The Union

If ever there was a group of workers who needed organized representation and protection against unfair exploitation, it's musicians. Most of us are not great business people, and we play for love as much as for money. We therefore are prime targets for everyone from club owners to symphony trustees to the mother of the bride. They all want music, but they would prefer not to pay for it. Rarely do they treat musicians, historically stigmatized as dispensable court jesters, with the same respect they extend to other professionals. We're lucky to have the musicians' union, and the union does a good job of seeing that some of us get what we deserve. In the U.S. and Canada, our union is called the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Today more than ever, when conservative politicians and greedy employers are abusing workers' rights at every opportunity, we desperately need a strong musicians' union.

I wish it were a lot stronger. I wish the union would succeed in its effort to update its image and appeal to young players, that all working musicians would be unionized, and that all those club owners and booking agents who've been ripping us off for decades would be forced to deal with us as equals. Many scab gigs pay as well as union gigs anyway, so what's the difference? The difference is that nonunion presenters don't have to follow any rules. They can cancel us on little or no notice without compensation, expect us to work overtime for free, pay not a penny for our travel or our backbreaking cartage, offer us a filthy boiler room in which to dress, say they "forgot" to bring their checkbook to the reception, do business on a phone call, sign nothing, replace live musicians with electronic toys-these and a thousand other crimes go unpunished every day in the music business. And as long as there are eager, young players willing to do anything for "exposure" (as in hypothermia), the situation will not change.

What can you do? Call your nonunion musician friends and get them to boycott every venue that's ever mistreated them-that in itself would put many clubs and agencies out of business. Refuse to work without a contract. Circulate petitions at clubs, studios, music stores, record shops, schools, anywhere musicians congregate. Ask your local businesses and legislators to promote the hiring of union musicians. Join the union. Sure, it costs a little money-ever heard of paying your dues?-but membership acquits itself in equitable wages and in benefits (health and instrument insurance, pension, credit, contacts). And yes, a lot of musicians would temporarily be spending weekends at home-they probably could use the practice time-but so would a lot of listeners. Eventually the whole music biz would have to be union just to function, and we'd all be treated fairly.

Sound like the simplistic rambling of a hopeless dreamer? Well, you know those crazy musicians.

 The Union
© 2014 by Hal Howland
From The Human Drummer: Thoughts on the Life Percussive (Minneapolis: Publish Green, 2013)



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