Discordant notes struck by rookie

As if the alphabet soup wasn’t already complicated enough, there is a new organization claiming to represent composer interests in Hollywood: The Composers Guild of America (CGA), which joins the Society of Composers & Lyricists (SCL), the Assn. of Media Composers & Lyricists (AMCL) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) among the groups charged with protecting the interests of tunesmiths.

The CGA is the brainchild of one of the most polarizing figures in the music community, Alan Elliott. Among the earliest and most outspoken advocates of unionization for composers, Elliott nevertheless resigned last year from the AMCL, the group seeking union recognition through affiliation with the Teamsters.

With a handful of credits including the Tea Leoni series “The Naked Truth” and MTV’s infamous “Celebrity Deathmatch,” Elliott, 47, counts as many detractors as supporters to his cause. Most decline to go on the record but one thing is certain: Many in the music community are scratching their heads about why Hollywood needs another composer group.

Elliott insists his CGA is “an advocacy group dedicated to representing, defining and helping implement and further the rights of composers” — needs, he says, that aren’t being met by the other organizations.

“To me, it’s about making better music,” he says. “The way we have better music is by having real, substantive, partnerships with the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild and the Editors Guild.” To that end, he and two colleagues made a presentation Feb. 5 before the WGA showrunner training program to talk about the role of music in network TV.

WGA execs, however, were outraged by what they saw as a condescending account of the presentation in a subsequent mass email by Elliott. In addition, WGA director of communications Neal Sacharow says Elliott “misled” the showrunners’ program into believing he was representing the AFM, which had been in talks with WGA about presenting before the group.

Elliott denies he misled anyone, and says he is planning to approach the DGA and Editors Guild about similar presentations. He also talks of launching an ambitious internship program that would place budding young composers in observational capacities on every network series.

Asked how many members he has, Elliott responds that his is “not a membership group.” The SCL, which has long stood as the advocacy group for Hollywood music-makers, boasts more than 1,000 members. SCL president Dan Foliart declined to comment directly on the new CGA but issued a statement saying, “It has never been our role to undermine or discourage organizations with similar goals.”

AMCL organizing committee chairman Bruce Broughton, however, finds it “very confusing” to include yet another group in the mix. Elliott has been publicly critical of the AMCL’s unionization effort, contending it “has virtually no chance” of succeeding. “The process of unionization is admittedly slow,” Broughton says, but he says enthusiasm remains high among organizers and supporters.

Unionization is a big deal in the Hollywood music community right now. Not all agree on what should happen — some want a more aggressive stance than others on such matters as pay and working conditions — but the AMCL’s position has been to ask only for health benefits and pension. “It’s a fairness issue,” Broughton says. “This is a substantial group that provides a very important service to the film industry.”

Asked about progress toward unionization, Teamsters business agent Steve Dayan will say only that “there is a strategy in place and there has been some dialogue.” But, he adds, “these are delicate issues” and difficult in the current economic environment. “The Teamsters have not given up on the composers,” he says.

As for the American Federation of Musicians, the union has never represented composers but does count among its members orchestrators, conductors and the musicians with whom composers work. AFM president Ray Hair told Variety the union “is not sponsoring any of the composer groups, but we certainly support the efforts of composers to unionize. Many composers are members of our union, and we are in favor of working together to improve their livelihood.”

Composers’ agent Jeff Kaufman is one of few to publicly endorse the CGA as “the first group that’s ever reached out to the writers and directors to try and enlighten them on the importance of music. Composers’ rates have decreased to the point where they’re doing the same amount of work for the price they were getting 25 years ago. I support (the AMCL) but (the fight) is not just about health care or pensions. What’s more important is the bottom line.”

Return to Music for Screens: Spring 2011

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