Bloomington’s Secretly Group has been releasing critically-acclaimed independent music for decades, including artists like Angel Olsen, Bon Iver, Mitski, Moses Sumney, Phoebe Bridgers and Whitney — and that’s just over the past five years.
At the same time they’ve been churning out world-class albums, Secretly Group’s roughly 150 employees have been making plans to unionize. Secretly Group Union, the first of its kind in the world of independent record labels, was legally recognized in late April, setting the stage for employees at other labels to follow suit.
We caught up with union members Sanjeev Rau, Secretly Group operations coordinator, and Katie Maher, sales coordinator, to talk about how their negotiations progressed and the wider impact they could have on the independent music industry.
When did conversations surrounding the Secretly Group Union begin, and what were those conversations like?
Rau: A group of us had begun meeting up, not to talk about unionizing necessarily but just to vent about work problems and some of the things we were frustrated about that management wasn’t really resolving. We started having those conversations around June or July. Eventually, we started adding more people to the conversation and talking about more and more issues. We realized that people had tried to fix these issues multiple times, and it would never really get anywhere with management.
The other thing that was an important part of these conversations is that we all really liked working here. We like working in music, and we wanted to be able to keep that sustainable. So while these conversations could get emotional and frustrating, they were never to the point of, “Well, we should all just leave!” We wanted to come up with a way that we could stay here and work together to make it better, and I think unionizing was the natural answer there.
How have things progressed from those early conversations to where you are now?
Rau: Once we decided that we were interested in creating a union, a few of us got in touch with union reps to try and figure out what union would be best to go with. We didn’t want to start from scratch — we wanted legal protection. We wanted the experiences of organizers to help us with a campaign. So we got in touch with organizers, and at that point, we began reaching out to other co-workers.
First, we reached out to the people we knew would say yes and would be supportive. And then as time went on, we started reaching out to other people in other departments and growing the group as much as we could. We had to do all of that in secret though because we didn’t want management to find out. We weren’t really sure how they would react. That ended up being more of a positive surprise.
What did you present the Secretly Group management with, and what was their reaction?
Rau: When we went public on March 23, we delivered a letter to their emails announcing that we were pleased to inform them that we had the numbers to win an election and that the company wanted to begin the process of unionizing. We also launched a public letter explaining more in detail why we were unionizing and what we were organizing around to build more public support, because our company is so public facing.
Maher: The support was overwhelming, especially from labels that we distribute and previous people we’ve worked with. I think that’s such a good sign that this is the right direction.
Rau: It’s been cool to see that management has been responding positively. Like I said, we weren’t really expecting a positive reaction. Putting the music industry aside, voluntary recognition doesn’t really happen, so we were not going into this with the assumption that it would, but they’ve signaled that this doesn’t have to be this huge, drawn-out battle and that they, as an independent music company, can differentiate themselves and make themselves stand out by looking at this process positively. So that’s pretty cool. We still have a lot to go there because we haven’t begun the bargaining process formally yet, but it’s a really good sign.
What have been some of the challenges that have come along the way thus far?
Rau: This has been hard for a lot of reasons. I think one of the biggest things is that we had to do this during a pandemic. Katie and I know each other outside of work, and those are easy connections to make. But when you’re trying to enlist the support of your co-workers to really undertake something of this magnitude and you literally have never met some of these people, it can be really intimidating and difficult to form those connections, and it often takes a lot more time than you think. You can’t just waltz in the door and pop the question. A lot of the time, you have to try and create a relationship there.
Maher: We also don’t just have offices in Bloomington, we have them in New York and L.A. too. So we had to make those connections as well, and educate people on what this is all about. Because some people aren’t familiar with what unions are and what they can be good for.
Have other independent record labels tried to unionize in the past? What makes the start of this Secretly Group Union significant?
Rau: Our rep [OPEIU Local 174] does also represent workers at Universal Music Group. But in terms of independent labels, this is a first. It’s been cool to see the positive response from other label,s because a lot of eyes are on Secretly within independent music. Hopefully with us taking this step it will signal to the rest of the world that this is something that’s not only doable but worth it, and it’s good for everyone.
Now that Secretly Group Union has been voluntarily recognized by Secretly Group management, what comes next?
Rau: We’ve gotten legal recognition. When we announced [our Union], the partners agreed to recognize the following Thursday, which was great, but it wasn’t actual recognition. We had to iron a few things out and meet with their reps to determine who was eligible to be in the bargaining unit, and actually do a card count. But we got legal recognition, so at this point we’ve selected a third party counsel, the card count is done, and we are about to be nominating people in the union to be in the bargaining unit. So very soon, we’ll hopefully begin the process of actually bargaining for the contract.
For someone who maybe doesn’t understand the music industry — or unions, for that matter — can you explain why the formation of Secretly Group Union is an important step for independent record labels going forward?
Maher: I think every industry should unionize. Especially within music, if we want to keep our roots of being a collective and making releases a collaborative effort, I think it’s really important to include all voices and perspectives and not just a select few. That’s the big reason I wanted to sign a card, when I really thought about it.
Rau: We’re in Bloomington, a college town where this label was founded. I think a lot of people have this perception of working in music as, “Oh you get all these cool benefits and can be on an email thread with Phoebe Bridgers.” Yeah, that’s cool, but it doesn’t make this a sustainable job. I still have to fix my car, pay my rent and all that kind of stuff.
Secretly has benefited from the fact that there are a lot young people in Bloomington who love music and are willing to jump into this like we have. It’s really cool that they’re giving people that opportunity, but they have to follow through with it. They have to take care of us too.
What ripple effects have you seen within the music industry since you went public with Secretly Group Union?
Rau: We had a call with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), and we’ll hopefully be having a few more. That was really cool because they not only have offered us a lot of support but they really want to have us use each other as resources. We’re organizing around a lot of the same issues, just on different sides of it. On that call, they had a lot of workers from other labels who just wanted to compare notes and ask about our campaign. So once we have a successful contract negotiated, we definitely want to share our resources and allow other people to take notes from our pitfalls and successes. Hopefully the whole industry can benefit from it.