A Composers’ Union: The Time Is Now

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Archives) > Final Note (Archive) > A Composers’ Union: The Time Is Now

I’m very excited by the news that a new organization, The Association of Media Composers and Lyricists (AMCL), has been working for four years to build a relationship with the Teamsters with the goal of organizing and creating a union for composers. The steering committee for this organizing group, made up of Alan Elliott, Alf Clausen, Bruce Broughton and Jim DiPasquale includes some very experienced and respected people who understand the challenges composers face in today’s marketplace. I strongly urge anyone who can make it to RSVP for the November 16 informational meeting in Burbank, and please send your questions with your RSVP – the organizers promise all questions will be answered.

Creating a composers’ union is not an easy task – some have compared it to herding cats, and others will say that trade unions are an outdated concept. But unions in the film and television industry clearly are the strongest and most respected groups, and composers desperately need and deserve industrial representation. This group and their work so far represents the best possibility I’ve seen for creating strong representation for film and television composers.

The choice of the Teamsters is a smart move – the Teamsters are a powerful organization that is well-respected in Hollywood and familiar with the challenges of organizing independent businesspeople like composers. After looking at their website, I also have to applaud the AMCL on their focus on the art and craft of composing – these days, painfully few entities within our industry focus on the actual quality of the music we’re hired to create, but this new union clearly is making that a priority.

Certainly there are challenges – how do you establish wage scales for package deals where the composer’s pay and own expenses may be hard to estimate? Will composers need to become employees of the production companies under union agreements, and if so, what if any ramifications will there be on work-for-hire clauses, benefits (such as unemployment, etc) and what kind of retirement and health insurance options can be created for composers and their families? All important questions.

But despite the challenges, I believe that we as an industry should strongly support the current unionization efforts by the AMCL, especially in view of the rapid decline in compensation and deal terms for composers we’ve seen over the last 15 years. As an industry, we’ve been “divided and conquered” so many times, in so many different ways, that the viability, both artistically and financially, of being a professional composer now is in question. We have become an industry of mercenaries, and I for one am sick of watching desperate people do desperate things simply to push ahead of the next guy and get a gig at all costs. The constant undercutting and lowballing of composer fees has eroded these to zero on some jobs, further reducing the value and respect of our art, our copyrights, and our industry. As an example, here’s the compensation portion of an ad I saw recently published by a filmmaker doing a short film:

1) Studio Teacher $75.00/day
2) Film Editor $200.00 flat rate
3) Sound Editor $200.00 flat rate
4) Music Composer, No Pay, IMDB credit only

Indeed, if we fail to achieve some sort of strong industrial representation for our craft, there may not be much of a craft left for our children and the next generation of composers. I believe we must seize the moment and support the work the AMCL is doing to unionize composers. For more information, visit the AMCL website.


  • November 9, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    I hope the turnout/support is massive for this event. We need something and this just may be a BIG ‘step in the right direction.’

    Terry Michael Huud

  • November 10, 2009 @ 1:42 am

    Please… someone set me straight on this… I must be missing something along the way…?!?!?!?

    “A Composer’s Union…???”

    What about the AFM…???

    Isn’t that a composer’s union…???

    There are scales for composition… recording… etc…

    Someone out there please explain this to me… :)

    You may email me privately if you choose…

    best regards…

    -Woody Bosco
    OVO Sound Arts, Inc.

  • Mark Northam
    November 10, 2009 @ 7:25 am

    Hi Woody –

    The AFM does not represent composers or the craft of composing, there are no composing scales with the AFM (there are for orchestration and conducting, though). The AFM does represent recording musicians, conductors, orchestrators, etc, but the actual craft of composing is specifically not represented by the AFM.


    Mark Northam

  • November 10, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    Congratulations for taking a leadership role in this very important issue.

    I would ask that the conference be available by phone or WebEx as well, to afford those of us from everywhere BUT Los Angeles to join in and be heard.


    Eliot Pister.

  • George
    November 11, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    Every organization takes some %. Work alone and you dont have to split credits with anyone

  • November 11, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    Bravo Mark, well said. We had dinner together at Sherry’s house a year or so ago, and you were discussing the need for such a union. Who thought it would come to be such a real possibility so soon? Let’s hope it works.

  • November 16, 2009 @ 8:03 am

    […] his blog post “A Composer’s Union: The Time Is Now” at FilmMusicMag.com, Mark Northam details many of the challenges facing the formation of a […]

  • Michael
    November 17, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

    You guys can lead the way in this by first modifying the “film music jobs” section. Composers here pay a subscription fee, only to have to pay more to submit music for a gig, and there is no way to even know what the actual job is or who is in charge of hiring. By having the jobs section in its current incarnation…… isn’t really helping.

    Tell filmmakers that you will help them find music for their project, then post their direct phone numbers and some information about their project on here, so we can call and pitch them. And charge THEM.

  • Jonnichi
    November 17, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

    I am so overjoyed at this venture to finally act to secure and protect composers of the media/film and television genre and their respectfully preserved art form of creating music. Unfortunately, I received this information concerning the gathering a bit late, like the afternoon of the 16th November, in which i could not attend, but please keep me informed of the next meeting, maybe it could be posted a few days earlier. Wishing you all the best and many thanks to each and everyone of you for your graciously deserved efforts in this matter

  • Mark Northam
    November 18, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    Hi Michael –

    Re: your Film Music Jobs suggestion, that’s actually how we first started with the Film Music JobWire back in the late 1990s, and it didn’t work well, unfortunately. Why? Because some composers failed to exercise some common decency and swamped job posters with tons of off-target submissions, constantly called job posters (or even worse, showed up at their doors) to bug them about why they didn’t get hired, etc etc. Job postings quickly dried up, and that was that.

    Most job posters don’t have a phone bank to handle hundreds of calls from composers and bands asking if their demos have been listened to yet, and as such they’re not ready to post their phone number or identifying info. We always try to post as much info as the job poster will allow us to post, because that helps everybody.

    As far as submission fees go, that helps pay for our job researchers and the technology we build and maintain to manage the SubmitDIRECT system. If job posters choose not to use SD, that’s fine with us too – we post those jobs as well. And our fees are far less than other services who charge $10-$20 per track.

    Our goal is very straightforward: to create more opportunities for more composers – to open up jobs so a much wider group knows about them and to convince job posters to give new folks a shot rather than hiring the “same people” they have before. For some, our service is a good fit – for others it’s not – we do our best to provide the best job opportunities we can in a way that opens these jobs up to composers and songwriters as much as possible. We’re not perfect, and we’ve had our stumbles along the way, but we’re doing our best…

  • November 18, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    Composing is an art not a craft.

    Joe R

  • Kevin
    November 18, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    Quote from Joe R:

    “Composing is an art not a craft.”

    Respectfully, I have to disagree. While there is (hopefully) “art” in the music you compose, it also requires a certain degree of “craft.” While the degree of “art” one creates with his/her compositions is certainly subjective and can be debated, the “craft” one puts into the same composition is far less subjective and debatable, in my opinion.

  • Mark Northam
    November 18, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    I’ll have to agree with Kevin on this one. Also, in labor-union speak, “craft” is the term used by unions to describe a type of work that’s covered by a union.

    Plus, while writing music is certainly an art, other tasks that are part of that process, especially tasks done with computer software, are much more of a craft than an art, in my opinion. To me, they go together… composing is a combination of art an craft – the art of writing music, combined with the craft of realizing that music in sonic/written/electronic form. Craft has to do with the tools you use to take the art that comes from your mind and realize that in a format that allows you to share that art with others, sync it to film, etc etc

  • November 18, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    Yes, crafts people need unions. Artists need Guilds.

    it’s the – DGA – WGA – ACADEMY of Motion Pictures ARTS and Sciences.

    Lessen the way people perceive themselves, and they are easier to exploit, as has happened to composers.


  • andy
    November 18, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    Well said Michael!
    Isn’t it funny how Film Music Jobs used to have rather few jobs posting and after they started charging submission fees, all of the sudden the volume of jobs posting tripled?!
    This is highly suspicious
    I work for music companies that have used Film Music Job posting and Taxi to get submissions just to fill up our catalog.
    Personally I was saddened to know that so many people pay money to submit their tracks when they could just come to us direct for free if they just knew our company name. But truth be told I doubt most of them would bother submitting if they knew what it was for in the first place.
    Film music Job posting is part of the problem and I find it highly ironic that we’re having a discussion about unionizing on these boards

  • Mark Northam
    November 18, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    Hi Andy –

    Actually the volume of jobs is not all that different from before we had SubmitDIRECT. It’s always the job poster’s decision whether to use the online submission system or not. The volume over the last year has increased because we’ve been able to hire more job researchers, whose job it is to go out and find opportunities for our members.

    I’m sure if the companies you worked for wanted to do wide-open job postings, they would have… Craigslist and Mandys are a mouse click away, and posting there will virtually guarantee that your email box or snail-mail box will be slammed with tons of audio files from anybody who owns a Casio all the way up to orchestral guys… Thing is, sometimes companies are not equipped to handle phone calls and walk-in visits from lots of composers who want to know whether their demo has been listened to yet, why they weren’t hired, etc..

    So let me ask you, since you think we’re “part of the problem” – since a great deal of licensing on TV, at least for instrumental tracks, now pays no sync fees since the libraries started dumping thousands of instrumental tracks onto the marketplace for free, do you think we should refuse to do these licensing postings? Would you expect the same of all the free music libraries?

    We did a poll of our JobWire readers a couple of years ago on this topic and the results helped us decide what jobs to post and not post. We’re about to do another poll, but I’d be interested in your view on this… I welcome all feedback and thoughts on the subject.

  • Michael
    November 18, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    Mark, thanks for the response. I totally understand where you are coming from. And I can also understand that some composers are not completely professional in their actions. Of course the postings would have dried up if composers had been knocking on doors wanting to know why they didn’t get the gig. That is unfortunate.

    However, if the Composer Union does come to pass, a lot of composers on the lower end will be passed up by lower end productions that will just go to the libraries instead. At that time, some of the jobs that are now already so competitive, won’t even be an option. So I hope you guys will think about whether or not even accepting music submissions from buyout libraries is a good thing to do at this point.

    Personally, I am for the union thing, but I still can’t wrap my mind around why the NLRB denied guild status to the SCL in 1984. Leaving this current Teamsters thing aside, can anyone explain to me why it was felt by the NLRB that the composers didn’t deserve a union? And this, while apparently, they did have support from the heavy hitters (Williams, Goldsmith). And I was at the meeting on Monday, so maybe I just missed it.

    Not trying to minimize the efforts of Film Music Magazine. You guys have been, and will continue to be, an incredible resource for myself and many, many others.

  • Mark Northam
    November 18, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    Hi Michael –

    You make very good points – a labor minimum will push a certain percentage of low-end jobs to either the libraries or make them non-union. I mentioned in a previous comment that we’re readying a new survey of our JobWire readers and FMN members to let them have a voice in what jobs we should and should not do postings for. Problem is, with libraries it’s not that simple… some libraries sell their entire CD set (thousands of tracks) for a sync fee (anywhere from $100 to a few thousands) and then the production company or broadcaster can use all they want – it’s a blanket license. Many libraries refuse to share that blanket license with the composers on the CDs, claiming they don’t know who to pay since they don’t know whose music will get used, etc. And of course there are the retitling libraries in different flavors.

    Bottom line here is that we’re overlooking performance royalties, which almost ALWAYS are way, way more profitable than whatever sync fees are paid for music, unless you’re talking about the huge sync fees paid for pop songs, etc. I wonder, why are composers so afraid to speak up about the fact that ASCAP pays a one minute cue on TV only 20% of what a one-minute song (even background song) is paid?? And this, when the broadcasters pay all music the same under their blanket licenses?? It’s blatant discrimination against score composers, yet the number of composers who dare even talk about this publicly can be counted on 2 hands. If we’re not able to confront the people (ASCAP and the other PROs) that WE PAY to collect and pay our royalties, I sometimes wonder what help a union would be in confronting a much larger and more diverse group… production companies.

  • Michael
    November 19, 2009 @ 2:58 am

    Hi Mark,

    I don’t know what I can do to help spur the change. Little people like me have no pull with our PRO’s, and since the union would be including lyricists and songwriters, if and when it comes to be, the composer’s union would tread more lightly than us composers would like in addressing that. The last thing they will want in a newly formed union is a civil war-like situation. But if there is anything we can do, I’ll willing to give it a try.

    And to play devil’s advocate…, when does a songwriter have a chance to have 30 minutes of music in an hour-long drama? Never. And I would venture to guess that some songwriters spend 5-times the time and energy on writing and recording one good song that some veteran tv composers do composing one episode of said hour-long drama, with the regular re-use of cues and the teams of assistants that do a huge chunk of the work.

    I still don’t know why NLRB denied the SCL. I just don’t understand how a composer is more of an “independent contractor” than a screenwriter or actor.

  • Mark Northam
    November 19, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    Hi Michael –

    To try and clear things up, the NLRB denied the request of composers to unionize because the deemed composers to be “employers” since we’re paid package deal fees and hire others to assist us with creating the music (musicians, orchestrators, copyists, recording engineers, etc etc). By definition, employers cannot unionize – only employees can. If any legal folks want to chime in here with a more detailed explanation of this, that would be great.

  • April 13, 2010 @ 6:37 am

    Union actors, directors and writers are usually independent contractors too.

  • April 13, 2010 @ 6:39 am

    Just to clarify, one of the denial reasons was because they weren’t employees.

  • April 14, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    I think composers do need a union. I have to commend the AMCL for what there doing. It worked for the Film Writers Guild. When they went on striked because of low wages. The T.V. industry new they meant business. Film Music Composers need to be represented too.

    Film Composers

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