Musical Workers’ Precarity Uncovered and the Revival of Mutual Aid in Chile

Eileen Karmy and Estefanía Urqueta

Independent Researchers


The protests that began in Chile in October 2019 revealed the crisis of a process of democratisation with pending matters. The protests were mostly directed against the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, which for thirty years has been run by successive elected governments, keeping intact the neoliberal reforms of hyperprivatisation and minimal state regulations (Riethof, 2019). Musicians, artists and other cultural workers took part in the uprising, participating at demonstrations and expressing their solidarity. In this context, we saw several musical performances organised by the community: street troupes, open mics, homages to Chilean artists, among other grassroots activities, in marches, meetings, festivals and carnivals (Watson, 2019).

Musicians in homage to Victor Jara, taking part on anti-neoliberal mass protests of 25 October 2019, Santiago. © AFP Pedro Ugarte

The social unrest also had an impact on everyday life. Chain stores, shopping centres and public institutions saw the interruption of their regular activities, being the target of the people’s discontent. To safeguard the security of the people due to protests and violence used to repress them, mass events, such as festivals and concerts, were cancelled or rescheduled (CBS, 2019). Similarly, bars and restaurants that are part of the live music scene were temporally closed, while cultural and educative centres interrupted their activities. All this unveiled the centrality of live music for musical workers and the precarity of their working conditions.

Chilean workers’ precarity has to do with public policies that do not include the protection of their social rights. In the last thirty years, the state has administrated a neoliberal model, where essential goods and services are provided according to a subsidiary logic. Similarly, the cultural policy is based on outsourcing and state-fund competition, pointing to the growth of a thriving cultural industry, but undermining the continuity of artistic projects and cultural workers’ job stability. Creators, performers, managers, and technicians labour in a context of precarity, where 88.3% do not have any contract and 59% are not affiliated to any pension fund (Brodsky, Negrón & Possel, 2014, pp. 24, 35). This situation is more problematic for performing artists, such as musicians playing live, since their main job does not result in a physical product. This brings the difficulty to both gain incomes from the musical product and to value the artistic labour as a paid job.

The Health Crisis Overlaps the Social Crisis

 The arrival of the COVID-19 health crisis in Chile by mid-March heightened these issues. The impossibility of performing live has seriously harmed the material conditions of musical workers. Similarly, moving teaching online meant another challenge that working musicians who teach had to overcome to keep one of their few relatively stable jobs (as a primary or extra source of income). Differently as in the Global North, the pandemic arrived in Chile at the beginning of the academic year, during the last month of summer after a spring interrupted by mass protests. As there are more cultural activities in spring and summer than in the other seasons, the already existing precarity of musical workers was aggravated due to the loss of income (ODMC, 2020, p. 43).

The Chilean government’s response to the health crisis demonstrated its neoliberal logic and the normalisation of social precariousness, offering scarce financial help to the most vulnerable ones and a cultural policy that was not up to the people’s needs[1]. This situation was evident with the campaigns, petitions and demands that different musicians’ organisations presented with the health crisis. For instance, some asked for the payment of the funds corresponding to the selected projects of the current year from the Ministry of Cultures, Arts and Heritage (MINCAP), which shows not only the musical workers’ precarity but also the bureaucracy of the system of state-fund competition. The campaign led by the National Corporation of Musical Theatre, “You help me, and I’ll help you”[2], aimed to collect non-perishable food and money. This campaign addressed musical theatre workers that “have lost jobs and […] in consequence do not have money to eat” (CONATEMUCH, 2020). Similarly, the Centre of Arts and Culture Promotion of Universidad de Chile led the campaign “¡Toi Toi!” seeking to collect donations towards unemployed classical musical workers while offering online artistic programmes for free (CEAC, 2020). Both campaigns show the harsh reality of the precarity of the musical work and the non-existent help funds for emergencies.

After cultural workers’ guilds spoke out to make known the urgency of the problem and asking the government to offer emergency funds, the MINCAP launched an open call for state-fund competition to produce digital cultural contents (Becerra 2020; Fajardo, 2020). Even though these funds will be a real help for some, they are presented in the same subsidiary logic of neoliberal culture management. Instead of direct emergency funds, these funds will be given to applicants who will be selected by the quality and relevance of their projects and CV and not for socioeconomic characteristics or unemployment. These funds allow one-off payment of CLP 300,000 (around USD 366) for salary concept (MINCAP, 2020). 

For its part, the Chilean Copyright Society (SCD) announced to distribute one billion Chilean pesos to help members, with fees conditional to the musician’s copyright royalties (El Mostrador, 2020). Likewise, some venues maintained their musical programme but now streamed on their digital platforms. Private cultural centres that get state-funding paid their workers directly, while those that function with their own funds asked the public to pay or make a voluntary donation (digital busking). None of these, however, has been enough to overcome the intensification of musical workers’ precarious conditions.

But also, as the pandemic arrived amid a deep social crisis, it founded an active and empowered society. Lockdown, venue closures and the cancellation of live music shows reinforced the awareness of the lack of state protection, particularly for informal workers, such as musicians, who historically have been outsiders of the distribution of public goods and welfare services (Farías, 2019). In this context, musicians have followed similar strategies as in other parts of the world, streaming gigs on digital platforms and publicising them on social media. At the same time, they have built mutual aid networks, focusing on enhancing community ties against state neglection, leading to a revival of the ancient tradition of mutual aid.

Probably due to their condition as independent workers, trade union organisation amongst musical workers has been a challenge, especially after the last dictatorship (1973-1989), that strongly hit trade unionism and damaged the social fabric (Álvarez, 2010). Weak musical workers’ associativity as well as the inability of musicians’ guilds to represent them and assert their rights, has been a common trend (Karmy, Brodsky, Facuse & Urrutia, 2013, pp. 19-20). But it wasn’t always that way. In the late nineteenth century, musical workers gathered in mutual aid societies on the main urban centres of the country, who similarly to other workers of the time operated a shared and autonomous fund to provide welfare services to members (Karmy, 2017, pp. 5-7). With the approval of the ‘social laws’ in 1924 and the legalisation of trade unions in 1928, mutual aid societies declined giving way to the first legal trade unions of the country (Illanes, 2003; Grez, 1994). In 1928 the first musicians’ unions were founded, which besides offering welfare services to members represented them in negotiation with employers and the state, pushing for legal changes and public policies apt to their working conditions (Karmy 2019, pp. 143-179).

Contemporary unionism is shaped by the authoritarian legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship and the promotion of individualism of the neoliberal model. In this period, trade unions declined, losing political force and collective representation. In the new democratic context, some formal artists’ associations have emerged leading political negotiations, such as the National Union of Artists and the SCD. The state program Escuelas de Rock had fostered strategies to enhance support networks among those working in popular music (Urqueta, 2019).

The reactivation and creation of new support grassroots networks that came with the uprising of October 2019, combined with the scant state protection during the health crisis, have led to a revival of mutual aid. With this, self-regulated and self-funded grassroots initiatives have acquired new relevance, in which musical workers are also a key part. For example, although MAMCHI (Managers Asociados de Músicos en Chile) emerged in April 2019[3], it was only after the declaration of the health emergency, in April 2020, that it began the campaign #MásMúsicaChilena. This campaign aims to raise public awareness to listen to Chilean musicians on streaming platforms and asking for the support of radio broadcasters, who generally prefer to broadcast international rather than national music[4]. Similarly, various musical guilds, such as IMUVA (Gremio de la Industria Musical de Valparaíso) have put together playlists with Chilean music to promote national artists. IMUVA also designed in April a health handbook for musicians wanting to stream gigs safely. This handbook has been particularly relevant since the government has not taken the necessary measures to control the spread of the disease. 

Left: TRAMUS Food Baskets Campaign for members in need
Right: TRAMUS Online Workshops Campaign towards an emergency shared fund to aid members in need.

TRAMUS, the Network of Female and Dissenting Musical Workers is a feminist organisation that emerged in March 2019 but gained strength with the protests of October. It gathers musical workers to offer them material and emotional support and strengthening activism. With the health crisis, besides circulating public statements and petitions, they have organised for members to offer online workshops, musical teaching and gigs while asking donations from the audience towards a shared “emergency fund” to aid musical workers from this Network.

The TRAMUS emergency fund, and the above solidarity actions developed by new musicians’ organisations, endorse the core values promoted by the ancient Chilean mutualism: fraternity and solidarity. Chilean mutual aid societies of the late nineteenth century were inspired by the Sociedad de la Igualdad, founded in Santiago in 1850 by a group of young republicans, liberal intellectuals and artisans (among them the musician José Zapiola). This society promoted a project of working-class emancipation, where collective saving, (self) education and mutual aid were the basis (Illanes, 2003). Both the old and the new organisations have echoed the concept of mutual aid, coined by the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin (1902), that argues that aiding and protecting others while serving the needs of the group rather than the individual is essential to survival.

Musicians help musicians

Although the COVID-19 pandemic unveiled both the precarity of musical workers and the state neglect, issues that have been publicly discussed since the anti-neoliberal movement of October, it has also shown a revival of mutual aid. In this context, musicians’ organisations have flagged up slogans such as “the people only help the people” or “we take care of ourselves” [5] (CONATEMUCH, 2020; TRAMUS, 2020). Besides promoting listening to Chilean music, they have also held community kitchens, money collections and other solidarity activities to distribute help among those who need it most.

These solidarity campaigns have been led by self-regulated and self-funded grassroots organisations, that have arisen or strengthened with the revolts of October, and not by state nor private institutions related to the music industries. Such institutions have been limited to collect information (that reaffirmed musical workers precarity) and to distribute limited funds among some musicians. It has been the grassroots organisations formed by and for musical workers the ones that have put forward campaigns not only focused on denouncing their labour problems but also undertaking concrete mutual aid actions. As mutual aid is based in solidarity, which is the opposite to competition, we believe that this can be a pivotal force to face what’s next and overcome the economic crisis that the pandemic will leave.

When the crisis is over, will mutual aid be over too? Or is it here to stay? Is the revival of mutual aid a reaction to the precarity unveiled by the health crisis? Or is it also the reactivation of solidarity networks that owe to the uprising of October? Will this solidarity network constitute a new agent to pressure for anti-neoliberal change?



*A slightly expanded version of this article was published in Spanish in the online magazine Rosa, Una Revista de Izquierda on 22 June 2020. ISSN 2452-4824.



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[1] The COVID-19 Bonus and the Emergency Family Income are directed towards families with lower incomes. The former consists on one-off payment of $50,000 CLP (around $63 USD) while the latter on a monthly salary per three months (the amount of money it is still in discussion in Parliament).

[2]Es hoy por ti mañana por mí” is a popular saying that can be translated as: “I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine”.

[3] MAMCHI represents 75 managers of Chilean artists to “give collective strength to a non-visible guild that plays a crucial role in the artistic field” (Del Real, 2019).

[4] In 2015 a law that asked for a quota of 20% of Chilean music to be broadcasted in radios was approved after six years of discussion in Parliament. It has several flaws but is one of the few protectionist initiatives designed for musicians in the new democratic context, especially when most radio stations belong to international consortiums. During the discussion, two arguments arose: protectionism of Chilean music versus freedom of choice in a free-market economy. Radio broadcasters supported the latter, while musicians’ guilds the former.

[5] Original: “Solo el pueblo ayuda al pueblo”, “Entre todes nos cuidamos”.

Cite this blog post
karmy (2020, July 6). Musical Workers’ Precarity Uncovered and the Revival of Mutual Aid in Chile. Working in Music. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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