Hollywood musical blues

Will the Teamsters tune up composer pay?

Right now they’re calling themselves the Assn. of Media Composers and Lyricists. If hundreds of Hollywood tunesmiths have their way, the AMCL could soon be part of Teamsters Local 399.

Monday’s “informational” meeting in Burbank about possible union affiliation drew more than 300 working tunesmiths, including past Oscar nominees, Grammy winners and multiple Emmy winners. More than 200 signed union authorization cards at the end of the three-hour session.

Composers have been without a union since 1982, when the Composers & Lyricists Guild of America — which successfully negotiated contracts with producers in 1961, 1964 and 1967 — was disbanded after studios and networks stopped negotiating with them and a subsequent strike and lawsuit failed to bring them back to the bargaining table.

Orchestration, arranging, conducting and performing are covered under American Federation of Musicians contracts, but not the act of creating music or lyrics. The Society of Composers & Lyricists, which was formed after the dissolution of the CLGA, has taken no position on the current pro-union drive, although many SCL officers and members attended Monday’s meeting.

“We are looking to restore basic human dignity: health benefits, basic working conditions, a living wage and pension,” said Alan Elliott, a member of the organizing committee. “These are basic requirements that the janitors, window washers and secretaries at every studio in town already enjoy.”

Teamsters business agent Steve Dayan conceded the effort would not be easy. But he also indicated that the studios’ long-held stance that composers and songwriters are “independent contractors” ineligible for collective bargaining doesn’t hold water since writers and actors also consider themselves independent contractors yet enjoy union representation through WGA and SAG, respectively.

“The Simpsons” composer Alf Clausen illustrated the sharp decline in composer compensation over the past two decades. In the late 1980s he received a “respectable fee” of $23,000 per TV movie, and the studio picked up the costs of orchestration, music editing, a 30- to 50-piece orchestra, the scoring stage, recording and all other music production costs, he said.

He then shared a letter from an unidentified colleague who said he was being paid $25,000 for an 80-minute score that will require him to cover all those costs out of his “package” fee. In addition, he asked for 50 days to write and record the required music but was given just 28 days, amounting to minimum 96-hour work weeks and no days off including Thanksgiving and Christmas to deliver the music on time. He’d also have to surrender any soundtrack royalty, normally a given for the composer, to the production company.

Handouts distributed at the meeting suggested today’s network TV fees for music are, on average, only 14% of what a composer earned 30 years ago. Many composers, especially those working in independent film, can barely earn a living and have no health insurance, committee members said.

Dayan cautioned the crowd that, if they choose to go forward, unionization could take years to achieve. He said it took more than four years to attain recognition for casting directors, who became Teamsters in 2006.

Gary Zuckerbrod, former president of the Casting Society of America, was present and compared the situations of the two groups. They too, worked without benefits or pensions and — like composers who must “demo” cues and songs and frequently make wholesale changes in their music at no charge to producers — were often expected to work for free, Zuckerbrod said.

Dayan also indicated that, ideally, the Teamsters would like the support of two-thirds of the town’s working composers and songwriters.

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