Nearly six months later, two Occupy benefit albums struggle to break even
on September 19, 2012
In May, Rob “Reason” Silver, a part-time record producer from Oakland, and Jason Samel, the owner of a small insurance brokerage in New York, announced their nearly identical but independently conceived plans to bring a new element into the national Occupy protest—marketability. Both had come to the conclusion that there was potential within the anti-capitalistic, determinedly decentralized protest to sell a product that could help raise funds and draw in new supporters. In May, both men launched Occupy benefit albums.
Audio Occupation, produced by Silver to represent Occupy Oakland, is a collection of 14 tracks donated by underground Bay Area artists including reggae artist Junior Toots, hip hop artist Luckyiam and DJ Linda X. Occupy This Album was produced by Samel at Occupy Wall Street and features 99 tracks from musicians such as Ani DiFranco, Third Eye Blind and Willie Nelson.
Conceived as non-profit fundraisers and outreach campaigns, these albums were expected to make money for Occupy’s social initiatives, and to help pay legal bills for arrested Occupy protesters. Now, nearly 6 months later, neither CD has managed to make back its production costs, and both men are frustrated.
“I felt like I was slapped in the face,” said Silver of the reception of his album, which to date has sold only 17 physical copies. “I felt like I was at the forefront of a group,” he said. “I turned around, and suddenly there wasn’t anybody there.”
So far, Samel’s album has sold 5,300 copies.
While Silver and Samel are disappointed by slow sales, neither is particularly confused by why they fell short. Both men stand by the value in their initial ideas, but say they have now learned the logistical difficulties of massing support from a loosely organized, leaderless group. “I felt like a very small voice,” said Silver. “It felt like I was screaming into the wind.”
To Samel, part of the problem arose from how ill-suited Occupy’s grassroots channels were for product marketing. Without the money necessary to launch a traditional album marketing campaign, said Samel, Occupy This Album relied on press attention for publicity. But Samel said the media’s protest coverage waned significantly between the CD’s inception in the fall and its release in May. Without media coverage of Occupy’s activity, he said, “people think Occupy is dead.”
Silver said he didn’t want to rush his product to market too quickly, but he now believes he waited too long. “I thought this thing was building up steam,” he said.
Samel, who had been involved with Occupy Wall Street as a web designer since the protests’ first days, said he was sure back in 2011 that he was witnessing something that had “never happened in our country before.” He remembers being captivated by the diversity and warmth of the Occupy crowds during those first few days in New York. “First time I went down there, I saw a Jew in a yarmulke talking with a Muslim in full dress,” said Samel. “They were discussing politics and both of them were smiling.”
His record project got its start with help from a fittingly capitalistic critic of capitalism—documentarian Michael Moore. Moore had stumbled upon a website Samel had made for Occupy, made contact, and agreed to be the first artist to contribute a track on the condition that he could record a rendition of Bob Dylan’s anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin.” To get the rights to the song, Moore was able to call Dylan directly.
Moore’s involvement helped to raise the project’s profile, and well-known acts began to reach out to Samel. “All of a sudden, Third Eye Blind is calling me out of nowhere,” he said. “I pick up my phone, and it’s Ani DiFranco’s people.” The growing industry buzz surrounding his project allowed him and his collaborators to start “making phone calls to artists we never imagined we’d be able to speak to,” he said.
The album’s sales debuted at a concert on May 8 at The City Winery in New York City, where an audience of 450 included Michael Moore, Nancy Griffith and Tom Chapin. All tracks on the album were donated by the artists, Samel said, so the only costs associated with the project are the roughly $50,000 in promotion and manufacturing fees that were fronted by the album’s distributor, Razor & Tie, LLC.
Once it made back these costs, Samel planned to pay out the funds raised by the album to Occupy satellite initiatives outside of New York City. “We have a board in place of different occupiers who will decide to grant funding to projects all over the country,” said Samel. But so far, he said, the album has only sold about half the number needed to break even. “We were hoping it would raise something,” said Samel. “It hasn’t.”
Meanwhile in the Bay Area, Silver, who lives in San Leandro and is a sales associate at the Men’s Warehouse in Walnut Creek, had become fascinated by Occupy Oakland early on. “There was something in the air that I wanted to be a part of,” he said.
Silver, who identifies himself as a “humanitarian capitalist,” felt that Occupy’s message wasn’t traveling as far as it could. “I didn’t think a camp-out was a long term solution,” said Silver, “but it gained attention.” The main drawback he saw for Occupy was that its organizers weren’t “bringing the movement to the community.”
Silver’s plans for an Occupy Oakland benefit album followed an entrepreneurial model established in the 1960s by Oakland’s Black Panther Party. The Panthers independently published and distributed The Black Panther, a newspaper that was sold by community members. The system allowed street sellers to keep a portion of each sale while returning the rest to a general party fund. Silver said the Panthers “understood the fact that you need money to make things happen.”
He hoped that an Occupy album sold using the same model would be the first step toward developing a “self-sustaining economy” for Occupy, and would provide work for unemployed protesters. He said that it was unlikely that his modest release would create a working independent economic system all by itself, but even though it “may not be the beacon,” he said, it could at least be “the flashlight.”
Under Silver’s plan, the album would be sold in downtown Oakland by Occupy protestors, directly to members of the community. The profits would be shared between the street sellers and a fund set up by Occupy to pay legal bills for protestors who had been arrested. The album’s tracks were donated, Trackwriterz Studio out of Atlanta offered to master the album for free, and the cover design was donated by iGraphics Studios in Florida. The remaining $1,200 in production costs was fronted by Silver. The album sells for $10 on the street, or online for any donation amount over 2$.
But Silver said his CD release party, held on May 5 at Ashkanaz Community Center in Berkeley, was upstaged by the “Occupy The Farm” protest being held down the road at the Gill Agricultural Tract—a camp affiliated with Occupy. And he said he encountered constant difficulty in creating any organized support for the project within Occupy. From trying to collaborate with the people who run Occupy Oakland’s main website to getting announcements of his release party meeting agendas, Silver said he met with resistance from organizers. “They held on to the same ideology: Let’s occupy something,” said Silver. “They clung to a strategy that had faded five months before the [record] release event.”
Lisa Mongelli, drummer for the Oakland-based band Angels of Vice, whose song “We Are The 99” was included on Samel’s Occupy This Album, said that the challenges facing both albums were tied to a public view of Occupy that had changed between late 2011 and the spring of 2012. Angels of Vice experienced this firsthand, she said, as they saw crowd reactions to “We Are The 99” change dramatically over the course of the year.
Mongelli, who had written “We Are The 99” in April along with friend Cory Todd, said the band at first received strong support for the song when they played it around the Bay Area in April and May. But reactions soured over time, she said. In particular, Mongelli remembers a concert in Sunnyvale at which, “three very middle-class looking people stood up, flipped us off and stormed out,” she said. “I was shocked.”
Mongelli said the band felt that support for Occupy was drying up as the protesters became seen as too aggressive. “No one wants to keep standing when the person next to you is throwing bottles,” she said. Angels of Vice began removing the song from their set lists this summer. “We want to support the cause,” said Mongelli, but they can’t if, as she said, “nobody’s backing us.”
“Now we’re waiting for Occupy to get people’s hopes up again,” she said.
Samel had an experience similar to Mongelli’s a few weeks ago in New York while backstage with Our Lady Peace, who had donated a song to his album. They watched as a slam poet performed a piece about protest to open the Our Lady Peace show. The poem was well-received until the performer came to the word “Occupy,” Samel said, upon which the crowd began booing and throwing beer cans on stage. “We were really shocked,” he said.
Nevertheless, he was pleased to find, while walking through the crowd at the end of the show, that attendees were discussing Occupy in one way or another. “People were pissed off that he mentioned it,” Samel said, “but it re-began the conversation.”
In Oakland, Silver said he still believes in the core tenets of the Occupy protest, but was left disillusioned by Occupy itself. “I did this for the people,” he said of his work to create the album, “but I wasn’t really supported by the people’s movement.” Silver has given up on the idea that his album will spark a self-sufficient economy for Occupy, and now sees the obstacles facing his project—namely the struggle against disorganization—as parallel to greater problems facing the protest itself. “Occupy learned their lesson,” he said. “You can say, ‘screw the establishment’ all you want,” he said, “but you still need organization.”
In New York, Samel is still working to expand the visibility of his Occupy This Album, and will be making the download available on MusicForOccupy.org for 99 cents from September 17 through October 17, for the 1-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protest. He said he is heartened by the success the protest has had in making the language of Occupy part of the national conversation about the economy. “The language of ‘the 99 versus the 1’ got into politics,” said Samel. “Obama is talking about corporations versus the people—everybody is hearing it. Opinions are changing again for the positive, because the conversation has grown.”
While so far his album’s sales aren’t meeting expectations, Samel is nonetheless encouraged by the idea that even if people aren’t buying his CD, they might be pirating it. “The music’s out there, which is great,” said Samel. “But money would be nice.”
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