I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that a lot of you reading this are musicians much like me – you grew up somewhere in the 80s or 90s, you were introduced to music at school or church, you had a few private teachers, you studied a little or a lot of music at college and now you’re out in the world as a professional musician – making recordings to sell online, playing gigs, teaching lessons and – clearly – reading blogs.
Why should somebody like us join the musicians’ union? Or more to the point – why do we bother to have a musicians’ union at all?
The Short Answer
Unions exist because of the inherent imbalance of power in the employer/employee relationship. The short answer to this question, then, is that if you have an employer, it’s very likely that you would benefit from unionizing.
For example, if you work as a church musician, a sideman for wedding bands, corporate gigs or recording sessions, a symphony musician or a theatre musician – this is you. These gigs usually pay relatively well and have a corporate or non-profit employer that pays you. You could very well find advantages to joining the musicians’ union for all the reasons I’m going to list in the long answer.
Also, if you aspire to work on any of the gigs I just described, you might also consider joining the musicians’ union. Many musicians feel that they shouldn’t join the union until they get offered a union gig, but the truth is that it’s wildly unlikely that you will get steady union work without joining the musicians union. Members of the union have better access to other members of the union and are generally considered a high-grade pool of talent, so you’ll have a hard time breaking into that scene from the outside.
But what if you aren’t this kind of musician? What if you are an independent musician that plays mostly original music, records your own albums, plays clubs primarily to promote your music, pays your band out-of-pocket or not at all and makes most of your money through the sale of albums or merch? Well, it’s hard to come up with a good reason for musicians like you to join the musicians’ union. I’m going to list a bunch of reasons here anyway, but the truth is that you don’t have that employer/employee power imbalance because you are your own boss. Who is the union going to help you negotiate with? You? Unless you are schizophrenic, that would be a very short negotiation.
But to those independent musicians making a career with original music, I would say that the jobs I first mentioned – while maybe not your sole focus – will help supplement an original music career. And while the musicians’ union might not have any relevance or jurisdiction to the main part of your career, it’s possible that you could still benefit from joining.
What about those musicians that live in an area that hardly has any work, let alone union work? Unionizing your music scene is a hard argument in that situation as well.
The bottom line is that joining the musician’s union might not be the right choice for everyone. You’ve probably already thought of reasons why you would not want to join the musician’s union – the best thing I can probably do here is to list some reasons why you should. Then you can decide for yourself. Either way, if you’ve ever been curious about the union, this article is the place to start.
Ok, back to the employer/employee relationship and the imbalance of power. The boss signs your paycheck – maybe your only paycheck – so you have to do what he says, right? Some employers are great – they look out for their employee’s safety, security and health and everything is on the level. No doubt. But I’m sure we can all think back to at least one boss in our past who seemed to care very little for our personal welfare. I can think of a few myself.
Now, in those situations where I had a boss that was less than kind-hearted, I’m grateful for the labor laws that protected me in the workplace. Laws like the 40-hour workweek and health and safety standards. We can thank the labor unions for these kinds of worker protections. They were instrumental in passing the legislature like the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act and many others.
The basic premise of unions is that no one worker can stand up to unfair treatment by management. But if all the workers stand up together to management – then they have some leverage. In effect, unions level the playing field. On one side, management can withhold pay – on the other side, the workers can withhold the labor.
Now how does that relate to musicians? The union can help negotiate better working conditions for musicians. The musicians’ union can help you get regular breaks during rehearsals, better pay, health insurance and many other things. And that fog machine that’s been blowing on your clarinet all night? It’s possible they could help with that too.
The musicians’ union in the United States, the American Federation of Musicians, is the most powerful, and perhaps the only, political lobbying group for U.S. musicians. Even if you are not one of the 90,000 members of the AFM, the issues that the AFM works on effect all of us.
For instance, shouldn’t musicians get paid royalties if their songs are played overseas? Shouldn’t the sidemen on big hits get paid some sort of compensation for all the radio play? Shouldn’t copyright law at least attempt to shore up piracy with reasonable resolutions to the U.S. Copyright Law?
I could keep going all day…
Did you know, for example, that the arts and entertainment industries of New York State employ 135,000 workers and bring in over $38 billion annually? Why, then, with an industry that vital to the economy of the state, would the state government want to “slash funding” for arts education? Can you imagine how dumb that would be?
I can tell you one thing. One blog post from me and one letter from you to your state representative ain’t gonna make much difference in these issues. But 90,000 letters from 90,000 musicians across the country, represented by the AFM knocking on that representative’s office door – now that can make a difference.
Another thing the AFM does is keep pre-recorded music out of Broadway pits. Believe me, if it were up to the producers, they’d have canned the pits long ago. Have you ever been on a non-union Broadway tour? Or a non-union regional theater? I have. I’ve had to play along to the most deplorable and awkward sounding backing tracks you’ve ever heard. Picture “Holly Jolly Christmas” with a MIDI’d violin, clarinet and reggae groove. You could have emailed the music in an online greeting card it was so awful. The overwhelming support and appreciation for the recent revival of South Pacific, which featured a full, 30-piece orchestra as a main selling point, is a real victory for all musicians and is at least partially due to the AFM’s constant advocacy for live music in musical theatre.
Ok, on to the benefits for members. You know that gig you played at that one club that one time that you got stiffed on? You dragged your gear there, you played all night, you brought maybe 30 people and when you went to find the owner after your set the guy was gone? So you came back the next night and the guy was still gone? And then you never heard from him again and that was it?
Or maybe it was the similar situation and the owner handed you a check for half the amount you previously agreed too. Ever have that happen?
These situations happen all too frequently. The imbalance of power is a problem in this situation, too. Employees always have to do their work first, then get paid by the employer afterward. And if you don’t get paid, or don’t get paid the full amount – it’s always the employee that gets short changed.
There are two things that the musicians’ union can do in this situation. The first thing they can do is help you set up a legal contract with the employer before the gig even happens. You don’t have to know how to do this – I mean, how would any of us know how to do that? The union has organizers on staff that have standard contracts all ready written up and can help you pick out the right one. Tell them what the gig is and they’ll tell you how to get a contract in place.
Once you have a contract, the second thing the musicians’ union can do is enforce it. A contract is no good unless you can legally enforce it, and let’s face it – as musicians, it’s very unlikely that we’ll have the money to hire a lawyer. But the musicians’ union has lawyers that specialize in labor law on retainer, and if you get stiffed on a gig they will work to make sure you end up getting the money that is owed to you.
I may know what some of you are thinking. Nobody uses legal contracts in your scene. It would be uncomfortable to make informal gigs so formal with contracts and lawyers and all that. What would the person that hired you say?
Well..that’s a tough one. I certainly understand the problem. But here’s a thought or two:
First – well, well, but isn’t that awfully convenient for the employer? Isn’t it convenient that musicians are too skittish to make them sign a contract? That makes it much easier to cancel the day before. Or not pay the full amount. Or at all. It really saves the employer some headaches in the end.
Ok, maybe employers aren’t all that bad. But then here’s my second point – if they aren’t that bad, then why don’t they just sign a contract? If they are going to pay you anyway, and everything is going to be on the level – what’s the harm in signing a contract to that effect?
And lastly – if you do decide to organize a union contract on a normally non-union gig, the first thing you do is talk to the union. Take the gig, then talk to the union. When organizing a union contract you have certain rights – such as the right not to get fired for trying for doing so – that the union reps will be able to advise you on.
What are we going to do when we get old? Are you going to be carrying your amp up the back staircase of a club when you’re 80? Or worse, are you going to have to one day give up playing music professionally so that you can make some money to retire on?
The choice here, really, is whether or not music is your career or just something you’re doing for now. If this is your career – and if you’ve read this far into this article it very likely is – then let’s talk about the long term.
When we get to be 65 and want to retire (although it’ll probably be 67 or older by the time we get there), there will be 3 sources of income for us – social security, life savings, and pension. While just one of these sources of income might not be enough to sustain us through the golden years, having all three could afford us a comfortable life.
All three of these income sources – in their own way – are based on how much money you made while you were working. Life savings is self-explanatory. Social security benefits are calculated for you by the Social Security Administration with a series of complicated formulas, bend points, etc., all based on how long you worked and how much you made. A pension is basically an investment fund that you pay into throughout your career, and receive a regular check from after you retire.
One of the things that the AFM is good at negotiating into contracts is a pension contribution from all of your employers. So you might get $200 on a gig, and the AFM will negotiate with the employer to add an additional 10% ($20) as a pension contribution. This money will go straight to the pension fund and start growing. You’ll keep taking gigs and getting pension contributions throughout your career until your retirement.
The amount of pension you receive after retirement is dependent on how much, and for how long, you paid into the pension fund. For the details, watch this video (thanks to the NYC local 802 for the video). The amount of return on your investment might surprise you.
Being a member of the American Federation of Musicians makes a variety of discounts available to you immediately. Discounted instrument insurance is usually the most attractive one, but there is also group term life insurance, health insurance for those that work enough to qualify for it, discounted web hosting, referral services for gigs, private students and everything listed at UnionPlus.org. Members also get a free subscription to the trade magazine, International Musician, as well as the newspaper published by their local chapter (in New York it’s called the Allegro). These trade papers often have audition announcements, relevant articles and musician classifieds.
Future of the Musicians’ Union
For those of us that grew up in the 80s or after, we’ve lived through a period of U.S. history that’s seen the sharpest decrease in union density since before the AFM was founded in 1896. The percentage of the private sector workforce that is unionized peaked in the 1950s at around 35% and began declining sharply in the 1980s. Today we have just 9% of the workforce unionized.
This is because employers all became so much nicer, right? They’ve willingly given employees everything they needed to be safe and successful and therefore there’s been an ever decreasing need for organized labor, right?
Fat chance. The truth is that big business in the U.S. has gotten better at keeping the workers out of unions and passing legislation that gives big business unfair advantages over organized labor. If you don’t believe me, look at the union-busting that Wal-mart has become famous for. Look at the amount of money big business has spent on lobbyists in Washington.
And if you really want a shock – look at our neighbors in Canada. Canada’s union density also peaked in the 1950s at about 30% and – get this – remains at that level today. And other industrialized nations? Sweden, 78%; Ireland, 35%; England, 26% – and on and on.
One of the main differences between the American and Canadian systems of organized labor is how workers can be organized. Legislation that would make the American system of organizing more like the Canadian one, called the Employee Free Choice Act, passed the House of Representatives in 2007 but stalled in the Senate. The bill faces vehement criticism as well as staunch support. President Bush vowed to veto the bill, and President-Elect Obama vowed to get the bill passed. The Employee Free Choice Act would make organizing much easier in the U.S., and labor unions, including the AFM, are hopeful that it will soon become law.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will the musicians’ union give me union gigs? No, joining the musician’s union will not guarantee you union-backed work. You still have to get your own gigs.
But – and this is new – local 802 (NYC) has started posting job referrals on the members-only section of it’s website.
Can I join the musicians’ union and still take non-union gigs? That’s a good question. There’s two answers here – one official and one unofficial. According to the bylaws of the AFM, you are prohibited from taking under-scale or non-union work after joining the union. But in reality, these bylaws are not enforced. The unofficial answer is that musicians should take non-union work and then call the union. The union will help the musician get the job under contract.
How much do union gigs charge? Union wages are standardized by each local union. As an example, you can see the wages set by the New York City local at their website.
In preparing for this article we asked our Facebook Group if any of them were members of the musician’s union and why or why not. Here are some of their answers.
I am not, nor have I ever been, in the musicians’ union (AFM). I guess the main reason why is because I’ve never needed to be. I’m a freelance sideman and all-around guitarist/singer-for-hire, and I rarely ever find myself in a situation where I need to belong to the union in order to do the gig. The only times it has happened (twice, I believe, for one-off T.V. gigs) I had to pay a small “non-member” fee to the union, which was monumentally cheaper than paying annual dues.
I don’t have anything against the AFM. I’ve heard both good and bad stories about being a member, and I don’t have enough experience with the organization to judge. I can understand how certain jobs as a musician would warrant or require membership (i.e. pit/musical theater gigs, T.V. work, session work for large companies, etc.), but the unifying factor amongst these gigs is that they are steady and reoccurring. In those cases it makes sense to join because the stability and reoccurrence of the gigs pays for the annual dues, and you can be part of a standardized system that protects you in certain ways. However, if you only do those types of gigs once in a blue moon, it doesn’t seem logical to join.
One thing I will say that I have heard over and over again is this: union members rarely get gigs purely from being in the union. In other words, that union list of musicians that you become part of when you join does not guarantee that you will get called. You still have to hustle and develop network connections in order for people to know about you. For the most part, being on that union list does not put you anywhere ahead of non-members, so what are you paying for? I guess there are the health insurance benefits, but doesn’t it take several years of paying dues before you become eligible for them? I hope to learn a lot from others’ responses to this question, because I’m pretty much in the dark when it comes to the AFM. Thanks for getting a dialog going!
I am a union member and I’m in the midst of a situation that confirms why the unions are needed. The short of it is: non-union orchestra hires us as part of the regular contract for Messiah. They then decide that they don’t have the money, make up some stuff about using a “period-sized orchestra” and layoff half the strings. we lose money, at Christmas. They also do all of this by email without asking for confirmations. Brilliant. ….and leave us with no recourse.
How’s that for a reason to unionize?
I was a union member and an officer for Local 525 of the American Federation of Musicians from 1975 thru about 1991. Our home base was in Dixon, Illinois. At the time, to be in the Dixon Municipal Band you had to join the union. The dues were $35.00 a year and in return, we played 6-8 trust fund concerts a year at $30.00 each per musician. As best as I can remember, somewhere around 1989 the Dixon Local ended and I became an officer in the Rockford group. Over time the dues increased to $95 a year and the Trust Fund Concerts decreased to four a year at the same $30 per person. Then the union was going to raise the dues to $110 a year. Needless to say, we dropped out of the union. The area in general had rock bands, country western bands and others in the area that were union, but there were many bands that were not union and would underprice the union bands and get gigs. I have a 14 piece jazz band and we would love to make good money, but in this area, we do not get very many gigs now with our $25 per man per hour fee. I doubt if we would get any if we were union charging union wages. What are union wages anymore? I just do not see any advantage in this geographical area to join.
Unions advocate employment conditions for a group of workers. Salary, conditions, hours, etc. My employment as a freelance musician doesn’t fall into any specific category for the Musician’s Union. I rarely make more than $50 on a gig, and some of that is spent just leaving my apartment to do the gig. My other streams of income, selling my music, transcribing, teaching, arranging, all come from non-union avenues. I can invest in my “retirement” through means outside the Union, so why would I join unless I started getting Union work? I don’t necessarily want to be a stage or theater musician. Is there any way the Union benefits can be applied to freelancers?
After joining the union, I still am confused about some things. I’m sure i’m not the only person, but my questions are: Are musicians allowed to play non-union gigs? What exactly is a union gig? How does one accumulate more union gigs? Maybe i need to do more reading in the manuals i’ve recieved to find out the answer, or like in most cases, it’s all about who you know. I’m sure these are the questions that get asked time and time again.
I’m writing from Sydney, Australia where I work as a full time musician. Once upon a time Australia had, across the board, a high participation in unions. It was so fervent that it had the power to debilitate certain sectors, but not the entertainment industry. When there was oodles of work around for musicians to play radio shows, jingles, resident club bands, the musicians union enjoyed real relevance. Pay scales were drawn up that specified hourly rates and loadings. Orchestras were also represented in union membership. The union would argue in the arbitration court for work conditions, such as uniform allowances or parking fees. In Australia, we had a federal union and separate state unions and one paid dues to both bodies for representation.
In 2001, for example, the annual dues would be about $160. Pretty reasonable, you would have to say, to ensure legal representation to recover lost gig money, and also get a discount on your equipment insurance. Yet, the organisation fell over financially after suffering for many years from a flagging membership base and imprudent management of funds.
The musicians of NSW, the most populous and economically productive state in Australia and of which Sydney is the capital, are no longer represented by their state entity. While other states still have their own state union, NSW membership has been transferred to a megaunion which represents arts, media and entertainment.. It has been quite an upheaval in NSW for those loyal to the union. On top of that, the general culture of unionism has been undermined by the former conservative government.
On the ground, young musicians didn’t see the relevance of the musicians union if they knew that it existed at all. Its rates were out of date, and it did little to campaign or lobby local and state governments about planning laws and licences which created serious obstacles to a healthy live music scene. There were few benefits that they could see as tangible evidence that a union was something relevant to them. It was only the old guard that kept up with the union, and they are retiring or passing on, and with them, old school unionism of a large centrally organised interest group. The current state of play is that specific musical networks are lobbying govt. or creating musical communities, shoring up venues, striking deals within the industry.
[The union is] the only chance we as musicians will have at a respectable living. Certain portions of our society like to demonize the entire concept of unions as we are seeing now with the UAW. As the number of union members decline so does our standard of living and the Wal Mart’s of the world continue to flourish on the backs of the workers.