Keep the Back End

Recording at a Crossroads: A Special Report

Volume CVIII, No. 9September, 2008

Scott Healy

When I arrived at the Legacy meeting the room was already filled. I had been looking forward to the meeting, and I had a feeling that lots of cats would show up. In fact, I can’t really think of any comparable event, short of a funeral or a new version of Pro Tools, that would draw such a diverse and comprehensive range of talented folks out on a summer evening.

I’ve worked in New York City studios for years as a keyboard player, a composer and a producer, and, like all my peers at Legacy that night, I’ve lamented the closing of the great New York rooms. The Hit Factory is a condo and Sony is a hole in the ground. It was my understanding that the studios had called the meeting, and I was looking forward to hearing what they had in mind.

There is no doubt that live recording work has declined in New York City. The business morphs daily, rocked by changing technology, new sales modalities, and now world markets. Some say we’re in direct competition with other recording centers like Prague and Bratislava, that we’re a victim of outsourcing. The foreigners are undercutting our wages and stealing our large sessions.

Others see the decline as a natural byproduct of a changing and decentralized business, driven by cheaper technology and an expanding digital marketplace. Restrictive all-in deals are offered to film composers, video game composers, and record producers that either force the jobs overseas, or into the basement, where Joe Musician can do more work with his sample library and high speed Internet connection than we ever did in the 80’s.

Independent and non-signatory production entities make the deals, slashing budgets to the point that even paying scale wages and benefits to live players eats into the production funds and the creative fee. This is the reality of today’s world. The way of doing business has changed and we can’t do anything about that.

I was disappointed when the topic, seemingly by design, turned immediately toward our national recording agreements and the back-end requirements, as if it was the prime cause of our problems. We got lost in a conversation about dumping the back end to try to capture more work. I think it’s foolish to blame the demise of our large studios on the rigors of our film and sound recording agreements. We only have to blame ourselves and our inability to adapt our process to a changing market. I believe we can still work within our established agreements, and in fact these agreements are what sets us apart from the facile comparison of one wage versus another.

It’s fine to lament the passing of an era, but if that’s our only business strategy, we’re fighting the last war, and we will lose. Unfortunately, many in our union have seized upon the decentralization of the music production market and the scaling down of budgets as a call to arms, and turn to fight against the very contracts that protect us.

It’s interesting that recording wages, especially in the lower budget versions of the contracts, are set low to encourage work and to give musicians the ability to get in on the ground floor. It’s a great deal for everyone: subsequent pay and residuals flow if the project progresses, if it seeks a new market, if it makes money at the box office. If not, we move on. The back-end agreements are our protection, our reason to give them such a sweet deal in the first place.

And it is a sweet deal for them. In a recent low-budget session I produced I was able to hire a world class harpist (among many other great players) for about $50 an hour plus a few bucks for cartage. After parking, tolls, gas and tax, I shudder to think what a player’s net of a low-budget three-hour session actually is, given all the related expenses of working in New York City during the day. But we made great music for a great film. That’s why we’re here in the first place. The film went to Sundance, was sold, and will hopefully throw off some more bucks as it runs its course.

I believe strongly that if you give away any of the back-end protection and use only wages as a competitive tool, you will start a financial race to the bottom. Not to mention you’ll never get that hard-fought back-end back in any future negotiated agreements. How can you lower wages any more? What happens when Prague cuts its fees to compete, or the value of the dollar rises?

Consider this now: If you raise wages, get rid of back-end payments, and provide players a buyout, how does this encourage work? My little film date for one would never have happened. The sample-based composer demo sounded really good, but I sold the live session based on my ability to get a top-shelf New York ensemble for less than the cost of hiring a plumber to fix a sink, and now it’s a real ensemble, and of course it’s better. The wage structure of the national agreements work. and they pay pension and health.

To capture more work for New York City we need to be smart. We need to pool our resources. We as a community need to look to the union as a business resource, a center of information, a clearinghouse of resources: contracts, studios, players, contractors, plain-language descriptions of things like articles 15 and 16 of the film agreement which deals with the Secondary Market Fund and the pension plan; simplified, idiot-proof descriptions of the Sound Recording Special Payments fund; shorter, better, clearer versions of signatory and assumption Agreement; clear Web sites at both the national and local levels. We need to keep our recording agreements in place as something to aspire to, consider them something to sell, and I mean sell hard.

I was heartened by Tom Lee’s eloquent editorial in the July issue of International Musician” where he described the “unprecedented AFM lobby event in support of performance rights.” It seems that, finally, players might be receiving payments for radio broadcast of tracks they played on. He described the detailed and persuasive arguments that directly counter the industries’ accusation that we professionals hanging onto the “failed business model” of the record companies: seeking payment for music we helped create, which broadcasters feel they should get to use for free, which they exploit to generate billions in ad revenue.

As union musicians, we need to approach our national agreements the same way, with reverence and resolve, with strength and smarts. Unlike the bloated record companies of yore, we are not a failed business model. Tom Lee and the AFM should reaffirm this. Before we modify the back end provisions, we need to reshape our current business tools and sharpen our marketing skills. New York City musicians are not selling low wages. We’re selling the best musicians and engineers in the world on a small island in the middle of a vast cultural center. The endurance of our community spirit should match the endurance of the musical contribution we are collectively making.

I’m still curious as to what the few remaining New York City studios have in mind. In my experience they’ve always been accommodating in cutting deals in the interest of making great music. I look forward to hearing more about how we as a community can come together and get some more sessions happening.

Scott Healy is a long-time 802 member. He serves on the board of directors of the New York RMA and is a member of Local 802’s Recording Committee. He plays keyboards nightly on NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”