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Danny Goldberg on Labor’s Message Gap and the Art of Politics




Few figures in the music industry have had as colorful or as influential a career as Danny Goldberg. The one-time manager of superstars Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Bonnie Raitt, Goldberg parlayed his knowledge of rock and roll into positions of power, serving as CEO of Warner Bros. Records and president of Atlantic Records.

Goldberg’s accomplishments in the entertainment industry are only a part of the story. He has been a forceful voice within progressive politics for more than three decades, beginning with No Nukes, the 1980 documentary featuring Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and other legends that he co-produced and co-directed. As chair of the ACLU in Southern California, Goldberg was a very visible national defender of civil liberties, clashing with Tipper Gore over attempts to censor rock lyrics. He is a prolific writer, with hundreds of articles and several books to his credit (including his acclaimed industry memoir, Bumping Into Geniuses), and has served as publisher of Tikkun and, briefly, CEO of the ill-fated Air America radio network.

In recent years Goldberg has returned to his roots as a music manager, with a current roster that includes politically outspoken artists such as Tom Morello and Steve Earle. Goldberg, who will be honored at the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy’s (LAANE) City of Justice Awards next month, spoke to Frying Pan News with his usual candor about the corrosive power of money in politics, labor’s communications gap and the role of artists in social change.

Frying Pan News: What do you make of the election results?

Danny Goldberg: It’s certainly better than the alternative. It shows that at least the right-wing philosophy is not ascendant at the moment, and it was important that Obama and Elizabeth Warren and some of the others win. But it’s not sufficient for the country to get back to its core values of fairer distribution of income and democracy. It allows the debate to be about the right things.

FPN: What is the greatest challenge facing progressives today?

DG: The single biggest thing that would make things better is public financing of federal elections. The corrupting influence of money in politics is profound — it was before Citizens United and it’s even worse now.

Failure to correct this toxic problem will make it harder to accomplish other progressive outcomes. The “money out of politics” community has been fragmented, with several competing strategies, and that has fragmented the emotional power of activists post-Occupy Wall Street. Pick a strategy. A large majority of the public is concerned. That is not the problem. What they don’t have is a belief that there is something they can do to help make it better. Personally I’m attracted to public financing for all federal and state elections. This would empower a lot of progressives who now can’t compete. I’ll support whatever most experts on the issue coalesce around but I’m really sick of the circular firing squad among the left on this issue.

FPN: Campaign finance reform is undoubtedly important, but we may not see it for a long time. Given this, what other issues should progressives focus on?

DG: One of them is certainly making it easier for people to join unions. Higher union density ends up having good results for people in the working and middle class and even for people who are not in unions. Like other progressives I think a dramatically increased effort on climate change is needed. I also support the notion that some who worked with Occupy Wall Street have endorsed: To seriously rethink, restructure and, in some cases, forgive private debt — including credit card debt, student loans and mortgages, although I’d be a little more comfortable if that impulse was married to a tangible strategy and set of specific goals.

FPN: Why hasn’t the U.S. labor movement managed to win the hearts and minds of the public?

DG: I don‘t think they have made much of an effort, it hasn’t been a priority. There has been so much investment in electoral politics and very little in longer-term efforts to influence public opinion. There hasn’t even been serious efforts to remind the public why there is a holiday on Labor Day. I’ve spoken to long time-consultants to unions who have given up on the idea of educating the broader public about unions because they are currently unpopular with a lot of people. That polling and focus group mentality — which is so useful for elections — is not appropriate for movements. If the gay rights or the anti-death penalty movements had given up just because their positions were unpopular, they never would have made the progress they’ve had in recent decades.

FPN: What would you do if you were in charge of communications for the labor movement?

DG: One thing you have to do is carve out resources. The right wing spends an enormous amount of money on think tanks and conservative media, and one of their main agendas has been to de-legitimize labor. There are people on the left like Drew Weston and George Lakoff who have studied the emotional realm of political ideas and are more useful than those who just do a focus group. There are progressive writers, publishers on- and offline, filmmakers and broadcasters who would have a lot of impact if they got more support.

I think that some foundation types fetishize distribution because it lends itself to mathematical analysis when the real need is investment in content on the left. It’s show business by another name so its nerve-wracking for metrics freaks, but real impact comes from intelligent experimentation, being willing to fail.

FPN: What is one thing labor could now do to change perceptions?

DG: I don’t think the majority of Americans know what labor unions do – let’s start with that.

FPN: What is the level of engagement today by artists on the issue of economic inequality?

DG: A lot of artists are engaged, compared to a lot of other times in history. Artists can’t lead a movement, they can amplify a movement. MLK was helped greatly by artists, but he was MLK with a vivid vision. In general, there is a community of creative people in the arts world and literary world that is as activated as in any other era, but they are most effective when they work in support of progressive leadership.

FPN: What is the contribution that artists make to social change?

DG: Sometimes they can raise money, but their main value is that they can communicate in an emotional language what op-ed pages can’t. Abraham Lincoln supposedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe that she was the little lady that started the big war. It depends on the time and the issue and the moment, but on occasion artists can get into parts of society that conventional political discourse can’t. They are not a substitute for political leaders, but they can add to the conversation.

FPN: You’ve done almost everything in your four-decade career in music. What would you still like to do?

DG: The times I’ve become too worried about what’s “next” haven’t been my best. What works for me is to be as intensely engaged in what’s in front of me as possible. I’d like every artist I currently work with to have every chance in the world to have breakthroughs and to also get lucky. The nature of my role is similar but each artist is unique and each cycle in their career is unique, so the fact that I’ve worked with a lot of singer-songwriters doesn’t make working with Martha Wainwright any more predictable or less nerve-wracking or inspiring than it was the first time I managed an artist [Mink Deville in 1977]. Steve Earle’s forthcoming album, The Low Highway, will be the sixth studio album on which I’ve worked with Steve but I’m as excited and nervous as on any of the others. Ben Lee’s next record, inspired by Ayahuasca, is as original a vision as any I’ve ever been involved with. Whatever opportunities to be useful to come will come. Of course I like it a lot better when things go great than when they don’t.

But the main thing is to stay focused. I have the job I want.

FPN: What do you miss most about L.A.?

DG: The main thing I miss are a number of friends who I am in touch with less than when I lived in L.A. full time. But on a broad scale, I miss the depth of interaction and collegiality between the progressive political world and the art and entertainment community which only exists in L.A.

FPN: What artists (other than Tom Morello and Steve Earle) are producing the most socially relevant music today?

DG: My son Max gets as much substance and inspiration from Kanye West as I did (and still do) from Bob Dylan. In general hip-hop has dozens of politically and socially engaged artists. Unfortunately for me, my literacy in that genre post-Public Enemy, Mos Def and Common is limited. Among newer rock bands, Rise Against is great. Outernational, a band that Tom has produced, is doing interesting work. I’ve really liked a lot of what MIA has done and Ani DiFranco is always an important voice. I think that a number of artists of my generation and older are still vitally relevant artistically and politically, including Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Patti Smith, Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash, Kris Kristofferson and, mind-blowingly, Pete Seeger.

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