Live Music in Hotels Makes a Comeback

Recording Vice President's Report

Volume 115, No. 6June, 2015

John O'Connor

Just one challenge: the musicians aren’t members of Local 802, and the scene isn’t covered by the union…yet!

John O'Connor

John O’Connor

When I worked as the jazz rep for Local 802 in the late 90s, I also helped with club date and hotel rounds. Two decades ago, even though musicians complained about the diminishing live music in New York City, there was still enough live music in Midtown Manhattan to warrant extra reps in the field to check up on whether musicians were being treated fairly and according to our club date and hotel contracts. There were easily 20 hotels that regularly employed musicians. The corporate world was hiring bands during the holiday seasons and for special events. Wedding couples and their parents more often opted for musicians rather than DJs and the ballrooms and banquet rooms were often busy with weddings and bar mitzvahs where a lively band of Local 802 members entertained the guests, creating an atmosphere that no mechanical music could possibly replace.

But replace it did. Over the next two decades, through 9/11 and the economic slump that followed – including the market crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession – live music became less present in the places where it had previously been taken for granted. Digital technology added to the problem. The culture of live music became less important in people’s lives as they listened unceasingly to their iPods and iPhones, paying less attention to the musicians who create the music, demanding live music less and less. We saw this take its toll in the Midtown hotels. Month after month, news came to the union that this or that hotel was giving up its live pianists, harpists or string trios. Nowadays we have four or five hotels with steady engagements playing under Local 802’s hotel contract. It’s a dismal scene for those who remember the ubiquity of live music in a city that was once known for it.

But if you leave Midtown and head south into Chelsea, Soho, the meatpacking district and across the East River into Williamsburg, you might notice something quite remarkable in some of the hotels and bars that have followed the economic expansion of the tourist industry in New York City. Hundreds of young musicians are being booked into hotels outside of Midtown, many playing old-time jazz and dance music from the first half of the 20th century. Are they members of Local 802? For the most part, as far as we can tell, the answer is: not yet. But they are the kind of musicians who have historically belonged to the union: brass and reed players, and rhythm sections playing in jazz and dance bands. They are freelancers, sometimes playing with one band and other times with another. They are musicians for hire, playing wherever they can get a gig to put together some semblance of a living.

Old-time jazz and dance music has made a comeback, mostly in hotels (and bars) in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. Local 802 organizers are learning more about this scene to see how we can help musicians with the pay and benefits they deserve. Photo: Furtseff via

Old-time jazz and dance music has made a comeback, mostly in hotels (and bars) in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. Local 802 organizers are learning more about this scene to see how we can help musicians with the pay and benefits they deserve. Photo: Furtseff via

The thing is, they’re playing in a world that Local 802 has not been a part of. We’ve got our finger on the pulse of everything between Broadway and Lincoln Center, but the opportunity of organizing has shifted. It is now downtown and in the burgeoning scene of young talented musicians in Brooklyn and Queens.

Local 802’s new approach to organizing is the classic way. Why? It works. Our business reps and organizers are talking to scores of musicians to find out what are the issues that are important to them, to draw them closer to the idea of solutions through collective action and collective bargaining, leading them along a path that will create union agreements in places the union has not previously held sway. It’s an exciting time. Live music, to some degree, has made a comeback, spurred by a thriving tourist economy, immigration of young people into the city to work, cultural trends that demand nostalgia for old bigger band sounds and the glut of extremely talented musicians coming out of the city’s numerous music schools.

In some sense and on a smaller level, Local 802 has come full circle. During the dance band and early jazz era previous to World War II, musicians essentially used Local 802 as a guild and demanded of its members adherence to work rules and minimum scales. (Many of these rules are still codified in our bylaws.) By the 40s and 50s, the guild had become strong enough to create an expectation in the nightclubs and hotels of New York City that musicians would be paid by standards set by the union. (This also happened with musician union locals in other towns and cities.)

This guild system began to break down when rock and R&B (and later disco and DJs) began to chip away at the popularity of the jazz and dance band scene. In the following decades, the strength and the density of the union shrank to not much more than a square mile of Manhattan. And even so, clubs today in Midtown do not adhere to union standards.

Local 802’s organizing mission is to protect the standards that still remain and to expand its tent to where the music has migrated. With the public’s new demand for dance and jazz orchestras, our ability to organize musicians has been given a tremendous boost. Music from the past is popular again.

Our organizing team is working on finding the connections in the music community in New York to rebuild a sort of guild system – call it union discipline if you like – that will combine with the strength of collective bargaining to make sure that musicians are being paid the wages and benefits they deserve. As has been demonstrated over and over, Local 802’s guild system has the power through its internal rules to withhold the labor on engagements where the union has density. As we move forward to bring musicians together and bring them into the union, we can use that strength in places we have not previously had the power. This requires the wide circulation and hard work of Local 802’s staff organizers, but also requires the dedication, involvement and enthusiasm of our musicians. We are reaching out to our members who have connections with nonunion members in nonunion venues. We are finding connections everywhere. That is the beauty of working with musicians who work for many different employers. Organizing opportunities show up in the most unexpected places. With the resurgence of the popularity of early jazz and dance music, a huge door has opened to us and we plan to walk through it.

To get involved in our hotel music campaign, contact Maggie Russell-Brown, Local 802’s organizing director, at (212) 245-4802, ext. 157 or

John O’Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union’s organizing, jazz and single engagement departments.