Local heroes

L.A. chapter of AFM exhibits city's rich talent

The volume and diversity of musical talent in Los Angeles is simply staggering. From classical players, jazz hounds and studio aces to grunge rockers, mariachi bands and polka outfits, L.A. is home to a plethora of locally bred and transplanted musicians.

It’s small wonder that the city’s Professional Musicians Local 47 ranks as the largest musician’s union in the country. Formed in 1894 when Los Angeles was just a dusty burg of about 50,000 people, Local 47 today contains more than 10,000 members. While other unions in the American Federation of Musicians — Local 47’s longtime parent organization — have seen their memberships decline, the L.A. chapter has grown steadily in recent years.

Local 47 certainly has been aided by the fact that it exists in the hub of the entertainment industry. Thanks to the lucrative film business, L.A. possesses the finest and largest collection of studio musicians in the world. Virtually every one of these players is a union member.

True, the countless pop musicians who flood into the city looking for that elusive record deal aren’t as likely to join Local 47. A struggling young rocker may not see the value of paying union dues for such benefits as health insurance when he or she could be spending that money lining up showcases at clubs or putting together demos.

But in recent years the newly energized Local 47 has done much to make itself more attractive to younger musicians.

Local 47 board member Jay Rosen says the average age of new union members has dropped by more than 20 years. New recruits now are more apt to be in their early 30s than in their late 50s, as was the case just a decade ago.

This change in membership has been due partly to the union’s expansion into what Rosen calls a “friendly service organization” that helps musicians procure work. “We’re the only (musicians union) in the country that has a recording studio at the local,” boasts Rosen, a veteran studio violinist who joined Local 47 when he was 16 years old. “So members can come in and record their presentations and send them out to prospective employers.

If a freelance musician is having trouble getting paid by an employer, Local 47 also has attorneys that are available to members.

Local 47 membership peaked after World War II at 18,000. However, as the big-band era began to fade and staff orchestras at large film companies were phased out along with the studio system, the union began to lose some of its numerical clout. There also were divisions within the organization that resulted from the iron-fisted rule of James Caesar Petrillo, who became American Federation of Musicians president in 1940.

David Ewart, a Local 47 member who helped edit and coordinate a recently released book on the history of the AFM, says Petrillo made unreasonable demands from the film industry, which ultimately led some companies to seek musical talent outside of Los Angeles. Many members also questioned whether money collected by the union from the entertainment industry was actually being used to raise the living standards of its members.

After Petrillo called a strike in 1958 that upset more than a few Local 47 members, a group of studio musicians seceded from the union and formed the Musicians Guild of America. This resulted in the ouster of Local 47 president John TeGroen, considered a Petrillo puppet, and ultimately led to Petrillo’s resignation as AFM president. The Guild was able to negotiate for contract provisions that the AFM was unable or unwilling to secure. In 1961, the Musicians Guild of America dissolved back into the AFM after the larger organization agreed to address the musicians’ grievances.

But many AFM members continued to feel as if their voices weren’t being heard within the larger union. In 1969 the Recording Musicians Assn. (RMA), an organization consisting of studio musicians, was formed in New York. In the early ’80s, the RMA became a national entity and a Los Angeles chapter emerged. In L.A., all RMA members are a part of the AFM and most are Local 47 members.

Ewart says Local 47 has become a more conciliatory and democratic organization in the ’90s. He believes this has helped raise the status of its members as well as some of the companies that employ them.

Ever since (the RMA helped revamp Local 47) there are no longer these ridiculous demands that caused employers to go anywhere but Los Angeles to do their work,” observes Ewart, a studio violinist who is also a member of the RMA. “It’s also been a win-win situation for the (film) industry.”

“Now if motion picture producers have budgets of less than $12 million they can get a 40% discount on the services of L.A. musicians. That didn’t exist three years ago.”

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