Lest there be any confusion, let me be perfectly clear about my view on a composers’ union: it’s a great idea, and maybe it can work, but we’ve got to have the right people doing the organizing or we’re just spinning our wheels and wasting time.
I think the concept of a composers’ union is a great idea in theory. An inclusive, national organization that represents the business interests of working film, TV and game composers in an organization that focuses on using the combined leverage of these composers’ marketshare to negotiate meaningful agreements with employers and employer groups like the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). But what we seem to be getting from the current AMCL group is quite another thing, and I’m simply not convinced that these folks have what will be required to successfully take on the AMPTP.
The choice of aligning with Teamsters Local 399 in Los Angeles has advantages and disadvantages. On the pro side, who wouldn’t want to have the Teamsters looking out for us? The Teamsters to some in our industry must seem like the big strong guy who comes to the defense of the scrawny nerds on the beach (composers) who keep having sand kicked on them by the nasty bullies (producers). The downside? The Teamsters only represent a fraction of overall film and TV production. But hey, the Teamsters are strong, established, and don’t fool around – who wouldn’t want to have the Teamsters in their corner? So far, so good…
But even if the Teamsters are going to be our protectors/hired guns, composers still need to adopt a mindset of being willing to rock the boat and kick over the status quo if they’re going to be effective union organizers in today’s pro-business, anti-union business climate. And that’s where the current group falls short, as I see a lot of “not wanting to offend anyone” and controversy avoidance rather than the kind of strong, fearless attitudes and actions that are the hallmark of successful union organizers and organizing drives.
In all fairness, composers – especially successful ones – have made a career out of making their employers happy, no matter how unusual or difficult the task may be. Today’s composer simply isn’t wired for hardcore negotiations with the same people they are seeking employment with – it’s far too easy to be labeled a “troublemaker,” which can be the kiss of death given how many other talented composers (who keep quiet) are competing hard for every job out there.
The elephant in the room today is fear, combined with the reality that that composers – from the A list folks down to the newbies – have almost zero leverage in the marketplace today. The producers know this, and so do composers. It’s one of those silent, unwritten truths that has resulted from the current oversupply of composers in the marketplace, and it’s a big reason why composer fees have been plummeting for the last 15 years as the oversupply of composers in the marketplace gets worse by the year.
I fully realize that a union cannot negotiate with ASCAP and BMI, but there is an important lesson to be learned from the embarrassing and chronic inaction of our current leaders in the area of performance royalties for score composers. Today’s leaders are some of the same leaders who cannot even manage to summon enough courage to successfully challenge the very organizations we pay to collect and pay our performance royalties when these same organizations target custom score music with an 80% financial penalty for a one minute score cue compared to a one minute background vocal cue. And some of these same leaders are ASCAP board members! I cannot imagine how on earth are they are going to come up with the “intestinal fortitude” required to challenge the well-financed and organized film and television producers, to whom we’re an expense that can be easily outsourced to other composers worldwide. Eliminating the oppressive score payment rates at ASCAP would be a cakewalk compared to what it will take to convince the producers to accept a composers’ union, even a “benefits only” union. The producers are not fools or rubes, and are no doubt considering the long-term price to them of a composers’ union no matter how benign and “fair” the AMCL group may try to make their opening gambit seem on paper.
Sadly, “fairness” is no more effective an argument to the lawyers and accountants at production companies than it has been to the performing rights societies when it comes to composer royalty rates. This is a dollars-and-cents game, and those who are currently benefitting handsomely from the current imbalances of the status quo will fight tooth and nail to keep the current unfair policies in place. Whether it’s the songwriters at ASCAP being paid 500% more for their minute of background song than composers do, or the film and TV producers paying ridiculously low composer fees due to the oversupply of composers, both groups will fight hard to keep those financial benefits rolling in. After all, from their point of view a pay cut for themselves just wouldn’t be “fair.”
I’m not ready to give up on the current AMCL organizing group, but I would certainly be far more impressed with these folks if they were able to use the collective marketshare they say they have and create some real change for composers with our primary long-term paymasters – the performing rights societies – before they take on the big guys at the AMPTP. The AMCL is not a union yet, so there’s nothing to prevent them from undertaking – either directly or through a subcommittee or related group – any number of issues that composers face. And the financial benefits to composers of eliminating the 80% score music penalty at ASCAP would bring immediate and substantial financial benefits to all composers with music on the air – financial benefits of a magnitude that a “benefits only” composers union likely couldn’t begin to deliver for years, perhaps decades. And unlike the AMPTP, the performance royalties problem could be fixed with the stroke of a pen at the next ASCAP Board meeting, assuming our leaders had the courage and the will to start strongly opposing a policy that is among the most blatant and costly institutionalized policies that composers face today.
I cannot imagine a better way to establish both the credentials and the capabilities of the AMCL group. Plus, an initial success reforming composer royalties would likely galvanize industry participation and support for the group, proving their ability to take on entrenched interests and create positive, substantial benefits for composers and their families.
As they say, walk before you run. If we’re finally going to take on major industry business problems, let’s get the composer royalty problem fixed to increase income for all composers, then use the resulting momentum and industry support to take on the powerful film and television producers.