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Home » Officer Columns » Fair Trade Music and the Importance of Organizing Club Musician

Fair Trade Music and the Importance of Organizing Club Musician


Bruce Fife headshotby Bruce Fife, AFM International Vice-President and President of Local 99 (Portland, OR)

By the time you read this, the AFM Western Conference of Musicians will have taken place in Reno, Nevada. Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA) President Motter Snell is president of the conference this year, and has scheduled, as its centerpiece, a full day of discussions and training on organizing and Fair Trade Music.

As you should be aware from stories in the International Musician and elsewhere, Local 76-493 is well on its way to building a successful organizing campaign based on the foundation of Fair Trade Music, as created in Local 99 (Portland, OR). As with all successful campaigns, they were able to take our basic premise and continue to evolve and morph, moving it in directions that we never envisioned. I applaud the objectives and success they have achieved. It should be seen as a lesson and example for us all.

That said, one of the questions I still hear on a regular basis is: “Why are we working to organize these musicians, especially where there is no ability to create a collective bargaining agreement?” After all, they are not employees, but rather, independent contractors, and so, not subject to traditional labor law. I certainly understand why the question gets asked, but the simple answer is, it is a union’s job to represent the best interests of all workers in the workplace. And, one could argue that, had it not been for the court decision in the early ’80s, which determined that club musicians were independent contractors, we would still be organizing them just as we do orchestra, recording, and theater musicians. Just because we don’t have the same tools available to us, does not mean that we should not still do the work.

Let me highlight another reason for this to be a central campaign for the AFM. Clayton Christensen, author of the insightful book, Innovator’s Dilemma, focused on why big, successful companies fail or lose significant market share. The theory he presents is that often it was inferior products from small companies that caused the initial inroads to an industry that led to the eventual failure. Steel companies were not threatened by “mini mills” manufacturing rebar, as it was a low margin product, just as the auto industry was not initially threatened by that little Toyota Corona that first came into the country in the 1960s because Detroit built “real” cars. In both cases, because of this low level access, these “startups” got a foot in the door and were able to build up and out and eventually alter the course of each industry.

The same could be said of the music industry. The technology revolution allowed musicians to enter the game at a very low cost. Home recording became affordable, as well as promotion, marketing, manufacturing, and distribution. It has challenged the major/minor label system. We are a part of that system, because we negotiate with labels on behalf of the musician employees, so it affects us as well. One could argue that, just as in the steel and auto industry, when the first transitions were taking place, the quality was also not as good. CDs, the standard, sounded better than MP3s, and a full-blown studio certainly had better finished audio quality than a home studio. But, people didn’t seem to care. Independence and do-it-yourself was more important than the quality. As time has moved on, those quality differences narrowed and home studios and MP3s have become commonplace or the de facto standard.

So what does this have to do with Fair Trade Music and organizing? Even if the business operates differently than it once did, we have to constantly analyze the marketplace and adapt to the realities that exist. We also have to make sure that, while we are reacting and adapting to the changes, we are working to maintain the standards (wages) that we have negotiated for over the years. That’s no easy feat.

Even with all the innovation and opportunities created, we are looking at a group of musicians that has never had to work harder to survive in this industry. The rules seem to change every time we turn around. That is why the very foundation of Fair Trade Music, as with all organizing, is to meet with the musicians, listen to their stories and challenges—the areas of the business that are not working for them. Then, as AFM President Ray Hair loves to say, “identify, articulate, and prioritize the issues and develop plans of action” that can move us forward. It starts on the ground with these ever more marginalized musicians because, even though the focus of Fair Trade Music is live club dates, these are the same people that can just as easily be, and are, marginalized with their recorded product.

We are not obligated to be subject to the precedent described in Clayton’s book. Others have successfully avoided the pitfalls. To do so, we need to not be held hostage by “the way it’s always been.” At every level, from the locals, to our Federation and player conferences, to the Federation itself, we need to be open to analyzing and evolving our approach to work with all types of musicians, at every step of their careers. That is how we will rebuild and become a more powerful representative body, a more powerful union!

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