Union shifts rates to retain local music work

Soundtrack fee reductions may be written into AFM, AMPTP contract

Two years ago, union musicians in Los Angeles were struggling to keep work from going abroad, the result of financial pressures and a perception that it was cheaper to record in London or elsewhere. That’s changing now, in part because of a rollback in union rates that is helping to assure the release of more film score soundtracks recorded in L.A.

A yearlong experiment in reducing the fees associated with soundtracks has turned out to be so successful that the language has been written into the contract recently negotiated between the American Federation of Musicians and the Assn. of Motion Picture & Television Producers. The contract is expected to be ratified by musicians this summer.

Now when a film score is released on CD, the musicians who played on the score will receive 25% of the union’s record rate — a repayment for music originally recorded for the film — instead of 50%. This payment, made by record labels to the union, often exceeded $60,000 for a half-hour album of music played by a full orchestra of 85 to 100 players. Now it’s closer to $30,000, on average.

“In theory, we could have lost money,” explains Phil Ayling, president of the Intl. Recording Musicians Assn., which represents studio musicians within the AFM. “What we really did was behave in a way that made us good stakeholders in the industry. There are now many more albums out there, so we have 25% of something instead of 50% of nothing.”

Robert Townson, a producer at soundtrack label Varese Sarabande, confirms Ayling’s assessment. Of Varese’s 50 or so soundtracks in 2000, only four were recorded in L.A. “Overseas recordings accounted for the vast majority of what we were releasing,” he says. But in 2001, the number of L.A. union recordings released on Varese quadrupled.

The shift in rates was long overdue, Townson says. “It came just in the nick of time. (With costs increasing every year) we were a whisker away from composers realizing that if you record in Los Angeles, you won’t have your score released. It was almost that simple.”

Some albums are now longer than the usual 30 minutes, too, because of the rate change. Musicians agreed to reduce the rate in exchange for “crediting the musicians, and the community where the work was done,” says Ayling. That means listing in the CD credits the musicians who recorded the score as well as citing the Hollywood Studio Symphony as the performing ensemble — a new “branding” for union players on L.A. movie scores.

Ayling believes that a number of composers are fighting to stay in L.A. to record in part because “we made it easier for them to release soundtracks.”

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