In order to have a voice, you’ve got to show up. I recently joined union colleagues at the Future of Music Policy Summit at Georgetown University, an annual event that brings together aspiring musicians, representatives from the music industry and government officials. We share information, discuss trends in the business and help musicians discover new avenues to successful careers. Panels of experts cover a wide range of topics all intended to guide musicians in this new era of digital music distribution.
Local 802 has been a sponsor of the summit for several years now. Along with the AFM, we send our officers and staff to ensure that the voices of professional musicians are not drowned out by the wealthy corporate entities that are pitching services at them.
The industry is flooded with new companies and business models designed to make money on the backs of creative people. Music recordings and videos are frequently treated as mere “content,” without concern for how the creators will be able to sustain themselves. This all takes place in the backdrop of microscopic royalty rates from online music distributors and ever-greater competition for listeners that the Internet has unleashed.
Many musicians who attend the summit are unaware of the AFM. If they think of us at all it is likely to be as an organization that has no bearing on the kind of work they do playing in clubs and other performance venues. The reality is that this work, which goes on all over the nation, is exactly where the AFM needs to make inroads. As we watch our traditional fields shrink in size and opportunity, we need to be aware that hundreds of thousands of creative people are out there struggling without any sense of community or organization, toughing it out with a do-it-yourself business model that pits a lone musician or a band against the forces of the industry. For the AFM to continue to remain vital, we must be ready to go where the music is happening, regardless of whether all the musicians are currently our members. Our experience as organizers makes us perfect collaborators and partners to all musicians looking for a better career and life. Our activism with indie musicians is one way we hope to continue to grow in membership and relevance.
This year we decided to step up and present an alternative view of what musicians really need. We presented our own panel entitled, “DIY? Do it Together!” focusing on organizing music communities, both in small towns and larger cities, to help musicians find their power and create change in their working world. Joining us for this special panel were:
- Bassist Dave Pomeroy, president of AFM Local 257 (Nashville), who was voted Nashville’s studio musician of the year.
- Guitarist and Local 802 member Marc Ribot, who leads his own bands and also works with Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. Ribot is president of the new Content Creators Coalition.
- AFM Vice President Bruce Fife, president of AFM Local 99 (Portland, Ore.) and an organizer of Fair Trade Music.
Dave Pomeroy spoke of the issues he found upon taking office in Nashville and the type of activism that was fostered by Local 257 to make everyday life better for the huge music community in that city.
Marc Ribot discussed the circumstances that led to the formation of the Content Creators Coalition as a grassroots organizing effort. CCC is a response by musicians in New York and other cities to the overarching problems of the changing distribution system. These include unsustainable royalty rates for streaming, utter lack of royalties for AM/FM radio broadcast, and copyright infringement abetted by huge Internet search companies that allow public access to pirate web sites and help fund them through advertising.
Bruce Fife spoke about the creation of the Fair Trade Music movement in Portland – a city with more than 100 clubs – and how the Fair Trade brand can be an incentive to club owners, who earn public approval and recognition for providing a workplace that strives to treat performers with respect and pay a fair wage. Fair Trade is also underway in Washington, D.C., and is a potential initiative for us to try out here in NYC.
In the packed audience were musicians who came to listen and then tell us about their own experiences attempting to organize their communities. The frustration expressed led to some very good exchanges and many of the crowd stayed well past the scheduled end of the session to talk to the panelists and each other. We feel that this was a successful effort to demonstrate that the AFM is ready to counsel and support all musicians. Those who attended got to see us in a new light. We must continue to be an important voice as the future for professional musicians takes shape.
Guitarist Andy Schwartz is a member of the Local 802 Executive Board.