Meeting of the Minds

Recording at a Crossroads: A Special Report

Volume CVIII, No. 9September, 2008

Nearly 200 recording musicians, composers, recording studio representatives and union officers gathered in July at Legacy Studios in midtown Manhattan to discuss the current state of New York City’s recording industry. The meeting was a response to the sharp downturn in recording projects taking place in New York — especially in film scoring — and the threat posed to the survival of the city’s recording industry infrastructure.

Lawrence Manchester, chief engineer at Legacy Studios, opened the meeting with prepared remarks that focused on the decline in work, the loss of projects to cheaper venues in Eastern Europe and nonunion venues like Seattle, and the need to make producers, film companies, artists and composers aware of the options available for keeping their recording projects here in New York City. He urged recording musicians, Local 802 and the AFM to work with the studios on this effort. He asked for a review of union contracts to make them more user-friendly and to broaden the search for incentives to keep scoring work from being taken overseas.

Local 802 Recording Department Supervisor Jay Schaffner shared with the meeting the actual statistics on union-covered recording work in the City over the last six years. The numbers showed a sharp drop during the last 18 months from prior periods. “After reaching a high point in 2006, with total theatrical film union wages of nearly $2.7 million, the totals for 2007 and 2008 are down by 72 percent,” Schaffner explained, as he presented a PowerPoint display of union scale earnings in New York for the past six years.

Joel Lefevre, assistant to Local 802 President Mary Landolfi, described legislative efforts in Albany and in the New York City Council aimed at expanding the New York state and city tax incentives to postproduction work. (Currently postproduction expenses alone cannot be used to qualify for state and city film tax credits.)

At issue for many speakers were the “back end” or secondary markets payments required under the terms of the AFM’s media agreements.

Nearly everyone who spoke stressed the importance of these payments in the film industry and the need to protect this important source of income for those who do major motion picture scoring dates.

In attendance at the meeting was Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund Administrator Dennis Dreith, who described the health of that fund and the L.A.-centered film industry that supports it.

Not so clear was the value of the back end to made-for-television films, foreign-only films, small documentary films, video games and other recording projects that have generated little or no after-market.

Several speakers who have or are currently working on small, low budget recording projects spoke of the difficulty they face with self-financed projects and indie producers who expect a score to be delivered for a fixed fee paid to the composer.

One of those composers, Chris Hajian, said, “A real indie project may have a $15 to $30,000 total budget. They’re in a totally different world from the typical studio films and they’re scared of almost any contract they’re asked to sign.”

Composer Michael Whalen said, “Part of the problem we’re dealing with today is that there are infinite choices available to those who wish to record. To me value is key. I don’t want to go abroad to record. We need a national conversation that emphasizes the value you get when you record here.”

Video game composer Tom Salta, who has recorded game music in Eastern Europe, recently recorded a major game project in New York. (Allegro covered this story in the June issue.) Salta called his New York recording experience a “huge success” and credited the AFM’s new videogame agreements with making that work possible in New York. He also said he hosted a discussion on game music at a recent game music industry conference at which he stressed the new possibilities open to doing recordings here in the U.S.

In attendance at the meeting from the AFM were President Tom Lee, AFM Secretary-Treasurer Sam Folio, AFM Canadian Vice President Bill Skolnik and IEB Member Erwin Price. From Local 802 were President Mary Landolfi and Vice Presidents Bill Dennison and Jay Blumenthal.

AFM President Lee said the closing of recording studios anywhere in the country was of great concern, “and especially so here in a New York, a center of the music industry.”

President Landolfi read a message from orchestrator Michael Starobin, who stressed the importance of finding ways to keep more recording projects in New York and who posed the question, “In what has become a global marketplace, are we out-pricing ourselves?”

Vice President Dennison said that Local 802 was committed to preserving New York’s recording industry and “key to that was the continued input and involvement of everyone here at this meeting.”