Composers, music producers, recording studios and engineers as well as the professional recording musicians of Local 802 are all dependent upon a healthy recording environment.
Recent statistics, however, reveal a sharp decline in film and TV recording here in New York, with nearly a 72 percent drop in musician wages from January 2007 through June 2008 when compared with wages from the previous 18 months.
These numbers correspond to a similar drop in scoring sessions and studio bookings for such work.
This clearly unsustainable trend has many of us in the recording industry seriously concerned that if things do not improve, the infrastructure to record film scores of any kind will be at risk of irrevocable collapse.
It’s worthy to note that two mammoth New York studios, the Hit Factory and Sony, have both recently closed their doors.
The fallout to losing our city’s recording infrastructure will impact classical and pop music production, Broadway cast albums, commercial work and the growing opportunities in music for video games.
To get a feel for how the industry is doing, let’s take Legacy Recording Studios as an example. (One of the authors of this essay is the general manager there.) Legacy is one of a handful of sound studios in town capable of accommodating a 40-to-80 piece orchestra typically booked for a major movie score recording.
At Legacy, there were a total of 22 film projects in 2006, including orchestra dates, small ensemble dates, mixing sessions and editing sessions. In 2007, the number dropped to 10.
As of this writing in 2008, Legacy has worked on a couple of small independent films, but there have been no major movie film scores recorded at the studio: zero. Other studios in town have posted similar numbers.
We have recently been listening to a seasoned group of scoring engineers, film composers, sound editors, producers and contractors. A few core issues have emerged in explanation of this rapid decline.
These issues include shrinking film budgets, active solicitation from foreign markets specifically targeting film scoring work (for instance, London and Prague), long distance remote recording, as well as the growth of new independent film production companies that are either unaware of the resources the New York City music community has to offer or choosing to not make use of them.
This combination of factors seems to have led to the increasing practice of these independent — and often international — production companies to record their projects outside the U.S. In doing so, they bypass the AFM motion picture labor agreements.
When discussing music for film it is important to differentiate the players in the industry.
Foremost are the major motion picture studios: Columbia, MGM, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Walt Disney and Warner Brothers.
They self-finance, produce and distribute movies throughout the United States and the world. And these are the companies that negotiated and signed the AFM’s Basic Theatrical Motion Picture Agreement.
For years now this agreement has served professional recording musicians very effectively and allowed them to earn fine livings from their craft.
While this agreement is renegotiated every few years, it is the only film music recording agreement available from the AFM, and it is applied to all film producers, regardless of their size or resources.
Non-signatory companies, which produce everything else (including indie films, foreign films, documentaries and even student shorts) must themselves either accept the same 127-page basic agreement or forego signing a union agreement altogether.
In recent years, a large number of popular, award-winning and well-funded movies have been produced by non-signatory companies that are based right here in New York. The scores to these films, however, were recorded elsewhere.
EFFORTS SO FAR
Some have asked what recording studios are doing to combat these issues and to facilitate film scoring work in the city.
Let’s go back to our example, Legacy Studios:
- In 2001, Legacy invested over $10 million in a 4,700 square foot recording space specifically designed and built to service the film scoring community. We considered some of the greatest scoring rooms in the world as models for that design. Since that time, we have continued to improve our scoring studio based on suggestions from some of the most respected scoring engineers and film composers who have used our facility.
- Furthermore, we continue to groom and develop a core group of technicians who understand the intricacies of recording film scores. Large ensembles, such as those used for recording “The Good Shepherd” or “The Brave One,” often require as many as five assistant engineers, each performing a specific task during sessions that can last for 10 or 12 hours at a time.
- At Legacy, we seek to build the future of the film music community by partnering with Columbia University, ASCAP, the Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund and Local 802 to co-sponsor the annual Student Film Composers Workshop.
- Recently we’ve reached out to the film music community by joining a small group of recording studio owners, engineers, composers and Local 802 members. This group is dedicated to increasing opportunities for film scoring and production in the city, to all our mutual benefit. In the last three months, Legacy has provided space for this group to assemble and discuss these important issues. Our most recent meeting was attended by approximately 200 members of the music community.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we support the film music community by offering studio rates that work within their budgets large or small, even though our rates are already very competitive with any other film-scoring studio in the world.
In an effort to promote good business here in New York, production companies, rental companies, and scoring engineers have also needed to become flexible with rates and operating terms and, at times, make generous concessions in order to attract and keep work.
For its part, the AFM offers tiered wage scales to films that demonstrate a low-budget status (under $40 million). Interestingly, when comparing these wages with those of London or Seattle, one quickly sees that it isn’t any cheaper to record over there. Cost-of-labor savings by going to Prague or Bratislava are significantly offset by travel expenses coupled with lost time and productivity. Inflation in Eastern Europe and the current decline in the dollar’s value against foreign currencies are narrowing the price gap worldwide. Additionally, qualifying films can take advantage of tax rebates when their scores are recorded in New York. And yet, despite all of these apparent incentives, scoring work in New York has continued to leave.
THE DOMINANT REASON
Film producers, composers, agents, music supervisor, and heads of postproduction all emphatically agree that the dominant reason as to why their recording activity has increasingly left New York is that the current AFM agreement does not provide accommodation for the needs of the ever-growing crop of independently-financed films.
The consistent deal-breaker for many non-signatory movie producers is the AFM’s requirement of residual payments to musicians, garnered from a producer’s share of profits earned in secondary markets (DVD and television).
While the basic agreement works very well for the Hollywood signatories and needs no revision, independent producers contend that their business models do not differentiate between primary and secondary markets. Instead, all release windows are carefully managed in an effort to finance their films and attempt to recoup their investments.
To them, DVD and TV revenues are essential to making back money that may not be recouped in movie theatres alone.
Additionally, acceptance of the AFM residual terms would impact their films’ salability to potential distributors in an already highly-competitive market.
Non-signatory producers who cannot accept the AFM agreements have no alternative but to find non-union solutions.
And as more and more films are financed and produced outside of the Hollywood studio system, an increasing amount of recording work that would otherwise be done in New York is going to places like London, Seattle and Prague.
In the modern global marketplace for recorded film music, our competitors are providing essential value that we at home are not. This value gap is a matter of terms, not prices.
Consistent feedback has indicated that if we want to participate in this global business, we must begin offering a truly competitive agreement that buyers want to purchase.
When the question has been posed to indie producers and composers: “Would you be more likely to score your films in New York if a reasonable combined-use agreement from the AFM were to become available?” — the answer has been consistently and unanimously “yes.”
Until that agreement becomes available, it appears all but certain that a vast and growing sector of the film business, which in every other way is thriving here in New York City, will continue to shut out our recording community.
TIME FOR SOMETHING NEW
As Heraclitus said, “Nothing endures but change.” The film industry is now going through some of the same changes the record industry has already experienced.
Current AFM combined-use agreements in Canada and video game agreements in the U.S. successfully demonstrate the value of working with a broader field of purchasers to negotiate deals that work for the modern age.
Cheap travel, new distribution technology, and the fall of the Iron Curtain have provided alternatives for a new breed of film producers who operate separately from the major studios.
At this time, New York City still has the musicians, composers and technical facilities in place to be part of this profitable industry yet we are at risk of losing this infrastructure.
No one is interested in doing away with future residual payments from Hollywood studio films and residual obligations from past film work cannot be touched anyway. Checks from the secondary markets fund just came out in July and reminded those of us who do this work of the real value and vital stake we have in preserving this revenue stream. There are hundreds of films produced each year, however, which never pay into the fund because these films never hire union players in the first place. This is the work that New York City is best poised to recapture and finally bring under the umbrella of the AFM.
Perhaps, a concerted voice that includes the membership of Local 802, the composers who would like to employ them, and the non-signatory film producers who would willingly record in New York City if only they had their own deal, can effect change in a way that will make healthy again this dangerously sick industry.
Chris Bubacz is the general manager of Legacy Recording Studios. Lawrence Manchester is a recording engineer, recording musician and Local 802 member. His film credits include “The Departed,” “Across the Universe” and “The Good Shepherd.”