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What’s The Musician’s Union Good For?

06 Jun

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Before I begin this rant, as a matter of full disclosure you need to know that I am a member in good standing of Local 174 of the American Federation of Musicians AKA “the musician’s union” and that I first joined the Federation (Local 733) in 1966 (I was required to do so because I had just signed an exclusive representation contract with a major agency which was “all union”), and that about 25 years ago I was a full time salaried employee of Local 256 ( I was Business Agent for the Local) as well as a member of the Board of Directors. I have attended numerous regional and national conferences of the Federation. I am quite familiar with what the union does well, and what it does not do well. I am very proud of my membership in the Federation, and have every intention of remaining a member for the rest of my life, or at least as long as they will have me!

All of that being said, and hopefully you, dear reader, understand that I am somewhat familiar with the workings of the union, I have a few thoughts on the subject, all intended “for the good of the order”. All of this was precipitated by my recent receipt of the latest edition of The International Musician, the monthly magazine of the Federation.

I was struck by the amount of space given to the discussion of the fact that virtually every major symphony orchestra and many other musical organizations were all undergoing financial hard times (to put it mildly) and that the musicians represented by the Federation were all having to make very significant concessions, including significant wage reductions and changes in benefits. The Federation is the bargaining agent for virtually every orchestra in the USA, so the International Musician is pretty full of doom and gloom.

OK, we’ve now established that in spite of years of hard work and success, the union is losing the battle with employers when it comes to keeping musicians wages and benefits at a high level. Well, here’s my thought on that matter: I never felt like I needed the union to negotiate what I got paid. I always (even when I was still in my teens) knew how many dollars it took to get me to get my horn out of the case. I knew that I had to be compensated for rehearsals, for the times I had to bring my bass saxophone along, for the amount of travel to and from the gig, for the fair share of the expected proceeds from a recording session etc. etc. etc. I learned very early in the game how to set the price for my services. If a prospective employer doesn’t wish to pay that price, that’s fine with me. That just gives me another night to sit in my jacuzzi with my beautiful wife.

I think based on the current results, or lack thereof, we can safely say that the union is maybe not very effective in controlling wages and benefits for musicians, and in my opinion, they never should have been. If musicians are simply too stupid to charge a fair price, or have failed to hone their skills to the point where they can control their prices and fees, then I have little sympathy for them and suggest they learn to say “do you want fries with that?” because they obviously cannot control their own destiny.

If the union cannot effectively regulate wages and working conditions, then what remains for them to do, and do they have any meaningful purpose in the world of live music today? There’s actually plenty for them to do, and here are a few suggestions based on the local situation here in New Orleans. I’m sure that other musical communities have other needs, but I don’t know what they are, so I can’t address them.

My basic vision of the highest and best use for the union is that it should be a sort of craft guild/advocacy group. I believe that one of the greatest failings of the musicians union is that it has very much failed to establish union musicians as a desirable “brand” for music buyers. This is going to involve a bit of quality control on the part of the union (in all the years I’ve been a member I have NEVER been asked to demonstrate my skill level), but we need to get out the message that there IS a real difference, and that buyers get what they pay for…..

Another thing that has gone on in our community is a public venue in the French Market where musicians are being asked to play for free (although they can sell CD’s and other merch) for the “exposure”….well, people die of exposure, and in my opinion, the union should have been all over this in all the media and not shut up about it until it’s stopped. Did they do so? Unfortunately, no….this was a chance to take a stand…’s the sort of fight the media absolutely loves…..but where were we?

Here’s another local issue, that probably applies in your town. In New Orleans, musicians (and bartenders, dancers, waiters etc.) are usually paid nightly and in cash. It’s a safe bet that anybody trudging through the French Quarter at 4:00AM with a guitar or other instrument case over their shoulder is probably carrying cash, as well as a valuable instrument and a nice cell phone. Robberies are quite common. Where’s the union on this issue, maybe going to city council meetings calling for increased protection? Nope, they’re nowhere to be found……

We’re extremely fortunate that a group of dedicated individuals has set up and funded a splendid medical clinic to meet the health needs of the professional musical community. Should the union be holding monthly fund raisers to support this? Why not? Do they? No….

Musicians have many, many needs, and there are virtually unlimited opportunities for the union to provide education and assistance (and maybe do a little recruiting and promotion of solidarity in the musical community) by outreach educational programs on topics like instrument insurance, retirement planning, marketing, understanding contracts, forming small corporations for bands, etc. etc. etc Do they do this? No….

I guess I’m hard pressed to find something the union is doing successfully outside of making it extremely difficult to do business with employers through arcane rules and bad attitude. Don’t get me wrong, I want the union to succeed and prosper, and be a resource available to all professionals in the music industry. But right now, I think they’re kinda sorta on the wrong path…..


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