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February 17, 2014IM -
When most people think of Los Angeles, they think of Hollywood: the silver screen, fame, glamour, and celebrities with their heads in the clouds–“La La Land.” But bassist Peter Rofé is an L.A. native and he’s as down to earth as can be. In fact, when the International Musician first contacted him about a cover article, he was convinced that we had the wrong guy.
The thing is, you don’t need to be flashy or famous to be a noteworthy musician. All you need is to be 100% committed to the music and to your colleagues–and Rofé fits that description to a T.
Many musicians who flock to Los Angeles do so to get into film music or studio work. Rofé has done his share of those types of projects, but he makes it clear that symphonic music is the primary focus in his career. “I love what the double bass gives to the orchestra, and I just love the music,” says Rofé, who is a longtime member of Los Angeles Philharmonic’s bass section. “Even if I’ve played a piece 100 times before, which is the case sometimes, there’s always something new. I’ll hear something different, or find a different fingering, or discover a different way of thinking about the music.”
Apart from finding the “new” in traditional masterworks, Rofé also enjoys the modern pieces that Los Angeles Philharmonic often commissions and premieres. Wing on Wing and L.A. Variations, both by former L.A. Phil music director Esa Pekka Solonen, were some of his personal favorites. “I always think about what it must have felt like for a bassist who played the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and that I might be doing the same thing–performing what could be a monumental work for the very first time.”
Los Angeles Philharmonic has established its identity as an orchestra that champions modern music, but Rofé explains that each orchestra needs to find its own niche. It took the L.A. Phil a long time to “train its audience” to appreciate new compositions, and that paradigm may not work everywhere.
He also acknowledges that the L.A. Phil, one of the most successful orchestras in this economy, is lucky enough to earn a large portion of its annual budget through ticket sales, making it far less dependent on its endowment than other orchestras. “Most orchestras’ endowment income has been hit hard by the economy,” he explains. “But as long as we keep selling tickets, we’ll be in good shape.”
Los Angeles Philharmonic is certainly not the only orchestra that Rofé holds in high regard. He admires regional orchestras, especially San Diego Symphony, which he played with for 13 years. After getting a late start in classical music (Rofé played piano and guitar when he was young, and only picked up the double bass because he thought it would be a good addition to his high school rock band), he graduated with a music degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1973 and quickly won a spot as San Diego Symphony’s principal bassist.
As it was his first job out of college, he says that he learned a lot in San Diego. “I made all of my mistakes there, so when I came to the L.A. Phil, I was prepared–I thought, OK, let’s not repeat those again,” he laughs.
Though he didn’t quite realize or appreciate it back then, Rofé says that now, he recognizes what a high quality orchestra San Diego Symphony really was–and still is. “Its musicians play way above their pay scale,” he says of his former symphony, “and I think that’s true of a lot of regional orchestras.”
When it comes to orchestra pay scales, Rofé is an expert. He has been involved with negotiations for Los Angeles Philharmonic’s musicians since 1990. “I have a sense that it’s important to give back to your colleagues by ensuring that we all have fair salaries and working conditions,” he says. “And I enjoy the process–the problem solving and the conflict resolution.”
Luckily, the conflicts have always been held at a minimum, thanks to an extremely supportive management team. (“We probably have the best management team in the business,” Rofé boasts.) Rofé recognizes the importance of a smooth working relationship between everyone involved in orchestra operations. “You need to have teamwork between the musicians, the board, and management, and we’ve always had open communication,” he explains. “It helps if you can develop personal relationships. That way, when issues come up, [management] knows that they can trust you, and you know that you can trust them.”
The AFM helps to make Rofé’s role as a negotiator a little easier, as well. “Without the union, we wouldn’t have the backing to get these contracts ironed out,” he says. “They’ve given us tremendous support and information about our colleague orchestras and their wage scales so that we can craft our own contracts using that as a guide. Without that, we’d be on our own, as far as knowing what’s fair compensation.”
Rofé recently took on a new challenge, when he was asked to become a negotiator for the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) Electronic Media Committee. “Unlike with the L.A. Phil, I was negotiating with managers I did not have personal relationships with,” he says. “That was eye-opening, and I got a sense of what my colleagues are up against.”
Continuing to learn and grow through new experiences is important to Rofé, and he says that one of the best ways to do that is through teaching. For 18 years, he has taught bass at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which, he explains, is both interesting and challenging because his students are jazz musicians. As a classically trained bassist, his job is to focus on teaching proper technique, while the rest of the bass faculty focuses on jazz repertoire. “My students keep me growing,” Rofé asserts. “Students come to me to learn, but I always feel that I learn as much as they do. When you’re talking about concepts and have to explain how you do something, it forces you to refine your skills.”
At 58, Rofé figures he still has a few more years to continue to refine those skills before retiring. “I still love what I do,” he says, “and that’s what keeps me going.”