New Visions

Volume 111, No. 11November, 2011

Shane Gasteyer

For the first time, Winter Jazzfest musicians will enjoy a union contract with minimum wage standards and other protections. From left, Adam Schatz, Brice Rosenbloom, John O’Connor, Andy Schwartz, Marc Ribot and Butch Morris.
Photo: Walter Karling

Winter Jazzfest musicians come together with Local 802 to win a new contract

When musicians work together, they can achieve something great. Local 802 is proud to announce a new collective bargaining agreement that covers performers at the NYC Winter Jazzfest.

This contract is the culmination of a months-long, musician-led campaign to bring minimum pay and workplace standards to the festival, which next takes place Jan. 6 and Jan. 7 in multiple venues in the West Village.

The contract is noteworthy for being the first union agreement for a jazz festival in many years. It expands Local 802’s organizing efforts into an area where musicians historically have had few protections.

Though the road to this agreement was not always an easy one, both the musicians and the employers are touting the good-faith bargaining that led to the contract.

“This agreement is significant because it reiterates the power of collective bargaining, and the strength of the jazz community,” pianist Jason Moran, a member of the steering committee that led the campaign, told Allegro.

Moran added, “I think we all learned a great deal about how to move this wonderful form of music forward, and it takes the entire village. It takes the union, it takes the musicians, and it takes the promoters.”

The Winter Jazzfest is going into its eighth year as a festival, and is co-presented by BOOM Collective and Search & Restore. Last year’s festival garnered a significant amount of press, with multiple nights of critically acclaimed shows and overflow crowds.

Beginning last April, a group of musicians who had played either Winter Jazzfest or its sister festival, the Undead Jazzfest, came together to discuss how to improve working conditions at these and other venues, noting the difficulties that face jazz and experimental musicians in the city.

“There are a lot of talented musicians in our city who simply cannot afford to pursue their passion for little or no pay, and these musicians need to be compensated to sustain a more viable music scene,” said guitarist and Local 802 member Marc Ribot, who was a key member of the committee and who played an important role in the negotiations.

As a way to build the campaign and assess support among musicians, an online petition was circulated calling for the festival promoters to come to the negotiating table to work out an agreement and for Local 802 to be recognized as the musicians’ bargaining agent.

Over a short period of time, the petition drew support from a significant percentage of those who had played the festivals.

In mid-June, news of the petition drive was leaked to the press, resulting in coverage on both New York Times and NPR music blogs and bringing some unexpected attention to the campaign. In light of the public scrutiny, both the employers and the musicians were eager to start talks.

Negotiations with the employers, BOOM Collective’s Brice Rosenbloom and Search & Restore’s Adam Schatz, began in late June and lasted until mid-October.

In the end, the two sides came to an agreement that, for the first time, establishes minimum scale wages for all musicians playing the festival, while also ensuring AFM recording protections for any commercial use of recorded material and codifying several other standards for working conditions at the festival.

Committee member Jen Shyu said the negotiation process made important gains for musicians while “still respecting and maintaining our appreciation for Adam and Brice’s production of the festival itself and their investment in the scene.”

In a joint press release on the deal, festival organizer Adam Schatz was similarly positive: “I believe this is an exciting demonstration of the benefits that can come from open dialogue between organizers and performers.”

The contract has gained widespread support, having been unanimously approved by Local 802’s Executive Board, and with musicians in the bargaining unit voting overwhelmingly in favor of ratification. A press conference was held to announce the accord on Oct. 24 at Le Poisson Rouge, one of the venues in the Winter Jazzfest.

Looking forward, Local 802 aims to continue finding ways to empower and address the needs of jazz musicians.

“Musicians who play in jazz festivals and clubs deserve the same protections as those who play in the classical and theatrical fields,” said Recording Vice President John O’Connor. “It is our goal to expand the union to be more active and useful to those who haven’t found a reason to get involved before.”

Indeed, one of the most noteworthy aspects of this campaign has been that the majority of musicians involved had had little to no previous interaction with the union.

“I had zero experience with the union before being a part of this campaign,” said committee member and guitarist Mary Halvorson.

Halvorson added, “I am very impressed with the union’s tireless efforts to reach out to our community and find thoughtful ways to remain relevant and to adapt to the ever-changing needs of musicians today.”

After the success of reaching this agreement, both the musicians and the festival organizers look forward to continued good faith in the future, with talks on this summer’s Undead festival resuming after the current festival is done.

The union has established an organizing model with the Winter Jazzfest agreement, which we hope will win major gains for musicians in other areas as well.

We wish the Winter Jazzfest great success this year. For more info, visit