Downtown Boys are perhaps as radical as a band can get in 21st century America and survive, both in philosophical approach and in identity: they are Latinx, queer, and bilingual, and if punk has at its best aspirations been a haven for the marginalized, the Providence quartet both embodies that, and makes space for those more marginalized than they are.
Case in point: after playing Coachella this weekend and the one before, the band published an open letter rejecting the politics of its owner, Anschutz Entertainment Group’s Philip Anschutz, who has been criticized for donating some of his fortune to anti-LGBT organizations, among other right-wing interests. The group justifies its place on the bill—“there was no call for an organized boycott,” plus artists operating on the relatively micro level of Downtown Boys must, in the festival economy, take these types of gigs in order to keep their heads above water—but also shows its support for those musicians of more means donating profits to LGBT organizations.
Further, the band, which has used its medium-but-increasing megaphone to make worker rights a center of its interests, says it spoke to a woman working Coachella’s grounds who claims she was making $.50 less than California’s minimum wage:
Coachella is literally its own economy. There are so many people who work for Coachella, almost all of whom are great people who do great work. We spoke with one worker picking up trash who said that she used to get paid $14/hr but a few years ago, but her wages were since cut to $10/hr. She was picking up trash in the artist compound. This is an unacceptable wage for a festival that grossed over $85 million in 2015 according to Billboard.
In March, Downtown Boys joined several other bands in demanding SXSW change language in its contract that seemed to threaten musicians with ICE deportation if they “acted in ways that adversely affect[ed] the viability of their official SXSW showcase.” This was seen as a threat not just to musicians traveling from foreign countries—when Trump’s travel ban still causes confusion, and which barred some musicians scheduled for SXSW from entering the States—but as a threat to US musicians who may have been undocumented, a way to control behavior in the most craven and capitalist fashion.
That protest ultimately worked—SXSW removed the language about deportation before the festival began. With both that protest and this Coachella letter, Downtown Boys are providing an example of the way musicians—even those of relatively little power compared to headliners like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, to cite their examples—can exert control over their own work environment, in a landscape that increasingly inhospitable to artists. “It is important to realize,” they write in their letter, “that we are workers for Coachella. We are getting paid to do a job and we have a problem with one of the bosses.” While it’s not quite a national labor union, yet, it’s an important way of thinking about things that deserves support for the betterment of musicians everywhere, particularly in a landscape where festivals are integral to the survival of certain acts. Downtown Boys are out here doing the work, and for that they deserve some credit.