Union Burying Ground: the end of an era?

Being a musician is not always easy. You are often self-employed, and unless you are a business savvy musician, odds are big you will not have a pension or proper healthcare plan. Besides that, the wages are irregular and unfortunately are often heard to be on the low side. Luckily, as a musician you can join a union, for those specific reasons. They regulate minimum wages, have a pension and healthcare plan, and help musicians network and get work (AFM, n.d.). However, for audio and visual production companies, these unions can sometimes form a hurdle in the production process, one they would rather bypass, often for financial reasons. The question is, can companies evade the unions, and are unions still even relevant in today’s age?

One such audio and visual production company is Crazy Good Studios (CGS); The company is looking to make (hit) recordings and produce TV shows and movies in the hopes to exploit these products through (major) record labels, (TV) networks, streaming platforms and perhaps even cinematic releases. CGS was founded by JD Dorfman, an author, comedian, and artist who graduated from Saint Joseph’s University (Crazy Good Studios, n.d.). Since Dorfman lives in Pennsylvania (Twitter, 2021), one can assume the company is situated there. Pennsylvania is not a ‘right to work’ state (Houlis, n.d.), which means musicians that are engaged for work here must abide by union rates and rules. There are two such unions CGS will most likely have to engage with, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), and the SAG-AFTRA which is a merger between the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). 

The AFM was founded in 1896 and started with 3000 members (AFM, n.d.). Since then they have represented many professional musicians, with over 80,000 current members (Facebook, 2021). They have an infamous history, involving long lasting strikes and hard negotiations with TV and movie studios, record labels and other parties (Anderson, 2004).

The SAG-AFTRA is, as was mentioned before, a merger between two separate unions, completed in 2008, to increase their total bargaining power (Boyenne Law, 2015). Whilst the AFM is mainly focussed on musicians, the SAG-AFTRA is mainly focussed on vocalists (in addition to actors, journalists, DJ’s, influencers and more non-music roles) (SAG-AFTRA, n.d). Both unions were founded in the 1930’s and have proudly served their members since (SAG-AFTRA, n.d.).

The question arises, whether or not unions are still necessary and viable in today’s modern world? Or are they a notion of the past? An argument working against the unions seems to be that the unions are not widely known throughout the industry, especially not in their target audience, with Lady Gaga saying in 2016 “We don’t have a union as artists” (Leight, 2019), while conventionally Gaga would have become a member of the SAG-AFTRA, which she later did. Besides the unions being unknown for some of the biggest stars, it seems they are also in a tricky financial position with the AFM twice requesting the treasury department for permission to reduce their pension benefits for their members (Robb, 2020). The reasoning is that otherwise the pension fund will become insolvent in 20 years, since they are currently in a ‘critical and declining’ status (Robb, 2020). An earlier request had been denied already (Robb, 2020), and the fund is currently underfunded by $1.2 billion (Robb, 2020).  It seems union membership in general is declining in the United States (Green, 2021), which could explain the ‘critical and declining’ status.

Additionally, with the outbreak of the Coronavirus, it seems many union members lost their health coverage, arguably one of the most important benefits of a union in a pandemic (Fassler & Stevens, 2021). Because of this, many union members feel betrayed by their union, with a large group of them launching a lobby to save their healthcare plans, called SOSHealthPlan (SOSHealthPlan, n.d.). This bad publicity does not work in the unions’ favor.

Disregardless of the union’s financial status or reputation, since CGS is located in Pennsylvania, they will have no other choice than to work with union members. One method to circumvent union prices and fees is to record in secret, or under fake names or aliases, often referred to as ‘dark days.’

This was the case for Cinema Scoring in 2015. The AFM alleged that Cinema Scoring had recorded with non-union members on the Warner Bros. lot (Handel, 2015). Warner Bros. denied ever renting the lot to Cinema Scoring, and additionally they do not have a contractual or legal requirement to only rent to union affiliated companies (Robb, 2015). That did not stop the AFM and it’s members from protesting in front of their lot (Handel, 2015), generating bad publicity in the process. 

Furthermore, the AFM already had a labor dispute with Cinema Scoring, sanctioning a strike against the company, effectively withdrawing any union members from working with the company (Robb, 2015). Several local politicians have also spoken out against both Warner Bros. and Cinema Scoring (Robb, 2015). 

Therefore, CGS could consider not to work with union musicians in secret, however, it seems that decision could have big repercussions. The union could sanction a strike against the company, and public opinion could sway against them. All of which will make it harder for CGS to operate and to find suitable musicians to work with.

With the advancement of technology and the internet, the options to work remotely have increased as well. CGS could consider recording in a non-union state or even a whole different country. However, history indicates that this is not without risk either.

The movie Same Kind of Different as Me was shot in Mississippi, however, the music was scored in Slovakia (Robb, 2018). Paramount Pictures served as a distributor on the movie, nonetheless, during a legal battle between the AFM and Paramount, it became evident Paramount also served as the producer of the movie, which would have meant they should have scored the music with union members (Robb, 2018). The union contract states that all signatories must score their films domestically, including signatory Paramount (Robb, 2018). 

If CGS would become a signatory to the union, it would mean they would always have to hire domestically, and if they would ever deviate from that, they are open to potential litigation from the unions which could cost them more than they would ever hope to gain.

All in all, one would not advise Crazy Good Studios to try and circumvent the unions. Even though unions are on a decline, with membership and solvency deteriorating, they still wield enough political and legal power to seriously damage a production company’s status, musician selection choice, and financial assets. It seems for now, unions are here to stay. If they will remain relevant or not for years to come, is another question altogether that warrants more research.

References

AFM (n.d.). Homepage. www.afm.org

Anderson, T. (2004). “Buried under the Fecundity of His Own Creations”: Reconsidering the Recording Bans of the American Federation of Musicians, 1942-1944 and 1948. American Music, 22(2), 231-269. doi:10.2307/3593004

Boyenne Law (October 4th, 2015). WHY DID SAG AND AFTRA MERGE? http://www.boyennelaw.com/blog/2015/10/4/why-did-sag-and-aftra-merge#:~:text=The%20Los%20Angeles%20Times%20said,and%20feuding%20over%20negotiating%20strategy.&text=It%20was%20time%20for%20SAG,powerful%20force%20against%20the%20studios

Crazy Good Studios (n.d.). Homepage. https://crazygoodstudios.com/ 

Leight, E. (May 6th, 2019). There’s a Musician’s Union. Many Musicians Are Unaware — or Unable to Join. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/theres-a-musicians-union-many-musicians-are-unaware-or-unable-to-join-831574/ 

Facebook (June 5th, 2021). AFM Facebook Page. https://www.facebook.com/afm.org/ 

Twitter (June 4th, 2021). JD Dorfman Profile. https://twitter.com/thedorfist?lang=en 

Houlis, A. (n.d.). Is Pennsylvania a Right to Work State? 6 Questions, Answered. https://fairygodboss.com/career-topics/is-Pennsylvania-a-right-to-work-state#:~:text=Pennsylvania%20is%20not%20a%20right,to%20Business%20and%20Labor%20Resources

Frassler, J. & Stevens, M. (March 9th, 2021). The Virus Cost Performers Their Work, Then Their Health Coverage. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/09/arts/coronavirus-actors.html?searchResultPosition=2 

Green, T. v. (April 15th, 2021). Majorities of adults see decline of union membership as bad for the U.S. and working people. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/15/majorities-of-adults-see-decline-of-union-membership-as-bad-for-the-u-s-and-working-people/ 

Handel, J. (December 15th, 2015). Musicians Union Protests at Warner Bros. Over Non-Union Scoring on Lot. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/musicians-union-protests-at-warner-849264/ 

Robb, D. (December 10th, 2020). Musicians Union’s Pension Fund To Again Ask Treasury Department For Permission To Reduce Benefits To Prevent Insolvency In 20 Years. https://deadline.com/2020/12/musicians-unions-pension-fund-to-again-ask-treasury-department-for-permission-to-reduce-benefits-to-prevent-insolvency-in-20-years-1234654187/ 

Robb, D. (August 11th, 2020). Treasury Department Denies Request From Musicians Union’s Pension Fund To Reduce Benefits To Keep It Solvent; Trustees Say They’ll Try Again. https://deadline.com/2020/08/treasury-department-denies-musicians-union-request-on-pension-fund-solvenncy-1203010727/ 

Robb, D. (December 15th, 2015). Musicians Union Protests Non-Union Work On Warner Bros Lot. https://deadline.com/2015/12/musicians-union-warner-bros-protests-cinema-scoring-1201667647/ 

Robb, D. (September 11th, 2018). Appeals Court Hands Musicians Union A Big Win In Ongoing Battle With Paramount Over Outsourcing Film Score. https://deadline.com/2018/09/musicians-union-legal-victory-paramount-appeals-court-outsourcing-film-scores-1202462759/ 

SAG-AFTRA (n.d.). About. https://www.sagaftra.org/about 

SOSHealthPlan (n.d.). Home. https://www.soshealthplan.com/ 

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