Readers Speak Out!

The Musicians' Voice: Recording at a Crossroads

Volume CVIII, No. 10October, 2008

The Musicians’ Voice is an open forum for discussion about the state of union affairs. The letters published here do not necessarily express the views of Local 802. Letters must be 300 words or less. Send them to Allegro, c/o Local 802, 322 West 48th Street, New York, NY 10036, or e-mail Mikael Elsila, the editor, at Mikael Elsila.


The meeting at Legacy Recording Studios and the features in the September issue of Allegro have generated a great deal of comment and debate about the direction the union should take in negotiations. See some of these comments below. One general note: although an informal survey was attempted at the July meeting, it was discarded because it was not sufficiently objective nor was the balloting properly monitored. Local 802 will be surveying those members eligible to vote on the new film contract in advance of negotiations, so that their views are accurately represented.

To the Editor:

I’d like to ask my fellow musicians a few questions. How many union film sessions have you done in the last year? Of those sessions, how many do you realistically think will pay any back end? One more question: Who is recording all the low-budget, indie, made-for-cable and foreign film sessions? The bulk of that work, when it actually uses live musicians, is recorded nonunion. 

We need to stop living in the good old days when every film was made in Hollywood and every session was with a major studio. Today’s films are made all over the world and even in home studios. Many production companies are put-together operations that don’t have full-time accountants to track secondary markets year after year.

There is a lot of work out there that we don’t have, and we will not get it unless we change the way we do business. I enjoy getting my special payments checks and I would push to strengthen those markets that are still healthy enough to support them. But we have our heads in the sand if we think that all of today’s markets are the same and that one contract fits all.

I am totally pro union. But we must be realistic and not repeat mistakes made by other unions in the past.

Globalization is a reality. Do you have any idea how little European orchestras charge for recording? These are orchestras with world-class musicians.

I strongly disagree with those who think that digging in our heels is the answer. The strength of our union will be in its ability to adapt with changing technology and its many markets, not with stubbornly holding on to old practices that don’t work anymore.

Tom “Bones” Malone

To the Editor: 

On July 21, I was invited to a “roundtable discussion” at Legacy Studios. The meeting was nothing of the sort. The Allegro reports were interesting, but, in actuality, the meeting was a pitiful attempt by the administration of Local 802 to convince the attendees that lowering musician’s wages and eliminating back end payments would remedy the “crisis” of decreasing recording work (specifically film) in New York.

We heard no offers of concession from any studio owners or recording engineers who were also invited. Yet it was suggested that if something doesn’t change on the part of the musicians, studios like Legacy will have to close. 

Extremely offensive was the distribution of an AFM Musician’s Survey, for which, at this time, no one at 802 or the AFM has claimed authorship. Nor has anyone claimed responsibility for its intended use. Every question on the survey addressed a willingness to lower our wages. (We have already done that: low budget, limited, etc.)

Worst of all, we were gathered in a room with several producers, contractors and film composers, who of course would love us to lower our fees. Very few players were willing to speak up with prominent employers present. Intimidating at the least. Why would our administration allow this? 

Dennis Dreith, administrator for the Film Musicians Secondary Market Fund, told us that there are many films shot in Europe but scored in L.A. Spike Lee, a prominent New York filmmaker, chose to score his last project in L.A. The rates in L.A. are the same as in New York — and, according to the charts and graphs displayed at the meeting, higher than Europe…and with back end. 

Why is the AFM asking us to consider lowering our scales and why are they promoting buyouts? What is this administration up to?

David Finck

To the Editor:

I read with great interest your group of articles, “Recording at the Crossroads.” Unfortunately, I found two of the articles were written from some sort of alternate universe where it is still 25 years ago. I was not surprised to find that both articles were written by board members of the RMA-NY. Their talking points are identical to those we’ve been dealing with in Los Angeles for years.

Particularly jaw dropping was Roger Blanc’s assertion that recording is stable in Los Angeles. The question flooded into my mind, “Compared to what?”

It’s time for a reality check:

  • Four years ago, wages from film recording were down approximately 22 percent, according to the Local 47 audit report.
  • Three years ago, wages from film recording were down approximately 14 percent, according to the Local 47 audit report.
  • Last year the RMA says they had more sessions than ever, but they’re not your parents’ sessions. While sessions were up, wages were still down a further 4 percent. The sessions were smaller projects, with a great deal of the large films going elsewhere.

Dozens of colleagues who’ve been recording for years have told me their recording work is virtually gone. Even the RMA “A-listers” have had to sideline, take live orchestral work, and teach to make ends meet. If Mr. Blanc had written “heading toward the bottom” he would have been more accurate.

The advent of technology and the RMA’s business model have done more than anything to dry up the recording work in Los Angeles and other union venues for the vast majority of professional musicians. The world has changed, and will only change more.

The RMA-NY board members do no one a service, including themselves, by re-inventing reality for their own purpose.

Charles Fernandez
The writer is a member of Local 47 and an
Emmy-nominated composer.

To the Editor:

The contemporary business reality for all recording work is very different than what existed in the recent past. Now there is global competition. And New York has failed to compete in this new paradigm. No wonder all our larger rooms are either closing or threatening to do so. This is not acceptable! Where will we do our Broadway cast albums and other media projects?

In actuality, New York has re-emerged as a media heavyweight, with an explosion in all sorts of production. The major studios Steiner and Silvercup have announced expansions. Indie media production firms of all sizes abound here. Many projects receive city and state assistance. But when it’s time to do the music, it’s largely not done here.

Why? I don’t accept one argument I hear: the high price of New York real estate is the cause. London is quite busy, and its real estate prices are just as infamously high as ours. And they are not cheap, either.

My opinion now is that we don’t have to offer an “el cheapo” contract to make us competitive.

Many pros in the business have noted that the “back end” system has chased the work away. Yet it seems to me premature to scuttle that system.

But it’s clearly not the job of musicians to “sell” that complicated system. Those producers/distributors who are making the decision to outsource our work have to be persuaded by our leadership that our way of doing business is competitive, as some claim.

But if that doesn’t work, we have to consider a new business model. Nobody belongs to a union to be unemployed. That’s the real “bid to the bottom.”

Other problems and solutions are being noted and discussed. Space limitations keep me from listing them here. I hope to write about those soon.

David G. Weiss

To the Editor:

In referring to musicians working under national recording agreements, Local 802 writes, “They are the experts and their voices must be heard at the upcoming negotiations.”

As an expert violist who has played on over 60 film scores, I know who the real experts in the film business are and where they live. It is not in New York. It is in Los Angeles and they take that business very seriously. They have the Recording Musicians Association representing them at negotiations alongside representatives from the other major cities including New York. They also know how to sell their product.

Regarding indies: The low budget and festival scales are used for them. Major motion picture companies go to festivals, and as distributors, pick them up. Let the production company handle the sessions, and the distributor, the back end.

We don’t need a union to negotiate buyouts: we can do that ourselves. Residuals, new use and secondary markets are reasons to join one. SAG and other unions are negotiating for more, not less.

New York has always been a live town. The recording business can be revitalized, but not by eliminating back end, overtime or doubles. We should be promoting our talent, not our desperation to work at any cost. It is unfair for composers to hold musicians responsible for how much work they get. Maybe they need better agents.

Our union would like us to believe that we are the cause of our own demise because we make too much money. We are worth it. These are minimum scales. As musicians, we are not in a position to negotiate for ourselves. If the present AFM leadership can’t or won’t continue to promote and enforce its own contracts, and instead advocates for their dissolution, maybe they shouldn’t be representing us.

Juliet Haffner

To the Editor:

Allegro’s cover story highlighted a trend in areas of the music business where union participation is either declining or is already negligible: the inflexibility of standard union contracts such that only a small percentage of employers and producers have the resources or willingness to sign them.

The general perception among my colleagues — in the jazz field, the “non-classical” concert-music field, the independent recording field, etc. — is that 802 and the AFM. are great advocates for commercially-sustained music (e.g. Broadway, major label and major film studio recordings, network T.V., big-time advertising agency jingles), and for establishment-sustained concert music (e.g. symphonic music at major cultural institutions like Lincoln Center).

However, there is little or no perceived advocacy for areas of work which — as technology has permitted and as the music industry has continued to fragment — have progressively become greater and greater pieces of the music business pie.

Current union contracts are set up such that they only work for the entrenched major players in the industry, and, as these major players continue to lose market share and their fortunes continue to decline, suitable contracts are not available to cover the work as it spreads to independent and “small-time” producers and employers.

In their Allegro essay, Bubacz and Manchester cite the perfect example: “Non-signatory companies, which produce … indie films, foreign films, documentaries and even student shorts … must… either accept the… [AFM’s] 127-page basic agreement or forego signing a union agreement altogether.”

Flexible contracts are needed to accommodate different situations, whether it be independent films, jingle dates recorded at various musicians’ home studios, concerts played in jazz clubs, etc., and to accommodate the greater and greater diversity of employers and producers. Without these, our union’s presence in the music business will continue to decline.

Arun Luthra

To the Editor,

I attended the Legacy Studios discussion in July and one thing that came out from musicians who are currently writing, arranging and producing film scores is that the AFM film contract is too bulky and cumbersome for many lower budget films. Producers don’t want to use it, so they hire nonunion. It was presented that we may be able to capture more work if there were a simpler contract available for these productions. IATSE came to this realization and as a result they have a low budget film agreement. They still thrive in the major motion picture arena and they now have much more work that used to be nonunion.

We should not be afraid to adjust to what is a changed work scene. In the past when most films were made and edited only by the major studios, the AFM contract served us well, as it still does. However we must acknowledge that technology has evolved to the point where, just as in music recording, a film can be shot, edited, scored and produced in any number of smaller studios around the globe, not just in Los Angeles.

This is not a race to the bottom. This is sensible business. Nothing in life is guaranteed, and that includes union wages. One of our sister entertainment unions lowered scale rates at a major New York City venue a few years back. Though there was much grumbling then (it was the first time in anyone’s memory that rates had been lowered), the result was surprising. The lowered rates made it more attractive to producers and there are now substantially more acts booked there.

I’m not suggesting that we lower rates per se, only that in today’s world we must change our thinking in order to capture certain types of work. 

Walter Usiatynski

RE: RECORDING listserv

To the Editor:

It seems that censorship is alive and well at the Local 802 Recording Committee. The original invitation to join its Yahoo group (dated Dec. 2, 2005) stated in part: “This forum is unmoderated — you can post whatever you wish without the approval of the group’s manager.” 

After member David Weiss and I got into some personal back and forth during 2007 and early 2008 concerning the ill-advised video games proposal threatening to tear the AFM apart that came out of this committee, Recording Supervisor Jay Schaffner complained to the Executive Board on May 20, 2008. Here are the Executive Board minutes from that date, as printed in Allegro: “Landolfi reported that because of problems with personal references in some recent postings on the Local 802 Recording Musicians’ listserve, the listserve would be moderated in the future to insure compliance with Local 802 bylaws. Discussion held.”

Since then, I have forwarded several articles to the list from Variety and the RMA-LA Web site — all without comment other than “FYI.” The recent Variety article was written by well-known West Coast media author Jon Burlingame, a writer that Schaffner himself has quoted in the past.

Schaffner has chosen not to publish these articles on the list apparently because they contradict his views and agenda. Since these articles contained absolutely no personal references by me, I have to ask what 802 bylaw am I now not in compliance with?

Michael Comins
The writer is the founding international secretary of theRMA
and a founding member of the RMA-NY and
Local 802’s Coordinating Advisory Committee.


To the Editor:

After reading Eve Zanni’s letter to Obama on this page in the last issue, I feel the need to write in and say that although the content is good, she does not speak for all musicians in stating that “we are hopeful and excited about [his] upcoming presidency.”

Obama is pro-gun, pro-death penalty, pro faith-based initiative, pro-NAFTA, pro wire-tapping. He is flip-flopping on Iraq and wants to send more troops to Afghanistan. The first thing he did after clinching the nomination was to make a fawning speech at AIPAC promising Israel an undivided Jerusalem.

Some months ago he sent a letter to our ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, demanding that unreasonable conditions be placed on any U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s siege of Gaza.

I believe that it is only because the American public is so racist that people see black skin and assume the man is progressive, when there is very little actual evidence of this. “Change” is just a word.

Obama’s choice of running mate, Biden, suits him well. There is an amusing video of him on YouTube, sounding like a used-car salesman in an interview on Shalom TV, “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist.” It’s easy to find.

While McCain and Palin are pretty scary, Obama and Biden have absolutely not earned my vote either. I will be voting third party in this election.

Rich Siegel