You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Disharmony swells among musicians

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.”

More Scene

  • Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells Black

    Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells Talk Snorting 'Coke' on 'Black Monday'

    “Black Monday” show creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahen divulged an intriguing detail to come later in the first season of the new Showtime comedy at its world premiere, held at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday night in Los Angeles. “The fourth or fifth episode opens with a sexual harassment seminar, which very well [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron attends the 44th Annual

    Alfonso Cuarón to LAFCA: 'Thanks to Your Help We Can Break Down Walls'

    Inclusion was the big winner at the L.A. Film Critics Association Awards, which was held Saturday night at the InterContinental in Century City. “This year’s winners are the most diverse in LAFCA’s 43-year history,” announced its president, Claudia Puig, adding that 14 out of their 18 awards were won by women and people of color. [...]

  • Mandatory Credit: Photo by Max Malandrino/REX/Shutterstock

    Hollywood Power Players Assemble to Save Iconic Deli Nate 'n Al

    A group of Hollywood executives and celebrities have banded together with the intent to save Beverly Hills deli and star haunt Nate ‘n Al, a stone’s throw from tourist destination Rodeo Drive. A consortium of investors including music kingpin Irving Azoff and wife Shelli, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell, and Rande Gerber and [...]

  • Charlie Collier, FOX Chief Executive Officer

    'The Passage' Team Talks Diversifying Races, Genders and Ages of Book Characters

    “The Passage” star Saniyya Sidney was unaware that the book version of her character was originally white until her father, a fan of Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic trilogy, informed her during the audition process. “I was like, ‘Oh, she is?'” Sidney told Variety at Thursday’s series premiere in Santa Monica, Calif. “And when I got it, [...]

  • KiKi Layne and Stephan James'If Beale

    Regina King Praised by 'If Beale Street Could Talk' Co-Stars for New 50/50 Initiative

    Two days had passed since Kiki Layne and Stephan James had attended their first Golden Globes and the “If Beale Street Could Talk” co-stars were still trying to wrap their heads around having been there. “It was such a special night — and pretty unreal,” says James, who was also nominated for his work opposite Julia Roberts [...]

  • Steven Van Zandt, Edie Falco, Tony

    'The Sopranos' 20th Anniversary Reunion: Cast, Producers Remember James Gandolfini

    Jan. 9’s 20th anniversary reunion of the cast and producers of HBO’s “The Sopranos” was a raucous family gathering from its first moments. “I saw a picture of myself in the newspaper,” series creator David Chase said at the start of the event. “And I thought, 20 years. Jesus Christ.” “People come up to me,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content