Rovics' radical approach part of old tradition

Monday, July 21, 2014

The old rocker who owns the local music store has a t-shirt on display that reads: “When words fail ... music speaks.” One could also say that when speech fails, David Rovics sings.

As Wally Brooker recently noted about the US folk singer: “What's striking about Rovics is his ability to bring first-hand reports of local struggles from around the world to each community that he visits.”

There is no doubt that Rovics' work serves this political and communicative purpose. He is part of an old and well-established music tradition, one that is particularly well-documented and has been widely practised in the history of the United States.

Rovics' approach to his work as a performing musician is uniquely international though. And both his creative output and work as a performer are based on a philosophy that has more than a political dimension or an aesthetic one, although both of these are present and remarkably synthesised.

He has also created a unique model of musical production. Self-sufficiency, community and solidarity are the basis of his entire chain of production.

Rovics manages all aspects of the work himself, with no artificial divisions of labour. He relies on a worldwide network of grassroots organisers and ordinary people to host his gigs.

And since he does not believe in intellectual property ― all of his recorded music is freely available for download ― and is completely outside anything resembling the mainstream music industry, he relies
on those tours to make a living.

He has no publicity machine; social media, the internet and his own ability to inspire cooperation are his tools for organising tours and finding new supporters and fans.

Partly, of course, this is based on necessity. To write new work, as he does so prolifically, he needs to tour, find out what is going on in the world, hear new stories. It is on those tours that he gathers material for his songs.

To do this, Rovics must rely on a grassroots international network of fans and organisers around the world who believe in his messages and, as a general rule, have a cause of their own that Rovics is willing to promote.

In this way, he keeps international solidarity alive for the rest of us, by bringing us people's news from around the world, past and present.

Those live performances also, to his mind, have a distinct political and cultural purpose: “I think music ― and other forms of artistic expression, but especially music ― is the best way to bring someone somewhere you want to bring them.”

On a broader level, Rovics relies on his ability to stay connected with the political currents of his time to structure his whole method of work. This is indicated by, for example, his crowd-funded model of generating income. At the same time, he has to keep being relevant to his subscribers, and his world, to keep creating.

Ultimately, this well integrated style of working turns out to resemble a syndicalist alternative to the mainstream music industry.

Like the rest of his fellow workers, past and present, (Rovics has a red
card indicating membership of the Industrial Workers of the World) he is trying, by example, to “build a new world within the shell of the old”.

On the surface, it appears that this new world is a one-man band. But in reality, Rovics' entire approach to his work and his art relies on international solidarity and an engagement with communities in many places, geographic and virtual. Everything he does is an invitation to live the revolution every day.

[Read a review of Rovics' latest album here. Visit for more information.]

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From GLW issue 1017