10 Important Questions For The New Composers Union

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The successful first organizing meeting of The Association of Media Composers and Lyricists has been dominating film and television composer news over the last two weeks. There are many exciting developments happening in this area, and as the idea of a composers union moves ever so slowly from concept to possible reality, a number of critical questions have arisen regarding how this new union will work and function.

While it’s impossible at this early stage to answer these questions with any accuracy or finality, I believe it’s important to consider these issues as we all go forward and decide for ourselves how a composers union could work, and whether a labor union is the right step for us as an industry.

1. What effect will a composers union have on performing rights royalties and new media income?

Unions almost always bargain fiercely for residuals for their members, which has become a critical component of compensation. Indeed, composers at all levels of our business frequently are paid far more in performance royalties for a successful film or television show than they receive in initial composer fees from the production company. Given the substantial penalties targeting instrumental music performance royalties enacted by the performing rights societies, a composers union may be composers’ best and only hope of fighting these discriminatory policies that negatively affect every score composer who receives a royalty check today. A composers union could also be critical in fighting to make sure that composers receive their fair share of royalties for film and TV downloads, not to mention working to overturn the outrageous exemption that prohibits ASCAP and BMI from collecting royalties for movies shown in movie theaters in the U.S.

2. How does a composers union benefit from the presence of lyricists?

The inclusion of lyricists in the new composers union, at least in name, appears to be a political nod to various industry entities who may be more “comfortable” having lyricists installed as an official part of a composers union. Other than the rare case when an original song is commissioned for a film or television show, lyricists have very, very little in common with composers as far as working conditions are concerned. And lyricists are already well represented by The Songwriters Guild of America, a well-respected guild far more appropriate for their needs. Of the most concern to some is the question of whether lyricists will be in a position, as they are elsewhere, to veto or prevent the composers union from aggressively fighting for better performance royalties for composers. In these situations, better performance royalties for composers could mean a reduction in performance royalties for songwriters and lyricists, creating a built-in conflict of interest within a new composers union.

3. Will being part of the Teamsters organization mean other unions will support the composers union?

If other Teamsters member unions support and act in solidarity with a composers union, that would create a very strong incentive for production companies to hire union composers and pay composers union rates. There is probably no better reason to have a composers union than this – it’s the most powerful incentive for companies to hire union composers. By the same token, if the other Teamsters unions do not support the composers union, it opens the door for production companies to hire non-union composers to avoid paying union wages and benefits. Sadly, the American Federation of Musicians does not receive this support from the other Hollywood industry unions, which has directly enabled non-union score recording on many Hollywood films and television productions today. And speaking of the AFM, will being a union composer affect the current freedom of composers to work with non-union orchestras for score recording if a production company decides not to use AFM musicians?

4. Will low budget productions choose to use music libraries instead of original score if composers unionize?

Some have speculated about the fate of low budget films and television productions if composers unionize. Some believe that low budget projects will simply use libraries instead of hiring score composers if the production company is unwilling or unable to pay composer union minimums. More than a few people I’ve talked to in the library industry believe this, and for this reason excited about the new business for them that a composers union could “create” and are further encouraged by the apparent direction of the new unionizing group to not establish minimums or union coverage for library composing work.

5. What are the national ramifications of a composers union for composers who live outside LA?

Today, composers working via the Internet can live almost anywhere and still be able to work closely with directors on film and television projects. Technology has had the effect of dispersing the geographical concentration of composers that existed in LA in the 1970s and 1980s, and now composers live and work in towns and cities small and large across the country and internationally, working with a new generation of Internet-savvy directors and producers are becoming more and more comfortable working with composers via Internet. Labor unions have traditionally worked in a model where the labor provided by their members is delivered in-person, allowing for a territory-by-territory approach where different cities would have different union locals. The Writers Guild of America and other unions have successfully implemented the concept of unionization using a more general geographical approach, and it will be interesting to see how the composers union handles today’s composers, spread far and wide. In the composers union is to successfully represent a majority of film and TV composers in the country, it’s going to have to include services that appeal not just to the LA folks, but to composers in other, smaller locales.

6. What about music library work?

The rapidly growing number of productions, especially in television, that have stopped hiring score composers and are being produced with 100% library music has muddied the waters considerably when it comes to “who scores what” on television. Since the new union intends to cover music written for film and television, what will the union’s stance be on the multitude of different library deals that many composers work under today, including retitling libraries, traditional copyright purchase libraries, libraries where composers are expected to hand over copyright for no up-front money, and others? With music library use increasing exponentially on television today, it’s hardly an area that a composers union can ignore.

7. Will major composers support a union?

Many have asked whether major composers will support, publicly or otherwise, a composers union, and even whether the support of major composers is a necessary element to create a successful composers union. Since major composers would probably not work for union minimum wages and are already being paid handsomely for their work, the issue arises whether union minimums would be harmful in any way to the current large paychecks enjoyed by the top tier of major composers. In the end, if a composers union can effectively bargain for better performance royalties for score music, movie theater royalties or download royalties for composers, this may become the motivation for major composers to support a composers union since major composers already derive a major portion of their income from performance royalties.

8. Will up and coming composers support a union and be able to afford the cost of being a union member?

The ability of the vast numbers of new and up and coming composers in the industry to be able to afford the initiation and dues required by a composers union will make a big difference in whether this large group of composers chooses to support a composers union. To be successful, I believe a composers union must be able to appeal to this important group which represents the future of film composing.

9. Will a composers union be seen as an “elitist club” made up of primarily LA guys or an inclusive organization that strives to represent composers in all areas and levels of the business?

It’s no secret that some B-list and C-list LA composers are more than a little bitter about the fact that more and more work scoring film and television is being awarded to up and coming composers and new composers in the business. While these LA composers fret over careers that have in many cases stalled out or declined and justifiably see new composers as a threat to their livelihood, a new generation of film directors and television producers are turning to newer, younger composers to create music that they believe will better appeal to the musical needs of today’s younger audience demographics. While in past decades age and experience worked in favor of many established veteran composers, that’s by no means true today in a world where young, hip filmmakers tend to hire young, hip composers. If these jaded, bitter B- and-C-list composers try to use a composers union as a means to push out the new, rising stars in order to try and prop up their own careers, a composers union may find itself become outdated and irrelevant before it ever is formed.

10. Can and will composers get together and make this happen?

Given the fact that composers, for decades now, have been divided and conquered by those in our industry who assign little value to original, custom score music and those who create it, the question arises as to whether the current generation of composers is of a mindset where they’re willing to band together for the common good. Many of today’s composers are mercenaries, with no industrial advocacy or representation, having lived and worked for decades in a world where songs are “king” and instrumental music is treated and paid as second-class music, with libraries quickly encroaching on the domain of original scoring.

Indeed, it may be the next generation of composers who haven’t already been conditioned to accept this arbitrary devaluation of original score music that are the most affected by a new composers union. These new composers may have the most to gain or lose in these unionizing efforts, and may be the most motivated to make sure that a composers union is effective and strong, and beholden to no outside or conflicting interests financially, politically or otherwise.

We live in interesting times, and it’s no exaggeration that the current unionizing effort may indeed be the last chance that our generation has to create a strong, independent composers union. Regardless of the extent to which you support the current organizing groups’ efforts, I urge all composers to become part of the national conversation and voice your opinion, ask questions, and get involved in shaping the future course of our industry. We may never have a better opportunity to do so than we have now.


  • November 24, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    Great article Mark, as always!

    These points are what is churning in my head at night. I agree with the final point about this being the last chance to create this type of entity. But I am also really concerned about the far reaching implications. Is this for LA composers only? And lyricists on board only present us with pain for the future. Not to mention the extremely high dues, this is going to keep out all but the most successful composers. I am still supportive of this concept at this time, but I sure hope we see some change in these base issues in the coming months

  • November 24, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

    Great questions. The answers will prove to be pivotal; imho, the only way this will work is if the Teamsters use their considerable clout to get production companies to become signatories to the new union. Would they be willing to shut down television or feature shoots to get it done? That question is the big one, otherwise why would any production company sign. The thorniest issue that you touched on is the one of undercutting. Also, they have to flesh out the dues structure very carefully, otherwise they’re liable to inadvertently create an entire pool of composers/producers who’ll undercut scale on all the low and medium budget stuff, leaving only the very few jobs at the top. It could very well be with a couple of generations of software we could all go the way of the typewriter repair men.

  • November 27, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    Thanks for posing the questions that were on my mind. Any composers union should not focus on Los Angeles. The idea of modelling it after the writers guild is a good one. If one wanted to create a union that was all inclusive, how would one go about hurdling the administration costs of providing services to every working composer in the United States (if they theoretically wanted to join)?

    Also, ghost writing and collectives (remote control)… how does one establish rights for composers working for other composers, and what employer rules should be in place for union composers who hire other composers?

  • composer
    November 27, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    the Libraries will rule tv even more….. But the Libraries of the Big 5 will rule more.
    A union will be even more incentive for the big 5 to create their own libraries and direct license to themselves.

    There already is a tremendous amount of non union tv productions. Will a composers union stem the tide? Hmm where’s the clout?

    What can we do as composers to stem the tide?

    The union would have to start by going to every music school in the country and get young composers to agree to rates and standards. Understanding the devaluation of their product.

    The big 5 TV-MEdis corps I know first hand are already pillaging from these music schools. buying tracks for peanuts to be used in their productions.

    the cats out of the bag…lots of work to stuff it back in

  • November 29, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    Mark, For those of us outside the L.A. sphere of influence, many thanks for your insight and well developed ideas, your perseverence and dedication to creating a forum and lasting document of our times!

    This movement to unionize has many legs; possibly with hard work and dedication by “everyone” involved, composers might find a unified voice.

    If this goes nowhere, due to the many influences that could stop its growth, I, for one, find the historic nature of this event to be a true “voice in the wilderness”, a cry for equality.

    To everyone reading this I hope all of you will listen to composers of all types and stations, we are your future.


  • Mark Northam
    November 29, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    Thanks for the note and kind words, John. I believe a composers union must be a national effort if it is to succeed. The composing industry is now spread around the country, and around the world. While some in LA may decry their loss of influence and “leadership”, we can’t worry about the throwbacks to the 1980s who still believe that “most” composers who have music in film/TV live in LA. While it may have been true 25 years ago, it’s simply not accurate today.

  • Darren Savan
    December 4, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    I just heard an interview with the guy that’s sort of the head of the whole unionizing committee on Scorecast. From what he said, after 90 minutes of rambling, I still don’t get why there is a need for a union. If you listen to him, it’s because there “isn’t any good film music” right now. So what? How will a union help that? So, if we unionize, film music will improve because it will drive out the small composers leaving the “cream of the crop” to fill all of the empty holes?

    What is going to cripple the beginnings of a composers union is NOT whether compoers will band together to make it happen. It is whether or not clowns like this are going to be allowed to run the show and evangelize the message.

  • April 13, 2010 @ 3:21 am

    But what did you think about that tidbit in the show about a well known composer getting $5000 to score a Sony motion picture?

    The current stylistic simplicity of film music is the necessary result of shorter deadlines, lower pay, higher demands and less respect.

    Of course, there are those who think that hastily written, simplistic, production-line, ghostwritten film music does as much to enhance and SELL a film as anything written by the masters. Keyword for the studios is SELL. Yes, a master’s underscore will SELL the film.

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