Is it Time for a New Paradigm?
Volume CVII, No. 11November, 2007
There’s an old picture of my grandfather hanging on the wall of my office.
He is holding his clarinet, a member of the house band in the Circle Theatre, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1920 — 26 pieces plus conductor.
Those were the days for musicians, he used to tell me: if anyone looked at you wrong, you packed your instrument and took another job.
Work was so plentiful that he had picked up the clarinet as a lark while serving in the Mexican Expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916 and gained enough proficiency to become a professional musician when he was discharged.
The good times ended soon enough with the arrival of talkies.
My grandfather’s best friend, who had taught him the clarinet in Mexico and was his section leader at the Circle Theatre, took off for California to get in on the ground floor of the recording business.
My grandfather, captive to his family, stayed in Indiana and experienced the slow decline that was the fate of many musicians, moving from town to smaller town being chased by technology.
He concluded his career teaching clarinet and repairing instruments in his basement, an ignominious end for someone who had once been offered a job with Paul Whiteman.
In the early years of the 20th century, the AFM tried mightily but ultimately failed in holding back new technology.
It did, however, create a fairly successful paradigm for addressing recording.
The recording of music was to be expensive; reuse of product was controlled and required additional payments; some moneys derived from recording were diverted to support live performance.
For many years, this structure supported both a group of highly-paid and successful musicians in the recording field and the interests of the AFM in the continued survival of smaller locals.
Of course, over time this approach met with less success.
Changes in musical taste and the failure of the AFM to organize in fields beyond those that dominated in the 1940’s and 50’s eroded our power at the bargaining table.
Advances in technology and the globalization of the music business have only accelerated that trend.
Competition from abroad has created more and more downward pressure on wages as technology has made it ever easier for corporations to move production from one place to another and avoid centers where high costs exist.
The old model supports fewer and fewer people at the level it did in the past.
Now, however, a different kind of change is on the horizon and the recording industry is no longer dictating its direction.
Whereas the AFM was powerless as corporate entities changed their business model from production to distribution, the rise of the Internet has eroded the ability of corporations to control distribution.
File sharing has increased the demand for music, but the commercial value of CD’s and DVD’s has also been reduced.
While the recording industry scrambles to find a business model that will maintain its control of the marketplace, we are still locked in a bargaining pattern that has diminished in its effectiveness for the last decade or more.
Another kind of change is attacking the live performance industry at the same time.
Audiences are graying, competition for the entertainment dollar is increasing and the pervasive influence of television, the Internet and other forms of digital delivery, is undermining and changing the demand for live entertainment.
It is increasingly obvious that anything that appears on television can be promoted to live audiences, but anything that does not almost ceases to exist in the public consciousness.
The result has been the marginalization of our cultural assets in favor of the cheap and sensational.
Against this backdrop comes one significant positive development: the success of several new media agreements, including that between Local 802 and the Metropolitan Opera.
The initial effect of that agreement on demand for tickets is, I believe, the most dramatic development in the field of live performance in a decade.
A NEW MODEL
I think we must ask ourselves if it is time for us to look at broadcast and recording in a new context — as an adjunct that promotes live performance to the public and puts people in the seats rather than an end product itself.
If this can be a new and successful business model, we will have to be willing to challenge old assumptions and answer a number of questions.
Can we protect what remains of the traditional recording industry while allowing new forms of promotion to be done?
How could that be accomplished?
Are there some aspects of employment in which it is more effective to partner with employers than work in opposition?
Do macro-economic trends and currency fluctuations make it possible for us to bring some work home without eroding standards?
And what are “standards” if no work is being done under those “standards”?
Those are only a few of the questions which we, along with the AFM, must answer in order for the union to remain relevant in the future.
Change is inevitable and we must be prepared to respond to it.
If the effect of the Internet and new promotional initiatives like the Met media agreement represent the beginning of a new era for the entertainment industry, we owe it to ourselves and our successors to participate in shaping that change.
The alternative is to once again be behind the curve and irrelevant.