Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, September 10, 2010

Unions and the Fame Myth-by Steve Provizer

Seattle Negro Musicians Union-1925

Music is a collaborative art, but the sketchy history of unionism in American music seems to say that the spirit of collaboration has too often ended at the edge of a bandstand.

Believe it or not, there actually is something called the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), under the aegis of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The union has forged many collective bargaining agreements that benefited musicians, but it seems there was always an uneasy relationship between union leadership and rank and file. In jazz especially, racial problems were ongoing, with union chapters in every American city segregated through most of the 20th century (The desegregation of Boston's unions only happened in 1970). I understand the AFM using its website to try and put a positive spin on the union's history, but racially, it's a complete whitewash and at this point, it seems depleted as a cultural force.

But you know, we musicians have been all too ready to cut each others throats and not to act collectively.

Well, damn. Who doesn't want someone else to look out for their own personal interests-Get me on a label that can plug my efforts. Get me an agent who gets me the good gigs. Get me a manager who looks out for my interests.

You Know Who

Of course, this makes us no different from any other group of people who must divide up a pie that's increasingly too small-noblesse oblige only comes with a surplus of money. But this attitude has made the vast majority of musician's lives way too wracked with dues-paying.

Musicians have been opting for what is essentially an elitist approach to the business of music, buying into The Fame Myth and aggravating the economic disparity between those few who have Made It and the much larger group which is serious about the music, but must constantly scuffle.

The internet has opened up entrepreneurial possibilities for many musicians-largely for the younger, tech-savvy ones. But what we really need is an attitude adjustment. Or, when it comes to getting our collective due, maybe we simply need more attitude.

Wildman Fischer

Many of us aren't cut out for a lot of confrontation, but if we stand together, a representative of our union, guild, association, or collective could bring the bargaining skills we need.

The Fame Myth is a shaky foundation to base your life and art on, so, just let it go... My 12-part cassette series will help. Available now for 4 easy payments of just $19.99.

Ronco Presents

Just kidding.


Christopher Ruston Rich said...

When I produced a Butch Morris New Works commission concert at Tufts in 88, (or so), I made extensive use of the Boston Local directory to find the array of players who were needed and not likely to be found in the local jazz scene, violists and such.

I had them mail me the directory and their rate book which was a clusterfuck.

It gave me the impression unions are choking themselves with micro management.

There were rules about members performing on stage with non members, (verboten). Given jazz is largely an idiom of individuals, that would have required me to punt on Vincent Chancey, Eli Fountain and Zeena Parkins, who were all selected by butch to come up from NY.

Of course I ingnored that rule. The large ensemble was a mongrel mess of AFM's, non AFM's locals and those from away and it was fun.

All I really cared about was setting everyone's rates to conform with union practice... get the money right. I had to do the paper work for everyone's checks and wanted to have it consistent.

The main challenge was to figure out which of dozens of performance type descriptions best fit my event. I wanted to factor in rehearsal too.

They had rates for every known contingency including fashion show accompaniment. I didn't think there was much call for that in Boston.

I remember the steward was a dull folkie of some kind and there were a lot of people from the classical world.

I like unions like the united farm workers ans the hotel employees thing where the people really are at the menacing end of the work world but the fatter things who make a sport of these micro management ball bust rules are from hell.

I had a chance to be in the longshoremans union in Seattle. I used to party with the Steward and another member was a good friend.

It was stupid money for easy work with my own nepotistic in but I didn't want all that money and the hours were weird.

I also knew my way around the building trades unions all based at a place called the temple of labor.

Seattle has cooler unions. Mass is rife with nepotism so you gotta be someone's cousin like nearly every other similar thing in this crooked little state. In Seattle you just had to have a pulse.

My friend Ian just ran afoul of the Boston teachers union and they fucked him over. He's a pretty responsible guy and known for diligence. It was office politics.

As long as there are humans there will be dickish office politics, nepotism and scheming. So it really can be a meet the new boss, same as the old boss situation once the things get entrenched and sclerotic.

Steve Provizer said...

C.R.R. sent an interesting link on the demise of labor unions:

With many interesting follow-up comments.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

I realized that the things here have descended to something like medieval guilds. It is in their interest to keep their price high by limiting the number of participants.

The last thing they want is significant growth in membership.

Out west there is still generally a trend of robust growth and there is more interest in getting as many people on board as possible.

Jeff said...

I was in the New Orleans AFM local for about 15 years. I worked in the office as a business agent, served a time as appointed Sec-Treas in a period between a resignation and an election, sat on wage/scale committee, and chaired the committee that wrote the current bylaws (unless they have been redone since I left).

I am no longer a member. It pains me on a certain level, but I have come to the conclusion that the AFM is worse than useless, it is actually counter productive.

For creative music, unions are irrelevant. People that present creative music will almost always pay when there is money, and when there isn't money, a union would just prevent the gig from happening, it wouldn't make money magically appear. At least that has been my experience playing local $8 free jazz gigs, and nice money european festival gigs.

Where the AFM could be useful is recordings, and situations like orchestras and shows where there is an actual employer. The problem is that (many of) the union officers are more interested in having power and getting a salary from the dues of the members than in actually representing the interests of the members. A recording that I am on, that was made under a union contract, was used on a recent cable TV show. We should have had new use payments coming. A colleague tried to contact the local about it and got the run around. The artist on the recording is the president of the local and had a screen role in the TV show. The label (that is who actually owes us the money) is run by a good friend of the president. We'll never get paid because the president of our local has a greater interest in protecting his business relationships than representing the musicians, even the ones that play(ed) in his own band.

That's why union membership is down.

People often say "we should run real musicians for the offices and take it over for good." I've tried. The libelous hate mail started showing up before the nominations were even made. The people that want to maintain that power are willing to do more to keep it than any sane musician would be willing to endure in the name of brotherhood. We are better off banding together for respectful treatment outside of the context of the AFM. At least that is my (unfortunate) experience.

Steve Provizer said...

Jeff-Nothing more valuable-and painful-than personal experience... Corrupt practices have no doubt been a major cause of the downfall of unions and there's no clear solution to that problem.

As you say, specific situations, such as enforcing recording contracts, may present a way to focus attention, but individual legal responses are probably not feasible, given that the amounts at stake are not enough of an incentive to lawyers who would work for a percentage of the recovered costs. It's theoretically something that a union legal staff should undertake-and there you are, back at square one.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

Wow. Cue FZ's "Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink."

That is pretty consistent with what I've observed.

Chris said...

I would love Local 802 here in NY to work better than it does. There always seems to be infighting and some sort of permanent schism in the membership based off of the disastrous strike at Radio City a few years ago. The union seems mostly geared to orchestral and Broadway musicians. Most of the venues where any creative music gets played are certainly not in compliance with the union and if they were required to be my guess is they'd just switch to rock music as free jazz would be more trouble than it's worth to them.

On the other hand...the union is the reason I have the day gig I have...I got it through the Actor's Work Program which helps entertainment professionals find work that will provide steady income and complement their performing life. And I'm grateful for that...immensely so. Also, the union health care clinic has kept me in at least reasonable health during times I didn't have access to insurance...and does so for many other musicians I know. So to me it's not all bad...but it needs some serious reforming so that it can meet the needs of the vast majority of today's musicians rather than the lucky few who play Broadway.

Steve Provizer said...

And there, from Chris, you have the taste of what could be... Usually, the debate would be: 'do we try to reform it or chuck out the whole thing,' but it seems like vox populi sees either alternative as futile. Indeed, it looks like the music biz will carry on as the rest of the country does-with almost everyone getting squeezed toward the bottom.

Well, at least I've got this horn. As Dizzy said: Just sittin in that case, ready to fuck you up."

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

The bigger problem I see is musicians seem to want someone else to handle their shit for them. It's vestigial conditioning, show biz reflexes.

We have a technology that will now allow you to make arrangements about nearly anything with nearly anyone, anywhere at the speed of light.

We have information resources from hell about venue locations and types and all other related things. It just sits there.

Admittedly the money is no prize but for many younger artists like Chris and our beloved Mr. Lavelle, just getting out of town to new ears is half the game and it needs to be somewhat systematic and not haphazard.

It is such a funny contrast with Indie rock people I knew who saw touring as a promotional cost... audience building, a necessary but fun aspect to getting in the game.

My friend Popeye probably lost a few grand going around the country in a band tour but it was worth it.

The NY younger crew can't even get on a train to go play some little church gig up in Westchester or Jersey.

Good old Ras Moshe is an exception. He tries to get up here every so often and already got a Globe pick for his October Outpost show.

Heaven helps those who help themselves and Ras began showing some sense of it all as a kid when he'd go to the early Sound Unity concerts.

Matt Lavelle said...

Steve,.I need those tapes man.

Chris,.I need to get back to the Outpost! Maybe me and Ras can come up!

Steve Provizer said...

Which tapes, Matt?

Mary Anybody said...

Your fame cassette series for 19.99.
I just love to follow these discussions, always a little cynical. I'm already like that and I'm just a student!
Funny: a swiss paper wrote about so many people wanting to move to Switzerland, which brought up the idea of the jazz metropolis ( So: let's get organized over here! We'll make sure that the cake is evenly shared!

Steve Provizer said...

Imagine my embarrassment-of course-my tapes... Well, as I scan through my factory inventory list, I see that all cassettes have been melted down for the war effort.

The original wax cylinders are still available, but only as part of the (rather pricey) Buddy Bolden Simulacrum Kit.