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RiotFolk: "Making Folk Music a Threat Again!"

By Ethan Miller

A song can be a powerful weapon of social change. The IWW worker's movement, and South African and U.S. freedom struggles demonstrate this. 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 us well. It can 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 spirit. As a troupe of acoustic artists, we 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 to break the isolation that we felt as solo political artists. The collective has organized five successful tours in the U.S and Europe, played numerous benefit shows for grassroots organizations, built an often-visited website with free mp3s and lyrics (, and supported a number of new releases from the collective's artists.

RiotFolk is also working to create a different model for how music can be made, supported, and shared. Before the era of musical copyright and commercial recording, folk music was truly a collective affair. Songs were written to be passed along and sung by all who were moved by their lyrics and melodies.

Musical recording and mass-production brought new opportunities, yet it also ushered in a new relationship between the artists 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, stands the artist, the singer, the star. Artists themselves become commodities--names to be marketed, promoted, bought and sold. Competition 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.

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 successful 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.

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 is distributed by consensus, to support tours, recording, CD production and promotion. Our songs are anti-copyright: free to be distributed, copied, sung, re-written and recorded by all.

Does it work - is it economically and artistically viable? Our answer so far is an emphatic, "yes!" RiotFolk has amplified the ability of each of us be heard more widely and has boosted our energy and ability to continue our musical work. We’ve built new relationships of solidarity and mutual care. See you at the show and on the streets!

Ethan Miller is a musician, writer and organizer. He rocks out with RiotFolk, works with the GEO Collective, and lives on a cooperative subsistence farm in Maine.

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