The precipitous decline in work for L.A.’s studio musicians over the past 15 years, as outlined in a recent white paper, has many of them debating what can be done about it — and whether their own union is serving them well.

Recording-session wages dropped 68%, from nearly $50 million in 1998 to $15.5 million in 2013, according to a report released Dec. 15 by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, funded in part by the American Federation of Musicians.

The exodus is mostly to London and Eastern Europe, where film and TV scores can be recorded less expensively, either in terms of lower musician wages (Prague, Bratislava, Macedonia, etc.) or because producers can avoid paying residuals to musicians after those films or TV shows are sold in secondary markets like cable TV or DVDs.

The situation has reached crisis proportions, musicians say. Certainly it is the talk of AFM Local 47, which does the bulk of TV and film recording work in the U.S. Many of the 200-300 musicians who work regularly in the studios are worried, disgruntled or even angry with union leaders, according to several observers interviewed by Variety.

“Change needs to happen,” says John Acosta, who will take office next week as the president of Local 47. He acknowledges “this internal rift” among the membership: “The biggest challenge for us is to reconcile the interests of those who are working and are invested in the system, and the other players who just want to work and in some ways see the union as an impediment to being able to do that work.”

The report details the hundreds of millions in taxpayer money accepted by production companies that then — since many are not signatories to the AFM’s contract with the AMPTP requiring domestic scoring for films shot in the U.S. — offshore their music recording to save money. (Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games” films and “Draft Day” were cited as recent examples.)

Among the report’s recommendations: that state tax credits require domestic score recording; a shift from state tax incentives to a single federal one; and enforcement of countervailing duties on imported scores. It also urges Hollywood to “take the high road” by supporting U.S. musicians, and an end to the increasingly popular “package deal” that makes composers responsible for all music costs of a project.

The 60-page report, however, only once mentions the hottest topic for L.A. musicians: the “buyout” that companies find so attractive overseas but is not available under U.S. union rules.

That buyout allows producers to pay musicians a premium on top of the standard session rates and then walk away owning the recordings without incurring any future obligations.

According to composer Michael Barry, an outspoken critic of the AFM who oversees the 3,700-member Hollywood Film, Television and Interactive Scoring Community Facebook page, the majority of companies cite “preventing backend payment obligations” as their reason for scoring elsewhere.

“There are so many globally competitive options for recording now that don’t involve secondary-market payments, and L.A. is the only place in the world that asks for these,” says violinist Belinda Broughton, an advocate for change in the L.A. musicians community.

For decades, AFM musicians have received residuals (just as actors, writers, directors and other crew members have): about 1% of gross receipts from sales in such secondary markets as homevideo or pay TV.

That annual check from the Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund has become a major portion of their income, says violinist Marc Sazer, president of the Intl. Recording Musicians Assn. (RMA): “There is no way a musician can make a middle-class living without the portion of their wages that comes in the form of residuals. It just can’t happen.”

Yet many composers say the “non-guild clause” they are forced to sign requires them to record non-union.
Barry thinks the pool of excellent L.A. musicians, the big soundstages — mostly standing empty these days — and the post-production convenience of scoring locally would inevitably bolster work for musicians if companies were offered a buyout instead of committing to an unknown future residual payment (which can range from a few thousand dollars into the millions).

The buyout is controversial; one musician says members are “at each other’s throats” about it.

Union officials have nixed the concept for years, fearing it could lead to an erosion, or abolition, of musicians’ residuals, a cherished (and for some, lucrative) aspect of the union contract with producers and networks. Most RMA members (the “wealthy minority,” according to critics) oppose any change in the status quo; many younger musicians, eager for the work under any circumstances, tend to support the buyout concept.

Local 47 almost succeeded with an experiment in mid-November. Three days of recording on the Fox scoring stage with a 75-piece orchestra for the film “The Age of Adaline” were scheduled and, in lieu of residuals, a 25% boost in upfront wages had been negotiated. AFM president Ray Hair canceled the sessions when he learned that Lionsgate, which the union has targeted as one of the biggest offenders — only rarely using union musicians — was going to distribute the film.

Acosta, the incoming Local 47 president, says his administration will press for another experiment along those lines. “We’ve got to try anything and everything to stem the tide,” he says.

But, he adds, any change in policy must be met by commitments from the other side. “If we are making changes to our agreements, or giving concessions, what are we getting in return? If we could bring work to Los Angeles under the right conditions, I think musicians would be open to something like a buyout. But any discussion about that is very sensitive and has to be approached in a way that the numbers work out.”

Hair and reps from Local 47 and the RMA are meeting this week with AMPTP execs to hammer out a new three-year deal with the AFM. As they are still negotiating, Hair would only say, “We are determined to improve employment opportunities and the economics of the agreement.”

Asked directly about the possibility of the buyout again being tried in L.A., Hair says: “Whatever the AFM does has to be driven by the rank and file. Those who are doing the work have to weigh in on any kind of direction we take. We will have that conversation together and then decide what to do.”