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Home » Officer Columns » Membership Decline, a Vexing Problem

Membership Decline, a Vexing Problem

  -  AFM International Secretary-Treasurer

A vexing problem that has been, and continues to be, a challenge is the slow but steady decline in AFM membership. At one point in our history, the AFM had over 300,000 members. Of course, those were the days that many radio stations had entire symphony orchestras on staff, theaters had orchestras to accompany the vaudeville acts, big bands were ubiquitous, nearly all night clubs had live music, and the idea of playing recorded music at a wedding or important family event was preposterous.

When I began my career as a professional musician in New York City, I remember morning orchestra rehearsals ending and the more established players rushing to pack up their instruments in order to grab a cab to get to jingle dates. They often had several. Then, in the evening, they would perform the music we had been rehearsing that morning in the symphony, opera, or ballet. Having a three- or four-service day was common, rather than the exception.

Local 802 (New York City) used to have an exchange floor where musicians and contractors would gather each week. Contractors looking to hire musicians for a gig would announce what instrument or who in particular they needed. That’s how many musicians found work. And there was a ton of work to be had.

There were only two or three requirements needed to get this work: You needed to play well, be able to get along with your colleagues, and you needed to be a member in good standing of the AFM. (If you want to get a taste of what the Local 802 exchange floor was like, take a moment to watch the opening scene from the movie Love with the Proper Stranger, starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen.)

If you were playing a gig in a club, it was common to have a visit from a union rep asking to see your paid-up union card! You had better have it on your person because failure to produce it could get you kicked off the bandstand and facing charges resulting in fines for breaking the union’s bylaws.

This was simply the way things were done back in the day. So much has changed since the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Today, it’s a different world. Laws were passed to weaken unions. Many states adopted right to work laws, which allowed some musicians to decide not to join the union, even though they enjoy the contractual gains achieved by the union. These non-union workers are aptly referred to as “freeloaders.” They benefit from the contract improvements negotiated by the union but do not join the union to pay their fair share.

So I ask, what are you doing to convince non-union musicians in your orchestra to join? Engage them. The labor movement is about justice, inclusion, and workplace dignity. Aren’t these important values that all musicians should support? And, if some of your colleagues are not union members, shouldn’t we take an active role in trying to convince them?

But, I digress. I began by saying declining membership is a problem that has not gone away.

Paid-up membership at the end of 2021 was 57,181, but the down slide continues in 2022. In order to attend the AFM Convention, locals must have their per capita dues paid up. The bylaw states, in part, “… a local in arrears one quarterly payment of Federation per capita dues or in arrears three months in reporting and /or forwarding Federation work dues and/ or Federation Initiation Fees collected to the International Secretary-Treasurer shall not be allowed representation at the Convention …”

Looking at the membership numbers over the last 20 years, the only increase in membership came in 2019. It was a modest gain, which we believe resulted from the officer training and organizing workshops the Federation was able to hold. However, the membership slide resumed (not surprisingly) in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, which put many musicians out of work.

Let’s renew our efforts to convince musicians to join the AFM. Every musician who is not a member weakens us and every musician who becomes a member strengthens us at the bargaining table.

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