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Conor Oberst draws line in the sand over AZ boycott

July 2, 2010 |  6:34 pm

Conor Singer-songwriter Conor Oberst and Phoenix-based concert promoter Charlie Levy are in the midst of a very pointed dialogue over the real impact of Sound Strike, a coalition of artists including Oberst, Zack de la Rocha, Nine Inch Nails, Pitbull and Maroon 5 boycotting Arizona over the notorious immigration law SB 1070.

Sound Strike's members hopes to use their artistic platform to hit Arizona in its pocketbook and help force a repeal of the law. But in a recent editorial in the Arizona Republic, Levy argues that the real victims are struggling Arizona entertainment-industry workers, and the state's forums for cultural life that might be allies in their efforts to overturn the bill. Levy writes:

By not performing in Arizona, artists are harming the very people and places that foster free speech and the open exchange of ideas that serve to counter the closed-mindedness recently displayed by the new law.

The people who will feel the negative effects of the boycott the deepest are local concert venues, including non-profit art-house theatres, independent promoters, fans and the people employed in the local music business. If the boycott continues, it is all but guaranteed that some of these venues will be forced to close their doors. 

Oberst, meanwhile, replied with a very respectful but typically adamant (he's no stranger to politically volatile songwriting) letter suggesting that fiscal pain is the point -- it's meant to spur locals (the only people with any democratic say in this process) to work to overturn it. In his letter he writes:

The Boycott has to be so widespread and devastating that the Arizona State Legislature and Governor have no choice but to repeal their unconstitutional, immoral and hateful law.  It has to hurt them in the only place they feel any pain, their pocketbooks.

What I would encourage you to do, if you haven't already started, is to organize with all the local businesses you can to put as much pressure as possible on your State Government until the Law is repealed.  An economic death rattle is the only cry of outrage they will hear.

Oberst ends on a rueful note, sympathizing with Levy and the real-world impact of the boycott, but ultimately siding with the larger goal of overturning the law. But it's difficult to parse the particular effectiveness of Sound Strike's efforts. One imagines that many, if not most, Arizona indie music fans likely opposed SB 1070 from the outset, and as Oberst admitted in slightly more pointed language, the prospect of no future Bright Eyes shows in Arizona probably doesn't keep Gov. Jan Brewer up at night. And what may seem like esoteric collateral damage in a larger moral fight is, on the ground, someone's job, favorite venue or ability to keep a vital cultural scene in their hometown -- one that could be a useful place for these artists to begin fostering their repeal effort.

Blunt large-scale boycotts have worked in Arizona before. When the NFL pulled the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona over then-Gov. Evan Meacham's refusal to recognize the Martin Luther King Day holiday, voters soon passed an initiative establishing it, and Tempe won the right to host 1996 Super Bowl. But the Super Bowl is a far more prominent and demographically relevant event in Arizona than any concert could hope hope to be. A music boycott instead would likely affect a very different and repeal-sympathetic community.

Is the loss of a lot of live music in Arizona -- and all the particular economic peril that entails -- worth making a moral stand on SB 1070? Both Levy and Oberst will find out in the coming months.

-- August Brown

Photo: Conor Oberst. Credit: Butch Walker


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