In the US, there are two primary labor unions that represent musicians: AFM, which represents instrumental musicians, and SAG-AFTRA [note 1], which represents recording artists and vocalists. There are some other related labor unions for musicians working in other sectors, such as AGMA, which represents those who work in operatic, choral and dance heritage.
Let’s look at three specific things that AFM and SAG-AFTRA do that directly impact musicians’ earning capacity.
1. Unions set and protect scale rates
Both AFM and SAG-AFTRA publish rate cards that provide guidance on the minimum payments that studios and producers pay to hire a performer or singer for a recording session.
This process helps in three ways:
- It establishes a fair pay scale and a pension payment for all musicians on the session.
- If the recording is used in another medium — such as film, television, or a commercial — having a “paper trail” will ensure that musicians receive a New Use payment.
- If there is ever a dispute about payment, the union will have the musician’s back and work to ensure that he or she is paid.
In certain music cities – Nashville and Los Angeles in particular – where there’s a tradition of session work, most professional musicians belong to AFM and/or SAG-AFTRA and “respect the card”. By not taking work “off the card”, they are protecting the value of all the professionals in their community, thus ensuring that it’s not just a race to the bottom in regards to musicians’ wages. Read more here.
2. Unions are a conduit for specific revenue streams
Second, they are a conduit for a handful of specific revenue streams for union and non-union musicians alike.
Take, for instance, digital performance royalties. When recordings are webcast or played on services like Pandora or Sirius XM, the featured performer, the sound recording copyright owner and the background musicians each accrue a digital performance royalty. This money is collected and distributed by SoundExchange, with 45% going to the featured artist, 50% going to the sound recording copyright owner, and 5% going to background players and singers through a fund jointly controlled by AFM and SAG-AFTRA.
A session player who we interviewed who has benefited from this fund told us about it:
“Finding out this whole digital property thing with the AFM/AFTRA Fund, it’s pretty amazing. When the AFM/AFTRA Fund first started, there was a few hundred thousand dollars that came in from SoundExchange and it would have cost dollars to chase pennies, but I think [the Fund has] nine million dollars this year, just on the musician’s side and they’re expecting even more next year and it keeps growing. It’s a substantial amount of money.”
– Nashville session player
There are other funds similar to this. AFM and SAG-AFTRA, working together, also distribute Japanese rental royalties, and royalties accrued through the Audio Home Recording Act. These funds are payable to union and non-union musicians alike.
AFM also collects and distributes residual payments from movie/TV producers and distributes them to film and television musicians via the Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund.
An in-demand session player told us about its significance:
“If you sign an AFM contract to do a record, you get all of the assumption agreements. So if it goes to a film, it’s up to the film company to pay the film scale and agree to the rates established by the AFM if the film goes into secondary market…DVDs. At that point we get a percentage of the profits…so that’s all we get but it can be quite lucrative. I had friends of mine that played on [the movie soundtrack for] Walk the Line, which became one of the biggest DVD selling sales in history. For two or three, four days of work they ended up getting quite a substantial royalty.”
– Nashville session player
And, for sound recordings made under the Sound Recording Labor Agreement, AFM manages the distribution of sales revenue to all the musicians who participated in the recording session via the Sound Recordings Special Payments Fund.
3. Unions are at the policymaking table
AFM and SAG-AFTRA have been at the policymaking table, representing musicians and signers writ large through these changes in the music landscape.
Here’s an example of union impact on a recent policy change: in the late 1990s, when legislation was being drafted to establish the digital performance royalty, the record labels wanted all of the royalties (100%!) to go to them. It was the unions that pushed back and demanded that the law require that the digital performance royalties be split evenly with the performers. Then, after agreeing to split the royalties 50/50 with performers, the record labels suggested they receive the money, which they would then pass along to featured artists and background players. Fearing that the royalties would be applied to unrecouped expenses, or simply lost, disputed and unpaid, AFM and AFTRA were among a small group of musician advocates (including Future of Music Coalition) that demanded that digital performance royalties be paid directly and simultaneously to featured artists via SoundExchange. Additionally, AFM and AFTRA demanded that a royalty pool be established to ensure that session players and background singers are paid as well. It is because of pressure from the unions and other artist advocate groups that we have a direct and simultaneous payment of digital performance royalties to both performers and background players.
And that’s just one example. Both AFM and SAG-AFTRA have also been involved in various issues over the past decade including radio consolidation, work-for-hire, public performance rights for sound recordings, copyright reversion, ensuring health insurance for artists under contract, fair pay and work standards for Broadway musicians, and making sure that airlines treat instruments as carry on luggage.