Composers, songwriters weigh unionization

Key issues are health insurance, pension plan

Music has long had a role in social activism, so it only seems fair that social activism is entering the dialogue among musicians.

Hundreds of composers and songwriters, including Hans Zimmer and Diane Warren, have jumped onto the union bandwagon by asking Teamsters Local 399 to represent them in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

They’ve already received endorsements from the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Musicians, the Recording Musicians Assn. (a group within AFM that reps most studio players) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

But the 1,200-member Society of Composers & Lyricists — the largest collection of composers and songwriters active in film and TV music — has not backed the effort, a sign that not everyone agrees unionization is a good idea, or that now is necessarily the right time.

Agents are divided, and it’s not yet clear how unionization, especially given the current modest proposals for no more than medical benefits and a pension plan, would affect the bottom line of composer reps.

“We have the support of most of the composers, and many lyricists and songwriters,” reports organizing committee chairman Bruce Broughton. “There has been unbelievable support for the idea of benefits-only. It’s a fairness issue: Why in the world shouldn’t composers and lyricists have benefits?”

That seems to be the single most unifying force in the movement. Backers of the move to unionize say composers are the last creatives left in Hollywood who have no collective bargaining agreement, and thus have no access to health care or a pension plan. (They did until 1982, when the Composers & Lyricists Guild of America was dissolved after battling the networks and studios for years over music-rights issues.)

The movement to unionize has been brewing for some time now, and received a big boost April 19 when about 200 tunesmiths turned out for an organizational meeting at the WGA theater in Beverly Hills. By that time, such heavyweight film composers as Quincy Jones, Randy Newman (shown at left), James Newton Howard and Carter Burwell had thrown their support behind unionization.

“What came out of that (April 19 organizing) meeting,” says Teamsters business agent Steve Dayan, “was a renewed sense of hope and optimism, and a bit more solidarity from composers. That’s a huge step forward.”

But, most insiders admit, there is also genuine fear of unionizing on the part of many composers, who for decades have seen their wages plummet, their allotted time to write and record shrink, technology alter their methodology, and eager young composers who are willing — because there are no standard rates or minimum fees in place — to undercut the experienced veterans on pay, or even work for free.

The proposed Assn. of Media Composers and Lyricists does not endeavor to tackle those issues. Debating working conditions, “Law and Order” composer Mike Post said at the meeting, is “a non-starter … the very thing that would put us out of work (and give) the producers and studios an excuse to use libraries” — the banks of cheap, generic music mined by many reality shows.

SCL president Dan Foliart issued a statement to Variety that stops short of outright endorsement, noting that “the SCL applauds the organizing efforts of our peers (and) continues to monitor this effort, the impact that it will have on our profession, and assess the role that the SCL should play moving forward.”

The process of unionization could take several years. The Teamsters needed more than four years to complete the unionization of casting directors and associates, who signed their first contract with the AMPTP in 2006.

Agent Richard Kraft, whose clients include Marc Shaiman and Alan Menken, believes the threshold for qualifying for benefits — both in terms of hours worked under union contracts, and the number of actual union (i.e., Teamsters) pictures composers are able to do per year — may be too high for many members, who work mostly on indie, low-budget or non-union films.

“The big, established composers are not the ones who really need these benefits,” says Kraft, “and many are supporting this in the hopes of helping out those in a less-fortunate position.”

But Kraft is also concerned that the move toward unionization could open up a “Pandora’s Box of divisive issues,” including working conditions, which few composers can agree on.

“If you talk to 10 different composers about working conditions they’d like addressed, you’ll get 10 different answers,” he says.

For example, the subject of demos, in which composers create music for free hoping to get a gig — now commonplace in TV — came up at the April 19 meeting when one composer cited an email from the Teamsters to the WGA that had been leaked to a popular Hollywood blog that day.

The email — which WGA West exec director David Young confirmed to Variety was never shown to the WGA board, much less “approved” as claimed — suggested the WGA ask its showrunner members to stop asking composers to write music for free. Since organizers for the proposed Assn. of Media Composers and Lyricists have decided to seek benefits only, the Teamsters memo is moot.

“Family Guy” composer Ron Jones is among the few composers publicly opposed to unionizing. “We haven’t even explored other possibilities,” he contends, suggesting that a group medical plan might be preferable, or even a class-action lawsuit over employers demanding intolerable hours.

Many composers “are not even getting minimum wage,” he says. In fact, at the April 19 meeting, a casual reference to composers working a 40-hour week was met with loud guffaws from a crowd more accustomed to 60- and 80-hour work weeks. “They wanted something to really help these composers in dire need, and they’re going to settle for a Twinkie from 7-Eleven,” Jones says.

Broughton, however, suggests that the majority of working composers in Hollywood are ready to sign up with the Teamsters. “We’re well on our way to establishing critical mass,” he says.

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