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Herding Cats

David Berger



With the upcoming American Federation of Musicians Local 802 election in a couple of days, I’ve been thinking about the dilemma at the core of making a living in the arts, or as my old buddy Joe Temperley used to say, “Art for art’s sake, but money for Christ’s sake,” and his other expression, “Music by the yard.”


Centuries ago in Europe, there were patrons of the arts. The aristocracy was so rich, that supporting artists was no more of a financial strain for them than owning a pet. Domesticated animals never criticize their masters, but art must be critical. As Duke Ellington said, “Art is dangerous. It is one of the attractions; when it ceases to be dangerous, you don’t want it.”


Craftsmen can be hired to do a job and follow directions, but it’s best to just let artists create. Sure, there can be restrictions placed on them, and that can be helpful at the start of a project, but the solutions should be left to the artist. That’s why s/he was hired, no? Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton said “Talent does what it can; genius does what it must.”


In Europe during the Middle Ages, artists formed guilds to protect themselves from exploitation. With the labor movement of the 20th century, guilds evolved into unions, but the life of a coal miner, bricklayer, or truck driver is different from a writer, painter, or musician.


Although laborers and artists have the same basic needs in order to survive and are subject to exploitation, laborers don’t have a burning desire to work at their jobs. Artists have a daily need to express themselves through their work, and will do so without financial reward if necessary. I can’t imagine a truck driver doing a run just for the fun of it.


As musicians, our work may be divided into two categories: art and commerce. Art is the music we play for fun. It is the music that we aspired to play when we first picked up an instrument. Commerce is when we are hired to play music that doesn’t interest us (doesn’t touch our soul), or when we are performing a function to support a larger purpose: playing for shows, movies, dancers, weddings, and so forth. The people who hire us need our music, and it is integral, but we are not the focal point. We are performing in an accompanimental role.


The people on stage or screen are the stars and are whom the audience comes to see. Every once in a while, even in this subordinate role, the music can shine so much that the audience acknowledges it on a level with the actors, dancers and maybe even the bride. I’ve had this experience. It is relatively rare, and sometimes can be detrimental.


A case in point: Duke Ellington’s score for the motion picture Anatomy of a Murder is so great, that it demands that we listen to it. By so doing, we are distracted from the story. When I write arrangements for singers, I want to be creative and challenge the musicians, but at the same time, I must be careful not to upstage the vocalist who is telling his/her story.


I’ve spent a lifetime, over 50 years, honing my craft. I’ve played trumpet, composed, arranged, conducted, and produced all kinds of music in a myriad of circumstances. I’ve been paid anywhere from generously to not at all. At the start of my career, I was taken advantage of often. My very first job was playing a New Year’s Eve gig. I was promised $50, and was only paid $30. I know that doesn’t sound like much money, but in today’s dollars that is the difference between $378 and $227. That’s a lot of money for a 17-year old kid.


Over the next few years, I played hundreds of gigs and wrote as many arrangements. I had no idea what to charge for my services, so I basically took what was offered. Sometimes I got stiffed. By the time I was 25, I was playing and writing for world-renowned bands and dance companies and started to be involved in the commercial world of jingles, pop records, TV and movies. This sort of work was governed by the union, which assured a base salary, new-use payments and residuals. I still managed to get stiffed a few times, but not that often.


The union set fair wages, and the top players and writers could often demand over-scale. This worked pretty well for me, and continued to do so when I started writing scores for Broadway shows. The problem for me was that the bulk of my work was in the jazz field, which often operated outside the union’s scope. Most jazz producers don’t want to pay or can’t afford to pay union scale, so the union stopped trying to organize those clubs, theaters and recording sessions.


I joined the union at 17 expecting to arrange for singers, bands, and TV shows. By the time I graduated from college and returned to New York, most of that work had either moved to Los Angeles or was rapidly dwindling. The once-powerful Local 802 had 35,000 members when I joined. It now has something like 6,000.


It is ironic that Ronald Reagan, once the president of the Screen Actors Guild, went on to become president of the United States and as such pushed union-busting legislation through Congress. In 1954 35% of Americans belonged to unions. That decreased to 20% in 1983 and now sits at 11%. Is it any wonder wages have stagnated over the last 35 years?


All workers benefit from unions, and have done so for 100 years. The 8-hour day and 5-day workweek were the results of union demands. As union wages rose, so did everyone else’s. This is all great, but it gets a bit complicated when unions legislate rules for the arts. Being an artist/employer and an artist/union member, I understand both sides of the problems. Rules can be rigid and not always apply to every situation fairly.


Two areas that the union has made a difference in the lives of musicians who do union work are health benefits and pension. Health costs have risen tremendously over the years, and the union has kept up pretty well, considering. The big crisis now is the pension plan. It never recovered from the financial crisis of 2008. Even before that, the plan was suffering from aging members collecting and diminishing work contributions.


Unless the federal government gives us a bailout, our benefits will be cut. This will be devastating for older musicians like myself who depend on our pensions, and it will discourage young people from making a career in music if they have little chance of being able to retire. I’ve written my Congressman and Senators reminding them of the need for music in New York. I hope other concerned people will write to their representatives all over the country to support the Butch Lewis Act including multi-employer pension plans.


The music business is hurting. Really, it’s worse than that. Fewer and fewer people go out to hear live music. CD sales are almost non-existent. Musicians see pitiful royalties, if any, from streaming services. Even the top pop stars are complaining. For us jazz musicians, there are fewer opportunities and less money than ever before. We love what we do, but we can’t eat love. It doesn’t pay the rent. We need a new paradigm.


Two areas that we might explore are raising the cost of music subscription services and passing down the raise to the creators of the music by raising the streaming royalties from .02 cents per play to 10 cents per play. Of that, 10 cents, 5 cents could go to the record company, 2.5 cents could be split between the composer, lyricist and arranger, and the remaining 2.5 cents could be paid to the musicians.


My other suggestion is to follow the European model and have the government substantially fund a Department of Culture. Like unions vs. art, government participation in the arts is problematic, but it beats the pitiful NEA budget that now exists. Our taxes give the military a trillion dollars per year. What are they defending, if not our culture? This is a big subject for another time, but let’s think on it. We need to do something, or there will cease to be professional music in the future. That’s a world I do not want to live in.

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  • Syd Potter on

    Marion Evans referred to it as “music by the pound”

  • Syd Potter on

    Marion Evans referred to it as “music by the pound”

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