Below is the full text of a letter sent this week by composer Chris Alpiar to the AMCL Board, the group that is currently working with the Teamsters to attempt to form a union for composers. With Chris’ permission, I wanted to share that letter with all of our readers, as I think it presents a very detailed perspective on the formation of a composers union that is shared by many including myself. For those who may not know Chris, he’s the President of the International Alliance of Composers, a group of independent composers I am happy to support.
If you’d like to share your comments with Chris directly, he can be reached at email@example.com
FROM: Chris Alpiar
TO: The AMCL Organizing Committee: Bruce Broughton, Sean Callery, Alf Clausen, Ray Colcord, James DiPasquale, Richard Gibbs, Christopher Klatman, Vivek Maddala, Richard Marvin, Mike Post and Snuffy Walden.
I am writing you today after much thought, research and discussion regarding the impending unionization efforts with the Association of Media Composers and Lyricists and the Teamsters to deliver an active and functioning composers’ labor union to champion music composers in the business of media composing.
Firstly, please allow me to commend you, each and every one of you, for spending your personal energy and time towards creating this union. This is an excellent endeavor and while I may be (often) very critical of certain aspects of this union attempt, that criticism is aimed solely at doing my very best to make sure that you folks, a small group of amazing composers who are active in the Hollywood scene, can understand the wants and needs of the rest of the composer community, and as critical as my points may be, I have nothing but sheer respect for your tenacity and seemingly genuine interest in creating a legacy to survive the times of the (also seeming) destruction of our art and craft. I also publicly and privately support the unionization efforts fully and wish you the very best success, but I do have many concerns on the finer details at the same time. I hope my letter will address the issues and be helpful in gaining a broader understanding of professional composers not amongst your immediate group.
If any of you follow online forums and lists such as the FMPRO discussion list, you will have heard and know my mind regarding this unionization effort. Since I assume you all are mostly very busy with your careers and have little time for internet speculation, I will try and state my mind and position clearly in this letter and make no assumptions other than that you are each super busy in your careers and lives.
A brief introduction is a good start: I am a Jazz saxophonist and media composer. I have been performing and writing professionally for over 25 years. I write old fashioned style with pencils and score paper, but I also have a studio filled with computers, DAWs and terabytes of sampled instruments and soft-synths. I studied performance and sound engineering in Miami in the 80s and did a dual major (performance/jazz composition) at Berklee College of Music from 1990-94 where I won the Quincy Jones Award for Jazz Composition. I have played all over the US, Europe, South America and played with Jazz legends like Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Joe Lovano, Michelle Petruccianni, Van Morrison, etc. I currently live in Atlanta, GA and have my studio in a large production facility in downtown Atlanta. I have been a full time working composer since 2003 when I moved to LA to open my company “Too Much Reverb, LLC” with my writing partner John Comfort. But I am not _in_ LA anymore and I am not working on studio features other than via some ghost writing WFH situations. And for all my lifetime of dedication to the art and professionalism I am feeling quite distressed to be directly left out of the right of union representation by the new found AMCL as well as disappointed with the seemingly chosen direction of the AMCL to focus solely on health care and pension and to ignore the more important issues we face like wage minimums and working conditions.
About 3 years ago, I started getting the notion of how terribly wrong the business aspect of music composition, especially film, tv, game, and advertising music, has become. And after some time, with a small group of similar-minded folks, we put together a small organization: The International Alliance of Composers ( http://www.iacomp.org ). Out of a sense of “the end of the world is nigh” regarding the composition business, I built the website and lots of technology that goes with it (management, advocacy, social and communications software suites) and set about collecting (free) memberships and getting people involved in making change. After roughly 1.5 years without ever advertising we have nearly 800 members that completed the lengthy application and are looking for solutions. The goals of the IAC are lofty as you may read on the website, and are mostly focused on the politics and policy of the music industry. But the website and collecting memberships has mostly been as a means to collecting ideas, defining what the real problems for composers today are, and understanding potential paths to creating amicable change for composers, while still finding solutions that would work for industry lug nuts like the PROs and various other groups that support or feed from the composing industry.
In as much, that endeavor has been extremely successful, and after several years of discussing issues with peers, both successful “in-LA” folks, people working full time around the country and world (remotely or in other metropolises), as well as aspiring composers, we have created a pretty good list of the main issues that afflict composers, in the US primarily, but abroad as well.
When I started this project, my first intent was to focus on full time working composers, mostly in the LA area. As I had some pretty successful times living in Westwood Village in the mid 2000’s doing ghost work and working on a few pretty big stage theater productions, while I wasn’t doing features for the big studios (tho I sure hope to someday), I was having a very successful career in LA as a composer, so I had this certain affinity for folks living that life. But once I started the IAC, I realized that the pro-LA-composer was just a small portion of reality and there was a growing tsunami of highly creative and excellent productions from all over the US and the world. The internet has changed us all. Certainly much for the better but also changes that hurt. I think of how a kid who knows nothing about music, orchestration, writing for strings, notation, conducting, big band writing, etc, can be competing with me for placements with his $100 copy of Fruity Loops and a mouse (not even a keyboard needed!!). And as much as I want to ignore those “hummers” with a computer, I realize the danger it puts my life in and the potential ostracism I face by trying to live aloof in an (albeit deservingly) elite manner.
And so I decided to do my best to understand issues that affect _all_ composers and to do my very best to not be judgmental on the art but rather focus on the advocacy of composers’ rights in the same tone and ideals that we all are asking from the industry for ourselves as individuals. Through these ideals, which feel quite Jeffersonian, I feel that I have learned more about the approaching changes and shape of the industry than I ever had knowledge of and it has helped shape considerably the issues I feel are most important to _all_ who are creative content/product creators in the composition industry.
With all this in mind, I beg you each to consider the incredible monolithic foundation of which you are about to create. With it comes a tremendous power to create something substantial, that can change the shape of our livelihood for decades. Also with that comes the responsibility to represent unselfishly the entirety of our community: locally, nationally and indirectly globally. I understand with some depth the fear that is present of how to not loose footing of your careers in this slippery cesspool that our art has wedged its business end into. But I beseech you to not abuse this power to simply create control mechanisms for your careers but rather to use it to further your careers in a healthy manner which still does the right thing for the whole. I understand even this statement is extremely presumptuous and I do not say it without immense respect for the sacrifices you have each given to have maintained a life filled with the creation of music. But rather because it needs to be said at this juncture, where the choices you collectively decide will guide us into the next era, or lock us out in an abyss.
As for ‘weeding out the flock’, while I cannot agree with the concept more whole-heartedly in todays age of cheap technology, the place is not for us to choose who is good and who is bad. The very root of the concept of a labor union is to protect equally, those who individually do not have the strength to stand alone. It is the spirit of being a Champion, a Protector. I agree we need to do something to demonstrate the value of someone who can write with score paper and maybe a piano, who can orchestrate, who can write a fugue or a chorale, who can really nail syncing music with picture, or whatever. But I think this path lies in education: for film makers, for students, for the general public. But it should not stem from the organization that should be representing the labor rights of our group as a ‘union policy’ but rather an educational approach. How can we be upset with the PROs for paying 20 cents on the dollar for score vs song when we ourselves are considering the same types of discriminatory policies to meet our own ends.
I am also very worried about the whole “only in LA” thing. I understand the value of aligning with the Teamsters (or AFL-CIO as an alternative) and how it benefits us by having the ability to use the leverage of other unions currently being used in film production to ensure that union composers are used as well and that our composers are treated in the manner in which we demand. And that is mostly in LA at this time. I get it. I will move back to LA eventually when the time is right for me because I do understand that. But there are a lot of folks who are working full time as composers all over the country who deserve the benefits of a union, and not only “someday maybe in NYC also”. I am in Atlanta and I know a lot of folks who are of the highest caliber, who are full time composers for media (more advertising and TV promo stuff here than film or tv scoring, but some of that as well). And I know folks all over the US who are doing so. I dearly hope that the initial LA only group does not satisfy itself with that and stops there. It would be one of the worst things I can think of that could happen to the whole movement and change the dynamic and perceived spirit of the endeavor from a genuine unionization attempt to some kind of SCL extension to keep your small group of folks secure and lock the rest out. That might work on a very short term basis, but it is bound to fail over time.
I also understand the inherent difficulty of focusing on gaming composers because so little of games are done with union production. Programmers have generally been so well paid and given such nice benefits that they have had no interest to unionize. Therefore how would the Teamsters be able to help promote union policy in a vastly non-union game production world. I do understand but I do hope that we do not leave gaming composers and their issues and rights out just because its difficult. None of this is easy, but this union must be built from the highest echelon of ideals and with the morality of championing all composers, not just ones that are easiest to deal with and make the most sense to the organizing committee. If the AMCL committee has not the experience to delve into other realms than LA-based studio feature and network tv show composing (and lyricists?) then I would ask the committee to expand itself and seek out those who are familiar with it and who can give the input you will need to move forward.
On that note, what in the world are lyricists being represented for? Arent lyricists already represented by WGA? What issues do lyricists have today that genuinely coincide with composers? Other than many of us who are composers also can be songwriters and a few of us have a talent with language and poetry. But in my mind ‘composer’ refers to (especially in the “weeding out” tone you folks have demonstrated) an instrumental composer, a score composer, background instrumental, etc and the issues we face generally have nothing to do with lyricists and are in some rare cases even diametrically opposed.
As for the pricing of membership, it also seems pretty out of line. I understand it is part of the ‘weeding out’ which will keep only folks who are actively working on the big projects able to pay that kind of price tag. I believe the price is like $1560 to join and then $83 per month after. Seeing as most of composers are doing worse financially than musicians, I think following the AFM pricing makes much more sense. Joining in LA was around $400 when I joined and then it was (I think) like $150-190 per year after. Thats more along the lines of what every professional full-time composer can afford. I am basing this not on research (which should be done to find an amicable price tag) but on what I know about composers and lyricists who are working full time and paying their bills based solely on music making, but who arent necessarily doing 5 studio features a year, or 3 network prime time tv shows. Come on fellows, you were struggling yet completely dedicated body & soul at one point in life, lets try and not blow off the world here, but rather embrace it.
As for issues and goals, I have been truly saddened to learn that the efforts to dig into real issues like scale minimums and working conditions has been usurped to drop all political and policy issues and only focus on health care and pension. While I agree whole-heartedly that these are both important things, the impending US national health care kind of dwarfs the need for a union health care, and yes pension is a central part of the benefits of a union and a good starting point, but the real issues that we *need* the power of the Teamsters to help redefine lie in other areas.
Since I don’t want to be a part of the problem but rather a part of the solution, here is my list of issues that I think the AMCL needs to consider. Not necessarily in this order, but if the AMCL is to be more than a pension collection box for your very small group of talented people (*in* LA, *on* film and tv for the major players _currently_) I think it is imperative for the union to give heed to the following issues and to use its growing leverage to create and enforce policies on these issues, creating and empowered state of composers nationally:
• Rate/scale minimum guarantees that will not affect any pay ceiling issues. No composer, no matter what level, can argue with this. It simply sets a minimum rate for union work and does not put any caps or limitations to the pay potential.
• Working conditions: that COMPOSING be one job and all the other 23092384098 things we are expected to do as a package be treated as separate jobs that we can collect scale for or hire others (i.e. orchestration, copyist, digital realizations, programming, spotting notes, tracking, mixing, mastering, orchestra/musician contracting, etc, etc, ad infinitum). And that we have as good of working conditions in general that any human being in our modern society deserves.
• Public and Private policy:
• PRO Issues: especially $0.20:$1.00 payout for score vs song, PRO transparency in accounting and operational decisions, ubiquitous tracking of our music, etc (many issues on the PRO front, please visit the IAC website for full list of issues)
• Federal Legislation: work with all the groups (PROS, NMPA, RIAA, etc) on all the legislation making sure that COMPOSER RIGHTS are taken into consideration and our rights arent just tossed out for the sake of easy negitiations as they usually are
• Cue Sheet Fraud: working with the DOJ to ensure that our cue sheets are not fraudulent and the suit-feeders stop getting our royalties. Things like the “Same Room” crap in Nashville be done away with and working towards legislation to make the COMPOSER or the songwriter the only one legally allowed to receive the ‘writers share’
• Digital Age Issues: committees with power and tenacity to act on the issues that are NOW and will be our legacy for the next hundred years dealing with how when and how much we are paid for all digital downloads and streams, anti piracy concepts that actually work and dont estrange us further, concepts on how to deal with things like music clouds and public sharing (illegal), considerations for CHANGE to our current Intellectual Property law that makes sense in todays age, etc
• Pension/Retirement plans
• Emergency Funds
• Education and Seminars
• Health Insurance
• Professional opportunities (even small stuff like live performances of union composers works, awards ceremonies, clinics featuring union composers, screening shindigs, etc)
I would like to thank you each once again for caring enough about the fate of composers and the path on which we are riding. I hope that my words are helpful and that the AMCL makes plans to move into real issues plaguing composers in LA and all over the US. This is the time to get it right after our failure 20 years ago. Its the time to stand up and represent our community, our entire community, and to embrace the role of champion. With all the assent from the big names you guys have put together (including each of you here!) you have created a real opportunity for meaningful change that has never been available before this phenomenon. Please use the situation and the power of it to do what is right for composers everywhere. The time is right, the spirit is right, and we have a just and fair cause. Let our ideas and ideals tremble the foundations and form a new place where composers are no longer held estranged from our inalienable rights.
My very warmest wishes,
Christopher Kennedy Alpiar
International Alliance of Composers