Live Pro Musicians Strike!

8:47pm Sun Mar 11, 2007

[Thanks to Rich Palmer for saving this Craigslist rant from obscurity. Still 100% true, relevant, and I wouldn’t change much now, 7 years later]

(Dedicated to Margo St. James, Carol Leigh, and all the girls at the
Lusty Lady)

Can you cook? Great. I have a restaurant, and I need a cook. You just need to bring 20-50 customers in every night for dinner, and I’ll give you half of the money we make. Hey, it’s my restaurant — where else are you going to cook? On the street?

Nobody in their right mind would wash dishes for free to get a job tending bar on commission. Very few people could afford to do it for long, anyway. Musicians of all levels of education and skill continue to work under these kinds of conditions in Los Angeles and beyond.

Cooking, waiting tables and tending bar all require training and hard work. Learning to play a musical instrument requires training and hard work. I love to cook and I love to play music, but I’ve spent twenty years becoming a competent, professional musician.

I just saw the documentary Live Nude Girls Unite! (and boy, are my arms tired) The strippers at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco got together and forced some of the most arrogant, greedy and cruel people in the entertainment industry to treat them more fairly. I thought, “A bunch of struggling college students and single mothers did this?”

It’s an accomplishment that we musicians can’t seem to do. And we already have a union. Sort of.

I hate having to write this. I shouldn’t have to write this. If the American Federation of Musicians was working for the majority of their members, I could be making music right now! And I’d proudly rejoin Local 47.

I’ve organized for the AFM, filed comments with the FCC, attended the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summits, and nothing has changed here in the trenches. Millions of Americans spoke up about media consolidation, second only to the antiwar outcry, and professional musicians still can’t make an honest living. Because the same kinds of parasites, scavengers and predators that the girls at the Lusty Lady had the guts to call on their bullshit are in every corner of the industry.

Well, I’m sick of sweating over my bills every month so these bullies can live better, and the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to them.

How did the dancers do it? They held a strike. They marched in front of the place with signs. And they didn’t work. Let’s see for ourselves how the clubs and restaurants do without live music. “Oh, the scabs will just take all the work.” Let them. But give them a picket line to cross. Put a big, fat, noisy, peaceable assembly on the doorstep of every venue that can afford to pay their waitstaff but won’t pay skilled artists. Make their street traffic uncomfortable. You’re not going to try and tell me you need the work more than a stripper does, are you?

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Here’s how the music scene works in Los Angeles: First, you have to guarantee 25-50 people are going to show up. After they’ve paid the cover, the band gets half the money. This unoffical LA standard will make me $5 more than my sidemen that night (25 x 10 / 2 – 80) if the door is $10. If the minimum draw doesn’t get there, the band gets nothing. I can’t bring myself to pay my sidemen less than $40 a night, so it costs me a minimum of $80 to work if 25 of my closest friends don’t feel like going out on Tuesday night. Well, as my friend Steve Grams says about this business, “It takes money to lose money.”

The thing is, you can’t build this following, no matter how good you are, because you can’t get a gig without the draw. How is this any different from the $150 “stage fee” that a stripper pays a club? Well, they don’t need a following to get the job, for one thing.

I wonder how all the restaurants and bars that don’t have live music manage to stay open? Selling beer and food, I guess. Sending out press releases. Maybe they even spend a little of their hard-earned money on advertising. They hire cooks to cook, servers to serve. They wouldn’t get so much as a basket of fries made if they hired these positions based on “draw”!

You have about as much of a chance of landing a record deal by meeting an A&R guy at the drycleaners as you do being discovered at a club. Any club. Ask any signed artist who actually worked for it. They always say the same thing: Persistance and LUCK. And if you think the friendly neighborhood bar in your town that pays you that generous $40 a man twice a week won’t catch on to LA’s unofficial standard, think again.

Think hard.

Pay to Play

When I first became aware of the level of media consolidation (and first started getting really pissed off that I had spent over half my life “paying dues” and still wasn’t make a living), I organized a meeting between the AFM and musicians in Tucson via Phoenix Local 586. Tucson hasn’t had a local in over twenty years, and a dozen or so of the players joined the union that day. I filed comments with the FCC which the AFM quoted in the comments they filed jointly with the Future of Music Coalition, AFTRA and other artist lobbying-type groups.

The AFM thanked me both times. Last time they contacted me, it was an email asking me to be a part of an event lobbying Congress. I said, sure, what can I do? They wrote back, “Responding to our grassroots appeals is the way you can be most effective.”

Glad I could help. However, it’s not even a drop in the bucket for this anemic union. I can be the most effective by responding to an email?! God, I hope not. When I first moved to LA, I went down to Local 47 to try and find some sidemen. They printed me out a list of hundreds of pianists and bass players claiming to play jazz, and directed me to a shelf of demo CDs. After a couple hours of listening to amateurs and new age, I gave up. THE AFM DOESN’T EVEN REFER MUSICIANS. Every player I use on my gigs I met at the Sportsmens Lodge Wednesday night jam session. Maybe I should have been paying host Kathy Segal-Garcia that $190 a year in dues!

The American Federation of Musicians sets the scale for a three hour recording session at $345.98. Twice that for a holiday. Twice that if you’re the leader or contractor. Plus $69.20 if you double on another instrument. Most performances also require a cartage fee ranging from $10-35.

All that information is posted publically on Local 47′s web site. You have to be a member to find out what scale is for live engagements. My 2002 wage scales book shows $60 for a four hour minimum call. No leader scale. No doubling premium. Cartage fees do not apply.

So if I, as I do for nearly every gig I do, bring my PA and contract/ lead two other players, I’m allowed to accept no less than $60. Someone doing an hour less of the same work will make $796.16 if they’re in a studio. Well, really only $761.16, since they don’t have to lug in a PA.

Of course, the union assures me that nothing may prohibit me from “obtaining higher wages or better conditions.” Great. The recording studios know better than to call them for referals, so I won’t get the call in the first place.

These are just two examples of how the players who really need the union to protect them are the ones who benefit the least from membership. I had to resign because I was turning down nearly every offer of work I got, because I raised my right hand and took an oath to accept no less than scale. Every union member does. I don’t know very many who hold themselves to their oath, because they can’t afford to turn down any work.

I’m absolutely bewildered that people who have invested so much of their lives, years and years of practice and education and paying dues spiritual, emotional and financial, they accept the impotency of the AFM and the poverty level wages they’re offered.

Do You Work as Hard as a Stripper?

I can’t overstate the enormous respect I have for all sex workers who had the guts to say, “Enough. We make your industry. You literally have nothing without us, and we demand our fair share.”

730 students will graduate from Berklee College of Music in May. Multiply that by the number of music schools in the country. And that’s just the formally educated. We have big, big numbers, and if America thinks they don’t need to pay for music, let’s not give them any. I’d like to start with the capital of Piss-on-its-own, Los Angeles, “the entertainment capitol of the world”.

If you won’t do it for us, do it for the 730 Berklee grads. Do it for America. Doesn’t American Idol disturb you? 30 million people watch that show. It’s the industry shitting in our mouths and calling it a sundae. Think about the word “idol”. It comes from the Latin word meaning image. The major labels pour money into advertising an attractive package with nothing inside. WE are the content providers. WE are the music makers, WE are the dreamers of dreams!

Stop letting THEM pass off cheap plastic masks for the face of American culture.

Will you?

Will you be my wingman? Will you sacrifice the work? Who are the worst offenders, who needs to hear it?