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Artists For Action offers an alternative to an Arizona boycott

September 17, 2010 |  4:43 pm


When SoundStrike launched its boycott of Arizona music venues after the passing of the controversial SB 1070, fans were torn. Many agreed with the organization's goals to use a strong commercial hand to help spur voters into repealing the illegal immigration bill. But others wondered if artists such as Rage Against the Machine and Conor Oberst (who recently performed a SoundStrike benefit at the Palladium) were marginalizing a potentially sympathetic community of artists, venue owners, promoters and fans.
Artists For Action, a new organization founded by Arizona-based musicians and concert promoters, believed the latter.

“We understand it and we’re sympathetic to their goals,” said David Slutes, the entertainment director at Tuscon’s Club Congress and a co-founder of Artists For Action. “We’re not against SoundStrike, but we think there’s a better way, and that playing the state is more effective.”

Whereas SoundStrike holds live music hostage to hopefully spur Arizona voters to repeal the bill, Artists For Action sees concerts as a potentially rich source of voter-registration drives and other activism. Founded by Slutes and Calexico singer Joey Burns (who plays the Hollywood Bowl Sunday as part of the Viva Mexico! show with Ozomatli), the group held a successful voter-registration drive show at Tempe’s Marquee Theater in August and could be a strong voice in the effort to repeal the bill.

“I believe that while an economic boycott might make a difference to the state officials and financial institutions, a cultural/artistic boycott will have quite the opposite effect," the Tuscon-based Burns said. “The same legislators and governor could return in the next session and would likely continue to pass equally [or more] offensive laws. Artists are in the unique position to use their voices to mobilize and educate their fans. Music fans in Arizona are starving for this kind of motivation.”

Soundstrike’s boycott has had a mixed effect on Arizona venues. Slutes believes that for smaller rooms such as Club Congress, which books primarily local and smaller touring acts, the boycott has only lightly affected its schedule. But the promoters and staffs of mid-size and larger venues such as Tempe’s Clubhouse, where many of SoundStrike’s artists would play in the Phoenix area, stand to lose the most from the effort.

“They are really hurting from this and are looking for jobs elsewhere,” Burns said. “It is important to note that these are the venues and people that do not support SB 1070 and who have been very supportive over the years of helping build a music scene that embraces all cultures and genres.”

One of the other key goals for Artists For Action is to rebut the image of Arizona as broadly intolerant of immigrants. While SB 1070 is popular in the state, many music communities in cities such as Tuscon and Phoenix are both working to overturn the bill and present a different vision of political and cultural life in Arizona.

“The majority of the music community here is very progressive and there are pockets of liberalism across the state,” said Jim Adkins, the singer of Jimmy Eat World, one of Arizona’s most well-known bands and an outspoken collaborator with Artists For Action. “There are some messed-up things about the state’s politics, but there’s a lot of Arizona pride in the scene, and [fighting SB 1070] is a role that local music can fill.”

Out-of-town artists such as the Walkmen, Tom Petty, the Pixies and Spoon are hosting Artist For Action registration drives at upcoming shows across Arizona. Their mission to overturn the bill remains daunting and unlikely in the near future, but Slutes believes that opting out of Arizona isn’t the best way for artists to engage with voters.

“We’re in such a position to energize our audience, and a boycott is just playing right into the hands of people who support SB 1070,” Slutes said. “Anyone who wants to come play Arizona, we don’t want them to feel like a scab or strikebreaker. We want them to know you can play in Arizona and be active in this fight.”

-- August Brown

Photo: Calexico. Credit: Albert Moneo