President’s Report

Whither the Recording Industry and the AFM?

Volume CVII, No. 6June, 2007

Mary Landolfi


The following letter by Mary Landolfi was published in the New York Times on April 22 in response to a Times article about the choice of the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

To the Editor:

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s choice for music director, Gustavo Dudamel, is remarkable for his youth, but one wonders why it is necessary to go abroad to find a leader.

The answer, alas, can be found in the article. Mr. Dudamel is a product of a country (Venezuela) that places a high value on music education and sees the connection between providing access to the arts and the elevation of the disadvantaged. Unfortunately this is not the case in our country, and we are the poorer for it. The result is that talented young people will not be trained, future audiences will not be developed, and our country will be denied its own cultural heritage.

Mary Landolfi
West Orange, N.J

We live in a changing world market for recorded music. Recording production has expanded worldwide and declined in traditional centers in the United States.

In many ways, an era of recorded music that has been a source of significant and stable employment for many union musicians is disappearing.

Can we successfully adapt? What must we do to avoid becoming irrelevant?

Before we talk about the future, however, let’s catch up on the past.

Historically some of the most skillful and best paid musicians in the AFM were recording musicians.

Thanks to the Secondary Markets Fund, which was negotiated by the AFM with the support of rank-and-file film musicians, a substantial part of the total income from film scoring work comes from back-end payments.

Similar back-end payments apply to some other AFM agreements.

Starting in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, however, changes began to be apparent in the industry.

The Seattle Symphony, which had earlier left the AFM, began to sell itself as an orchestra available for film, jingle and recording dates.

British symphonies did the same thing.

Later, highly trained musicians of Eastern Europe, looking for a way to make a living when governmental subsidies evaporated, also became available.

New recording centers emerged throughout Europe and Asia in competition with U.S. recording artists.

We can knock their musicianship. We can say that the product is not as good and it takes longer to create.

But if these problems once existed, they were successfully solved by recording the basic tracks overseas and offering top cash for U.S. soloists to sweeten the sound on a nonunion basis.

It should be noted that the cost of health care has also provided an incentive to move employment.

Regardless of the scale, the cost of recording overseas may be cheaper simply because in many countries health care is provided to all – unlike in our country, where health insurance costs are added to the cost of the AFM agreement.

Studios can save millions by recording elsewhere and avoiding the cost of these insurance benefits.

This is today’s reality.

The AFM has to have a strategy for preserving compensation from film scoring and be flexible enough to respond to changes in the marketplace.

To do otherwise is to lose control of the market and watch more and more work go nonunion until we are irrelevant and our agreements are consigned to the scrap heap of history.

In response to this reality, some West Coast recording musicians have formed a rival “union” called the Professional Musicians Guild.

At the same time, a business called New Era Scoring is blatantly advertising that it can provide musicians who work for a lump sum – that is, a nonunion “buyout” – no new use, re-use, health or pension.

Both are reactions to the same problem, and both are threats to the strength and unity of musicians and the AFM.

New Era seems to be a response by some musicians to the belief that they are frozen out of the current market. It is a commercial enterprise set up to capture work being done nonunion. It will likely do little more than start a bidding war and a downward spiral of wages, benefits and working conditions.

Unfortunately, New Era’s approach weakens our union, undermines our contracts and joins musicians with anti-worker and anti-union groups like the National Right to Work (for less!) Committee.

While the musicians associated with New Era are just trying to make a living, they are being used by those who would like to destroy the AFM.

The Professional Musicians Guild is, in my view, also an attempt by a few union musicians to respond to the new world market.

It may also be an expression of the frustration film musicians have with the AFM’s inability to organize the nonunion sector, its inability to work with international musicians’ organizations to establish a more level playing field internationally, and AFM resistance to their issues and viewpoints.

While Local 802 shares these concerns, we also know that the formation of a PMG or any other splinter group is not the solution.

The downward pressure this competition will create is more likely to destroy lucrative recording contracts than to save them.

To those who would walk away from the AFM I would say this: the AFM is our union; it is not our enemy.

It belongs to us: to film musicians on the West Coast, recording musicians in Nashville, theatre musicians in New York and Canada, and the thousands of symphony, opera, ballet, jingle, recording, theatre, jazz, rock and pop musicians across this country and Canada.

The challenge before us is to maintain the unity that will allow us to deal with multinational employers in an ever-changing industry.

We need respectful dialogue in the search for a solution that shores up our traditional agreements while we try to capture nonunion work with differently structured agreements.

We need to work together to guide the AFM in a direction that is productive for all working musicians.

When we meet at the AFM convention, Local 802 hopes to work with all other delegates to make the AFM fully represent the interests of all working musicians.

It is only through unity that we will reach that goal.