The AMCL: Our Way Or The Highway?

By • May 27, 2010

I want to start out by saying that I have a lot of respect for Bruce Broughton, esteemed composer and spokesperson for the AMCL, the group that is attempting to unionize at least some composers. Bruce has put a lot of time, energy and effort into his work with the AMCL which has the potential to do great things for composers. But a recent statement he made responding to Chris Alpiar’s concerns about the AMCL really surprised me:

“You’ve called Richard Gibbs and you’ve heard from me. You will find different versions of the same message. The bottom line is that if you or any other person is distrustful of the committee or any of its members, then stay away from the process. “

I think my message to those who have concerns about the AMCL organizing committee might be a bit different:

“If you or any other person is distrustful of the AMCL organizing committee, then ask MORE questions, and get INVOLVED in the process!”

With this language, the AMCL presents itself as a closed group that has already made up its mind, and delivers a “take it or leave it” response to composers who may have issues with the goals or policies of the AMCL. At the initial AMCL public meeting in December, there was lots of talk of benefits, minimums, opposing free music demands and much more. 250 people signed union cards at that meeting, based on the message of that meeting. Fast forward ahead to April and suddenly the founder of the AMCL Alan Elliott has been pushed out, Mike Post has become the leading voice on the organizing committee, and Post’s “benefits only” position has quickly become the official position of the AMCL on all matters. The WGA letter opposing free music, after 4 long months of negotiations between the AMCL and the WGA resulting in unanimous approval by the WGA Executive Board on March 1, has suddenly been dismissed as something for the future, maybe.

The lack of involvement of the industry, other than the 11 folks on the AMCL organizing committee working in private, in this major change in direction is as troubling as the “take it or leave it” stance the AMCL is now taking about it’s policies and plans. It is simply not right for a single powerful composer or group of composers to commandeer the agenda of an industry-wide group behind closed doors, then present those decisions to the industry as a done deal. It smacks of the same kind of edicts handed down by the ASCAP Board of Directors, who also works behind closed doors, when they tell us they have “decided” that a minute of score music is only worth 20% of what a minute of background song is in film and television. These political decisions are designed to avoid any accountability for individual board members, and to present the “decisions” of the board as an edict or pronouncement by a monolithic group.

While the AMCL was always “benefits only” regarding negotiations with the motion picture and television producers (AMPTP), the sudden change of course for the AMCL regarding the WGA letter and any other similar workplace conditions deals that might be possible with related guilds including the Music Editors, AFM and others, is troubling. The AMPTP talks are years away, and assuming an AMPTP benefits-only contract is negotiated, expanding that to take on any of the urgent workplace issues that composers face today is even more years away. The WGA letter delivered benefits now, and has been put into cold storage by the AMCL, apparently because they are afraid that addressing issues that they think might cause composers not to want to be part of the AMCL.

I don’t quite understand that, though. Most composers I know would jump at the chance to oppose being forced or expected to write music for free as part of being hired. Far from being a dividing issue, taking on the free music problem would help galvanize composers to finally start taking on the immediate, critical problems that exist in our industry. And the lack of employer-funded health insurance and having a juicy pension plan are not problems that most composers I know would consider immediate or urgent, especially in light of the new healthcare reform passed by the US government. Who among us is actually in favor of working for free? That’s a very, very interesting question given the AMCL’s recent choices.

It might be interesting to know how many of the AMCL organizing board members have actually been required to write free music as a condition of being considered for a job. This is an issue that affects “rank and file” (to coin a union term) composers far more than the upper level of full-time, working composers on big films and network TV shows. For that matter, AMCL organizing board member Mike Post has declared that he’s perfectly willing to work for free, with his famous “If you want to compete with me, you’d better be willing to work for free!” declaration from the dais back at a memorable SCL event in the 1990s. As a new film composer in LA, I’ll never forget how I felt after hearing Mike’s booming voice make that stunning declaration. For me and others I knew who were there, it was a jarring, yet educational wake-up call about the cutthroat competition of film and TV composers in LA.

We wanted to ask Mike about his feelings about free music and other union matters, but he declined our request for an interview, as did Steve Dayan of the Teamsters.

While the AMCL organizing committee may believe that they and people like them are the only ones who stand to win or lose if a composers union is established, I believe that every composer in our industry has a stake in the outcome. After all, those not eligible for or unable to afford union membership will by default become non-union composers, and there are more than a few among us who may have some issues being classified as such.

I urge you to make your voice heard in the Film Music Magazine Composer Unionization Survey by visiting http://www.composersurvey.com and speaking up – it’s completely anonymous. In the meantime, if you care about a composers union, get involved in the process! Volunteer for the AMCL Organizing Committee and if you’re turned away, get a reason and share it with the industry. See what other volunteer positions the AMCL may have open, and become part of the process.

Bottom line: There is room for only one film and television composers’ union in the industry, and if the AMCL is to be that union, then we owe it to ourselves, our careers, and our families to get involved in shaping that union to be as representative and inclusive as possible to composers at all levels of the industry. In the final analysis, there are people who have no problem having terms dictated to them about what will and will not be possible when it comes to business and other matters in life. As you might guess, I’m not one of those people…

Comments

By Chris Alpiar on May 27th, 2010 at 11:57 am

Thanks Mark, your unending energy and willingness to face scrutiny by the powers that be is always refreshing and inspiring. And your ability to internalize complex information and break it down and disseminate it in a way we feeble minded people can understand is also really appreciated. I took your survey and I must say it broke apart and asked all the tough questions in a way that has only positive outcome and its not phrased in any way that I felt to lean one way or the other in the results intended. Great job! I highly recommend anyone who is a composer to take this survey regardless of the level, position, station you may currently find yourself in. And I really hope that the folks on the AMCL and Teamsters side get a chance to absorb the results and may it unlock doors and be a catalyst to some good change in direction we need.

I really understand what a tough position the AMCL committee must be in right now, of how to play this card of politics in a world so entrenched in its quagmire of policy against composers (and songwriters) [really need film trailer voiceover to read that last sentence!]. One false step and you blow the whole banana and people get blacklisted and it all backfires. But the same wrong move in the other direction severs the head (AMPTP composers) from the body, leaving the other 80 or 90% wriggling on the floor. Unfortunately the head cannot survive without the body either, at least not for long. So while I support unionization by the AMCL and am very respectful of their efforts and the risks they are taking, to come out of the gates as AMPTP only, benefits only, well it just seems like it will do not much for the whole, and not really much for the folks its going to represent as well. Can nothing be done to offer change in policy for the better position of all composers? Or is it just an impossibility?

By GrisGrisJouJou on May 27th, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I know I have harped on how Mike Post and the old guys have taken this over, but it still remains to be seen when sacrifice is going to come into this thing. Post isn’t willing to dig into any issues. Michael Giacchino or Danny Lux or any younger people who have been so fortunate to make a killing while the economy for composers has tanked is starting to show in my eyes.

If Michael Giacchino wants to be the next big name, he needs to come and lead this generation for some protections.

By Michael on May 28th, 2010 at 11:58 pm

GrisGrisJouJou,

I am going to have to respectfully disagree here. If Michael Giacchino wants to be the next household name, the last thing he wants to do is upset the status quo. I can’t imagine any producers or studios being happy about that.

I think it would be great if Michael Giacchino would step up for young composers, don’t get me wrong, but that is not a good career move for him, and it is unfair, and unrealistic for us to ask him or expect him to do such a thing.

One person cannot change things for the rest of us. Young composers looking to make it cannot afford to try and change the way the industry is being run and expect to make a name for themselves at the same time, because there are a thousand other people who are willing to do the same job under whatever unethical working conditions the employer has laid down.

We need established, long standing composers to speak for those of us who just can’t afford to. Thats why it is important that it is not “our way or the highway”. This may be the only chance for young composers to have their concerns heard and addressed.

Chris makes a good point that this is a game of delicate politics, where fragile egos come by the boat load, which may have a lot to do with why this has been such a long process, and will probably continue in the same fashion.

If this union becomes a reality it affects all composers, whether they are apart of the union or not, and because of this a “take it or leave it” attitude just won’t do.

By Brian Corber on June 2nd, 2010 at 1:14 pm

The AMCL is one of he topics that will be discussed on the net-radio show on which I’ll be appearing starting June 8.

As a veteran attorney and expert on the subjects of film music and the music business, I wil bring an expertise to the discussion that has been previously unheard.

By Brian Corber on June 2nd, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Mr. Alpiar, whatever happend to that IAC thing you and your two buddies purportedly founded?

By David on June 8th, 2010 at 8:33 am

Northam’s article is a whining rant. The fact of the matter is that it wasn’t until the AMCL Organizing Committee decided to exclusively focus on only Pension and Benefits that the larger community of composers got on board, including the heavyweights. The most important step at this moment is the formation of a union, and that cannot happen without widespread support. The big players in our field have made it plain that they will not participate if we ask for anything other than Pension and benefits. And without the support of the big players, we will not garner sufficient momentum to unionize.

If the terms under which a union is formed, at this moment, does not meet everyone’s objectives, that does not diminish the benefit of securing such rights going forward. Furthermore, it will be a place from which to build. The history of labor protections in this country is one of incremental steps.

By Mark Northam on June 8th, 2010 at 1:56 pm

David (or whoever you are), the “big players” in our community have very little to gain from a union. They are already well-paid, and they likely already have pensions and health care. And if you look at the published quotes from “big players” like Randy Newman, Hans Zimmer, the Bergmans and others, their support goes well beyond health & pension as they address workplace conditions and workplace problems. The bottom line is that film & television composing is quickly becoming a profession it is not viable to make a career out of. And all the pension and health insurance isn’t going to solve the wage and free music problems that are killing this industry for all but the richest composers.

Regarding industry support, the largest single surge of broad support for the AMCL came at the Burbank meeting in December where 250 composers signed Teamsters union cards supporting an agenda discussed at that meeting that goes well beyond pension & health insurance. The AMCL running away from the WGA letter came only at the insistence of the Post group, and their “benefits only or we walk” ultimatum.

Incremental steps are one thing, but when the building is on fire, you don’t just turn on one hose and figure you’ll put out the rest of the fire sometime in the future. And a Teamsters contract that addresses more than pension/health insurance would be many years down the road at the earliest – how much more erosion and damage should composers be forced to endure during those years while the union takes fearful baby steps towards confronting a massive industry problem when pension and health insurance is demonstrably far from the top of the list of the challenges most composers face today?

I see no good reason why the AMCL should not accept the unanimously approved support of the WGA to oppose free music demands being placed on composers as a condition of employment, and I cannot imagine why any composer would support the idea that composers should have to work for free just to get a job. These are the most BASIC issues composers face: to be paid fairly for their work! Hardly divisive, unless you’re dealing with people who think composers should work for free. Hmm…

The union must address the needs of ALL members, not just the “upper crust” and not just the “up and coming”. There is a balance of short and long term benefits that simply is not being talked about if the “heavyweights” are allowed to continue to dictate terms to the rest of us about how and industry-wide union will work.

By James Guymon on June 8th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Mark, I admire and appreciate your dedication to this issue.

Try as I may, I have struggled to get myself worked up enough to get involved emotionally with this issue as I cannot see how it is possible for any union of composers to exert the power necessary to force relevance.

In order for any union to wield power, it must have the power to shut down production if its members refuse to work. I cannot see this happening for composers. Even at the highest levels of the industry, I cannot think of a single composer that a studio would view as impossible to replace. Even the great John Williams, from the perspective of a studio executive, could be replaced by some young guy (I’m thinking in this case of Nicholas Hooper, who did the latest Harry Potter film) without a noticeable dip in ticket or DVD sales.

The Teamsters make sense – you need people HERE to drive trucks HERE. The physical location makes sense. But with a small investment in technology (much of which can be pirated by the unethical) and an internet connection, the aspiring film composer provides studios with willing suppliers from around the world. And as much as we may want to deny it, many of them are quite good. In fact, I argue, enough of them are good enough.

If composers would individually stand up for the minimum working conditions they require – by themselves, without support of a union – then we would be much closer. If we could collectively pool our purchasing power for 401k and health benefits, that would be welcome also. And if we could have people championing our causes to lawmakers, who would push for reform of a system where people who didn’t write a cue are credited for, and paid for, writing that cue, well, then we would have something. I don’t see why a union is necessary for these things to happen.

By Mark Northam on June 8th, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Well said, James. Composers’ work is easily transferred to non-union composers, or overseas – look at how recording musicians have seen their work outsourced all over Europe with real-time Internet remote recording setups. How many composers would actually strike if the Teamsters strike? Not many, I expect. Given the small fraction of composers that the union would include as members anyway, it would leave large numbers of non-union composers ready to step in and work. Our industry is simply not concentrated geographically in a way that makes regional unions’ ability to create a “local” strike viable.

I think the heart of your argument – that composers need to help themselves before any composers union is going to be viable much less helpful – is what it really comes down to. As an industry, we must stop looking to others to solve our problems.

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