How the AFM is Helping Casino Musicians

Volume CV, No. 7/8July, 2005

Ray Hair

Ray Hair is president of AFM Local 72-147 (Dallas-Fort Worth) and is a member of the AFM’s International Executive Board. He chairs the AFM’s Casino Industry Study Committee. He can be reached at

When the citizens of New Jersey voted to legalize casino gambling in 1976, the U.S. commercial casino industry was off to the races. By 2003, over a quarter of a decade later, 443 commercial casinos in 11 states nationwide were generating more than $27 billion in gross gaming revenues. The industry paid $4.32 billion in state and local taxes in 2003, $320 million more than in 2002. Racetrack casinos in six states generated $2.2 billion in revenue in 2003, a $200 million increase compared to 2002. In 2003, Native American casinos existed in 28 states.

Public opinion polling conducted in 2004 by Peter D. Hart and the Luntz Research companies show that public opinion and acceptability of casino gaming are highly favorable. According to the polling data, more than one-quarter of the U.S. adult population — 53.4 million individuals — visited a casino in 2003, making a total of 310 million trips.

The data demonstrates that Americans recognize the benefits and entertainment value that can come from casinos, including their beneficial impact on local businesses, and the public projects paid for with casino tax dollars.

In 2003, over 352,000 direct casino industry employees earned $11.8 billion in salaries, including benefits and tips.

And unions, including the AFM, are looking toward casinos as organizing targets as the lure of gaming boosts employment opportunities in a profitable growth industry.

In Louisville, Kentucky, the local of the United Food and Commercial Workers has endorsed an effort in that state to bring casino-style gambling to racetracks. UFCW Local 277 says its group’s 18,000 members think “more gaming is coming this way. We want to make sure whatever form it takes will support jobs and be good for the economy,” said spokesperson Chris Sanders.

In 2003, the AFM’s New Jersey Conference, convinced that the AFM should be more proactive toward the casino industry, asked the 95th Convention to adopt a resolution calling for the formation of a Casino Locals Interactive Conference. The resolution was referred to the International Executive Board and an AFM Casino Industry Study Committee, consisting of myself and fellow AFM local officers Hal Espinoza, Mark Jones and Ken Shirk, was appointed to study and respond to the New Jersey Conference request.

After evaluating information provided by 36 AFM locals concerning gaming operations within their jurisdictions, and after listening and talking to local officers and organizers with experience in casino operations and contract administration, two approaches were identified as having the potential to promote gainful employment for AFM members in the casino entertainment industry.

First, the IEB committee responded to the interests of locals and members alike by recognizing that wages and conditions for members engaged to perform as local backup orchestra musicians be improved and maintained through the development of an AFM Touring Artist Backup Orchestra collective bargaining agreement. The CBA would establish standards of employment for orchestra musicians picked up locally as a headliner act tours. The experimental CBA could have tiered wages based on venue size, number of seats, and ticket price, and would protect higher locally bargained or promulgated scales, such as casino scales.

An AFM Backup Orchestra CBA signed by the touring artist would prevent the predatory “bottom-feeding” practices now used by many concert promoters, who pit local against local and member against member in an effort to lower production costs, increase profits and undermine prevailing area standards at the expense of professional musicians.

For example, R&B legend Aretha Franklin is touring with a rhythm section and conductor, but her contract with each local promoter requires the provision of 15 musicians to perform the show as her backup orchestra. By having a CBA with Aretha Franklin covering the employment of all local backup musicians engaged along her tour, every local promoter, including any casino operator, would be required through Aretha’s engagement contract and its rider to fulfill the terms of her backup orchestra CBA.

Approximately 30 touring headliners, including such stars as Josh Groban and Rod Stewart, presently use local backup orchestras for their performances. Currently, eight AFM locals have casino properties in their jurisdiction with showrooms featuring touring headliners. AFM Local 369 (Las Vegas) President Frank Leone has estimated that local backup orchestras for traveling acts are used in Las Vegas twice each month.

The introduction of an AFM Touring Artist Backup Orchestra CBA would provide a basis for organizing and improving the wages and conditions for professional musicians engaged to perform in casino showrooms.

The IEB Casino Industry Study Committee has recommended another nontraditional approach toward promoting the employment of freelance musicians who perform in casino lounges. The committee proposed that where there are sufficient local or regional resources and demand for services, an agency relationship be established with casino properties to promote members’ employment on an ongoing basis.

Local or regional agency relationships with casinos can be developed and supported through the use of online tools such as those pioneered here at Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth). A casino marketing director in Shreveport, Louisiana, for example, can go to our Web site (, click on the “AFM Entertainment” button and browse more than 100 acts to find one that fits a specific entertainment need.

For years, Local 72-147 has pitched and booked talent — from member Bob Schietroma’s Panhandlers Steel Drum Band to the classic hit party band Crawfish — into the six successful Shreveport casinos.

With the AFM’s move toward online booking and referral through the development of (“GoPro”) and through other local union referral Web sites, local union booking and referral services can solicit the entertainment needs of casino operators through personal visits, laptop presentations, and through email via e-cards.

From 1931 until 1976, U.S. casino entertainment was available exclusively in Nevada. Now most states in the U.S. have legalized some kind of casino gambling, or are considering its legalization in an effort to compete with other states and keep gambling revenue at home.

The AFM understands the need to assist its locals and its members to find ways of capitalizing upon the increased popularity and acceptance of casino entertainment by helping members obtain good paying, covered employment. The AFM Casino Industry Study Committee stands ready to assist the AFM, its locals and its members in transforming its recommendations into reality.