If you’re a young musician, just arrived in New York City, you may wonder why you need the musicians’ union at all. You may believe that membership in Local 802 is for those lucky musicians who win seats on Broadway or in the various top orchestras in town. But I’d like to make the case that the union can help you right now establish a path toward prosperity.
It’s true that our “mature” contracts – like the ones with Broadway, the New York Philharmonic, the Met Opera, the NYC Ballet, and the major freelance orchestras – pay the most and offer the most benefits. These traditional agreements have enhanced musicians’ careers for decades, and have provided living wages, health insurance, and reliable pensions to a generation of skilled artists. All of those employers still strive to maintain their commitment to Local 802 musicians.
It may well be that young and aspiring musicians have been seduced by and believe in the Internet-driven meme that says: “You are the CEO of your own life – your product will rise and fall in the market-place of ideas – ultimately your product will bring you wealth.”
Not only does that notion sound pretty great for creative people, but it surely also speaks to most mature adults. “Be responsible. Take charge. Do the best you can and be your own best advocate.” Good advice to all, to be sure.
But it also might be that younger musicians are unaware of the power of united action and the long history that underlies all of our established contracts. Those contracts are all the result of decades of united action by musicians, to their mutual benefit, in spite of reprisal, real or threatened, by employers. Do you have a Broadway show? Those conditions are the result of years of concerted and fearless advocacy by dedicated musicians. Are you a Lincoln Center musician? The great job that you have is the result of decades of hard work by your predecessors, both artists and advocates.
Let’s return to the present. Individuality has become prized above all. Collective action might seem to be a life and attitude that faces backward to the past, rather than prospectively and actively to the future. Please consider the following contemporary issues, and how unified group action might have benefited all similarly situated artists.
A recent New York Times article described the plight of an innovative musician, self-described as an “avant cellist.” She has a definitive product, made available for streaming or download, and had 1.5 million hits in a three-month period. Despite that, her total return was $1,600, or one-tenth of a penny per hit. This artist has been grossly underpaid, if not impoverished, by the residual payment structure of Spotify, Pandora and other streaming services. Consumers surely win here. But artists – potential union members – surely lose.
But there might be an alternative story. Creative artists could unite through union representation and demand a seat at the table. Artists could insist that Spotify and the other services participate in a stronger form of distribution based on actual playtime or some other user-based compensation.
Similarly, are you a live performer? Do you perform regularly in New York? Why on earth would you not want your compensation to include retirement and health insurance contributions? You or your group could make this happen. Your artistic creativity is not adversely affected by an attempt to make your compensation sensible for your future. You can act, through the power of the union. We have an excellent track record in raising wages and benefits while protecting your identity and your job.
Please consider the wages and benefits that are important parts of the established union contracts. Those agreements are the result of very hard work and sacrifice, over many decades, by your predecessors. Those hard-working and enormously talented musicians stood up for fair pay, fair treatment as professionals, reasonable health and retirement compensation, the elimination of arbitrary dismissal, and a host of other issues that benefit every musician today. You can extend that tradition by engaging in any form of professional advocacy you can think of.
Anyone working under a union contract needs to recognize the history that has supported your current compensation and benefits, and, I believe, is obligated to convey that history and progress to any prospective new member. Our younger colleagues need to know that Local 802 always has their back. And those members must know also that Local 802 seeks an environment where artists and members can assert their artistic and real-life needs without fear of exclusion, reprisal or unjust dismissal. Just like Local 802 has always done.
So what would we like you to do? Let’s say you’re called to play a job where the pay is terrible and there are no benefits or guarantees. Let’s say that the conductor or leader of the group tells you that “we’re all in it together” and that this is a “cooperative” ensemble. But you just don’t buy it. You know you deserve more.
Here’s what you should do. Make a confidential call to the union. Let us know about the situation. It starts with one phone call. You do deserve more.And by standing up for yourself, you also stand up for your colleagues. Raising musicians’ standards helps every artist. Call (212) 245-4802 and ask for the organizing department. (Or if the job involves classical music, ask for the classical department.) We really are all in it together.
I’d like to leave you with two final thoughts:
We’re going to be posting this article on our Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/Local802AFM). Please share it with as many colleagues as you know. Our younger musicians need to get the message that the union matters.
Each month in Allegro, we print the biographies of young musicians who have joined the union recently. See this issue for the latest group and see the photos above. These musicians have done the right thing and are investing in their future. Thank you!
To join Local 802, call (212) 245-4802 or visit www.afm.org/join
This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For more information, see www.Local802afm.org