Music and the State of the Union

Musicians at Sunset

I’m a music lover for as long as I can remember and can’t imagine being without it; comparable to needing oxygen to breathe. From the “boomer” generation, I grew up listening to rock n’ roll, R&B, jazz and an assortment of ethnic, country, classical and American standards. My heart and apartment are filled with a colossal collection of songs, melodies, and recordings that have a priceless value to me. You might have the same persistent attachment to music as I do, but even if you’re not quite as obsessed with it as I am, you probably have a few favorite songs or a genre of music you enjoy most. No doubt there will always be the recordings and the compositions and arrangements of music created in the past, but what about current and new artists, composers, arrangers and professional musicians? By this I mean – is there a secure future for the gifted and talented people who make music their chosen way of life?

For example, the artist Aloe Blacc is also an activist on the side of the composers and arrangers to get paid a fair amount in royalties for their music played on digital streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify. Though Aloe Blacc is able to make a comfortable living with his record company and licensing deals with film and TV distribution for his work, he brought to my attention and the attention of thousands of music lovers that digital streaming services pay a minuscule amount in royalties for the number of plays or streams of an artist’s song.  An article in Wired that was published on November 5, 2014, titled “Aloe Blacc: Streaming Services Needs to Pay Songwriters Fairly,” identified it takes approximately one million streams (plays) of a song to generate $90 in royalties for the songwriter. After 168 million streams in the US of Avicii’s release of “Wake Me Up,” for which Aloe Blacc was a co-writer, the royalties amounted to $12,359 and after splitting those royalties among two other songwriters and the publisher, Aloe Blacc’s cut was $4000. That is hardly enough to survive as a music artist, especially if you are an emerging talent, in which case you might receive considerably less if your song isn’t streamed over a hundred million times. Aloe Blacc and many other artists are supporting a change in legislation that will raise the amount of royalties paid for digital music streaming.

That is one of many hard realities in the music business in today, which is stifling to creativity and the future of music. If new and even established professional music artists can’t make an acceptable living by composing, recording and performing music, they have to resort to working many hours earning an income doing non-music jobs. That’s valuable creative time they no longer have, but it’s a common and practical position that artists survive by. I value the creative arts and know that it is an essential part of a fulfilling, enjoyable and balanced life. Unfortunately, the downturn in funds for creative arts programs in public schools in the USA sends a bitter message to artists that their talent is not important or valuable. It’s different in Canada, where this year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supported adding $1.9 billion dollars to the national budget for the creative arts and said, “Investing in the Canadian cultural sector helps to create jobs, strengthens the economy and ensures that the unique Canadian perspective is shared with the world.”

Focusing on one sector of the music profession, the musician, I delved into how the definition of that career may have changed due to current trends. The IRS reports that nearly a million people in the United States declare their occupation as musician. The AFM (American Federation of Musicians) has over 250 local chapters in the US and Canada with a total membership of over 80,000 members. Local 47 in Los Angeles has approximately 7,000 members down from 10,000 which peaked in the ‘70s. Being a union member has not been a sought-after “gig” for a player, at least in Los Angeles, for many years. The decline may have begun in the 1980s when a Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit between the AFM and a venue to determine the employer responsible for workers compensation and disability for a musician who was injured while working. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the venue (a hotel), deciding they were not the employer; the union contractor (band leader) was the employer of the musician and responsible for workers comp and disability for the employee (musician). The Supreme Court also demanded that the AFM send out a communication to all of their local chapters that they can no longer honor this type of contract between band leaders and venues. Overnight, that wiped out union contracts with venues that hired bands for entertainment and now those venues have the choice of what they would pay musicians.

As the biographer of the book You’ve Heard These Hands, about the life and career of jazz master Don Randi, I learned about the important role that the AFM Local 47 played in the careers of recording session musicians; at least during the pop music explosion of the sixties.  Don Randi was a member of the phenomenal group of session musicians in the Wall of Sound band also known as The Wrecking Crew. These musicians played on almost every song you heard in the ‘60s. Don (keyboards) worked as a first call session player starting with producer Phil Spector on “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals in 1962. From there, Don went on to play on over a thousand hit recordings for Brian Wilson, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, the Jackson 5 and many more. Don also performed with his band at many popular jazz clubs in Los Angeles during the 1960s, opened his own jazz club in 1970 (The Baked Potato), and most of those clubs paid bands under union contracts. Don is a living part of music history and is a proactive AFM union member. In the early 1970s, he was hired to work on a Motown Records recording session and it was one of the first sessions booked in Los Angeles after Motown moved their headquarters to Hollywood. When the session was over, Motown sent a “representative” to the studio to pay the musicians cash for the date. Don Randi stood up and refused to accept the cash and demanded a union contractor come and handle the forms that would make the session union compliant. The other union musicians on the date stood by Don and also demanded to be paid under a union contract. Only one musician on that date was non-union, bass player James Jamerson, who moved to Los Angeles and became a member of the AFM for the first time after years of playing for cash in Detroit on Motown gigs. James was a member of the famous Funk Brothers who played on all of the big Motown hits in the 1960s. Don heard that many musicians in Detroit had been exploited and left out of their union benefits and was not about to let that carry over to Los Angeles. Because he did so much work under union contracts, Don can receive social security, a pension and has medical benefits. Don Randi still gets calls for recording sessions and performs live with his band Quest. He can also enjoy the time and resources he has in retirement to compose, arrange and record new music projects.

In contrast, Bill Spoke, a drummer and AFM Local 47 member, moved to Los Angeles in 1980 with dreams of “making it” in the music biz.  He grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a small “steel town” just outside of Pittsburgh and caught the fever to play drums at the age of 14 when his musical passion hit him like lightning – and he still feels that passion today. He started his career playing in cover bands while still in high school and his first was a local band that played Top 40, seventies rock hits from Grand Funk Railroad, Doobie Brothers, Led Zeppelin, etc. After high school, he went to the Art Institute in Pittsburgh because he also loved to draw, but while he was going to art school he met a guy who played keyboards from Baden, Pennyslvania (a town right next to Aliquippa) and they formed a band and became good friends while playing clubs on the weekends. Even though Bill finished art school, his heart was in music so he played in more bands and made a decent living gigging at popular clubs. At that time in the mid-’70s he played progressive rock music like Genesis and ELP. His music career hit a high point when he became the drummer for a funk, pop and R&B band called Hot Ice that toured the Northeast Coast. Hot Ice had a large fan base and their gigs included playing hotels and resorts and the bigger nightclubs in the larger cities they were booked. After a couple of years touring, Bill decided to enroll at the Berklee College of Music in Boston because he was serious about developing his musical skills and talent further and it paid off; Bill enhanced his drum technique, got proficient at sight reading music and learned the art of jazz improvisation. Not long after he graduated from the Berklee College of Music, he moved to Los Angeles with friends from his hometown area.

Bill Spoke was an AFM union member of the local in Pittsburgh and when he moved to Los Angeles he joined Local 47. LA is a tough town to break into and he had to take other jobs to augment his small income from gigs in town. Bill also found out that he had to “pay to play” at some venues like the Whiskey and Roxy on Sunset Boulevard. He never had to do that in Pennsylvania or while he toured the east coast; all of those gigs were union contracts. Though discouraged by the music scene in LA, Bill didn’t let that hold him back from playing with a number of bands through the years playing many different music styles, including a “pop-a-billy” band (rock-a-billy and pop music fusion).

[amazon template=right aligned image&asin=B01BGDXOFC]I asked Bill why he remains a union member when most of the gigs he has played since moving to Los Angeles are non-union. He explained his father and most everyone in his hometown were members of the steelworkers union so it has always been a part of his culture, and being an AFM union member is being part of a professional organization with other musicians who live and breathe music. He networks with other union musicians and he uses the facilities like the rehearsal rooms that rent for a very low fee. Bill met Gary Herbig through Local 47, a phenomenal sax and clarinet player with credits for top TV show themes (Cheers and Roseanne) and multi-million selling hit records for George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Donna Summer and more. Bill and Gary formed a jazz quintet and currently play clubs around the Los Angeles area. Bill also plays in a blues band. While Bill is always ready and eligible to take union gigs, he’s happy playing drums in his current bands and lives modestly and happily with his wife, Junko, in Hollywood.

There are thousands of non-union professional musicians in Los Angeles and many of those players are working recording sessions and gigs without a union contract. I interviewed guitarist Jef Villauna about his experience as an independent, non-union guitarist. Jef grew up in Southern California; inspired by the film La Bamba, he started playing guitar at the age of ten (’96). Even at that young age, roots (’50s & ’60s) R&B and rock ‘n’ roll became his music obsession and learned to play the styles of Chuck Berry, Richie Valens and Bo Diddley by ear. In 1998, Jef was ready to try out for the jazz ensemble at his middle school and that is where he learned the basics of improvisation and he started to appreciate and learn the jazz styles of Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and George Benson.

Jef didn’t have ambitions, at first, of becoming a professional musician (Jef went to Cal State Los Angeles and received his Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration), but a turning point came in 2009 when a friend of his recommended he audition for MTV’s Making the Band reality show featuring P Diddy. He made it on the show all the way to the semi-finals. Though he was eliminated, Jef felt he went a long way considering he was up against guitarists who were already pros and had a career history of playing with known artists. Jef was a true unknown and novice guitarist until that show, but later he would realize that playing music professionally was his goal and purpose in life. Fast forward to 2012 when Jef stopped working non-music jobs to become a full-time musician and played on Earth Wind and Fire’s Now, Then & Forever album, toured with Jhene Aiko, and over the next three years some of the artists Jef has played guitar with were Xzibit, Kristina DeBarge, Stevie Wonder, Jenifer Lopez and on TV shows Ellen, Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live and music festivals Lollapalooza and Coachella.

Though Jef never joined the AFM Local 47, a few of his gigs were union contract; particularly the TV shows mentioned which are all union shows. He got paid according to union terms in pay scale and it covered standard tax deductions, and it also covers Jef for any payments owed to him for re-air of the show under a union contract. Jef’s choice to become a full-time professional guitarist was for the love and excitement of playing music; he never looked at his music career through the lens of a traditional job with the less exciting labels of stability, pension and benefits. He heard negative stories from fellow players about the costs and harassment by the union to push them into joining. In fact, he has turned down union gigs because he doesn’t want the stigma of “union player” associated with his name since many artists are going towards working strictly non-union and doesn’t want to lose out on playing gigs for them. Jef Villaluna’s music career continues to rise as he is booked for many independent gigs and makes a comfortable living doing what he loves, playing guitar.

The Union

Rick Baptist, trumpet player and Vice President of AFM Local 47 has been a professional musician for over 35 years. His prolific music career includes playing on over 1250 motion pictures, 30 years on the Academy Awards show, 28 years on the Grammy Awards show, more than 5000 animated TV shows, and over one hundred gold and platinum records and more; all on union contracts. As VP, Rick focuses on educating young up-and-coming musicians and music students on the many benefits of being a professional musician and member of the AFM. He finds most independent musicians do not realize the real benefits they can have playing on projects that are under a union contract. Rick’s career is obviously far and above what most musicians dream of and he’s reaping the rewards of his work. Though he was paid well when he played on sessions for TV show themes, movies, and commercials, he still receives royalties every time a show, movie or commercial re-broadcasts, thanks to the union contracts. A couple of examples Rick gave me were the Family Guy and The Simpsons themes. Rick hopes through sharing his exciting and rewarding experiences as a trumpet player, he inspires talented musicians to consider a professional career in music as an AFM member. Though Rick makes clear the union is not an employment agency, there are opportunities listed for union members on the site Gig Junction, which is a job referral service administered by Local 47.

John Acosta, the President of AFM Local 47 since 2014, is a guitar player who grew up in the Bronx, New York and came from a musical background; his father, Juan Acosta was born in Cuba and played percussion with Tito Puente. His father left Cuba in the late ’60s in a small boat that sailed to Mexico and from there he immigrated to the US and made his way to New York. When John was born in New York, his father was touring with Tito Puente, La Lupe and Celia Cruz. In elementary school, John’s music training began with playing flute and saxophone in his school orchestra and they performed at Carnegie Hall. John had many musical influences while growing up; his father played Latin jazz and Beatles records and John became a fan of the Bronx-based rap/hip-hop artists that were emerging and he also loved Ska bands. In high school, he started playing guitar and formed a band. At the age of 16, John was playing with his band in nightclubs in Manhattan. A year later he moved to Los Angeles with a record deal that his manager had made for him. In LA, he began his recording career working as a composer, guitarist, producer and engineer for artists signed to major labels like Geffen, Warner Brothers, and Capitol Records.

In 2003, John started working for Local 47 as a business rep. Just five years later he became the vice president and six years later president inheriting a downsized staff, a liquidation of some investments and assets just to keep the union in business and a steep dip in revenue due to the sharp decline in film and television contracts. This was a dire era for Local 47 and its new president. The property on Vine Street in Hollywood that’s been Local 47’s home for over 65 years is very valuable, but the main office building and auditorium need hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, maintenance and mandatory earthquake safety building code upgrades. These conditions led the union board members to recommend the property be sold and move to a new location to avoid debt. The union members voted and authorized the sale and move of Local 47 headquarters by a majority vote which allows the union to make a profit and invest a substantial amount of funds in protecting the continuance of the union for many years to come as well as purchase a new contemporary office building in Burbank that will have all of the same amenities and space that they currently have but in an earthquake safe and fully modernized office space. The move is planned for later in 2016.

Besides the location change of Local 47, John is supporting a shift in the philosophy of the union. He believes the union will evolve and serve members better if they shed the service model they have been functioning under and operate as an organizing unit. The service model is where the member requests a union representative go to a non-union employer and requires them to hire musicians under a union contract. The service model is one reason the union (and other AFL-CIO unions) has a poor public image from claims of “strong arm” tactics being used to persuade venues, production companies and record companies to become union compliant. The organizing model is the way most other labor unions work; the members have the power to request a non-union employer become a union contract employer.  In the organizing model all members of the union, including the union reps, work together to support an individual member in persuading a non-union employer to become union compliant. Don Randi demonstrated the organizing model over 40 years ago on that Motown recording date mentioned before. This model also worked recently when a group of Local 47 union members went to the television series location of Transparent and convinced the production company to become an AFM union show.

Changing the culture of the musicians who are and aren’t members of the AFM is a tougher challenge. John explained that musicians, like actors, writers and directors, all identify themselves as artists, which they are, but when they accomplish their art on a project or performance where they are paid then they are also workers or employees. Musicians should expect fair wages, a safe and comfortable work environment with basic facilities that all workers expect on any job. These artists should have benefits like health insurance, social security, disability and unemployment benefits as well as an employer paid pension. Those are the basics that the AFM as well as SAG/AFTRA, the Writers Guild, and the Directors Guild provide for their members under union contract jobs. But there are significant differences between the AFM and these other creative arts unions. One is the initiation fee – to join AFM Local 47 the initiation fee is $140, to join SAG/AFTRA the initiation fee is $3000 and the other guilds initiation fees are thousands of dollars higher. If an actor/member were to work a non-union acting job, for instance, they could jeopardize their SAG/AFTRA membership and none of the initiation fee would be returned if their union membership is canceled by the guild. Musicians who are members of Local 47 often work non-union gigs, sometimes making substantial amounts of income, however, the union does not cancel members for doing non-union work. Also, if a non-member works a gig that is union, such as a TV show, they will be paid according to the union contract, but they are not required to join Local 47.  They will be invited to join under Taft-Hartley, but it is their choice to join or not and it does not leave them out of working on a union job. John would like to see more musicians view their lives as an artist and worker and become proactive union members. One situation that John hopes Local 47 members will change is to eliminate in Los Angeles the “pay-to-play” practice that many venues use to exploit musicians. Through the organizing model, Local 47’s visibility and influence can become a force for major positive change for its members.

It seems that the AFM is trying to serve and protect musicians’ interests so they can go about composing, recording and performing while millions of fans keep listening to and purchasing their songs. I know not all of the music I love was or will be created by union musicians but I certainly hope they all get paid fairly for their creativity so they can keep on playing.

– Karen “Nish” Nishimura

Originally Published at

Photo Credit: Image of musicians at sunset courtesy of Pixabay.

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