The article that appeared in Variety last week announcing the Writers Guild’s support for the fledgling Association of Media Composers and Lyricists (AMCL) was certainly encouraging. If that support includes specific and meaningful support for composer workplace reforms, it may make a critical difference in determining whether the AMCL is able to create any significant improvement in the workplace for film and television composers.
The AMCL has made the organization’s priorities clear on its website including negotiating health insurance and benefits for composers, the establishment of scale (minimum) composer fees, and an end to exploitative practices including asking composers to write “spec” music for free for pilots and other initial deals for television shows. And the writers are in an important position to influence how composers are treated in the workplace – the key question is: will the deal with the WGA go beyond moral support and include a pledge by the writers to support specific workplace reforms for composers?
The April 19 LA AMCL meeting may be where this information comes to light, and I encourage everyone to attend, get involved, and ask lots of questions. For that matter, the AMCL – if it intends on being anything more than a union for LA composers – needs to start having NY meetings and using technology to open up meetings to working film and TV composers around the country. The Internet has made it possible for composers to work from many locations across the country, resulting in a substantial number of working film and TV composers living and working outside of Southern California.
If the WGA supports specific and meaningful composer workplace reform, I believe it could be a huge step for composers. The concept of other unions supporting a composers union is absolutely key to the success of a composers union. With that kind of specific support in place, a composers union has the potential for significant clout and power – what production company would dare hire a non-union composer if it could mean idling every Teamster or WGA member on the show?
Without the loyalty and specific support of other unions, producers can simply choose a non-union or foreign composer to avoid any minimums and workplace reforms created by a US composers union, rendering the union just another social organization – we already have too many of those now.
The AMCL has a huge job ahead of it in creating a composers union essentially from scratch. The curious lack of support from the SCL that, according to the Variety article, continues to take no position on composer unionization combined with the apparent reluctance of the AMCL to take on the massive penalties imposed on score music by ASCAP and BMI are all things we’ve seen before in LA where songs are king and score music is deemed second-class and paid accordingly, when it comes to both up-front fees and performance royalties. The climate of fear in the LA composer community is considerable, and shows no signs of abating as the market continues to be overwhelmed by a huge oversupply of composers competing for a dwindling number of custom scoring jobs as more and more work, especially in television, goes to music libraries.
Too often in our community, nobody wants to “upset” anybody else that might be in a position of power or employment, and composers are expected to be “glad” for what work they are talented, fortunate, or just plain lucky enough to have. In other cases, the slimy and shameful exploitation of uncredited ghostwriters who have good reason to fear if they dare take credit for music they’ve written is on the rise as the royalty societies and everybody else looks the other way. All of this fear-based attitude is exactly what has gotten us into the weak position we find ourselves in now where composers and original score music often command little respect from producers, royalty societies or others.
It’s time we face the fact that score composers are by nature often ill-equipped to be effective union organizers. Composers, by their nature and profession, want to make people happy and create satisfied and happy employers. Conflict, for composers, is usually a sign of trouble, and is avoided like the plague. Union organizers, on the other hand, must be willing to aggressively stand up to entrenched employers who may react very negatively to even the existence of a composers union. The job of a union organizer is often filled with conflict and successful union organizers tend to thrive on conflict, not avoid it.
In the end, the WGA support – if it’s specific and meaningful – may be a key element in establishing the AMCL as a group who is ready and willing, emboldened and strengthened by the support of the Teamsters, the WGA and perhaps others, to fight hard on behalf of composers and do what needs to be done to start reversing the declining workplace conditions and compensation that composers, as one of the only non-unionized crafts in Hollywood, have faced now for many years. But WGA support, like Teamster support, will only create a positive outcome if our composer leaders are truly ready to stand up and fight to reverse the alarming decline of composer workplace conditions and compensation, and work to end the second-class treatment of score composers and our music – not just in Los Angeles, but across the country.