A Composers Union? Let’s Walk Before We Run.

By • March 22, 2011

Lest there be any confusion, let me be perfectly clear about my view on a composers’ union: it’s a great idea, and maybe it can work, but we’ve got to have the right people doing the organizing or we’re just spinning our wheels and wasting time.

I think the concept of a composers’ union is a great idea in theory. An inclusive, national organization that represents the business interests of working film, TV and game composers in an organization that focuses on using the combined leverage of these composers’ marketshare to negotiate meaningful agreements with employers and employer groups like the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). But what we seem to be getting from the current AMCL group is quite another thing, and I’m simply not convinced that these folks have what will be required to successfully take on the AMPTP.

The choice of aligning with Teamsters Local 399 in Los Angeles has advantages and disadvantages. On the pro side, who wouldn’t want to have the Teamsters looking out for us? The Teamsters to some in our industry must seem like the big strong guy who comes to the defense of the scrawny nerds on the beach (composers) who keep having sand kicked on them by the nasty bullies (producers). The downside? The Teamsters only represent a fraction of overall film and TV production. But hey, the Teamsters are strong, established, and don’t fool around – who wouldn’t want to have the Teamsters in their corner? So far, so good…

But even if the Teamsters are going to be our protectors/hired guns, composers still need to adopt a mindset of being willing to rock the boat and kick over the status quo if they’re going to be effective union organizers in today’s pro-business, anti-union business climate. And that’s where the current group falls short, as I see a lot of “not wanting to offend anyone” and controversy avoidance rather than the kind of strong, fearless attitudes and actions that are the hallmark of successful union organizers and organizing drives.

In all fairness, composers – especially successful ones – have made a career out of making their employers happy, no matter how unusual or difficult the task may be. Today’s composer simply isn’t wired for hardcore negotiations with the same people they are seeking employment with – it’s far too easy to be labeled a “troublemaker,” which can be the kiss of death given how many other talented composers (who keep quiet) are competing hard for every job out there.

The elephant in the room today is fear, combined with the reality that that composers – from the A list folks down to the newbies – have almost zero leverage in the marketplace today. The producers know this, and so do composers. It’s one of those silent, unwritten truths that has resulted from the current oversupply of composers in the marketplace, and it’s a big reason why composer fees have been plummeting for the last 15 years as the oversupply of composers in the marketplace gets worse by the year.

I fully realize that a union cannot negotiate with ASCAP and BMI, but there is an important lesson to be learned from the embarrassing and chronic inaction of our current leaders in the area of performance royalties for score composers. Today’s leaders are some of the same leaders who cannot even manage to summon enough courage to successfully challenge the very organizations we pay to collect and pay our performance royalties when these same organizations target custom score music with an 80% financial penalty for a one minute score cue compared to a one minute background vocal cue. And some of these same leaders are ASCAP board members! I cannot imagine how on earth are they are going to come up with the “intestinal fortitude” required to challenge the well-financed and organized film and television producers, to whom we’re an expense that can be easily outsourced to other composers worldwide. Eliminating the oppressive score payment rates at ASCAP would be a cakewalk compared to what it will take to convince the producers to accept a composers’ union, even a “benefits only” union. The producers are not fools or rubes, and are no doubt considering the long-term price to them of a composers’ union no matter how benign and “fair” the AMCL group may try to make their opening gambit seem on paper.

Sadly, “fairness” is no more effective an argument to the lawyers and accountants at production companies than it has been to the performing rights societies when it comes to composer royalty rates. This is a dollars-and-cents game, and those who are currently benefitting handsomely from the current imbalances of the status quo will fight tooth and nail to keep the current unfair policies in place. Whether it’s the songwriters at ASCAP being paid 500% more for their minute of background song than composers do, or the film and TV producers paying ridiculously low composer fees due to the oversupply of composers, both groups will fight hard to keep those financial benefits rolling in. After all, from their point of view a pay cut for themselves just wouldn’t be “fair.”

I’m not ready to give up on the current AMCL organizing group, but I would certainly be far more impressed with these folks if they were able to use the collective marketshare they say they have and create some real change for composers with our primary long-term paymasters – the performing rights societies – before they take on the big guys at the AMPTP. The AMCL is not a union yet, so there’s nothing to prevent them from undertaking – either directly or through a subcommittee or related group – any number of issues that composers face. And the financial benefits to composers of eliminating the 80% score music penalty at ASCAP would bring immediate and substantial financial benefits to all composers with music on the air – financial benefits of a magnitude that a “benefits only” composers union likely couldn’t begin to deliver for years, perhaps decades. And unlike the AMPTP, the performance royalties problem could be fixed with the stroke of a pen at the next ASCAP Board meeting, assuming our leaders had the courage and the will to start strongly opposing a policy that is among the most blatant and costly institutionalized policies that composers face today.

I cannot imagine a better way to establish both the credentials and the capabilities of the AMCL group. Plus, an initial success reforming composer royalties would likely galvanize industry participation and support for the group, proving their ability to take on entrenched interests and create positive, substantial benefits for composers and their families.

As they say, walk before you run. If we’re finally going to take on major industry business problems, let’s get the composer royalty problem fixed to increase income for all composers, then use the resulting momentum and industry support to take on the powerful film and television producers.

Comments

By Max Friedman on April 14th, 2011 at 11:26 am

How predictable. Another attack on ASCAP (note that BMI is never mentioned – ever) making the same points you’ve made for the past decade or more.

This article really has much less to do with a composer’s union and much more to do with a decades long vendetta Mark has against ASCAP.

Even more tiring as we move into the internet distribution age and these arguments become even more meaningless.

By Mark Northam on April 14th, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Hey Max -

BMI is never mentioned in terms of the 80% score penalty because they stopped automatically paying all background vocals as features several years ago.

Vendetta? ASCAP attacks the livelihood of every score composer with their outrageous 80% penalty for a one minute custom score cue compared to what a one minute background vocal cue is made, shifting millions into the pockets of the songwriters. Remember: broadcasters pay ASCAP the same for ALL types of music under the blanket license.

Max, I expect you’re either a songwriter (whose income might be threatened if composers got paid fairly) or a composer with a very low opinion of the value of your own music if you willingly accept an 80% penalty for a one minute custom score cue from ASCAP. Either way, I doubt many score composers will be lining up behind you to defend ASCAP’s 80% penalty.

And internet distribution? The 80% penalty at ASCAP applies whether a film or TV show is streamed on the internet or broadcast over the air or on cable or satellite. Talk about a costly precedent for composers.

By Max Friedman on April 14th, 2011 at 4:15 pm

A. No I am song writer (though we all pen a few songs now and again) I am primarily a score composer – but considering how pressured ASCAP and BMi are right now from all sides I am a big fan of our PRO’s. We really need them and I believe you take every opportunity to attack the best of one (namely ASCAP). Just rubs me the wrong way.

B. Your math suggests that if underscore was treated similarly to a featured performance that our checks would go up 80%. That is very misleading as FP’s make up a relatively small percentage of all performances. There would be a slight bump if they were equalized but no where near 80%.

C. ASCAP is moving to change it’s current rules that make every vocal a FP. That will come very soon. So perhaps your point (and article ) is moot.

D. You’ve proved my point with your response. Your article is really about attacking ASCAP and not a composers union.

By Mark Northam on April 14th, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Hi Max -

Where is the data for your assertion about the number of FP’s? That’s a closely guarded secret at ASCAP, yet you quote it as fact (but with no numbers, of course). A “slight bump”? Where’s the data? We’re talk math and dollars and cents here, not opinions and guesses. Have you listened to TV lately and heard all the songs being used throughout shows? Not to mention shows like Boston Legal and Grey’s Anatomy that are loaded with score+vocalese cues that are all getting paid as features… Let’s stick to published statistics. The rest is just smoke.

As far as ASCAP “moving to change”, again, where’s the evidence? The ASCAP Board meets and works in secret. We can only wonder and guess as to what they’re up to behind those locked doors. But the numbers tell the bloody story: a minute of custom score receives 80% less than a minute of background vocal. That’s all I’m saying. As to how checks would go up if that were changed, we can only guess because nobody (but ASCAP) has the data to project that, and they’re not sharing. The basic math involved clearly indicates that the increase would be less than 80% (since it’s a zero sum game), but without solid numbers as to the percentage of background vocals vs background score cues both in duration (minutes/seconds) and in current distribution, it is mathematically impossible to project with any certainty at all what the overall effect would be given any specific change in the rates.

As far as unionization goes, your comments were about ASCAP so I responded in kind. But I’ll stand by the point of my editorial: If our alleged composer “leaders” don’t have the will and the courage to stand up to and fix the 80% score penalty at ASCAP, they haven’t got a chance at all of successfully establishing a composer’s union from scratch. Their pathetic record of failure and inaction while ASCAP has heaped costly, unfair penalties on score music for decades now speaks for itself.

Are we better off with ASCAP than without? Yes, of course. Do I want to see ASCAP go away? Absolutely NOT. But let’s make a clear difference between massively discriminatory policies like the 80% score penalty, and the overall organization. Never have I called for the end of ASCAP or have I portrayed the entire organization negatively. I have pointed out specific policies that are highly discriminatory towards custom score music, and have pointed out election policies that reduce their elections to third-world status at best. Only those who apparently wish to defend these policies or muddy the waters try to distort my criticism of specific policies into an “anti-ASCAP” overall position that simply doesn’t exist. While it might convince a few, in the end those same indefensible policies – like the 80% custom score penalty – keep coming back to bite ASCAP and will continue to until the ASCAP board realizes that heaping this level of discrimination on members is simply not productive in the long run.

Now, more than ever, ASCAP must end policies like this one that only invite criticism and sow the seeds of dissention and discontent among the membership. ASCAP must act fairly, decisively, and quickly to end the discrimination and stop pitting songwriter against composer in the distribution system with these kinds of massive differences in rates, because ASCAP’s true enemies – broadcasters who would like to eliminate PRO royalties altogether – are knocking at the door with the new Adjustable Fee Blanket License (AFBL). These very same low rates that I have been talking about for the last decade are EXACTLY what has and is giving composers a financial reason to consider direct licensing, and are one of the key reasons why direct licensing has rapidly increased during the last 15 years.

Let’s see ASCAP truly level the playing field for songwriters and composers and stop discriminating against music based on whether it has vocals or not, etc and then we’ll have something to talk about. It’s my belief that eliminating this kind of blatant discrimination is one of the things that ASCAP simply must do in order to survive for the long-term.

By Gael MacGregor on May 25th, 2011 at 5:18 pm

I’ve always felt that back-end music royalties should be paid based on HOW the music is used, not WHAT kind of music is used, and in many cases, as long as the cue sheet reflects that, most non-ASCAP PROs honor the noted use.

Regardless of whether it has vocals or not, if music is used in a montage, it most often becomes another character in the scene and deserves feature status. Current ASCAP policies treat instrumental-only music in such a scenario as a bastard child. BMI does not; hence the reason for singling out ASCAP’s discriminatory policies. BMI pays based on cue sheets and other verifiable reports of use. ASCAP pays on “guesstimates” via their “surveys.”

Any music used in the background of a scene (such as music in an elevator, restaurant, club, etc. that is played well in the background of the action and dialogue) should be paid on equal footing, whether it is with or without vocals. Any music played in the forefront of a scene, or on camera, or is in the forefront of the action and/or dialogue deserves feature status.

As a music supervisor, that’s how I fill out cue sheets, and non-ASCAP composers (BMI, SESAC or foreign PRO members) then have a fighting chance of being paid according to the actual use. ASCAP composers do not because the folks over there make arbitrary changes to the cue sheets to penalize any instrumental music and favor music with vocals.

ASCAP also portrays itself as “owned” by the composers, yet everything they do at board meetings, how royalties are computed, disbursed, etc. remains secret and hidden behind closed doors. When was the last time you heard of an “owner” being kept completely in the dark as to how their organization is run and where the money is going? No owner would put up with that, yet every ASCAP composer who stays silent is giving tacit approval to silence and secrecy.

There’s your fight.

By John Doe on May 28th, 2011 at 2:41 am

Let’s not overlook the fact that most composers now rely on slave labor, and wages that any state in the country would deem illegal. This is something that would undoubtedly fall under the jurisdiction of said union, and would have to come to an end. I don’t think many composers will want to lose their cue sheet or pay their employees a livable wage.

By Jean D'eau on July 7th, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Just a simple comment:
To the very few who have continued to work as a Film/TV Composers without a significant depreciation in income over the last decade or so and [who] still value craft over title and position, we’re glad you’re doing your thing (jealousies aside readers). Folks like Bruce Broughton, Jeff Beal, Alan Silvestri, etc.
For those who have been hit hard due to obvious factors (affordable technology allowing masses of would be writers with limited or pedestrian musical abilities to glut the market, the rise of the Library music monster, drastically reduced creative fees….), be grateful for the opportunities and experiences you’ve had. Think of the odds against your ever being allowed to write for Film, or be a part of episodic TV. Also, things change. Don’t throw your baton away. You may very well find an Angel on your shoulder again.

By ANNE BRYANT on November 7th, 2012 at 6:21 pm

I add vocals to my instrumentals — easy enough to do with all the loops around, if you can’t sing. What is he big deal. Add some ooohs and ahhhs and a few thumb lnes for texture (nice) and file it as a vocal bkgd cue. $$$

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