The Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund, which collects and distributes residuals to union musicians who play on films and TV shows, will mark its 50th anniversary in 2022.

It’s become a financial lifeline for many musicians, from helping them to achieve financial security to being a primary income source during their retirement years.

Every July 1, the FMSMF sends checks to nearly 17,000 working musicians, retired musicians, and the beneficiaries of musicians who’ve passed away.

According to executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, this money constitutes about 1 percent of the so-called “producers’ gross receipts” from the sale of a film or TV show into a “secondary market”: free TV, cable TV, streaming services, home video or other venues. (Musicians are not entitled to share in profits from the original box office take.)

This all started around 1960 when producers wanted to sell their movies to TV but faced opposition from actors, writers, directors and craftspeople who asked to be repaid when their work appeared in another medium.

Producers came up with this concept — a small percentage of the profits from licensing the work — and it has become standard practice in the industry since that time. The FMSMF functions as a middleman between the American Federation of Musicians (the union representing professional players) and the various studios, networks and independent producers who are signatories to AFM agreements calling for these payments.

“We are a non-profit payroll house that acts like a multi-employer pension plan,” Hedgpeth explains. “We’re a one-stop shop. If you are a musician who did a score at Sony one day, at Fox another day, and at Warner Bros. another day, and your [initial] checks might be coming from all kinds of different places, when it comes to residuals, you only need to look for one check from us.”

The amounts range from a few hundred dollars to – in some cases, where older musicians have worked on many popular films – sums running into the hundreds of thousands.

The fund has seen an ever-growing allotment of money owed to the musicians. Back in 1988, it distributed about $10 million. By 2000, the figure had grown to $43 million and in 2019 it broke the $100 million mark. This year the amount was nearly $109 million (based on total collections from the producers of $124 million).

“There is no question that the growth in residuals is primarily driven by streaming,” Hedgpeth points out. About 40 percent of the monies currently being collected represent streaming options, suggesting “more product is being moved into secondary markets to a greater extent than in prior years.”

And that money is key for a professional player to survive in today’s marketplace, says Recording Musicians Association international president Marc Sazer. “When you’re first starting out, it’s an important enticement to a solid career,” he says. “Once you’ve developed a career, it’s absolutely essential to be able to raise a family, have a home and lead a middle-class life. And for thousands of retired musicians, it’s a fundamental part of their retirement.”

Last year, in the midst of the pandemic when no one was working, Sazer adds, “the fund did something unprecedented and, frankly, heroic. They distributed that year’s residuals checks months early, and it literally saved people’s lives.”

As Hedgpeth explains: “Musicians suddenly woke up one day and all their jobs were gone. We were the only place that could provide some income to musicians who were just stranded when the industry shut down in March.” The FMSMF staff scrambled and, because they could actually still work in their Encino offices (having been declared “critical infrastructure” for the business, like the Screen Actors Guild), managed to issue checks on May 22 ahead of the traditional July 1 date.

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Courtesy of FMSMF

Oboist Lara Wickes remembers getting her first FMSMF check in 2010. She was struggling to make a living as a professional musician, juggling recording dates, live performances and teaching. But she had played on the score for James Cameron’s blockbuster “Avatar,” and its sale to cable, DVD and other markets resulted in a $3,000 check, which was “huge” at the time, she recalls.

This money “makes our community better, more comfortable and more able to focus on music-making rather than just survival,” Wickes says. “It feels like I’ve made a much more meaningful contribution if I’m being compensated in a way that’s parallel to the actors and writers and so forth.”

Music plays a major role in the artistic triumph or failure of any visual-media project, so for the musicians to share in any financial success is well deserved, execs say. (Imagine, for example, “Titanic” minus James Horner’s Oscar-winning score, or “Jaws” without John Williams’ now-iconic shark theme, both recorded with L.A. union players.)

Says AFM Local 47 President Stephanie O’Keefe: “The Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund supports musicians in two very important ways. It allows musicians to share in the tangible profits of successful projects, but perhaps more importantly it recognizes their contributions to the great American art of filmmaking.”

“Some of the best musicians in the world are here,” notes Dennis Dreith, who was administrator of the fund from 1999 to 2014. “The talent pool is incredible. What you get in three hours (recording time) here would take you three or four times as long” in cheaper, mostly overseas, recording locales, he points out.

Adds Wickes: “Everybody in the room, on any recording project, has spent tens of thousands of hours perfecting their craft in order to even be considered (for a recording session).

“The best orchestras in the world are also the best-paid orchestras and that’s not a coincidence,” she notes. “A freelancer who does this work can make a salary that’s on par with a top-notch orchestra. And we’ve got to keep the standards as high as we can.”

Hedgpeth is constantly stressing to producers that “residuals payable to this fund won’t break the bank. It’s a small percentage. If the film doesn’t do well, the percentage is probably negligible. And if you’re paying $1 million in residuals, that means you’ve already made $100 million.”