Changemaker profile: David Rovics

By Kari McGregor

Each issue of SHIFT magazine features a changemaker profile. Issue #1 of SHIFT featured The Resistor, and issue #2 featured The Builder. Coming up are: The Investigator, The Networker, and The Nurturer. This issue features The Communicator.

Inspired by the stories told by David Rovics’ Songs of Social Significance, Kari McGregor met with the American independent singer/songwriter and political activist to explore the power of music for telling the stories of our times. 


The Communicator: David Rovics

Artists don’t come much more independent than David Rovics, whose resolutely political music belongs to no record label, and who answers to no one. Shunning the norms of the industry, Rovics makes all of his music available online for free, along with his lyrics and sheet music, encouraging its use for non-profit purposes. The message is clear: this is not just art for art’s sake; there are stories that need to be told, and heard.

Songs of social significance

The stories of our culture are its binding force. Our storytellers wield great power, and with that great responsibility. David Rovics, one of the great storyteller of our times, has made a life and livelihood out of telling the alternative stories of our culture that are missing from the mainstream media in a way that is emphatically relatable.

I think that most people understand the world through stories, and I think this has always been true. And stories are told in various forms, but I think most people best understand the world around them in terms of stories about individuals or small groups of people that they can relate to. If you try to explain things about the world, or history or politics or whatever, in terms of numbers and the big picture, that can be useful for a lot of people, but I think for most people it becomes harder to understand, and it’s easier if you can convey what you’re trying to communicate using small-scale examples that have a narrative form.

Most of Rovics’ music conveys a political narrative and alternative worldview, raising issues that need to be addressed, and celebrating progress made by social movements. Featuring historical events and individuals as their protagonists, Rovics’ songs weave on honest narrative absent from the mainstream media. Perhaps for this reason Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, has described the artist’s work as “the musical version of Democracy Now”. Covering a wide range of topics from war to global warming to indigenous rights issues, Rovics’ songs of social significance follow his own journey from the discovery that all is not well in paradise.

It starts with one thing, and then it naturally expands into other things because once you get tuned into social movements that are trying to change something then you get tuned into other social movements that are related, and then the concentric circles just keep expanding. But for me it started with the anti-nuclear movement after the 3 mile island meltdown in Pennsylvania.

Rovics became involved in the anti-nuclear movement from a young age, growing up in the US during the Cold War, painfully aware of its implications and adamant that nuclear power is not a viable option for powering our society if we care to survive. Despite the clear wake-up call heralded by Fukushima in 2011, much of the general public still believes the industry rhetoric that nuclear power is both clean and safe. In Rovics’ view the media has a lot to answer for in terms of its support for political and business interests above the public wellbeing.

Alternative media for an alternative message

When asked why people accept the stories told by the mainstream media, Rovics points out that “for most people, in most places, the mainstream media is the only media they’re familiar with.” This is even true of people who are skeptical. The reality is that most of us are still reliant on the mainstream for much of the reporting on what is happening in the world. This is simply a matter of resources, and small-scale alternative media simply cannot compete with the financial backing of corporate conglomerates. So we are left with, at best, an alternative media interpretation of what mainstream sources are reporting.

The alternative media interpreting is very useful – it’s crucial to read between the lines with the help of analysts who are interpreting the facts as laid out by the mainstream media. But those facts are going to be laid out by the mainstream media first.

When pressed for his opinion on the most important under-reported stories of our time, Rovics remarks that although the environment is the bottom line, environmental issues cannot be resolved without addressing capitalism.

Because obviously if we can’t live on the planet then nothing else matters. But I think also that when it comes to the environment it’s also impossible to isolate that from everything else, because I think actually that if we don’t overthrow capitalism then there’s no hope for living in a world where we can survive as a species, because capitalism is fundamentally bent on the destruction of life on earth because it doesn’t value it.

Aside from the environment, Rovics’ muses of the moment include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Ukraine crisis and the fall-out from Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. The blunders of US politicians also provide Rovics with substantial mileage for his music, while foreign policy topics such as Israel, Palestine, Syria and Iraq provide ample material for critique.

Politics for a muse

When I quiz Rovics as to what he thinks is the greatest threat to the world at present, his response is consistent with an American often accused of being anti-American: United States brinksmanship post-WWII. Rovics views the US as a nakedly imperialistic nation whose international interest is not the development of peace and democracy, but political and economic hegemony. Right now the US is not only beefing up their offensive military capacity – the only developed country to do so – but is also aggressively attempting to sway the global economy to its advantage with so-called free trade deals such as the TPP and the TTIP.

When asked how he feels about being American in these times, Rovics mulls over what he interprets as a complex question of responsibility.

Basically I think it’s not so much about being an American as being a human, you know, I was just born in this country through accident of circumstance, like most people in the United States as well as most people in all the other settler nations like Canada and Australia – we ended up in these places because of our ancestors fleeing wars and persecution in Europe and elsewhere… So, as a descendent of European refugees, I don’t know if I feel necessarily responsible more than anybody else about the crimes of this country. But I feel obligated as a moral human being to try to oppose them.

Perhaps due to his political views and activism Rovics has long had issues with international travel. He speaks nonchalantly about being on a watch-list, and how being on the list poses difficulties for border crossings for various countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It’s not all bad, though, he affirms, jokingly.

On the plus side of being on this list I always have an empty seat next to me on any flight inside the US, because I think that’s where the air marshal is supposed to be sitting if there is one on the flight – so it gives me extra leg room to be on this list.

He admits to being a little nervous about border crossings as he’s never quite sure it’ll be smooth sailing, but shrugs it off as “a familiar thing for people around the world, but otherwise it doesn’t bother me. I would feel really inadequate if I weren’t being watched. What are they doing with all those people and all that money if they’re not watching me?”

The path of independence

Rovics tells of how his decision to become an independent artist, like that of many others, was more a matter of necessity than choice. Since the deregulation of the airwaves in the US in 1980 there has been little to no hope for the vast majority of artists, political or otherwise, to get a record deal.

For one thing, the other routes were not available, so you’ve got to be creative. The music industry in the United States especially, but in many other countries as well, is totally dysfunctional. Most of the things that you would think the music industry should do it doesn’t do.

Rovics critiques the music industry for creating and promoting a small handful of superstars instead of discovering and promoting talented artists with a message. He puts it down to the same dollars and sense attitude that afflicts Hollywood, which does far more to promote business interests than it does talented actors and writers with stories to tell. But Rovics believes that there are viable ways for independent artists to establish themselves, if they embrace the gift economy.

… you have to embrace the idea that the internet is there for people to discover your music, just like radio stations might have been or might be for artists with major record deals, but if you’re not gonna get on the radio, and in this country you won’t unless you’re on a major label, you have to find your audience some other way. And the way I think you need to do that is by giving all your music away for free on the internet. And if you do that and people like your music then you will have an audience.

“You could say there’s two different things here that are separate, but luckily they’re both consistent. On the one hand there’s the principle involved: do you want to get your message out to the broadest audience? If so then you want to give it away. But the other question is the practicality aspect – you know, is this practical? The thing is, actually, that not giving it away is not practical, because if you don’t give it away, nobody’s going to hear it. So unless you’re getting commercial airplay, or you’re in Hollywood, nobody’s going to hear it if you don’t give it away, so you have to give it away.”

The question then remaining is how to make a living from one’s art once one has amassed an audience. One way to do that is to tour and play shows and charge for the shows. The other way Rovics recommends, which he combines with touring, is to embrace the subscription model of funding.

…that’s something that in the past year I’ve been experimenting with, and have had really great success with that. I’ve been really happy to find that there’s a lot of people who are into that idea…

The role of music in social change

Despite the obvious difficulties, Rovics is committed to a life as a communicator and storyteller – a singer of songs of social significance. In Rovics’ view, humans are inherently musical creatures, and music holds an important place in the overall movement for social change.

…people need to hear stories in order to understand the world around them. And so often those stories are going to be in the form of a song. Basically people forever as far as history goes and prehistory as well, people learned about the world around them through music, and music plays an essential role in building any kind of a culture or subculture and maintaining a sense of cultural identity or subcultural identity and fostering a sense of community – it plays so many vital roles in society and in any kind of social movement.

Rovics elaborates that music is also often used in order to prop up the dominant culture, however. The military-industrial complex and transnational corporations use music very effectively to sell patriotism and their products, so it is not an inherently good thing. It all depends on how it is used, and the stories it is used to communicate.

Music has very, very important positive contributions to make to culture and to social movements, and that always has been the case and I’m sure it always will be the case.

How well music can be used by the social movements of our time depends largely on how well aware change-agents are of how useful music is. Yet to fully grasp the value of music and its role in social change, our movements for change are crying out for communicators like David Rovics. Songs of social significance are needed now more than ever.

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