Should You Join the Musicians’ Union?

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.

Workers Rights

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 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.

Reader’s Comments

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!

Gary Melvin

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.


Published by

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father.

39 thoughts on “Should You Join the Musicians’ Union?”

  1. AFM, Local 802 has been engaged in an effort to get NYC area jazz clubs to pay into the union’s pension fund. Club owners have resisted unionization from time immemorial.

    In the early 1990s, jazz musicians Jimmy Owens, Slide Hampton, Bob Cranshaw, Benny Powell, Carline Ray and others organized a Jazz Advisory Committee at Local 802 in an attempt to redress some of the local’s inconsistent advocacy on behalf of jazz musicians and to find ways to organize and educate the NYC jazz community.

    The Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee has been reaching out to leaders and individual musicians to educate them about the benefits of union membership and how to access union benefit programs—particularly in regard to the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF).

    Local 802 has managed to organize some of the larger jazz institutions that have a more or less stable core of musician/employees, including: the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program; Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theater’s “Amateur Night at the Apollo” house band. Absent on-going employment, as is the case with the city’s Jazz clubs, organizing and negotiating a collective bargaining agreement is extremely difficult.

    Despite that, we have managed to reach simple agreements with groups such as the Village Vanguard Orchestra, Dave Berger’s Sultans of Swing; pianist Dr. Billy Taylor; Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz”; trombonist David Taylor; trumpeter Marvin Stamm and many others.

    An agreement with NYC’s jazz clubs that would allow pension and or health benefit fund contributions to be made in the musicians’ behalf requires someone to assume the role of “employer.” Over the years the clubs have sought to avoid employer status and the various obligations that would be imposed by this relationship. As a result, musicians have been denied access to both union benefits and statutory benefits such as unemployment insurance, disability insurance and Social Security.

    Over the last several years, AFM Local 802 has been working to come up with creative ways for musicians who work on the NYC jazz club scene to access these benefits. The big band trumpeter Leo Ball (who died in December 2007) put it this way:

    “A typical club owner will do almost anything to resist a union contract. I remember one time at a club on 46th Street we had more than half the band that wanted to make the gig a union job. That’s supposed to be all you need. The owner was approached by an organizer. The owner said, ‘I’d love to do this union, but I’m not allowed to negotiate.’
    ‘Why?’ asked the smiling rep.
    ‘Because I’m in Chapter 11,’ said the owner.
    ‘How long you been in Chapter 11?’ asked the rep.
    ‘Since I opened,’ said the owner, winking.
    The rep stopped smiling.”

    Club owners, whose finances are often affected by ups and downs in the economy, didn’t want to pay any more than they had to, and didn’t want anyone looking into their books. This was particularly true if the club worked on a cash basis, for obvious reasons.

    In 2005, the union came up with a solution; a way for the clubs to contribute to a union pension plan without forcing them to pay the extra money on top of wages. The idea was based on an existing Broadway model in place for nearly 50 years. In the 1960’s NY State agreed to rescind the sales tax on tickets to “live musical and theatrical performances” if the Broadway theaters agreed to use those former tax revenues for the various theater union benefits funds. The theatres agreed, and a portion of those revenues now helps provide a pension for Broadway musicians through the AFM and Employers’ Pension Fund.

    In the case of the clubs, the union argued that the clubs should also be treated as presenters of “live musical performances,” the sales tax should be eliminated on the admission and the money could be utilized for musicians’ benefits. There would be no cost to the club owner other than the time and the little money it took to pay an accountant to make sure the door tax went to Pension Fund instead of NY State. The musicians would benefit by accruing vesting credits in one of the most soluble and reliable pension funds in the country.

    In June 2006, the seminal bebop pianist Hank Jones (along with trumpeter Owens and trombonist Hampton) performed live in the state capitol to underscore a legislative push for what the union called the “Justice for Jazz Artists!” bill. The bill was passed and eventually went into effect in early 2007.

    There was one stumbling block: the law did not compell the clubs to pay the money to the pension fund, it simply said they no longer owed it to the state.

    This was reputedly due to the fact that Governor Pataki, unedr whom the bill became law, did not want to be perceived as taking money out of state coffers and giving it away to (gasp) “artists.”

    Despite the lack of completeness in the bill, Local 802 considered the passing of the law a victory, but knew that there remained a good deal of work, including; convincing the clubs to do it, resolving the “employer/employee” relationship and dealing with NY State statutory benefit and pension fund requirements.

    In an effort to convince club owners, some of whom were now pocketing the forgiven door tax, a petition was generated, and over the next six months the committee collected hundreds of signatures from prominent jazz artists.

    In addition, NY State Law states unequivocally that musicians and other performing artists are employees, and thus eligible for state statutory benefits. A new administration in Albany and new personnel heading the NY State Department of Labor has been strengthening enforcement of this statute and non-compliance could mean onerous fines threatening a club’s very existence.

    After crunching numbers, Local 802 became convinced that that there was more than enough money from the former sales tax on the door to pay for unemployment insurance, worker’s comp, disability, and a meaningful pension contribution. The trick, however, was to get the club owners to agree to sit down on the issue.

    The union’s main arguments have always been both ethical and economic: by participating in a plan that would allow for the door tax to go towards pension, the club owners would be giving jazz musicians a significant opportunity to save for their own retirement, a luxury that the large majority of performing artists have never known—but one that is standard for most union employees. While savings and 403-B accounts have suffered huge losses in this devastated economy, defined benefit pension funds like the AFM-EPF (which has also taken a smaller hit) have remained a solid investment.

    For a jazz musician with little savings, a monthly pension check starting at age 65 could mean the difference between giving up the music altogether or continuing with an active career. The pension, 802 argues, actually contributes to the preservation of the art form that the club owners are so adamant about keeping alive, and in which they have their own personal stake.

    After drafting language that could be the basis for resolving issues and allowing the payment of statutory and pension fund benefits, in early November 2008, Owens, Local 802 Recording Vice-President Bill Dennison, and the pre-eminent electric jazz bassist Bob Cranshaw (he tours with Sonny Rollins) authored a letter to several major clubs in the NYC area. The letter was an attempt to get the clubs to sit down once again and find a way to hammer out an agreement.

    We’re awaiting a response. If the clubs continue to be silent, we will have to find ways to bring the fight to them in their own back yards, which we are fully prepared to do!

    Todd B. Weeks
    Senior Business Rep, Jazz.
    AFM, Local 802

  2. In my own experience in the past year, I’ve taken advantage of the AFM-EPF form LS-1, an adjunct to the standard contract L-1, which allows the employer to designate the bandleader and/or any other party as authorized to make pension contributions on the employer’s behalf. The wages and pension contribution are spelled out on the form, and then you, as bandleader, can write a check to the pension fund; the employer does no more than sign the contract and maybe pay a little more out-of-pocket to the musician(s).

    I’m curious- is this a possible solution in NY? The paperwork burden is transferred from the employer to the musician, but it’s a very small burden, and we as musicians should be taking the lead as the real stakeholders here.


  3. I have a 14 year old son who has been playing music since he was 3. He plays in a band. We have been told he needs to join a union so he can play in venues like casinos and such. Is this true? What does he nees to be able to get into playing in places where you need to be over 21. The band members he plays with are usally over 21.
    Thank you,

    1. Hi Garry –

      Well, actually, the union doesn’t work quite like I think your comment is suggesting. The union doesn’t get anyone work, and just because you’re in the union doesn’t guarantee you’ll get only union jobs or wages from then on.

      But if you’re just wondering about union rates, I would suggest you check with your local AFM chapter. Each chapter standardizes the union rates for their area.

  4. It would be so cool to make a living playing music. I have the improv and sight-reading chops for most music situations and have a professional attitude. I know for certain I’m as good or better than most bass players that actually do make a living at music. How does the Union play into it? I guess if you pass an audition for an orchestra/touring band that is union, it’s best to join up, but not the other way around. T.V./film work/jingles/session work, etc have always been unavailable to me–not because I’m not union, but because those jobs are well sewn up from us “outsiders.” It’s all about personal referrals and if you’re not on their radar, then you’re out of the loop. Getting “in” is a unique combination of luck, timing, who you know and the phase of the moon. It’s a bit of an ol’ boy network to my understanding. But once you’re in and proven, then you can live the dream. ..and I’d happily pay Union dues.
    I agree with the Union and what it represents. The spirit is well intended. But for the guy like me, it reads like an institution for the already established artists who actually do make a living playing music. New York and LA are far enough away to be considered foreign countries for me, but if had the chance to play bass for a living, I’d join the Union in a heartbeat if that’s what it would take.

    -Jim Graham

  5. What do you do when your employer owns a famous club and you are a musician in that club and he pays you 50.00 per show and tax it. If you have a problem with pay you are fired, there is no benefits or paid vacations a vacation is when he tells you to take two weeks off with out pay. Now say this has been going on at this club for 20 years that musicians are employed at. I would like to know are there any laws that protect these employee’s ?

  6. Hello,
    I am a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, recording artist, and instructor based in NYC. My main project these days is my solo music. I promote myself, design my own merch, book my own shows, etc.

    I make zero money doing this. So far.

    So I need to find ways to supplement my income. I refuse to get some other part- or full-time work (a “day job”) when I know that I have skills, education, and experience as a musician. So I’m thinking of joining Local 802.

    My main question is, if I DO join the union, will there be any conflicts with my solo music; will I still be able to join and play with bands I find on craigslist; will they frown upon my busking activities? Stuff like that.

    Anyone know the answers to these questions?

    1. Hey Gio – Thanks for your comment.

      Here’s the thing – I think you’ll be pretty disappointed if you join the union looking to make some money. Generally, my advice is to join the union when you’ve found a gig that is already union. Being a member of the union hasn’t really ever helped me get gigs.

      As far as non-union work as a union member goes, check out the FAQ part of the article.

      Thanks again!

      1. Hey i was wondering how long has the Musicians Union been around? I’m doing a music project and i need to know stuff about the MU and thats the only thing i cannot find anywhere, can you help me?

  7. Hi David,
    thanks for the prompt reply.
    You say that the union has never helped you get gigs.
    I am under the impression that as a union member, one would have access to some sort of directory of available jobs that one can apply to or be aware of upcoming openings, etc. Is that not the case?
    If I’m NOT part of the union, how can I be made aware of music gigs on Broadway or in orchestras, etc?
    That stuff doesn’t typically show up on craigslist. Lol.

  8. Everything in your article is gospel for those in the union and a complete farce at the same time. Musicians unions look out for number 1. If you’re an aspiring musician or an outsider you have little or no chance of getting any benefit from the union, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Case in point: I recently had a great gig (for those in the business, the Ogunquit Playhouse) pull the rug out from under me when they went union. It was a summer gig with no benefits, but it was great paying and really allowed me to develop as a player and rub shoulders with some of the best in the business. After months of union negotiations an agreement was settled upon. I was thrilled by the idea of ‘union’ pay and benefits… until I didn’t get called back. Now that they’ve been unionized only union cronies are hired. Every local musician was sacked in favor of Boston local 9-535 members getting paid 3-times the wage. My experience is obviously limited and my views might change if someday I’m the one getting paid $250 a show, but if this is what unions are about, count me out. All this has accomplished is putting local musicians out of work and pushing another great gig towards pre-recorded music.

  9. David, you mention the AFM pension fund. There will be virtually half or less of what a near future pensioner(me) was to receive after 40 years of contributions according to new pension rulings. I can only presume mismanaging of the fund and a poor economy has depleted the fund to critical status. Meanwhile, those already receiving full pension benefits, including pension board members will continue to recieve full benefits and cut benefits for participants who have not yet reached retirement elgibility age. While I understand emergency action was needed, it is simply not right that long time participants such as myself and many others approaching retirement carry the burden of those already drawing pension. The precedent has been set and for the abusers of the fund to tell me the cuts are not across the board is absolutely absurd, unfair and criminal in my opinion.


    1. Whoa man – easy on the CAPS LOCK, ok? It reads like you’re yelling.

      The musicians union doesn’t get musicians work – it’s not a talent agency. It protects us once we get the work. So if you’re looking for work in LA, joining the union is unlikely to specifically help you with that goal.

  11. I also have no need to join any union, but am wondering if the union musicians are discriminatory against “scabs” like others who don’t join. I’ve never been asked to show any union card. I’m not against unions per-se and those that join them (during the early 1900’s they were more altruistic and actually needed), but I’ve always felt them to be somewhat pro-globalistic, anti-American and anti-Capitalist. I was just wondering if there are any musicians’ stories of picket line-style violence, blackballing, damage to vehicles/equipment, or even physical violence which has been so prevalent with so many labor unions, or sociolgically destructive, such as in the horrors of teacher’s unions. By the way, a scab present denotes that a wound is healing, so I’ve never seen the derogatory insinuations of using this term. Thanks for any input.

  12. Why is there not an ice-cream scooper’s union or a juggler’s union. What about a con-man’s union. How stupid are you people? You get paid for gig’s based on what that club owner wants to pay to draw people in. It’s called a market rate and you can decline if the playing conditions are not to your liking. The reason that unions have been stigmatized, UAW, is that they have rediculous demands that ultimately bankrupt their employers. Look at the many examples of union destruction: US Steel, GM, Yellow Roadway, GREECE. California and New York state employees are next. Musicians are perfect for the union brainwashing I guess because most of the musicians I have met harbor the same anti-business poor me attitude because they are bitter that their choice to major in an art turned out to be a financial bust. It is a low percentage success field. You end up in a local symphony which eventually goes bankrupt when you try to strike.

    1. Are you a musician or just somebody that likes to troll around the internet insulting people?

      This article isn’t about whether unions are good or bad, but to inform our readers as to why the musician’s union exists and whether or not it’s required to join to work as a musician.

      Myself and the musicians I know (some are union, many are not) work hard, make a decent living, and love our jobs. Nobody is feeling sorry for themselves or regretting decisions. Maybe you just need to meet some real musicians?

    2. totally agree. AND – I am a professional musician playing paid gigs since I was in middle school from clubs to concert halls to weddings to corporate gigs as a front-woman and as a side-woman and got paid always.

  13. I feel Unions have brought a lot of sanity to the American workforce. I would certainly welcome joining a musicians union if it meant actually getting paid for my passion. So if Jackson Browne ever calls me, I’d join the Union in a tick, but until then…

  14. the core problem is that most musicians practice only to become brilliant as musicians, not also as business people. The most heard response to becoming business savvy is “if I dedicate my time to become business savvy, I will not be able to practice at that time.” The truth is – these are only excuses.
    A union might make sense, but not for a musician who is a operates in his/her musical activity from a business perspective. There are no unions for business people. The difference in this whole thing is who do you perceive you are – an employee/self-employed or a business owner.
    And yeah – I am a working musician. And since I operate through a business perspective I would loose my dignity in my own eyes if I’d join it.

  15. I’m a bassest looking for work…i’ve played for over 25yrs. now…i can travel and have all new gear..5string schecter guitar and a fender rumble 100….ready to travel..

  16. Hey, I would love to use some of the stuff you have up here in a paper I’m writing, but I don’t know if everything you’re saying is credible, since you cite no sources or references. I’m sure a lot of the stuff you say is correct, since I scoured the AFM’s website looking for statistics and they have yet to be found. I just need to know how you know, haha.

    1. I called the Local 802 and interviewed the higher-ups. And I’m in the union. I would say either cite me and this article or find some way to cross check the facts yourself. Call the 802 if you want.

  17. I recently did a short term union gig but am not a member. I got paid for that gig and am now getting semi-threatening emails from the union telling me I have to join and I have to pay several hundred dollars in annual dues and work dues. I’m not totally opposed to joining, but the reality is I rarely do any union work. This was the most I’ve ever done and I’m not likely to do that much more any time soon. I’ll never see any benefits from joining, so I feel like I’d just be giving my money away. What happens if I just ignore these letters? Part of me wants to join, part of me wants to keep the money (ya know, cause I play guitar for a living and money ain’t that easy to come by!!!). I’m mostly a freelancer in non-union segments so whats my best course of action?


    1. Yeah man, you should join. You have the option of not taking union gigs of you don’t want to deal with the hassle of joining the union, but if you’re going to play those gigs you should join. It’s only fair.

      Who knows what’ll happen if you don’t. Maybe nothing. But it’s the right thing to do. The union is weak and there aren’t a lot of union gigs around, but they work hard on the gigs they do have to get us a better deal. To let them help you out, then not pay them what they are due is bad karma.

      1. I totally get what you’re saying, though the gig I did is with a band I’ve played in, toured with, and built relationships with for years. I guess the wage was set by the union, so I owe them that, but the rest of it is all sweat equity on my part. You’re right, though, without the union I wouldn’t have been paid the way I was paid. Thanks for your thoughts!

        1. Before I joined the union I played one gig in a union house accompanying an independent artist. I was paid by the artist, not the union. I later found out that the union was still paid out of the artist’s earnings. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but I would guess it’s an agreement between the local AFM and the venue, and the venue works it into their agreements with non-union acts.

  18. I am confused about union membership. I currently live in PA, but am starting to work towards playing national tours and eventually Broadway shows (hopefully)! Do I have to join the local union where I currently live, or join the NYC 802 branch of the union? In other words, do I join based on my location, or the location of the jobs I want, and what is the difference?

  19. Thanks much for your thorough explanation of the pros and cons of joining a union. I needed it spelled out like this. This has nothing to do with your main subject, I know, but research schizophrenia and you’ll see that the joke in your 6th paragraph is a little off.

  20. Just out of curiosity, if you are a union member, are there restrictions or rules about playing in another district of the union? (forgive me if my terminology is sloppy.)

    For example, if I join the Baltimore Local and want to play a union gig in D.C., would membership carry over, or would I have to get it cleared with the Baltimore AND D.C. Locals?

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