How The Musicians Union Blew It

Steve Goodson

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As a matter of full disclosure, I’ve been a member of the AFM since 1966, and have served as a member of a local board of directors, been to several national conventions and regional conferences, and in the 1980′s was a full time, salaried employee, working as business agent for my home local….. I’m currently a member in good standing of Local 174, and will be eligible for Life Member benefits in a few years….. somehow, I feel our union has lost its sense of direction and purpose….

Have you tried calculating the appropriate pay scale and fees for a casual gig lately? Cartage for large instruments, doublers fees for additional instruments, rehearsal fees, leaders fees, mileage to the gig, and a separate check for the mandatory pension fund contribution. I would think that any full time musician would be aware of all of these costs, and it would not be necessary to itemize them, but that’s just me……if I have to haul my bass saxophone to a gig, you can be sure I’m going to charge you more…..same thing if the gig is in Houston instead of a few blocks away in New Orleans……If I’m the leader, you can be assured that I won’t be working for the same wages as the guitar player….all of this is just part of the job, IMHO.

When the multimedia explosion took place in the 1990′s and it became much easier to distribute product, the union should have seen it coming but didn’t. They continued to operate under the old system, where there was no internet, no MP3′s, no YouTube….they tried to make it as difficult as possible to do business with a union band, erecting more and more hoops for the talent buyer or contractor to jump through….and as a result, union membership and influence dropped like a stone. They can’t even afford to publish that spiffy members magazine any longer.

The mistake, IMHO, was that they didn’t make the concept of using union membership a brand, which had certain unique qualities that could not be found in non-union players. There really are no standards of quality for union players, and they let in an awful lot of people who should not be admitted. They also could go a long way in making the actual business of music easier for both buyers and sellers, but they don’t. Why, they could even help members obtain work…..but they don’t……they cling to their complicated pay scale books and do their best to strong arm entertainment buyers. No real effort is made to recruit young players just entering the business, or recruit anybody, for that matter.

In my vision, the union should operate more like a craft guild, but they choose to go down the path to oblivion. Is it too late to change the course? Probably, but it might be worth a shot.


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