Virtually all the new music musicians I know are left-leaning and pro-labor, yet much of the new music field is non-unionized. Why is that? The AFM and other unions play a significant role in the realm of larger, more traditional music making—orchestras, musicals, film recording, opera, et cetera—but they are far less visible when it comes to performances of new music. In the Bay Area, where I live, AFM local 6 lists only one new music presenter with a collective bargaining agreement.
Size is probably part of the equation, since a handful of orchestras is easier to unionize than the ever-shifting ecosystem of small chamber ensembles more typical in new music. But it goes beyond that. The AFM certainly represents chamber musicians, and it has initiatives designed specifically for smaller groups, such as its Fair Trade Music program. Yet most of the new music musicians I interviewed for this piece held a dim view of the musicians’ union, and many had experienced hostility from their AFM locals.
Clearly something is pushing us apart, and I think it boils down to conflicting agendas. Any union’s top priorities revolve around securing decent wages and working conditions for its members. Those are, without question, important considerations for musicians in any genre. But new music practitioners also have a third priority: advancing the cause. Nobody just happens to fall into new music because of all the great gigs that came their way. We choose new music despite the fact that it’s a hard slog, because we want to champion the art form. So when push comes to shove—and new technologies have created a lot of shove—we sacrifice pay or benefits.
I’d very much like to see more music unionization; both in our genre and across the board. Musicians of all stripes are facing strong downward wage pressure, and a lack of collective action is only making things worse. But for the AFM to win over the new music community, the realities of why we make music will need to be better accommodated.
What makes an occupation unionizable?
To better understand our situation, it’s useful to look at where unions enjoy the greatest successes. Most union-friendly occupations have the following characteristics:
- Clearly defined roles
- Static employer–employee relationships
- Proven business models
That’s why coal miners, fast-food workers, teachers, sanitation personnel, home health aides, and orchestra musicians are good candidates for unionization. If you’re a garbage truck driver, you’re unlikely to show up one day and find yourself designing a new waste treatment facility. Similarly, if you’re the principal bassoonist in an orchestra, your job is not likely to involve playing the viola part or planning the marketing strategy for the next concert season.
Now consider a profession like dentistry. Most dentists are not unionized, and that’s because the majority are self-employed or work as associates in small practices. Professional lobbies like the American Dental Association are a better fit for their needs, which typically revolve around regulatory overhaul and dealing with the insurance market more so than collective bargaining.
Still, there’s nothing intrinsic about dentistry that precludes unionization. If the growth of multi-office, corporate dentistry continues, we might expect to see more collective bargaining in that field. After all, dentists have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and the business model doesn’t change dramatically from dentist to dentist—everyone basically has the same teeth. The only missing element is an employer with multiple dentist employees. Look at the parallel world of the hospital, where healthcare personnel are increasingly classified as employees. There you’ll find increasing unionization, in contrast to the general anti-union trend in American society.
Like dentistry, music affords us many possible working arrangements. That’s why it’s not enough to say a violinist is a violinist, so you should all join the union. If you’re playing for a Broadway musical, then yeah, it makes sense: fighting for a union contract will be good for you and for all future pit musicians. But if your grad school buddy asks you to join a fledgling ensemble dedicated to promoting new music for harpsichord…well, the choice isn’t so obvious.
The “sharing economy” of new music
Musical employment tends to be piecemeal, but especially so in new music: multiple part-time ensemble gigs, some teaching, perhaps grant writing or administrative/logistical support, another music gig that’s less inspiring but pays better, and so on. Musicians often collaborate with each other on different projects, sometimes swapping roles depending on who’s leading.
Zoom in on any one new music ensemble and it might resemble a traditional employer–employee setup, but that’s misleading. If Suzie plays in Johnny’s string quartet, Johnny plays in Frederica’s Pierrot ensemble, and Frederica and Johnny both regularly perform solo sets on Suzie’s recital series, can anyone really be said to be the employer? It’s better to think of these musicians as colleagues who collaborate on whatever opportunities present themselves.
In this sense, the production of new music resembles “sharing economy” businesses like Uber and AirBnB more than it does the employer–employee world of the symphony. More specifically:
- A need isn’t being well provided by existing institutions
- There are people with the expertise, resources, and time to fill that need
- The need can be filled without necessarily making it into a full-time job
Let’s compare our hypothetical harpsichord ensemble to Uber:
One major difference, of course, is that Uber and AirBnB have become wildly successful on a commercial level—enough that they cause negative ripple effects. The City of San Francisco is opening an Office of Short Term Rental Administration and Enforcement to deal with the shady landlords who evict tenants to rent apartments on AirBnB. Uber is facing a class-action lawsuit as to whether its drivers should be considered employees or contractors.
It’s worth remembering, however, that those negative effects are problems of scale, not design. There’s nothing inherently evil about renting out that extra room in your apartment to a backpacking college student. It’s only when the AirBnB market gets big enough to push tenants out of their apartments that we have a problem.
We would do well to think about unionization in new music along similar lines. There may come a point when your new music ensemble becomes successful enough that it would be unethical to oppose unionization. But in the scrappy, small-scale production environment more typical of our genre, you’re not really dealing with the traditional employer–employee model of the union. It’s more like a fluid group of like-minded professionals, or an employee-owned worker cooperative.
For the love of money
None of this is to imply that, hey, you should always take the gig, because new music! There are plenty of poorly run and exploitative organizations that build their successes on the backs of overly accommodating musicians. While researching this article, I interviewed Bruce Fife, president of AFM local 99 in Portland. He had this story to share:
“…major nonprofit in Portland, advertising for live music, told musicians that as a nonprofit, they couldn’t afford to pay. As is usual, they said it would be great exposure for the musicians. This, from a nonprofit that did over $20 million in revenue, $2 million in net profits in FY14, and has $39 million in net assets.”
But on the flip side, there are also a lot of talented people out there with great ideas but little financial backing, especially among early-career, emerging musicians. The standard AFM shtick is that collective action gives musicians increased leverage against employers—which is true. A union contract would be extremely beneficial when dealing with an organization like the nonprofit Bruce described. But not every gig is like that. What happens in the more typical new music scenario where the role of employer is essentially honorific?
If we insist that every self-producing ensemble or upstart music festival provide a full union ride, it means only organizations with pre-existing financial support will be able to produce anything. True, the AFM does sometimes grant exceptions for specific use cases, but the application process is bureaucratic and requires a new petition for each project. That’s not the best use of time for emerging musicians trying to hustle together something amazing with limited resources and bandwidth. And what if your local decides not to grant your exception, or doesn’t respond in time for your production?
In actual practice, emerging musicians with an interest in new music quickly learn that the AFM has little to offer them. If they played by the union rules, there would be precious few opportunities for them to work in our genre. While they aspire to a level of career success that would command union rates, they’re not willing to stop making the music that matters to them in order to get there. Yet somehow this basic fact gets lost in recruitment appeals from the AFM.
Collective action: you’re doing it wrong
A couple years ago, Tom Olcott of local 802 wrote a piece calling out several New York new music ensembles for not being unionized. He also listed several union members in good standing as counterexamples, including the New York Pops and the Mostly Mozart Festival. Unfortunately, his argument was apples to oranges in the extreme. Orchestral pops and the music of Mozart—these are widely known and artistically conservative genres. They appeal to a broad audience, with a market that was established long before either of those presenters came onto the scene. So while the repertoire undoubtedly has value, I’m pretty sure no one plays in the New York Pops because they feel that Rodgers and Hammerstein are underappreciated by society.
New music, on the other hand, is basically evangelical: we’re hooked on the thrill of new, unorthodox repertoire, so we toil to build awareness and expand audiences for living composers, to push the boundaries of musical experience, to make art that might someday, if we’re lucky, add something new and unique to the cultural heritage of humanity. But there’s no pre-existing market for the unknown and the unproven—by definition. So unless the American political climate becomes much more supportive of state-sponsored arts funding, new music organizations will have to continue operating on shoestring budgets, below union standards. They have no other choice.
The kind of musicians who gravitate toward new music will always choose love of the repertoire over financial considerations. But that doesn’t mean new music is anti-union. Comments like the following were typical among the musicians I interviewed for this piece:
“Organized labor is the reason that music is where it is.”
“We are 100% in support of an organized labor system that can accommodate our reality.”
“I try really hard to pay as close as I can to AFM standards.”
“Union scale is a benchmark that we quote to all presenters.”
Nor is the AFM completely unsympathetic. In my interview with Bruce Fife, I asked what he thought a group of young composers with a limited budget should do if they wanted to throw together an ad-hoc ensemble to perform or record some of their pieces:
“Anybody can approach their local board or the IEB to request waivers or considerations or promulgated agreements to make those kinds of things work so they accomplish what the goal is….To me it’s always about what’s going to happen to that music, how is it going to be utilized, and are the musicians being fairly compensated for the use.”
I think this emphasis on usage is probably the best way to bridge the gap between traditional union mandates and the needs of the new music community. Bruce described how a similarly “sideways” approach worked in Seattle, where that city’s local fought for better loading zone access at nightclubs instead of focusing solely on wage considerations.
The AFM will get more sympathy from new music if it concentrates on helping musicians and presenters develop practical usage agreements that meet the needs of all participants, instead of insisting on pension contributions, minimum scale, and secondary market considerations more applicable to the film industry. Not that wages and re-use fees aren’t important, but downward price pressure in music is a complicated and pervasive issue. When even star economist Paul Krugman admits to being confounded by the economics of music, we’re unlikely to solve the problem by towing the traditional party line.
There is a lot of useful work that can be done to strengthen the standing of musicians outside of the wage issue. This in turn will bring more musicians into the union fold and give the AFM greater lobbying clout to tackle the big economic trends. But nothing’s going to happen so long as young musicians entering new music see the AFM as an institution that is incompatible with their aspirations.
Here are two ideas that would immediately improve this situation. First, I propose that the AFM abolish scale and simply provide average and median fees paid for similar engagements, in similar genres and markets, over the past five years.
The problem with something like a minimum scale is that it can be twisted into a glass ceiling. No matter how high or low you set the rate, music presenters without a collective bargaining agreement can use it as a justification to pay something lower: “Well, we’d really like to pay that rate and we’re trying hard to get there, but the economy blah blah blah, so right now the best we can do is X.”
By providing averages instead of scales, the AFM would torpedo this sleezeball approach. Employers would have to justify their offers based on what others are actually paying, giving musicians much firmer ground to stand on than some bleeding-heart appeal to fairness. “You should be paying union scale, because that’s the right thing to do” becomes “Why would I work for you at half the rate those other venues are paying?”
My second suggestion is that the AFM create genre-specific, graduated paths toward full union compliance. At some point, all musical employers of a certain size should be providing decent wages, pensions, and benefits; it’s just not always feasible for a new organization on a shoestring budget. So instead of forcing emerging musical employers to work outside the union fold until they can afford full participation, start looking at what musical organizations of a similar scope are doing, then develop best practices and a roadmap for growth. As long as the employer stays within the bounds of what’s acceptable given its mandate and stage of development, it would get the stamp of compliance from the union.
There would be a path for a string quartet playing new music, and a different path for one playing wedding gigs; a blueprint for a regional pops orchestra, and one for a film scoring orchestra. And naturally, the requirements for each group would change over time. In the beginning of an organization’s existence, obligations would be few and benefits would be many. As the organization grows, financially and otherwise, more stringent requirements would kick in. The new music ensemble that tours internationally and has steady operational funding should absolutely be held to a higher standard than a self-funded group that is putting on its first show. If the successful group can’t provide the types of benefits and support that similar groups are providing, it should rightly get heat from the union.
Naturally, there are details to work out before either of these suggestions could be put into practice, but they’re not insurmountable. I know we can do better than a system where an entire class of pro-labor musicians feel that the musician’s union doesn’t apply to their careers. None of my ideas are all that radical, nor are they meant to be a rigid, unchanging formula for all time. I’m just trying to get the ball rolling, because I want new music to have as many allies as possible. What a shame that the AFM isn’t among the most important.
Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at aarongervais.com.