The notorious muckraker Molly Ivins once observed that among the steps needed to combat a crisis in state government were the following: get the governor out from under his desk; place a foot firmly in the governor’s back; tell the governor, “Lead, you dumb sumbitch, it’s what we pay you for.”
In the past year, orchestras across the U.S. have been confronting the changing nature of media as it affects our own broadcasting and recording practices. In Cleveland, musicians took a hard stand on principle, refusing to play at the prestigious BBC Proms festival if they were not to be paid for the online streaming audio of their performance. In Philadelphia, a new collective bargaining agreement will allow recordings to be made without the upfront payments which have always been a cornerstone of the industry. In my own orchestra, various committees have been hashing over a package of new media proposals from Minnesota Public Radio, which carries our weekly live broadcasts, and trying to decide what we can allow under the national agreements which bind us, and what we want to allow in any case. These are serious issues requiring serious debate, and while musicians and orchestras appear willing, even eager, to engage them, I have come to the sad conclusion that our national union leadership is hiding under the desk.
Shortly after the Philadelphia contract began to make news, AFM President Tom Lee called a summit meeting of orchestra committee chairs and Local presidents to discuss these very issues, and (hopefully) to find the beginnings of a way forward. I was thrilled to be a part of such a conference, and for the first few hours of that meeting in Chicago, when the discussion was free-flowing and wide-ranging, I actually began to think that some real progress might be made. But then, following a lunch break, the AFM leadership shifted the conversation dramatically, introducing the idea of negotiating a new national agreement to allow orchestras to create in-house recordings from concert tapes at a fraction of the cost of traditional “studio” recordings made under the auspices of a third-party record label. I was a bit surprised, since this sounded like an awfully narrowly focused enterprise, and one I recognized as a plan which had been floated previously by one or two high-profile orchestras. In other words, it might be a good idea, but it certainly wasn’t going to a) address any of the larger issues we’d supposedly gathered to confront, or b) have any impact at all on the vast majority of orchestras represented at the meeting.
Nonetheless, it quickly became abundantly clear that the real purpose of the summit was to circle the wagons around this new proposed national agreement. Some orchestras had clearly been briefed in advance on this— most had not. For the rest of the day, as some of us in attendance tried desperately to shift the conversation back to the core issues of payment and distribution, various AFM leaders rose periodically to say how pleased they were with the “groundswell of support” for their proposal. I wasn’t hearing any groundswell—if anything, I think many of us would have been happy to approve the idea and move on to more important things. At the end of the day, I went home frustrated not by how little we had accomplished, but by how little we’d even tried to accomplish. Confronted with a quickly-changing world that wasn’t conforming to our existing game plan, we’d chosen to tack on a footnote rather than revise the book.
Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with AFM officials and my counterparts on other orchestra committees about where we’re headed. The media debate is wildly complicated, of course, and can be approached from many different angles. But basically, whether we’re talking about traditional recordings, radio, on-demand audio streams, downloadable music, or some other technology, there are two overarching options available to us as a unionized workforce confronting change. Either we can reaffirm our commitment to the strategies that have brought us this far (upfront payments, flat recording rates, etc.), making tweaks and adjustments as needed to account for new technologies, or we can conclude that a whole new set of rules is needed to allow us to reestablish orchestral music as a viable part of the new media landscape. Both positions have their supporters, and both deserve a full hearing from all interested parties. (There is a third option, of course, which was raised in the last issue of Senza Sordino: we could junk national recording and broadcast agreements altogether, and allow orchestras to decide for themselves what and how they should be paid for the distribution of their work. To me, this seems like a very backward way to confront the problem. More than ever, media is a global affair, and pretending that the decisions made by an orchestra in one city won’t directly affect an orchestra thousands of miles away is counterproductive.)
Trouble is, we aren’t having the discussion. We aren’t even in the same room. Rather than admit that we have a problem with no easy solution and tackling it honestly, we’re hiding behind a patchwork of short-term fixes and hoping that someone else will figure it all out for us. The reason for this approach is obvious: orchestras that aren’t getting a slice of the media pie want one, and the ones that have one don’t want theirs to get any smaller, and often, those two wants can conflict with the desire for a national standard. The need to balance these individual desires with a concern for the good of the industry’s musicians as a whole is, dare I say, why we have a union. So why isn’t the national leadership of the AFM willing to step into the breach? I have talked to Local officers with strong opinions and good ideas on the future of media. I don’t know a single orchestra committee chair who doesn’t have a position on upfront payments and online distribution. It might take a knock-down, drag-out fight to get us all on the same page, and there’s no question that any hard-and-fast national standard has the potential to make some orchestras worse-off in the short term than they are right now. Will we kill off Electronic Media Guarantees? Allow for revenue sharing in place of upfront pay? Bundle online streaming rights with radio broadcasts? Create a cafeteria plan where distributors can pick and choose the rights they want and pay for them a la carte? Maybe, maybe not. But any of these possibilities has to be preferable to the AFM’s current strategy of allowing individual orchestras to abandon existing national agreements simply because no one is pointing the way forward.
I realize that, to some who have been in this business far longer than I, this may all seem like the frustrated ranting of a young committee chair who hasn’t been around long enough to learn how to work the system. But that’s exactly my point. I shouldn’t have to work the system. The system should be working for me, and for every orchestral musician that the AFM purports to represent. No one is asking for the AFM leadership to swoop in with some magical answer that everyone will be happy with—regardless of what direction we turn as we look to the future of our industry, some percentage of those involved in the discussion will wish we’d turned another way. But the current policy of placating whatever orchestra is in crisis at the moment while determinedly ignoring the larger issues raised by the crisis is cowardly and untenable. Unions are supposed to unify us, and if that were an easy task, we wouldn’t need them in the first place. We badly need those at the helm to take a chance, and step into what could be a very ugly fray. It’s called leadership, and it’s what we pay them for.
Sam Bergman is a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra, a news editor at ArtsJournal.com, and a past editor of Senza Sordino.