AMERICAN FEDERATION OF MUSICIANS
IS NOT YOUR FATHER'S UNION ANYMORE
-FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE-
MUSICIAN MAGAZINE / OCTOBER 1998 THE STATE OF THE
When the Doors first played Hollywood's Whisky-A-Go-Go on a Monday
night in 1966, they were a local band with no record deal, struggling
to make a name for themselves in a highly competitive rock scene.
But the Whisky paid them nearly $500 that night for their efforts.
These days, you can still go to the Whisky on Monday evenings
and watch struggling local bands try to make a name for themselves.
Wages, however, have changed dramatically. According to the club's
booking manager, bands who attract more than fifty customers usually
earn between $50 and $100 a night; bands who attract less get
Why the difference? In 1966, the Whisky had a collective bargaining
agreement with the American Federation of Musicians. These days,
they don't. Indeed, if the AFM even tried to negotiate an agreement
with the Whisky or any other nightclub today, the AFM would be
in violation of federal law.
Nope, the musicians' union ain't what it used to be-for better
and for worse. It's an organization that boasted 330,000 dues-paying
members in 1976 and claims a national membership of about one-third
that number today. A federation, so powerful in the Forties that
it twice held strikes that shut down the entire recording industry,
now settles for reduced percentages of the financial pie from
major record labels and rarely manages to negotiate contracts
with indie labels at all. A union that recently celebrated its
centennial anniversary and was founded on the classic principles
of trade unionism-as in "all for one and one for all"-is now increasingly
disinclined to even call itself a union at all.
want to soft-pedal the word 'union,'" explains Hal Espinosa, the
vice-president of Los Angeles' 10,000-member Local 47. "When you
read about strikes in the paper, people think, 'Oh, unions, they're
just no good.' So we changed our name to Professional Musicians
Local 47. Now, when these kids come out of school, they can say,
'We're going to become a professional musician.'"
Espinosa has a point. Though the problems that afflict the AFM
these days are partly of its own making, they also reflect larger
social and political upheavals. The 'generation gap' of the Sixties
alienated traditionally trained musicians from young rock &
rollers, who came to view the union as just another intrusive
authority. In the Seventies, growing anti-labor public sentiment
was mirrored by court decisions that diluted the AFM's legal bargaining
power. In the Eighties and Nineties, advanced technology wiped
out jobs or made them so amorphous that traditional bargaining
agreements are in danger of becoming obsolete.
For all that, the AFM remains the oldest and biggest non-profit
organization of its kind, and the idea behind it-musicians banding
together to improve their lot-remains a good one. Now, in places
like Local 47, there's a movement afoot to redefine the union
as a service organization that can improve the lot of today's
working musician in limited but practical ways, providing everything
from theft and medical insurance to cheap recording facilities
to seminars on how to make it in a business that generally seems
to run on chaos theory.
concept of a union remains very sound, maybe now more than it
ever was," says Jay Rosen, a member of Local 47's board of directors.
"But you need to dress it up, to make it more contemporary. What
we're doing here are things unions should have been doing for
the past thirty or forty years, but haven't. I think it's our
last chance to survive."
Bobby Joe Holman had been playing harmonica in blues bands around
the country for twenty years or more when he decided, in 1993,
to join a musician's union. "And all the players I knew said,
'Why the hell would you want to do something like that?'" Holman
laughs. "Because for a lot of years the union was not handled
properly and just didn't do anything for you. The old cats would
lock onto the jobs. But I just had a premonition that things were
gonna change. And I wanted to be around professional musicians."
Holman was living in Rialto, a town about sixty miles east of
Los Angeles, so just driving to the Local 47 office was a chore.
"But the second time I came in I looked in the gig book and there
it was: 'Harmonica instructional video.'" Holman made the call,
which eventually led him to make a best-selling instrumental video
for Hal Leonard, titled Play Blues Harmonica in One Hour.
about hitting a gold mine," he laughs. "It changed my life. People
say, 'How'd you get that gig?' I say, 'I got it through the musicians'
A trip to the offices of Local 47, on Vine Street in Los Angeles,
might leave you wondering why any musician wouldn't join the union.
The place is a beehive of activity, with rehearsal rooms, an ADAT-equipped
recording studio, a make-your-own-video facility, a hefty gig
book (if you play bagpipes or mariachi music, you're covered),
a program that actively works to get your CD heard on radio stations
around the world, access to legal assistance, credit unions, insurance
plans, informational services, and an enthusiastic staff to guide
you on your mission. Not a bad deal for dues of $140 a year-and
no audition is necessary. "I don't think we're even worried about
a criminal record," cracks staff member Stephen Cox.
Still, it's pretty clear that most of the members hanging in and
around the rehearsal rooms on this day are . . . well, not young.
was a time when rock musicians were really big in the recording
industry, and the Federation dropped the ball by not going after
them," Espinosa admits. "They were just trying to maintain the
jazz and classical and big band realm instead of reaching out.
But that's what we're trying to do now. You know, the big rock
musicians who make millions, they don't need pensions or insurance;
they've got it made. But the young kids, the wannabes, they're
the ones we want to watch out for, 'cause they're being used and
abused by club owners. When you can unite people with the same
common goals, you have more strength."
Holman, 50, is understandably evangelical in his support of Local
47. "I've personally brought in five members," he says, adding
that he's been able to parlay his instructional video success
into gigs and sideline into films and commercials, even some acting
work. But he claims that the main benefit of membership was the
change it brought to his own mindset. "If you want to be a professional
player, you need to be where those professional people are," he
says. "I just wish someone would have said that to me when I was
There was a time when it was impossible for a young musician not
to know about the union. Founded in 1896 on the premise that "all
men and women playing musical instruments and receiving pay therefore
from the public must, in order to get just wages and decent working
conditions, form a labor organization," the AFM grew rapidly.
By 1913, the union represented 64,000 members in 636 local chapters,
which enforced such scale wage agreements of the times as rates
for playing at a theater ($23 a week for nine performances), parades
($4 for four hours on a Sunday), and funerals ($5, including the
march from the cemetery). With numbers came muscle: Over time,
collective bargaining agreements were struck with many of the
traditional forums for musical performances, such as major hotels,
restaurants, and nightclubs.
Membership dove in the Thirties, when the enormous popularity
of movies with sound helped kill the demand for vaudeville orchestras
and silent picture organists; meanwhile, the growing popularity
of phonograph records was viewed by union leaders as a sinister
trend that could reduce the market for live performances. To counter,
the AFM launched highly effective strikes against the recording
industry in 1942 and 1948, during which no new popular music was
recorded or released. The '48 strike was settled when major record
labels agreed to deposit a percentage of every recording sold
into the Musicians Performance Trust fund, a non-profit pool that
was used to subsidize thousands of free concerts while paying
those performing musicians scale wages.
For a decade or so, this classic trade union enterprise worked
well: The public loved the free concerts, the AFM enjoyed unprecedented
clout, and most of the members embraced the policy. But as with
many other unions riding the wave of American prosperity into
the Fifties and Sixties, success bred discontent within the ranks,
and the AFM's unity began to fracture. Though hardly sinking to
the level of, say, the Teamsters, the AFM was not untouched by
corruption, and some successful session players chafed at the
notion that money from "their" recordings was financing MPTF concerts
by players whose connections with local chapter leaders often
outstripped their talent. An AFM ruling in 1956, to transfer all
film music reuse payments from the musicians who played on the
original sessions back to the MPTF, sparked a rebellion. Members
of Local 47, which has always been something of a maverick union
and a bellwether (in 1953, it became the first local to combine
previously segregated black and white unions into one chapter),
led a successful revolt against this policy; this uprising apparently
marked the limits of the musicians' union as a purely collective
enterprise. (The MPTF, however, continues to this day.)
Even as the AFM continued to grow its membership through the Sixties
and Seventies, it tended to fritter away its power in rear-guard
actions to protect traditional "jobs" that were inevitably being
lost to automation, while turning up its nose to an entire generation
of players who were leading a pop music revolution. "The attitude
was, rock and country players weren't 'real' musicians because
there was no schooling behind it," Espinosa admits. "Some high
school kid can get in his garage and learn a couple of chords
and jump up and down and make big money, and the musicians going
to college and getting trained were kind of looking down on them
and saying, 'That's not music.'"
Conversely, Sixties and Seventies rockers often regarded the union
less as a brotherhood than as a form of Big Brother, exemplified
by representatives who prowled studios to make sure that recording
sessions went down according to a raft of arcane regulations.
had long hair and dug Cream and the Who, and those people dismissed
that kind of musicianship," recalls Harvey Kubernik, now an independent
producer of spoken-word albums and a cultural historian of the
era. "When I was invited to Phil Spector sessions in the Sixties,
it was 'sit behind the microphones 'cause if one of those union
characters sees you in the room there could be trouble.' You could
jeopardize the session with an infraction just by being there.
There was very little encouragement."
Even the vaunted union "audition," a rite of passage in previous
eras, was viewed by rockers with suspicion. Though it's hard to
find accounts of anyone who actually failed the audition, one
rock musician in a touring company of Beatlemania recalls their
manager paying off a union rep to avoid an audition he thought
the band might fail. Apparently, their ability to perform the
entire Beatles songbook wasn't enough to set such fears to rest.
British Invasion bands of the early Sixties sometimes found their
tours stymied by union regulations that were designed around the
turn of the century to prevent European orchestras from coming
to the New World and stealing work from American groups. David
Carr, a keyboardist and arranger who once played in the English
band the Fortunes, remembers that the group lost its chance to
play on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1965 just as its first hit, "You've
Got Your Troubles, I've Got Mine," was riding high on the charts.
"They hung us up because they had to swap us for the Sir Douglas
Quintet and another group-they always wanted two groups in England
for every one that played here-and while they were dickering,
the Sullivan gig came and went. Maybe it wouldn't have made any
difference in our career," Carr shrugs, "but you always wonder.
It certainly didn't do the Beatles any harm."
If the Sixties rockers wrestled with the union and sometimes achieved
an uneasy peace, the Seventies punk bands ignored it completely,
performing in clubs and recording on tiny independent labels that
were outside traditional music biz channels. Guitarist David Kessel,
son of the famed jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, had grown up in
the world of session players and appreciated the union for providing
a "barometer of consistency" for both money and quality on recording
dates. But when he began producing punk and new wave acts for
indie labels in the Seventies, Kessel found himself fighting the
union. "Union reps would show up at the studio like Jack Webb
in Dragnet, saying 'Are you in the union?' and look you up. As
a member I could get fined for producing those records-so I quit
ever went to the younger folks and said 'What can we do to grow?'
or 'What are your needs?'" he observes, noting that the AFM has
only recently established lower, more equitable rates for low-budget
recordings with smaller distribution. "And if an independent producer
used non-union cats and those masters got picked up [by a major
label], they had to put out phony re-recording dates."
Perhaps the biggest blow to the AFM's authority came in 1978,
when a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board established
that individual band leaders or artists who contracted gigs with
hotels, restaurants, or nightclubs would henceforth be classified
as the employers of record, rather than the owners of the clubs
or hotels where the gigs took place. This affront to common sense
not only wiped out all such existing contracts but, thanks to
provisions in the Taft-Hartley labor law (1947) that banned strikes
against "secondary" employers, effectively removed the AFM as
a bargaining agent for any future agreements.
As the NLRB is the final arbiter of labor disputes-the equivalent
of the Supreme Court-this ruling is not subject to change unless
the U.S. Congress passes an amendment to that effect. There is
a bill that will do just that: the Performing Artists Rights Labor
Act, which has several congressional sponsors. But taking into
account the relative lobbying power of the national restaurant
and hotel associations vs. the AFM, and that both houses of Congress
currently enjoy Republican majorities, don't expect it to see
it land on saxophonist "Prez" Clinton's desk any time soon.
Taft-Hartley act does grant exemptions and modifications to trades
with similar deals, like the construction trade," explains Local
47 treasurer Richard Totusek, a former AFM International Executive
Board member. "But at the time everyone knew the club was the
employer, so no one thought it would every apply to us. The NLRB
settlement says in a nutshell that the union will not act toward
the 'purchasers' of music as employers and exercise legally coercive
means. In other words, we would have to picket the residence of
the band leader, not the club. So we are no longer able to negotiate
terms of employment with the person who is paying the bill-this
in an industry with a two-week turnover."
Could things get worse? Sure they could. As sound films wiped
out vaudeville orchestras in the Thirties, so did synthesizers
and canned music eliminate steady work for many musicians in theater
productions and nightclubs in the Eighties-a trend helped along
by some union musicians working so-called "dark dates" to record
the music that would inevitably put members out of work. The development
of MIDI and other digital technologies made every musician the
potential king of his or her own home studio, but it also further
eroded the ability of the union to negotiate recording agreements.
Back in the Twenties, AFM leaders were fomenting against the dangers
of phonograph records. By 1982, then-AFM president Victor Fuentealba
was telling The New York Times that synthesizers posed "the most
serious threat to professional musicians today," an analysis that
spoke volumes about the AFM's inability to glide on the winds
of change. The union was growing older-literally-but not wiser.
Jay Rosen, fifty, is a violinist whose extensive resume includes
sessions for more than eight hundred movies, along with theater
productions, jazz recordings, and tours with the Rolling Stones.
"I was one of the fortunate ones who has always had plenty of
work in Los Angeles, and I wanted to give something back," he
says of his decision to join Local 47's board of directors four
years ago. What he discovered was a union that was well on its
way toward calcification. "The average age of our new members
was 'deceased,'" he says dryly. "Fifty members a month were dying,
and about twenty were joining, usually transfers whose average
age was about sixty." For Rosen, the challenge seemed twofold:
"recognizing the problem and then doing something about it."
The main thing to do, of course, was to make the union attractive
to younger players again. So Local 47 began emphasizing such benefits
of membership as low-cost theft insurance, cheap rehearsal space,
a referral network and legal assistance, and a medical plan subsidized
by record company payments. Annie Miles, a young singer/songwriter
who was running the membership department at the time, created
an ad for publications that were geared to younger players, touting
the union's ability to provide "the survival terms you need."
The idea, she says, "was to make musicians see that your membership
dollar gives you more than what you pay. What we were doing as
a local was more visible than anything in the AFM."
Membership in Local 47 has been growing slowly but steadily: According
to Hal Espinosa, by the beginning of this year the L.A. chapter
had passed New York's Local 802 as the largest in the country.
"They called us up and asked what we were doing differently to
get more people here," he smiles.
But it didn't happen without a fight. "Old-line members would
complain, 'We're in danger of turning into the largest employment
service in L.A.,'" Jay Rosen recalls. "I'd think, 'What's wrong
with that?'" Confrontation came to a head a few years back, after
the board voted to build its own recording studio and rent it
to members for $30 an hour, including an engineer. In its first
year, construction and purchasing expenses far outstripped income
generated from drawing new members, and some of the old-line board
members demanded that the studio be shut down. "The meeting to
decide the issue was extremely well-attended, and there were 100
to 150 young musicians there I'd never seen before," Rosen remembers.
"Each of them would get up and say, 'This is the best thing the
union has ever done.'"
A vote to keep the studio won overwhelmingly that day. "And after
the vote," Rosen says, "the guy who'd led the opposition got up
and said, 'Hey, this is what a union is all about.'"
John Morris Doyle, a twentysomething rock guitarist who recently
joined Local 47, agrees that there's been a change in attitude
there. "I have younger friends coming in, and there's a buzz of
'Join the union,' rather than 'Don't bother.' You can tell the
vibe is that they're trying to get younger players to join, that
they want you around, rather than, 'Uh, are you a cello player?'"
Not every union official is sanguine about transforming the AFM
from a militant trade union into a warm and fuzzy service group.
"Will the members we're drawing in because they can get good insurance
someday be willing to walk a picket line?" wonders Denise Westby,
president of Portland, Oregon's Local 99. "There is still a group
of us who want this to be a union. And to start being a union
you have to start organizing. But it's still hard to get musicians
to see themselves as laborers," she concedes. "You'll hear them
say, 'I'm an artist.' I'll say, 'Well, what do you want to be,
a starving artist or a laborer who makes some money?'"
that is a weakness of musicians," Hal Espinosa agrees. "Musicians
want to play first. They don't ask employers, 'Are you going to
file a union contract?' They say, 'Where, what time, and what
do I wear?'"
For all its problems and missed opportunities, the AFM is far
from toothless. The union boasts an impressive record of past
accomplishments and current benefits, especially if one compares
the situation of freelance musicians with, say, writers or illustrative
artists. Right now, after all, musicians at every major label
recording session are entitled to union scale payments (union
membership, of course, is mandatory), while a percentage of all
record sales over 25,000 per album rebounds into both the MPTF
and a "Special Payments" fund that is distributed back annually
among all musicians who played on union recording sessions that
year. Record company payments also fund the AFM's sizable Employers
Pension Fund, which currently boasts assets of $1.4 billion. Several
of the bigger locals provide medical insurance as well, though
differences in state law make such a plan difficult to implement
through the national AFM office.
But can an organization that has been slow to adapt to the changing
conditions of the music business throughout this century deal
with even more accelerated changes in the next one? David Kessel,
now president of IUMA's Internet Offline Records, doubts it. "I
think it's darn swell that they've figured out that there's kids
with long hair coming out of England," he says acidly. "John Lennon
once said, you grow with music or the music outgrows you. I think
that applies here."
But thirty years after getting jobbed from The Ed Sullivan Show,
David Carr remains a loyal union member. "I've been through this
relationship of 'love the union, hate the union,'" he says. "They
screwed me in the Sixties, but on the other hand, their credit
union loaned me the money I used to buy my car. They had a strike
in the Seventies that put a lot of film scoring people out of
work, but I've gotten a couple of nice checks from the Special
Payments fund. It's easy to second-guess what they've done, but
we all make mistakes.
know, there is a lot of money in the music business that goes
to people who don't have anything to do with making music. It's
good that there's a union."