Fifty-four years ago, Readers’ Digest published an article about the American Federation of Musicians. Titled “The Union That Fights Its Workers,” it attempted to explain how AFM leadership was damaging its own cause by antagonizing its most talented members.
For the past nine years, professional musicians — a large percentage of whom are members of the Los Angeles, New York and Nashville locals — have been echoing those same sentiments, as the national leadership of the AFM engaged in a quiet war with some of its most respected members over issues that, ironically, were the same as the ones that nearly derailed the union a half century ago: payments to musicians when recordings are reused, and a failure to involve the rank-and-file in negotiations with employers.
After nine years of battles with frustrated, angry and increasingly vocal studio musicians — including courtroom showdowns and even the launching of another guild that could eventually have replaced a dysfunctional AFM — the tide has apparently turned, with the election of Ray Hair of the Dallas-Fort Worth local to succeed Tom Lee as president of the 90,000-member union. Hair took office Aug. 1.
“It’s a new day, a new dawn,” L.A. Local 47 president Vince Trombetta said at a recent meeting of the Recording Musicians Assn., a “player conference” within the AFM that boasts 1,200 of the nation’s top studio musicians — and a group with which Lee constantly fought during his tenure as AFM president. Trombetta’s own election to the union’s Intl. Executive Board was another sign the internecine warfare may be over.
Lee, a longtime member of the U.S. Marine Band who often performed at the White House, won support from the smaller locals (there are 242 in the AFM, and they all have a vote at the union’s conventions every three years) and was re-elected twice. He was well-connected in D.C. circles and testified on Capitol Hill in support of musicians’ performance rights.
Yet over the past nine years, what many saw as Lee’s autocratic style led to:
n Multiple videogame music deals that many studio musicians opposed, calling them virtual “library music” sessions, where work could be reused for free;
n Refusal by AFM leadership to submit such agreements to ratification by members;
n Declining to involve studio musicians in bargaining with producers and networks;
n The filing of lawsuits by musicians against their own union (by some estimates, AFM has spent $2 million fighting its own members over issues that might have been settled internally);
n Creation of the Professional Musicians Guild, a first step toward what some musicians referred to as “the nuclear option” — walking away from the AFM (that happened once before, in 1958), which many felt would have destroyed the union, since the AFM is largely operated on the millions of dollars in work dues generated by working professionals in a handful of cities.
“The AFM actually played a role in chasing work away,” Intl. RMA president Phil Ayling says. “We are hoping that will now change, and our contracts will be handled in a businesslike manner.”
And, after years of imposing ever-higher taxes, fees and work dues on recording musicians — some of which L.A. musicians have refused to pay — the AFM has adopted a provision that requires the union’s executive board to ask for members’ approval of additional fees.
“Over time,” says RMA secretary Marc Sazer, “this will dramatically change the relationship between us and the Federation.”
Although many studio musicians deplored Lee’s policies toward them, some feel he was on the right path in one case.
“He did us and our community an enormous benefit by putting together the videogame agreement,” says one musician, who spoke anonymously.
“What Tom did was a good thing,” says another. “It got that business flowing.”
The agreement — actually a series of deals with game producers — led to an increase (reportedly $1 million per year) in wages and benefits to Los Angeles and San Francisco union musicians starting in 2007, work that had been going to nonunion venues like Seattle and Eastern Europe.
But that agreement angered others, who think Lee may have undermined other AFM contracts by embracing the “buyout” that producers prefer, because it allows them to own the music and re-use it in platforms like soundtrack albums and even other films. AFM deals, since the 1960s, have required producers to re-pay musicians when their recordings are repackaged.
Incoming AFM president Hair, who cited years of “expensive turmoil, confrontational policies and bad politics” as a reason for running, says he wants to end internal strife within his union.
“You can see how all the pieces fit as you watch them all fall apart,” Hair tells Variety. Citing the “healing” that took place in the 1960s following similar unrest in the ’50s, he says, “We created the pension fund, health and welfare, and other good things that sprang out of those old divisions, and we became a stronger union for it. We’ve done this before. My challenge is to try to get us all together so we can find a way to do it again.”
Hair promises to get input in the bargaining process for rank-and-file members frozen out during contract negotiations in recent years; another look at the videogame agreements that remain a sore point for L.A. musicians; and more frequent visits to L.A. to try to improve the relationship with the RMA.
“It’s unity that we have to find and promote,” he says.