What Does the WGA’s Support Really Mean For The Composers Union?

By • April 13, 2010

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.

Comments

By Chance Thomas on April 14th, 2010 at 8:45 am

This could be an interesting development, for sure. In addition to powerful negotiators who thrive on confronting the big guys, which you’ve pointed out, this kind of movement would first need an incredibly dynamic and charismatic leader who could catalyze the composers into a mutually supportive group in the first place. It will be such a challenge. Composers can be loners, by virtue of the nature of our work.

That being said, in the videogame industry there is already a surprising degree of camaraderie among composers. Collaboration is common, and many of the rumors we hear of backstabbing, profiteering, and enmity among composers in other fields has not emerged here. However, even game composers might be hard pressed to agree to boycott publishers who aren’t signatory to a new union. Hard to tell.

Again, the right personalities in leadership will be critical. And attracting that calibre of charismatic talent means deep pockets. I’m curious to learn if the AMCL is well funded. And if so, how committed are the benefactors to financing its development over many years? Lots of questions…

Wish I could get down to LA for the April meeting. But I’ve alerted the other Board members at the Game Audio Network Guild about this, so hopefully we can get someone from the game music community there to check it out.

Thanks for article!

Chance Thomas

By Michael Levine on April 14th, 2010 at 10:12 am

Well put, Mark. I think there is a great deal of unanimity in our community about the value of a composer’s organization that could bargain collectively over issues of health care, fairness in demos, basic pay, etc. But there is a lot of skepticism by some, partly because of the history and legal precedents, and partly because of the need for fence mending by specific individuals involved who have been combative with colleagues in the past. I have been encouraged by the shift in tone in news reports as of late, and the WGA endorsement is a huge psychological step forward. Involvement of NY (and Canada!) would be helpful. But even more important would be the involvement of big names in the industry to lend credibility. Your mention of games is instructive. At the time G.A.N.G. was formed, it’s founders were the top names in that business. With all due respect to Bruce, Alf, Stu, and Alan, that is not the case…yet. But recent public support from the likes of Randy Newman is a step in the right direction.

By Jeff Weiss on April 14th, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Wow. That really is a strange post. Who are you referring to that needs to mend fences, and just what fences? Don’t you work for Hans Zimmer? With all the young composers who work at Remote Control, what does the boss think? Not sure by your post if you are helping or hurting, but if Mark is right that the WGA endorsement could affect working conditions, why wouldn’t you be on board?

By Adrian Peek on April 14th, 2010 at 4:58 pm

At present I’ve not seen/heard about any considerations for composers in a non- WGA/IATSE film. What about mid/low/no-budget composers? Would there be any way to “force” the AMCL conditions on non-union productions? Would the AMCL make the scales accessible to any working composer, regardless if budget? I suppose some of the benefits of a composers union may “trickle down” to those of us who are not A-listers, but this isn’t guaranteed at all. And Mark is correct in saying this union needs to have meetings in NYC or risks becoming an LA-only endeavor. I’m very interested in hearing the new info at the meet on the 19th.

By VIDEOGAMES on April 15th, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Videogames will have nothing to do with this union. It is strictly for motion picture/television. Perhaps in the future, but not now.

By Charles Denler on April 16th, 2010 at 11:38 am

Looks like there’s a light on the horizon. This is very encouraging – thanks Mark!

By Jesse Hopkins on April 17th, 2010 at 2:48 am

Videogames do have to do with this union. Look at a game like Black for the PS2 – used union orchestra (Hollywood Studio Symphony works on a lot of games), orchestrator, conductor and copyists. You think the composer won’t be union too?

By toxic avenger on April 17th, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Dream on, all of you. Elmer Bernstein is dead, so is Bernard Herrmann and even Gil Melle. Composers and backbones are mutually exclusive concepts. You talk big on message boards but when it comes time for action and funding, you’re nowhere to be found. Composers need a union because indivdiually they have no spinal columns.

ROFL.

By toxic avenger on April 17th, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Dream on, all of you.

By Jesse Hopkins on April 18th, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Hey toxie, whether or not you’re just playing devil’s advocate, up yours either way.

By VIDEOGAMES on April 19th, 2010 at 4:20 am

this union is being designed for MP/TV.. NOT videogames. Videogame companies have no jurisdiction (and therefore no alliance) with the Teamsters. get it now? It doesn’t mean they CAN’T be on a case by case basis, and certainly these companies can still record AFM when they choose to, but certainly it’s not in the composer’s union business model nor are they thinking about it. Episodic television, made for tv movies, and studio/indie film are the priorities now.

Not to mention this proposed union has already said their composers can do non-union work if push came to shove, without retribution.

By VIDEOGAMES on April 19th, 2010 at 4:22 am

@jesse– referencing a game on the PS2 related to AFM contracts is about as relevant as soundtrack sales residuals, or VHS sales charts.. The AFM and SAG contracts re: vg have changed a LOT.

By Michael L on April 19th, 2010 at 10:18 am

@ toxic avenger

I’m not going to respond to the substance/validity of your comment. However, I am a composer AND an attorney (in that order). I’m surprised by your harsh attitude. The majority of your clients must not be composers. Of course, if they are, I suppose that proves your point.

By Joel Ciulla on April 21st, 2010 at 7:55 am

@toxic avenger

Those who live in “glass houses” shouldn’t through stones!!

@ Mark Northam

Great insight Mark. Thank you for the above article.

By Jesse Hopkins on May 8th, 2010 at 4:02 am

@ VIDEOGAMES, there are plenty of games that have signed AFM contracts since then. It hasn’t appeared to taper off. Dark Void, for instance.

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