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National Recording Disagreements

After demonstrating its muscle and ability to shut down the recording industry, the AFM emerged the victor by November of 1944 with first-time agreements with Decca, Capitol, RCA and Columbia Records. The structure and framework for these National Recording Agreements still exist today, but that moment in 1944 may have been the last point in time for meaningful “agreement.”

At that time the AFM rightfully claimed to have an agreement with “the recording industry” because those four labels were in fact the only notable companies and employers in the business. Six decades later we now have a variety of national recording agreements; the most prominent being the Sound Recording Labor Agreement (SRLA) that is signed by six recording labels: Warner Brothers, Atlantic Recording, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group and EMI Music. But the difference from 1944 to now is the entry of thousands of new recording labels who are not signatory. The premise of the SRLA as a “National Agreement” no longer holds water, but it is in fact a Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The SRLA is periodically ratified by a relatively-small group (1,000?) of musicians. Appropriately, AFM members honor and respect this bargaining relationship that exists between these six signatory labels and the members of the bargaining unit. Furthermore, musicians who accept substandard wages or benefits from these employers should be fined and/or expelled from the AFM. This is a fundamental principle of labor solidarity.

Unfortunately, resolving the existing conflict and disagreement over recording policy is not so simple. Musicians who make up the SRLA bargaining unit somehow draw the conclusion that the SRLA, though signed by only six companies, is also a universal minimum or “scale” that applies to the entire industry, irregardless of the employer. Their reasoning is that the recording industry differs from live performance because recorded product is an international commodity that readily moves to cheaper markets. Sadly, we live in a time where all industries, from heavy industry to candle-making, are seeking cheaper labor.

The  only solution is to build solidarity and support throughout the AFM while growing our membership, but we are doing exactly the opposite by promoting dubious, protectionist policies. Complex collective bargaining agreements are being thrust upon AFM members who have no say in the matter whatsoever. AFM members have been threatened with expulsion and fines (up to $50,000) for violation of bargaining structures that simply do not exist elsewhere in organized labor. It should come as no surprise that untold numbers of young musicians opt against joining the AFM for needless fear of reprimand.

Giant signatory recording companies have benefited most from this arrangement because the AFM is obligated to either turn away or beat down their competition. I wrote about this very subject in 2004 in a piece titled A Great Deal for Media Giants.  These companies have manipulated the AFM into defending and strengthening their monopolies, which would otherwise violate anti-trust laws if attempted on their own.

Once again, I refer to a textbook that was given to me as an attendee of a special AFM training course offered by the George Meany Center for Labor Studies (class of 1998). There is a wealth of enlightening material in this book that I shall refer to in the months to come, but for now I call your attention to the following Exhibit:

TYPES OF BARGAINING STRUCTURES IN THE UNITED STATES

Union(s) —————————————Employer(s), Worksite(s)

  1. One local union — Single employer, One worksite
  2. One local union — Multiple employers, multiple worksites
  3. Multiple local unions of same national union — Single employer, multiple worksites
  4. Multiple local unions of same national union — Multiple employers, multiple worksites, same industry
  5. Single local unions of multiple national unions — Single employer, one or more worksites

The structure of AFM National Agreements (multiple locals – all employers, all worksites) doesn’t exist elsewhere in Labor because it violates even the most fundamental tenets of union democracy.  The only way to create an agreement that covers all employers is to establish representation for all AFM members who work in that industry. The AFM attempts to correct this imbalance through Promulgated Agreements that are established by the sole authority of the AFM’s International Executive Board (IEB), but this system has its obvious pitfalls. The IEB is an elected body that is credited for implementing popular agreements, but must also take hits when they rankle the ire of any one segment of the membership.

The controversy du jour is a promulgagted videogame agreement. This has triggered an unjust attack at AMF president Tom Lee , ripe with sensationalist drama that has been pitched to the press on a weekly basis. If that’s not enough, this dispute has led to two class action lawsuits filed against the AFM.

Robert Levine, president of the Milwaukee Musicians’ Association and host author of the AFM Observer has written extensively on this matter. Among ongoing and colorful debate is a discussion thread titled Is suing the AFM wrong? Robert further expresses his views in a recent article titled New Democracy Battles in Musicians Union that was published in the Jan/Feb ’09 issue of the Union Democracy Review.

These “recording wars” are indeed a battle, but with all due respect to Robert Levine, they have little to do with union democracy. Among the unfortunate turns and twists of this story is the fact that recognized bargaining structures wouldn’t allow for any of this in first place.

  1. Henry Peyrebrune
    May 28th, 2009 at 23:04 | #1

    @Henry Peyrebrune
    Sorry, about the previous post, I didn’t mean to just post the quote.

    I think I can figure out where they came up with those numbers, if you really want to know…

    10-12% of the AFM are full-time musicians – that’s probably an estimate, but the AFM has always been made up primarily of people who don’t make the bulk of their living playing. See George Seltzer’s history of the AFM.

    The work dues proportion probably includes 2% on the $85 million, which you didn’t include in your numbers. $2.15 million + $1.7 million = $3.8 million versus $1.96 million from symphonic work. That’s combining the proportions from 2002 with the dues numbers from 2006 and the $85 million from this year, but the proportions are roughly what RMA says.

    I don’t know if that’s how they came up with it, or what the numbers are today, but that’s the simplest explanation based on the numbers you’ve given me. Why don’t you ask RMA to provide the numbers to back up their assertion?

  2. Henry Peyrebrune
    May 28th, 2009 at 22:23 | #2

    Pete Vriesenga :
    At best, only 10-12% of the Federation’s total membership are working professionals. These musicians pay millions of dollars in work dues to the AFM and fund the lions share of the financial costs for the entire Federation bureaucracy. At each of the last several conventions, recording musicians, again most of whom are RMA members, were tapped for more and more money and are now paying about twice as much in per capita work dues as any other AFM members including the 1000 or so full time ICSOM symphony orchestra players who earn in excess of $100,000 annually.

  3. May 26th, 2009 at 11:30 | #3

    Your broad generalization “the burden of paying for general administrative expenses is being distributed unequally” touches on the issue, but the ongoing fight is specifically about who claims to be cheated. For decades, recording musicians have claimed that they’re paying the lion share of AFM expenses. That’s simply not true, as I’ve pointed out in this discussion thread.

    Google keywords such as RMA + AFM, dues, working musicians, and you’ll be directed to hundreds of these claims. I just did that myself and just came up with the following: The AFM vs Entertainment Unions, RMA, Phil Ayling and Recording Musicians – A Manifesto

    I encourage you to read the full Manifesto, but in context of this discussion, the following comments are simply untrue: At best, only 10-12% of the Federation’s total membership are working professionals. These musicians pay millions of dollars in work dues to the AFM and fund the lions share of the financial costs for the entire Federation bureaucracy. At each of the last several conventions, recording musicians, again most of whom are RMA members, were tapped for more and more money and are now paying about twice as much in per capita work dues as any other AFM members including the 1000 or so full time ICSOM symphony orchestra players who earn in excess of $100,000 annually.

    I ask that you please take out your calculator once again, and help me through this. How does anyone come up with these numbers?

    Pete

  4. Henry Peyrebrune
    May 23rd, 2009 at 06:51 | #4

    @Pete Vriesenga

    I’m not advocating DIDO; I’m simply suggesting that the recording work seems to be cover the expenses of the EMSD with work dues. Of course, all members also pay per capita dues which should cover the general administration of the AFM and each recording musician is paying the same share of that as any other member is.

    What I gather from your response is that the general administration expenses are significantly more than per capita dues can cover. Therefore, the burden of paying for general administrative expenses is being distributed unequally.

  5. May 23rd, 2009 at 00:09 | #5

    @Henry Peyrebrune

    Hello Henry,
    You’re suggesting that recording musicians should expect a dollar in for a dollar out, or specifically $2.15 million for $2.1 million to run EMSD. You’re also suggesting that recording musicians bear little or no responsibility for the $7.9 million balance of the combined AFM budget. Neither makes for a strong labor union.

    If symphonic musicians received a dollar in services for every dollar in work dues, SSD’s budget would increase to $2 million. Unfortunately, SSD’s budget is only $700,000, so it’s evident that $1.3 million of symphonic work dues are applied to other AFM union functions (including EMSD).

    It’s estimated that 80% of the AFM membership are freelance musicians. I don’t have the budget figures for the relatively-new Freelance Services Division, but I’m sure it’s under $100,000. With over $5 million annually coming from annual dues, freelance musicians are obviously funding the largest share of the AFM budget as measured in what they expect in return. Without this lion share subsidy of the general fund, the AFM’s $10 million budget (including $2.1 million for EMSD and $2 million for SSD) would collapse.

    I look forward to your comments,
    Pete

  6. Henry Peyrebrune
    May 22nd, 2009 at 20:36 | #6

    @Pete Vriesenga

    Pete-

    I’m not sure I take your point on the EM department being subsidized by the rest of the AFM. You say that 47% of the $4,564,360 in total work dues comes from Electronic media – that’s $2.15 million according to my calculator. You go on to say that 21% of the AFM’s approximately $10 million expense budget is spent on EMSD. Well, isn’t that $2.1 million? What am I missing?

  7. Michael Allen
    March 27th, 2009 at 09:57 | #7

    Pete,

    Snowstorms make for idle hands…

    Of course you are right about Pamphlet B. But that doesn’t really affect the local market in terms of preventing work from happening. In fact, as we know, it is more cost effective to hire local musicians for pit work. The problem that producers have is that not every city these shows visit is like Denver. Hoople South Dakota, for example, would have a difficult time putting together a good enough band to play Phantom. In effect, what prevents more show work from happening in Denver is that there are not reliably good musicians in every market where the national productions visit. We’ve all heard the horror stories.

    Because of national recording scales though, it is absolutely prohibitive for Spielberg to think about scoring his next film using the Colorado Symphony.

    The point is these scales protect the interests of only a relatively few musicians, and it is my assertion that they aren’t in the best interest of the entire membership of the AFM. Wouldn’t a film/video game music industry component in Denver be good for the local market? It’s not possible to even create that market unless we can set our own rates. Hmmm…Seattle comes to mind…

    I’d like to hear the argument for the other side. It won’t be valid from our point of view.

    Side Bar

    Wow – just think what an orchestra could do with $85 million – that would FULLY fund 8 Colorado Symphonies or 40 Boulder Philharmonics (at its proper budget level) – ON AN ANNUAL BASIS.

  8. Pete Vriesenga
    March 26th, 2009 at 12:23 | #8

    Mike,
    The AFM also has the national “Pamphlet B” touring agreement that covers musicians who travel with shows & musicals. This agreement is a source of contention between local and touring musicians because it attempts to define who is displaced by who. It’s a factual impossibility to satisfy both interests in this dispute, so rational individuals have long ago realized that there’s only so much anyone can expect. The alternative would look like the 60-year war that we see from recording musicians.

    Your analogy to recording hopes in “Wahoo, NE” is right on target, but it’s interesting that forced change has come from some of the very markets and institutions that implemented these policies in the first place. For decades, members of major U.S. orchestras watched as their international marketshare of recordings vanished. This was over the same period of time when classical recordings were only losing money. Finally they took charge of matters and began recording as independent producers.

    Central to this dispute is (Surprise) money. The Recording Musicians Association (RMA) often claims that “recording musicians pay half the dues,” but they fail to point out that the AFM spends that (and more) to maintain union services that disproportionately benefits them.

    The AFM’s annual budget is approximately $10 million, which is comprised of 15 different departments (Touring, Electronic Services, Symphonic Services, etc). According to the 2006 Annual Report, revenue from per capita (annual) dues is $4,038,604. Revenue from combined work dues totals $4,564,360.

    One has to go back to the AFM’s 2002 Annual Report to see how these funds are apportioned out, but I expect that percentages are the same today. On the income side, 43% of work dues came from symphonic agreements.while 47% came from electronic media agreements. But, on the expense side, the Symphonic Services Department (AFM-SSD) represents just 7% of the budget whereas as Electronic Media Services (AFM-EMSD) represents a whopping 21% of the AFM’s budget. In effect, interests of AFM recording musicians are subsidized by work dues collected from orchestra CBAs; also from the general membership in the form of annual per capita dues.

    The 800-pound gorilla is the AFM Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund, which is expected to make $85 million in distributions this year. This money wouldn’t even exist if not for AFM media agreements. And that’s why a modest work tax was assessed on this fund (for the first time) at the last AFM Convention.

    That’s what the fight is about.

    Pete

  9. Michael Allen
    March 25th, 2009 at 09:13 | #9

    It’s interesting that the only true “national scales” are recording scales. All other scales are set at the local level, but because of the RMA and it’s stranglehold on the AFM, musicians in Wahoo, Nebraska must record at the same rate as musicians in Los Angeles and New York.

    For obvious reasons, there is very little recording work in Wahoo.

    It’s way past time for this to change.

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