An open letter to all professional musicians Dec 12, 2008 16:43:16 GMT -5
Post by Ribbs on Dec 12, 2008 16:43:16 GMT -5
December 11, 2008
Happy holidays and greetings to all of my fellow musicians,
I am writing this letter to give my particular viewpoint on the ongoing controversy regarding the exacting of work dues on the special payments fund - and then to go much further afield to the future of our union and our industry.
First allow me to introduce myself. I am a reasonably successful composer for motion pictures and television with over fifty credits, including Dr. Dolittle, The Simpsons, Queen of the Damned, and Battlestar Galactica. The movies I have scored have in total pulled in over one billion dollars in box office receipts. I was the keyboardist for the band Oingo Boingo for five years and also worked as a session player on hundreds of albums and television and motion picture soundtracks. I have also occasionally served as a record producer, producing Eisley and Korn most recently.
I have always been a staunch supporter of our union. As a composer I have successfully managed on a few occasions to bring projects into the union realm that were slated and budgeted to be recorded non-union. I have also walked away from projects on occasion because they were non-union. The films I have scored have provided some millions of dollars of session payments and subsequent ancillary funds to the pockets of well-deserving musicians over the years. I am humbled to have been the beneficiary of the talented performances of union players throughout my composing career and proud to have contributed in my small way to the welfare of our musical community - and proud to call myself a professional musician and, until recently, a member of AFM Local 47.
So what happened?
A few years back the AFM, under Tom Lee’s stewardship, decided that it was necessary to levy work dues on the special payments fund checks that recording musicians receive each year. Seeing as how these checks are based on session payments that have already had relatively hefty work dues deducted from them this struck me as a type of double taxation. So I called a few of my session player friends and learned that I was not the only one perturbed by this new unwarranted fee and that there was a movement afoot to right this wrong. I was also told that hundreds of recording musicians were refusing to pay these dues in hopes that the union could be brought to its senses. Heeding the advice of my friends, and desiring to stand with my brethren, I simply ignored the request for this onerous charge.
The union began to send notices threatening to terminate the membership of any musician who continued to refuse to pay the special payments work dues. Most musicians capitulated because they could not afford to be banned from performing on union scores. As a composer, however, the union had no such leverage on me and I was encouraged by my recording musician friends to continue my refusal to pay. I wrote a carefully considered letter to Tom Lee, giving my bona fides and imploring him to reconsider the divisive and unfair approach the union was taking vis-à-vis recording musicians. My missive was ignored. I attended a contentious meeting at Local 47 where members were complaining that not enough was being done to pressure composers to hire union orchestras. I also heard that some of my fellow composers and orchestrators were being investigated by the union for recording in non-union locales such as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and London. Fearing of tar and feathers, I stood up at that meeting and stated that, in my experience, the location of recording sessions or whether they were run as union sessions was only very rarely within the realm of influence of the composer (as I stated before, I have managed to bring a few projects into the union fold, but they were relatively small independent films). I pointed out that major studio finances and politics are way beyond the scope of a composer and that it would be very hard to look an exec or producer in the eye and say that recording their score in L.A. with union players would make an appreciable difference in the quality of their film or their bottom line. Of course I was rabblerousing a bit to say this, but honestly who would hear the subtle difference between the violins in Prague and Los Angeles once the music is mixed behind the dialog and tire squeals? I continued my rant, reflecting that the union New Use payment rules were making it very difficult for a composer to get an orchestral soundtrack commercially released, providing composers a considerable incentive to actually record non-union. My words were not exactly happily received.
After months of threatening letters from the union I received a letter stating that my membership had been suspended for non-payment of the new work dues on special payments and that I could no longer record on any union session. My accountant called the union to ask that since I was no longer a member of the union, could I now record non-union sessions anywhere I pleased with impunity? The lady on the other end sputtered ‘well, yes, I guess he can…’
Other issues came to the fore as I ruminated on a composer’s relationship with the AFM. It has always bothered me that composers are treated in terms of union payments and benefits as second-class citizens. On any orchestral score typically my orchestrators and copyists earn more hours (and hence benefits) than I do as a composer. Think about this for a second. Does that really seem fair? The only way for most composers to qualify for health and welfare benefits is to put themselves down on the contracts as additional orchestrators. Clearly a composer spends very much more time writing a score than the orchestrator or copyist does, yes?
The bigger problem is that composers do not have their own guild or union. Running our fees and benefits thru the musicians union would be analogous to screenwriters or directors being paid thru SAG. It truly doesn’t make sense for composers to be represented by the same union as the people that we hire, but it makes even less sense for that union to then underpay the composers, persecute them, and marginalize them. Doesn’t seem too smart.
Ultimately, though, these issues are all penny ante compared to what we are really facing – a radical devaluing of music in the world and the ongoing and expanding assault on intellectual property rights via the internet. Clearly we are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when arguing over dues payments while the entire entertainment industry is heading towards the same iceberg that has already scuttled the record industry. Film and television is next and the ocean is freezing cold.
The good news is that there are fixes for this mess. Monetizing the internet is not all that difficult to do from a technical and logistical standpoint. The problem is that we need union leaders with the political backbone and savvy to force legislation thru that will protect and enhance all of the entertainment industry – indeed, all intellectual property rights. There are very intelligent people fighting for the other side, pushing for free dissemination of information of all sorts on the web. Their argument seems to be that the internet and free downloads are suddenly some kind of God-given right, not the DARPA (hence government) created behemoth that it is. One solution would be for all internet service providers to charge a mandatory monthly fee for unlimited downloads to all customers and apportion the funds acquired thereby to the respective copyright holders according to the number of downloads of each copyright. Another would be to have ‘tiered’ internet service, similar to the cable and satellite dish systems in place now.
None of this will happen without considerable effort to win our case in the public forum and hence to enact legislation that will protect the arts from the rampant thievery that is eviscerating our industry. Music and entertainment are not going away – the average kid has twenty times the number of songs on his iPod than that same kid would have had in his CD collection ten years ago. They just aren’t paying for it. Not one red cent. There are many figures floating around, but it appears safe to say that 97% of music acquisition on the web is done without any remuneration going to the creators of that music. So who is making money here? The ISPs, for starters, are cleaning up while charging monthly fees for access to services that allow people to pirate music at will. According to one survey I read there are approximately 91.7 million monthly subscribers in the U.S. alone paying monthly fees to their ISPs. And that survey did not even include universities and government institutions. The ISPs are, in turn, leasing their bandwidth from even larger and more profitable companies. Apple Computers’ signature product, the iPod, is approaching 200 million total units sold, helping to drive that company’s annual revenue to over $24 billion. The list goes on and on. Yet where would any of these companies be without artistic content? Steve Jobs has stated that only 3% of the music on the average iPod has been purchased thru iTunes – the rest is ripped or pirated. Our fight is not with the public – it is with the corporations that are making money hand over fist by the sweat off our furrowed brows and it is with the government that allows it to happen.
I read somewhere that the number one and number two exports of the United States are arms (tanks, bombs, planes) and entertainment (movies, sports, music). To heck with the auto industry – if the entertainment industry is allowed to fail due to improper legislation this country is going down the financial tubes in a very big way.
I realize that I have long ago veered off the subject of special payments work dues, but if our union was looking at the big picture I, for one, would gladly pay those dues and much more to ensure the future of our industry and way of life.
Our union is at a unique crossroads in its history. We should be leading the fight, by every means necessary, to establish a new view of filesharing – a misnomer if ever there was one (how about ‘filestealing’ instead?). Our union should be working in lockstep with SAG, AFTRA, the WGA, DGA, Producers Guild and the major studios to lobby congress and our new president to stop this sanctioned thievery. It can be done and it must be done for the future of our industry and our country.
I propose that we organize creative artists of all types under one umbrella – the League of the Arts, if you will – to establish laws that will allow artists to make a living in the near and distant future and to enrich the lives of all citizens. Our fractured guilds and unions need to come together to speak as one voice to our government – all of the me-too quibbling has weakened our cause beyond hope. In addition we should all sign the petition to our new president that proposes the creation of a cabinet level position for the Secretary of the Arts - www.PetitionOnline.com/esnyc/petition.html
I also propose a radical call to action – The Day of Sharing. Since file’sharing’ has been tacitly sanctioned by our government, I propose we declare a day in the near future – The Day of Sharing – where we ALL share the fruits of each others’ labors. Every musician and every human who supports this cause will, on this day, ‘share’ whatever they like. Order your favorite meal from your local bistro, eat it, and walk out. Test drive a car and simply keep driving. Fill your pockets with candy from the 7-11, whatever you think is fair. Don’t forget to thank the proprietors for sharing, though, and let them know that you like the Snickers bar and that next time you might just pay for it out of kindness and generosity. And just in case you are beginning to feel a little guilty, warm the cockles of your heart by thinking of all of those wonderful pieces of music that you helped to create that are residing in the restaurant owner’s iPod and his kids’ iPods, the gas station owner’s laptop – think of all that beautiful sharing you have already done. On the Day of Sharing you will have the chance to spread the wonderful warmth that only comes with sharing – with everyone! More on this idea to come. The Day of Sharing is coming.
Now the special payments work dues are back (after being told last time that those same dues were not going to be imposed again) and our union (or should I say your union, as I am not a member now) is more divided than ever. I implore my fellow musicians and the leadership of the AFM and RMA to rethink their approach and work together to bring music to the world in a way that is fair for all.
Thank you for your time and consideration. Please forward this to anybody you think would find it interesting, add your own thoughts, and please don’t hesitate to respond. Time for some serious dialog and very serious action. Now.
Respectfully, contentiously, and hopefully,