Keeping the Big Picture in Mind

Recording at a Crossroads: A Special Report

Volume CVIII, No. 9September, 2008

Roger Blanc

On a Monday afternoon in late July at Legacy Studios, a healthy number of music recording professionals and union-affiliated personnel gathered by invitation to voice their views on the subject of the current state of New York City’s recording industry. Pink AFM surveys were distributed to and collected from those in attendance that contained questions regarding future wage compensation for work done under the film agreement.

To the extent that topics discussed at that meeting and reprinted here might indicate to management possible areas of weakness in the union’s bargaining position and thereby adversely affect future contract negotiations, due caution needs to be brought to bear. There is a significant danger of acting against our membership’s interest by discussing sensitive matters in a public forum such as this one.

There are two extremes of thought when it comes to union film recording work: one view sees it as outmoded; the other as untouchable.

Both of these views oversimplify the reality: like anything else in life our profession is subject to change and adaptation, to growth and shrinkage.

Our Federation is an international one, and our national recording agreements offer blanket protections to the many different locals they cover.

It should not come as a surprise that in a time of unprecedented technological development and economic upheaval, there will be irregularities within our national landscape.

The question is what the appropriate response of our Federation should be to these irregularities, if any.

The history of media production in New York City was initially determined by two significant factors: the cost of real estate and the weather.

While weather has clearly diminished in importance as a factor, real estate prices loom larger than ever in their effect on the local market.

A succession of high-profile recording studios and live music venues have closed their doors here in recent years, with no guarantee that the trend will not continue in future.

The July meeting seemed largely focused on viewing these issues through the lens of film agreement wage scales. It is important in this context not to lose sight of certain historical realities.

Film soundtrack work has never been the sole or even the primary form of New York recording activity. We were dominant in the area of jingles for many years and did a significant share of work for the record industry as well. As these areas of activity have diminished in recent years, film work has taken on a greater significance for our surviving large recording studios.

In Los Angeles it has been a somewhat different story. Film work has always been their bread and butter and they have traditionally had a significant voice in helping shape the agreement they worked under.

Our competitors in Los Angeles continue to do well under the existing film agreement. They describe their gross revenues as being relatively stable even as their total number of projects increases. Film special payments collected reached an unprecedented $83 million during the last fiscal year.

L.A. attributes much of its own success to an organized strategy of marketing its musical community to film projects in earlier phases of production. This is an approach that has not yet been successfully adopted by New York musicians.

We have also not made full use of a refundable New York state and city tax credit for follow-up film post-production work done here, which can total up to 35 percent of every dollar spent. This is a benefit without equal in any other recording venue.

The effort to secure work by lowering wages is not a new concept. A similar theory as applied to the experimental promulgated national video game agreement has not yet produced the results locally that had been hoped for. Work volume has initially increased in L.A. but not in New York.

The problems of New York’s recording community are serious and immediate. They reflect a variety of present-day musical realities but are further exacerbated by the heterogeneous nature of the city’s industrial makeup and musical landscape. It is not easy for musicians to band together and form strategic groups when they are not unified by a single industry to the extent that Los Angeles or Nashville musicians are.

The question is, do our local problems justify the risk of tinkering with in-place national agreements — and by doing so potentially affecting the livelihoods of others working successfully under those agreements?

If Broadway were a national agreement, would we accept wage and benefit cuts whose sole purpose was to keep theatres in a competing city from closing, even if there was no guarantee that the practice would be effective in the first place?

There is an argument made that standing by the existing film agreement is old-fashioned or reactionary. The unfortunate thing is that those claiming to be progressive thinkers are failing to make fundamental changes that would bring a younger generation growing up musically on laptop computers into the world of union employment.

There has been no effort made to craft an agreement — for example — that would allow sound designers to practice their trade under a union contract.

Those of us who were privileged to participate in an era where major motion pictures were scored with some frequency in New York City using large orchestras in large studios know best how great a loss we are experiencing with the closing of some of our bigger rooms.

We also know that the work we loved doing was in part made valuable by the existence of a strong film agreement that rewarded us for our participation.

It may be that those who believe the existing film agreement to be outmoded could be proved right over the longer haul. Others might even speculate in a similar fashion about the fate of unions as a whole.

The question is: should we as a present-day union be assisting in the process of hastening our own demise by unilaterally diluting one of our most effective agreements, or should we be preserving it intact for as long as humanly possible?

Roger Blanc has been an 802 member since the 1980’s. He is president of the New York RMA, second vice president of the RMA International and is a Local 802 Trial Board member. He has worked in various musical capacities on over 70 feature films in New York City.