negative effects of the boycott the deepest are local concert venues, including non-profit art-house theatres, independent promoters, fans and the people employed in the local music business. If the boycott continues, it is all but guaranteed that some of these venues will be forced to close their doors.

"Think of it this way: What if otherwise outspoken and inspirational activists like Martin Luther King Jr. had turned their backs on the state of Alabama and its citizens because they didn't agree with the discriminatory practices of its government during the critical years of the civil-rights movement? What would have happened if they had chosen to boycott Alabama rather than speak out, organize and effect change?"

The irony of mentioning the civil rights movement and Dr. King in particular is two-fold. For one thing, while there wasn't a large and concerted boycott launched against Alabama, there was no small number of artists who refused to play in front of segregated audiences. This, of course, did include most (if not all) venues in the Heart of Dixie. 

The second irony hits embarrassingly close to Levy's home state. It wasn't too long ago (a little less than 20 years in fact) that the state of Arizona refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King Day. The response of countless entities was to pull all financial support from the state--most notably the National Football League, who were pressured to do so. The move of the Super Bowl from Tempe to California, along with myriad other divestments, was enough to force Arizona's law-makers to back down and finally recognize the holiday.

Levy's rather spotty notion of history aside, there is a bigger weakness in his argument: it views the anti-immigrant bill as the result of bad ideas rather than two opposing sides vying for power. The legislators currently in office don't care if outspoken artists boycott the state," he continues. "The people responsible for SB 1070 don't want you here. They don't want your voices heard."

Fair enough, but what then makes Levy believe that these same legislators will care if these same artists do play in the state? The answer comes next:

"In this important midterm election year, it is imperative that voters are organized and prepared to express their views about the recent law at the voting booths in November... Every concert venue and promoter in the state would be happy to help coordinate voter-registration drives and set up information booths in connection with concerts. Many of us are already planning specific events, including rallies and concerts, designed to educate and encourage local music lovers to get involved at this crucial time."

There are currently attempts to get a referendum against SB 1070 added to the ballot, but its chances of making it in time for this November's elections are increasingly grim. State electoral offices are notorious sticklers for manipulating the rules to buck grassroots attempts at ballot access. Anyone who has helped in an attempt to run an independent candidate can attest to this.

In the days following Levy's open letter, Conor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes), one of the signatories to the Sound Strike, penned a blunt-yet-fair reply to the promoter. While insisting that he isn't unsympathetic to the financial hit that local venues may take as a result of the boycott, he is quick to point out that his and other artists' refusal to play in Arizona is only one part of a much broader effort:

"If I return to Arizona to pay lip service to a roomful of kids at the Marquee it will do absolutely no good for anyone. What I can do is to help organize, and play my small part in, what I hope is the largest and most effective boycott this country has seen in a long time. To work it will have to involve members from all sectors of society. The Sports Industry, the Entertainment Industry, the Tourism and Convention Industry, other State and City governments, private businesses and individuals from around the country and the world--all of whom, by the way, are already participating in the boycott. Much of the Artist end of the boycott is symbolic, I acknowledge, and no real threat to the economics of the State. But it is an important part none-the-less for awareness and messaging. The Boycott has to be so widespread and devastating that the Arizona State Legislature and Governor have no choice but to repeal their unconstitutional, immoral and hateful law. It has to hurt them in the only place they feel any pain, their pocketbooks."

While Oberst may be at this point a bit cavalier in not stating exactly how much of each sector is already participating in the boycott, he certainly hits the nail on the head when he describes the dynamic of the movement. Those who peruse the Sound Strike's website will note that anyone can sign the online petition, including non-artists. 

This isn't just an empty gesture. The call for boycott and divestment came from activists within Arizona itself. In the months since SB 1070's passage, thousands of outraged people have been prompted into the streets. Many no doubt first heard of these protests through the grapevine of the nascent boycott movement. It's these actions that have spurred companies, local and city governments alike to pledge support and withdraw all business. 

The Sound Strike is only one vestige of a wide and broad upsurge that has the potential to, as Oberst says, put pain on the state's pocketbook. It's an act of solidarity, not neglect, and it's where real power comes from in struggles like these. In this spirit, Oberst's letter urged Levy to join him rather than wag his finger at musicians taking a stand:

"What I would encourage you to do, if you haven't already started, is to organize with all the local businesses you can to put as much pressure as possible on your State Government until the Law is repealed. An economic death rattle is the only cry of outrage they will hear."

With the clock ticking down until 1070 goes into affect, Oberst's call is more urgent than ever. It's worth remembering that this racist law wasn't implemented by the ballot. Ultimately it won't be struck down unless folks realize the explosive influence they have outside the voting booth. That's where the Sound Strike has the potential to illustrate its real importance: in reviving among an increasingly outraged and restless generation the notion that power concedes nothing without a demand.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (, and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts.  His work has also appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics,, CounterPunch, and

He can be reached at