Mark Nguyen, of Planet LA Records, discusses his latest project: the Abolitionist Tour. The tour involves a coalition of artists & activists geared at stopping labor and sex trafficking. They descend on Austin, Texas for SxSW this week!
If you are at SxSW: check out the Abolitionist Tour at Momo’s on Friday, March 18 from noon to 6pm. Check out www.abolitiontour.com and www.notforsale.org to learn more.
Jessie Torrisi: Are you a musician by trade?
Mark Nguyen: Not by training, but I sort of evolved as a late bloomer into being involved in music and the creation of music, and now helping artists as a label person.
Jessie Torrisi: I’m a late bloomer myself.
Mark Nguyen: Following your passion. Enjoying what you do. It takes a little while to get there.
Jessie Torrisi: How did you decide you wanted to start a record label?
Mark Nguyen: Very organically and kind of by accident. When [my band] When Planets Align finished our first album, we created Planet LA Records to release it. But we soon took on other artists. It’s fairly new, about a year and a half. The artists we work with range from rock bands to a singer who’s established in India – whatever moves us.
Jessie Torrisi: It’s really hard to make money at music, especially now. What possessed you to link up with a non-profit? Icing on the cake….
Mark Nguyen: One, we strongly belief in causes. Two, the artists we work with have strong causes. And three, we think it’s just sensible to reach out to audiences that may like the music our artists are putting out. It’s good for cross-branding.
Some people cross-brand with shoe companies or clothing or liquor companies. We like to cross-brand with established charities and other people who’re trying to do good.
Jessie Torrisi: The people who do this are not necessarily the people who go hang out at nightclubs and would see your music otherwise.
Mark Nguyen: There’s so much music being put out there. Now, it’s a matter of finding your audience, whether your audience is doing charity work or is into hiking, skiing, sports… there’s always an audience out there for music.
Jessie Torrisi: I’m hearing more and more talk from the indie world that it’s about finding your community or creating your community as much as it’s about Fader magazine. How did you get onto the issue of labor trafficking & sex trafficking?
Mark Nguyen: We were introduced to the issue by our partner [radio DJ] Jeff Popka ‘cause he had interviewed Brant Christopher who was the artist-in-residence at Not-for-Sale. Brant is performing at some of the SxSW showcases while we’re in Austin.
It’s an issue that’s not only an issue globally, in developing countries, but also here in the States, whether it be sex trafficking migrant workers.
Jessie Torrisi: What goes on the US? What are some of the stories you’ve heard?
Mark Nguyen: From what I’ve seen of what Not-for-Sale’s done, they try to track down where trafficking exists, whether it be in farm communities, whether it be in industrial textile industries, or sex trafficking surrounding major events like the Superbowl or SxSW. A lot of it just trying to put household look-out for this activity and then report it, and get it investigated by law authorities immediately.
Jessie Torrisi: In the United States, it’s about pulling the veil away?
Mark Nguyen: Exactly. Like with migrant worker issues, people think it’s just illegal workers trying to earn money in the States. It’s workers who have been trafficked and are indentured and are forced to do this.
Jessie Torrisi: They’ve been offered a way to the United States but they have to pay off an exorbitant debt through the work?
Mark Nguyen: Yeah, that’s common for people who’ve been brought across the Mexican border and folks who’re brought in from Asia on student or temporary visas and then are used for labor or sex trafficking. It’s a pretty widespread problem. I think people don’t understand it’s as big as it is.
Jessie Torrisi: The thing with artists & causes though is, How are you gonna make a difference? How can you change things through music?
Mark Nguyen: Raising awareness can take different directions. Raising awareness of the problem and ways to solve it. Then raising money and supporters. Given that music targets a lot of college kids during spring break, it’s good timing for us to do this.
We’re doing some creative things like the StageIt.com broadcasts. People can tune in & the proceeds will go to Not-for-Sale & they’ll also be eligible for prizes like an iPad.
Jessie Torrisi: Besides calling it the Abolitionist Tour, what kind of things do you have planned to put the focus on trafficking?
Mark Nguyen: This is the first presence of Not-for-Sale at SxSW. They’re looking to see how they can reach out to the SxSW committee next year, like they’ve worked with SoulFest in the past. I’m sure they’ll do some outreach with their Texas chapters, which’re very active.
In the retail community, they also try to educate communities on certain products that use slave or indentured labor. Chocolate is harvested with a lot of child and slave labor in African countries. Slave labor is used in textile manufacturing. A lot of information will put out.
Jessie Torrisi: In some ways, that’s the biggest power we have. Money talks. If the product stops selling, they’ll start making them a different way.
Mark Nguyen: Consumer awareness is really part of the battle. Because of that demand, there’s that pressure to produce whether it be slave or child labor.
Jessie Torrisi: So chocolate, coffee, clothing…
Mark Nguyen: Not every party or industry is guilty. There’re certain manufacturers in certain countries that have had more violations than others.
Jessie Torrisi: It seems that it has to do with the government or labor standards in those countries.
Mark Nguyen: Sure, by having more educated consumers that’re willing to pay a little more for their chocolate or coffee or whatever product, that’ll help ease the cost pressures in the supply chain.
Jessie Torrisi: It’s a challenge, but a worthwhile one, to stop & get people to pay attention to that when, y’know, you wanna get a cup of coffee in the morning & you’re late to work.
Mark Nguyen: Most of my career background was working in international trade, advising people on how international trade works. That’s part of my connection to Not-for-Sale.
I used to work in Washington DC for seven years, then Geneva Switzerland working on developing country trade issues. I moved back to LA a couple years ago and ended up doing music.
Jessie Torrisi: What’s the latest tally in terms of bands & people involved?
Mark Nguyen: For the main showcase at Momo’s Friday, we have 12 bands. We’ve got Antonia Bennett, Tony Bennett’s daughter, our own label bands, and lots of special guests.
Jessie Torrisi: All these people are starting in different places. It’s less like a tour and more like an octopus with different arms.
Mark Nguyen: Lovebettie from Pittsburgh is launching their tour in Boston. They’re going from Boston to Austin. My first stop is at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, then Phoenix and Texas. Jeff Popka is coming from Chicago. We’ve been working together for months, but a number of us have not met in person.
Jessie Torrisi: Is there any message you’d like to get to readers who won’t be at SxSW but are interested in what’s going on?
Mark Nguyen: Now with the technology, it’s so easy to tune in, to be educated, to be aware. Through StageIt.com, you can see the showcases & what’s going on.
Technology is a powerful tool, whether it’s discovering new artists or advocacy and human rights. It’s an exciting time to be where we’re at, especially in the Southwest, which is such a high-tech region.
Jessie Torrisi: Do you plans for after the festival in terms of how to keep the ball rolling?
Mark Nguyen: We do a lot of live events here in LA and other places. A lot of artists would love to play more colleges, which is where there are Not-for-Sale chapters that’re very active. The goal is to grow the partnership over time.