AFM, RMA face off over videogame business

SAG and AFTRA aren’t the only unions where rebellion has been brewing within the ranks. Simmering just below the boiling point are feelings of discontent among musicians within Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), who play most of Hollywood’s film and TV scores.

At issue is the fact that most videogame music is not recorded in L.A. — and the only thing everybody can agree on is that they want that business. The question is, how to get it, and what if anything must they give up?

On one side is the Recording Musicians Assn. (RMA), the 1,400-member organization of union studio players who are the most active performers on recording dates.

On the opposite side is the Washington-based national leadership of the AFM, which is promoting game-music deals that appear to violate standard benefit and protection clauses that have long been a part of film- and TV-music contracts.

Most videogame scores are recorded by non-union musicians in locations that range from Seattle to London and even Eastern Europe. The reason? Videogame publishers want to own their music outright without any future financial obligations to composers or musicians, should those games find success in the marketplace.

Non-union locations offer what is known as a “buyout”: paying musicians a lump sum up front for future uses of the same music (such as for a soundtrack album), thus avoiding a backend “new use” payment later. AFM has never approved buyouts in the past, mainly because the reuse of music in other media reduces work for union musicians overall.

Yet a recent AFM-sanctioned game deal eliminated the backend payment — and RMA execs decried it not as a “buyout” but a “giveaway,” since the musicians were already taking a major pay cut to get the work. San Francisco Local 6 has used it to lure game-scoring work to the Bay Area, effectively pitting its union musicians against L.A. union players.

Notes one game-company exec who requested anonymity: “The game industry is coming more out of a corporate model than an entertainment-industry model. The corporate philosophy is an unconditional need to control all assets, and rights to those assets, outright. So the vast majority of game work has tended to go to the leading centers for obtaining a full buyout package: Seattle, London, Bratislava (Slovakia) and Prague.”

RMA executives accuse AFM officials of being “out of step” with other industry guilds, and failing to heed their industry-savvy experts. AFM execs charge L.A. union leaders with “turning (their) back on the rest of the community of musicians.”

The rhetoric has heated up in recent months. One high-ranking AFM officer famously referred to well-paid L.A. studio musicians as “those rich pricks.”

AFM president Tom Lee has visited L.A. on several recent occasions, but tends to meet with union dissidents, not the officers who run either the RMA or its own Local 47. (Lee declined to be interviewed for this story, writing in an email that it was “inappropriate to talk about” matters he considers “really internal to the AFM.”)

Says RMA international prexy Phil Ayling: “You have a union leadership which is more interested in demonizing successful members than in speaking with them.” Adds Local 47 president Hal Espinosa: “Our recording musicians don’t feel that they’re being represented. When you have people in leadership positions not listening to what the guys want, then there’s no representation.”

Lee has spoken in general terms about the issue. In a letter to Variety last year, he referred to “the negative effect that technology and globalization has had on the business of recording music (that resulted in) too much music production outsourced to London or Prague or Bratislava.” RMA members fear this means Lee has a pro-buyout attitude that could take root in negotiations on future contracts beyond the game business, depriving musicians of millions in residual payments.

Longtime L.A. players compare the current faceoff to what happened exactly 50 years ago. In 1958, studio musicians — angry over the AFM’s mishandling of contracts with film and TV producers — quit the union, formed their own guild and eventually forced the AFM to capitulate to their demands for a greater voice in setting their own working conditions.

It could happen again. More than 200 of Hollywood’s most in-demand musicians have already joined the new Professional Musicians Guild, which many see as a signal to AFM national leadership to stop giving away hard-won benefits that musicians have enjoyed for decades. One member described the PMG as “a lifeboat, available to us in case the ship sinks altogether.”

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