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Composers consider unionization

SCL mulling affiliation with Teamsters Local 399

For the first time in more than a decade, composers and lyricists working in film, TV and videogames are considering unionization.

The Society of Composers & Lyricists was scheduled to announce at its annual membership meeting Tuesday night that an “informational meeting” about the possibility of affiliating with Teamsters Local 399 will be held Nov. 16 at the Pickwick Gardens Conference Center in Burbank, Calif.

The SCL, a nonprofit group whose estimated 1,200 members include many of the composers who work in pics, TV and vidgames, has not taken a position about union representation, SCL officials said.

Emails alerting members of SCL; performing rights orgs ASCAP, BMI and SESAC; and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences were expected to go out this morning. A website has also launched at Composersguild.org.

Composers and lyricists are among the few creatives left without a collective bargaining agreement. Services like orchestration, conducting and music performance are covered by American Federation of Musicians (AFM) agreements, but not the act of writing music or lyrics.

They were represented in the late 1950s and 1960s by the Composers & Lyricists Guild of America, but after a 1971 strike and a 1972 lawsuit against the studios and networks over music-ownership rights, producers refused to negotiate with them. A 1984 attempt to restart the union failed when a Reagan-era National Labor Relations Board declared composers and lyricists “independent contractors.”

The trouble with that ruling, many composers say, is that almost everyone in the biz is an “independent contractor,” agreeing to perform services on a one-off basis for producers — yet writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors and others enjoy protection under WGA, DGA, SAG, IATSE, the Teamsters and other unions.

Composer Alan Elliott, who launched this latest unionization effort, said he hopes that a greater sense of community and attention to the craft of creating music can also be fostered.

Casting directors affiliated with the Teamsters in 2006, achieving benefit and pension rights for more than 400 casting directors and associates in what was one of the largest successful organizing efforts in recent years. The composers spearheading this effort hope they can achieve the same ends. Others hope that minimum wage scales and working-conditions clauses will follow.

Exploratory talks with the Teamsters began about three years ago. Back in the mid-1990s, talks with the WGA and IATSE resulted in debate about possible unionization, but SCL members remained divided.

Steve Dayan, organizer for Local 399 of the Intl. Brotherhood of Teamsters, told Daily Variety that efforts to organize the composers and lyricists are a “very preliminary” stage.

“They haven’t decided if they want to be Teamsters but we would be very interested in representing them and establishing basic working conditions and benefits,” Dayan added.

Dayan noted that the Teamsters’ organizing effort to unionize about 450 casting directors took over four years to complete.

“There has been a tremendous devaluation of music,” said former SCL president James DiPasquale. “Respect for composers has diminished. Technology has marched forward, and our income has plummeted. At the rank-and-file level, it’s very hard for anyone to make a living.”

Statistics on the website show that in hourlong TV, composers on average must write twice as much music as they did 30 years ago — hourlongs today require twice as many minutes of music — but the salary drops are astonishing: According to the site, for each score, they’re averaging just 14% of what they did then, adjusted for inflation.

In films, it’s even worse, with fees dropping precipitously even as composers must now write more than twice as much music while also absorbing technical costs (engineering, mixing, editing) that were once handled, and paid for, by studio or network personnel.

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