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Musicians Union Seeks Streaming Residuals as New Pact Negotiations Begin

AFM rally
Linda A. Rapka / Courtesy AFM Local 47

Studio musicians, who begin negotiations on a new contract with producers today, are seeking something they have never had: residual payments for programs made specifically for streaming platforms.

American Federation of Musicians (AFM) officials gained support from fellow show-business unions SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America at a rally attended by about 100 this morning outside the offices of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

The AFM has long enjoyed residual payments for playing on movie scores. Those musicians currently playing on John Williams’ score for “Star Wars IX,” for example, will see residual payments when that film goes to DVD and cable. But those who are playing on the sessions for another “Star Wars” project, “The Mandalorian,” currently being made for the Disney+ streaming service, will not.

Speakers at the rally repeatedly cited the unfairness of the musicians’ situation, considering actors, writers, directors and even singers on streaming shows receive residuals — additional payments when their work is repeated over months and years. Should producers refuse, it could amount to a wage cut of “50 to 75 percent,” violinist Marc Sazer, president of the AFM’s Recording Musicians Association, estimated. “Two-thirds of our income is from residuals,” he reported.

Nearly $70 billion will be spent this year on streaming content by Disney, NBC Universal, Warner Media, Netflix, Amazon and other suppliers, AFM president Ray Hair told the crowd, “and the cost of musicians for scoring, against these numbers, is microscopic.

“It is time for fairness for musicians who work in streaming media,” Hair said. “There will not be labor peace with the producers until they make a deal with us.”

SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris also addressed the musicians gathered. “As an actor and audience member, I recognize the incredible work you do as musicians and what it means to our work, regardless of where it is heard. Your fight is our fight,” she said.

WGA board member Betsy Thomas pledged her union’s support too. “Our ideas come to life when instrumentalists pour their artistry into the music,” she said. “We cannot stand by while studios treat our fellow artists, who work on the scoring stage, like second-class citizens.”

Music for such streaming series as “House of Cards” (Netflix), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu) and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon Prime) is recorded by union musicians, who are paid an upfront fee but receive no “back end” payments like successful film and TV projects that find afterlife in other media. The latter generate “secondary-market residuals” of 1% of the distributor’s gross, generally considered 20% of actual revenues (meaning, musicians earn 1% of that 20%, which amounted to $115 million last year, according to Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund statistics).

The AFM’s current contract with the AMPTP expires Nov. 14. Musicians are currently covered by an extension to their 2015-2018 contract.

Musicians, said the AFM’s Hair, “are the people the producers depend on to establish an emotional bond with the consumer. We are not truck drivers. We are not carpenters. We are not stage managers. We are special.”

Singers are represented by SAG-AFTRA so, curiously, “the singers that sing on the same project that we work on, performing music by the same composer, get a residual, while the AFM members who orchestrated, copied and prepared the parts they sing from do not,” Sazer explained.

The musicians’ union has been gathering support from top composers and filmmakers as they pursue this goal. John Williams, Quincy Jones, Alan Menken, J.J. Abrams and Damien Chazelle are among those sending letters in support of the streaming-residual clause.

Said Randy Newman, an outspoken advocate for L.A. musicians for many years: “As studios and producers are in the process of formulating new schedules for the distribution of income from streaming, they have yet to acknowledge the fact that musicians are their creative partners and deserve to have, at the least, a tiny piece of the pie. Clearly musicians are part of the ‘talent’ yet they are not rewarded like the singers who record the same music in the same room.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), in a letter last week to both sides, also asked for “fair compensation and revenue sharing for musicians who work on streaming films and television shows, [an agreement] which modernizes payment structures to account for changing sources of revenue.”

A similar rally was held this afternoon outside NBC Universal’s Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in Manhattan. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, “The parties are still far apart. But I believe strongly that there is still time for both parties to come together for an equitable agreement and I urge all parties to continue to negotiate and talk. Despite the immense success of streaming platforms, production companies like Disney, Warner Media, NBC/Universal and CBS/Viacom are paying musicians a fraction of what we get on traditional platforms such as in theaters and on network television.”

An AMPTP spokesman declined comment.