RMA Address to the ICSOM Conference

On behalf of the Recording Musicians Association, I’d like to offer warm and collegial greetings to the Delegates of ICSOM, your Governing Board, fellow guests, and to our courageous colleagues and hosts here in the city of Detroit. We offer congratulations on this productive and beautifully organized Conference and we greatly appreciate the invitation to participate with esteemed fellow musicians.

The Recording Musicians Association represents recording musicians throughout the AFM, whether or not they are members of RMA. We advocate for musicians who work on Saturday Night Live and David Letterman, on American Idol, Country Music Televison and Dancing With the Stars, on all kinds of records from Barbra Streisand, Reba McEntire, Michael Bublé, the Black Eyed Peas, to Maroon5 and Taylor Swift.  We play on Desperate Housewives, 30 Rock, the Simpsons and Family Guy, and the latest movies, including blockbuster studio tentpoles, foreign movies from Europe, Australia and Asia, domestic independent films, festival films and documentaries. Thousands of AFM members in New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, Chicago, Toronto and elsewhere work as recording musicians. Despite anonymous emails about a nifty fifty (that seems now to have magically grown to an elite one hundred), in reality more than 1,600 members just in Los Angeles alone earn over 2,500 dollars in non-symphonic recording annually, and qualified to vote on – and pay –  the new, higher recording work dues. The blogwagon’s consistent assertion that our contracts are based on “failed models” doesn’t match reality. The AFM is the union for recording musicians in North America.

Over the past decade, electronic media employment has both fluctuated and shifted. American Idol and its progeny resuscitated a languishing TV Videotape industry. The number of motion pictures scored AFM steadily grew, in large part driven by the development of low budget tiers that incentivized AFM scoring. But in general, we faced deep problems.

Politics plagued every corner of electronic media administration and enforcement. AFM leaders themselves suggested that we were working under a failed model of recording contracts, and signatory films were allowed to run away to Europe with AFM approval, costing us wages – and pension contributions. The AFM took Videogame companies who were signing good contracts in their own name, encouraged them to sign worse contracts proxied by middlemen – and then used Orwellian double-speak to call that organizing. This undermined our ability to collect New Uses, again, reducing pension contributions as well as work dues. In an effort to keep some Player Conference voices marginalized, the AFM studiously ignored the plummeting drop in jingles employment. Perhaps most widely damaging was the defensive denial of any need to organize in sound recordings. We refused to deal with the reality that the AFM sound recording density and wages were falling, even as the rapidly increasing practice of licensing records into other media was displacing studio recording. We dug ourselves into deep holes with industry after industry.

I am relieved and happy to report on a new, healthy relationship with the AFM under the leadership of President Hair and the IEB.  Union democracy has created a pathway for recovery.

The AFM is now working hand in hand with Player Conference representatives to identify potential organizing targets and intervene to unionize scoring. Wages from the motion picture industry are up substantially over the past year, bringing increased work dues to the AFM. Protecting our contractual rights works!

Protecting musicians involves collective bargaining as well. The Sound Recording Labor Agreement negotiations are reaching their final stages, and we hope to conclude a successor agreement next month. The conduct of the AFM caucus has been historic. While in the past important voices were locked out or drowned out, President Hair has had an embracing open door policy, inviting and valuing input and inpiduals, from Officers around the AFM, from the RMA, Staff, and rank and file guests. We were fortunate to have been joined by EMSD Oversight Committee member Bill Foster. The openness and democratic instincts with which President Hair has led our negotiations has translated into real strength at the table. We hope to be able to announce an agreement soon that will bring real benefits to the AFM at large.

We will all benefit from this new, unprecedented openness to full Player Conference participation. Early this year RMA sponsored and helped fund two days of historic New Use meetings, bringing together Local, AFM and Player Conference Officers, Staff, and other resources to analyze how we go about collecting money due when AFM recordings are monetized in different media. This launched an ongoing effort to improve communications, collections and processes across the AFM in pursuit of New Use payments – payments that garner work dues of 15% and generate pension contributions. RMA has helped the IEB adopt a new Independent/Festival Film Agreement, with which we intend to capture a significant amount of current employment while building strong relationships with composers and filmmakers of the future. We are also helping the IEB move to talk directly with employers for Videogames, in order to craft a negotiated solution to this ongoing problem area. And in both of those areas, RMA has brought proposals to the IEB to include MPTF contributions in the new contracts.

One of the critical needs of our union is straightforward. We need money. The AFM has real obligations  in regards to the tragic attacks on some of our orchestras, the issues we face in theater, the needs we have in electronic media. Effective representation requires economic resources, and we are all aware of the current financial condition of the AFM.  It gives me real pleasure to have participated in a process, begun at the AFM Convention, which has allowed recording musicians to raise their hands and vote on raising their own work dues, in order to help their union. And with our leadership, they voted “yes”. This has only just begun to bring new, welcome funds into the AFM treasury.

We have begun to recover, and even make progress. But in the long run our path will clear only in so far as we are able to organize recording employment. From the independent, single project film company, to the independent record artist with their own label, from signatory producers who need to be held to their word, to string quartets pitching their wares to film composers and music supervisors, we have work to do.

There have been a variety of electronic media organizing efforts over the years. In 1991 then-IEB Officer Hair chaired the Organizing and Recruiting Task Force that created a handbook for organizing musicians. Later, we had the historic organizing of Christian record labels in Nashville. Local 257 President and IEB Officer Dave Pomeroy has worked hard to assist club musicians in Nashville, understanding that any musician in Nashville is likely to be recording on the days that they are not in a club. International Vice President and Local 99 President Bruce Fife has had some real success with the innovative Fair Trade Music initiative in Portland. But in general, unionizing recording employment on the ground has been accomplished by rank and file musicians.

Year after year, RMA volunteers have worked to unionize recording projects of various types, frequently at some career and economic sacrifice. Millions of dollars of AFM wages, work dues, pension contributions, and health care benefits have flowed from rank and file activism. But the AFM itself has not had a sustained, institutional organizing approach. The Federation hasn’t gone through a long-term process of identifying strategic targets and mobilizing resources, nor has it consistently reached out to members for input and participation.

Our sister entertainment industry unions present a different model. AFTRA has mounted an effective multi-year campaign to organize TV shows. Likewise the Writers Guild, IATSE, Teamsters and SAG all have well-staffed organizing departments backed by, and frequently staffed, by legal firepower. SAG is home to the Member Organizing Volunteer Efforts (MOVE), a rank and file based internal organizing wing that distributes information, trains volunteers, and sponsors seminars and workshops. These well-funded and strategic efforts pay off, both in adding new jurisdiction, and more thoroughly protecting existing union employment across freelance workplaces.

Organizing employment in freelance recording industries brings certain unique challenges. We have signatory employers who occasionally need to be reminded of their obligations, and we face independent producers who need to be educated and brought into the fold.

We also have internal obstacles to overcome that are normal, garden variety problems, but frustrating nonetheless. Members are sometimes frustrated by transitory impediments or momentary losses. And, by and large, musicians just want to play music..that’s what we do, that’s what we’re in this for. This doesn’t make us any different from writers, actors, singers or directors – and yet they successfully organize.

Then we have our internal enemies. The term sounds dark, but it is a reality. We have anonymous blog sources that promote fairy tales from fabled far-off lands, claiming the death of studio employment, touting tales of corruption and elitism. Like union-busting corporate propaganda, the email lists of anonymity are accountable to no truth, no reality, no responsibility. The call for buyouts, the promotion of wannabe dark date factories like “New Era Scoring”, clarify that this is really employer-talk, not musician-talk. I guess it’s to be expected, maybe even normal in this day and age, but we should all recognize it’s anti-union roots and goals.

But despite these issues, our prospects for reaching out and pulling substantially more work into the AFM fold are real. Different media industries, with different workflow issues, offer different opportunities and challenges. For example, motion pictures generally take a long time to produce, and every step is a marketing opportunity, so we can frequently track down a great deal of information about a project well before a call goes out for an orchestra. And, a full orchestra often “self-polices” for union compliance. With sound recordings it’s different. Musicians often can’t know until they show up at the studio if the producer intends to do the right thing or not. Jingles are produced, by and large, by music houses hired by signatory ad agencies; in any event, the biggest trend in commercials right now is licensing records rather than live scoring.

The financial future of the Federation depends on our ability to address these issues. Fortunately, we have some good tools available to us.

First, we are quickly learning that enforcing existing signatory agreements pays off; requiring companies to live up to their contractual obligations has been successful in bringing new employment onto AFM contracts. Hand in hand with enforcement, we need to demonstrate to musicians that working union actually improves their lot. We have an opportunity now to dramatically grow New Use payments. In an era when bands often make records with a primary goal of getting their music placed in a Jingle or a videogame, New Use payments represent a real benefit to players. Another key to organizing is information about prospective targets, and so we are helping create an “early warning system” for Locals . And we are beginning to have conversations about training rank and file organizing volunteers who can play the role of “boots on the ground” all around the AFM.

Perhaps our most important tool is our people. We have a small but dedicated AFM staff and equally passionate staff in our major electronic media Locals. We have leadership at the AFM that is committed to organizing, and is reaching out for participation from all corners of our union. And we have communities of rank and file members who give hours and years of their time and energy, a resource that we’ve finally begun to effectively tap.

Members like you – all of the Delegates here at this Conference, you who have given, and given more, on behalf of your colleagues. You have persevered in the face of the heartrending attacks launched by irresponsible symphonic management. You have all volunteered for the crucial jobs and tasks that so many others just don’t have time for, or played punching bag for folks unhappy about problems they didn’t help solve, and yet you have persisted in the noble calling of protecting music and musicians. The successful organization and purpose with which ICSOM has mounted this Conference itself is proof of your resolve.

In sum, I share with you my sense of hope. I am hopeful – with a great sense of relief…hopeful – with real gratitude to President Hair and our IEB…hopeful – with effective and empowered Player Conference representation…hopeful – that a renascent AFM committed to smart and persistent organizing will gain strength and prosper.

Thank you,

Marc Sazer
President, RMA