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Home » Symphonic Services Division » Symphonic Media in a Pandemic

Symphonic Media in a Pandemic

  -  Director of Symphonic Electronic Media

The symphonic community entered a dark age the week of March 9, 2020. Over the course of that week, concerns dramatically increased about the new coronavirus and its spread. Walking through Penn Station each day on my way to work in Times Square was frightening. As the week progressed, musicians were sent home, concerts were canceled, and it became clear that we were all going to have to go home and begin a period of self-quarantine.

The work at the Symphonic Services Division (SSD) to address this emergency situation was already in full swing. SSD Director Rochelle Skolnick and I were on the phone with representatives of the Employers’ Media Association (EMA), the multi-employer group that bargains the Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) with the AFM. We worked on an interim agreement with them to cover the fact that live concerts in our halls were grinding to a halt and employers needed some flexibility to enable our beloved symphony, opera, and ballet institutions to continue to communicate with their devoted audiences by other means. Streaming musical content suddenly became vitally important at a time when our audiences needed music perhaps more than at any time in our collective past.

The First COVID-19 Side Letter

We reached agreement on a COVID-19 side letter to the IMA in record time. The original agreement dated March 12, our last day working in the New York office, contained flexibility for streaming releases in exchange for a commitment to continue compensating musicians for 30 days from the date of each online posting. The structure for compensating musicians has evolved through various updates of the side letter although the streaming options have remained the same since the first version. Ultimately, these side letter agreements were entered into individually between each employer and the AFM.

To be eligible to enter into the COVID-19 side letter, an employer must either have continued to pay musicians under the terms of their current local collective bargaining agreement (CBA) or have reached agreement with the local on a side letter covering a modified compensation package. The US government’s passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) made it possible for US orchestras to obtain Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans, which provided taxpayer funding to keep musicians on the payroll for a specific period of time. Many symphony, opera, and ballet employers applied for and received PPP funding.

As a result of this new funding, the list of orchestras wanting to enter into media side letters grew exponentially. These past two months, Rochelle and I have tag teamed throughout this process. It often feels like we are running through Grand Central Station during a pre-COVID-19 rush hour as we jump on and off Zoom conference calls spending countless hours working with each of these employers, orchestra committees, and their locals to make sure musicians continue to be compensated in exchange for this temporary flexibility in streaming distribution.

The New COVID-19 Side Letter

We are now moving into the next phase with orchestras making decisions about the 2020-2021 season. We know that some cities will be back to work sooner than others, but we also know that there are safety concerns that may make it extremely difficult to get the entire orchestra back on stage as soon as we all would hope for. We may initially play to an empty hall or for audiences drastically reduced in number to accommodate social distancing. Some who are reticent to come to our halls will be willing to buy tickets to access concert streams. Streaming will be critical, in any case. We have worked closely with the ICSOM and ROPA Media Committees to reach consensus about how best to help our organizations through this challenging time in ways that will provide streaming content, both old and new, to share with our audiences, while at the same time ensuring compensation for our musicians.

We believe we have reached that balance and now have available a new IMA COVID-19 Side Letter for the 2020-2021 season that was approved by our International Executive Board on June 18. The agreement is structured on compensation tiers for the 2020-2021 season, with each tier based on the employer’s commitment to pay a certain percentage of scale wages to all rostered musicians relative to pre-COVID-19 compensation. The employer gains access to an amount of content (number of minutes) commensurate with its financial commitment to the musicians. The agreement permits archival streaming, offers the ability to stream newly created content, and provides some expanded volunteer promotional recording in the top tier. The number of available minutes of content for both archival and new content varies by tier.

One challenge we faced was to determine what constitutes a “performance” for purposes of media capture when there is no audience present. The IMA permits capture in performance (and in some cases rehearsals) but establishes a separate “special call” rate for services called solely for the purposes of recording. The AFM and the ICSOM and ROPA media committees felt strongly that “performances” without an audience present must not be allowed to morph into multi-take recording sessions, and the agreement reflects that commitment. The media wages for the amounts and types of streaming distribution covered by the side letter are waived, so long as the employer maintains compensation and benefits, including health insurance, at the level required. All other terms of the IMA remain in place. The active participation and involvement of the ICSOM and ROPA media committees was essential to our development of this framework. We thank them for their insights and their dedication to this project.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As I write this, it is becoming increasingly evident that the immediate future may not include a quick return to our concert halls, ballet theaters, and opera houses. States and municipalities across the US and Canada have different plans and schedules for reopening our beloved arts institutions. We may see some cities come back faster than others, but we all understand the complexities of bringing both our audiences and our artists into the hall safely.

We will continue to work hard to ensure musicians are fairly compensated while at the same time doing all we can to make sure we have audiences now and in the future. Musicians need to make music, and our devoted audiences need to hear and see us. One day, hopefully not too far in the future, we will return in full force to making music together live and in person with full audiences present who will stand up and applaud the work of these wonderful musicians who stepped up to the plate during a time of great uncertainty and kept the music alive.