Tag Archives: community

Meredith Snow

ICSOM Orchestras Remain Key Community Partners

Meredith Snow

by Meredith Snow, ICSOM Chair and Member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)

An orchestra is not just a group of people playing music together. It is a dynamic, vibrant metaphor for our communities. The music we collaborate to create is a two-way street between us and our audiences. Our performances would serve little purpose without a direct connection to the people we hope to draw together in a common experience. This experience is not merely entertainment but is a celebration of our humanity. This connection demands our attention and participation as much as our daily practice.

In early January, during their ongoing struggle to resolve negotiations and avoid drastic cuts to their season and wages, Baltimore Symphony Musicians, members of Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD), presented an all-brass benefit concert at the Baltimore Basilica. Musicians from some of the nearby ICSOM orchestras—National Symphony Orchestra, members of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC); Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, members of Local 60-471(Pittsburgh, PA); The Philadelphia Orchestra, members of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA); and New York Philharmonic, members of Local 802 (New York City), in addition to the Semper Fi Brass—volunteered their time and talent.

Not only did they raise $12,000 to benefit My Sister’s Place Women’s Center, but the beyond-capacity attendance at the concert demonstrated that it is not just about a labor dispute. It is about the future of the City of Baltimore—musicians and citizens alike pulling together to envision a greater future, not just for the orchestra, but for the city as a whole. Since the concert, a bill has been introduced in the Maryland State legislature to increase public funding for the Baltimore Symphony. The citizens of Baltimore have mobilized in support of their musicians and we hope for a successful outcome to their struggle.

Following the horrific hate crime at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 worshipers were gunned down, the Pittsburgh Symphony responded immediately by mounting a concert to foster unity and solidarity with the Jewish community. (A Concert for Peace and Unity at PBS.org). Everyone volunteered their services: Music Director Manfred Honeck, Local 802 (New York City) member Itzhak Perlman, the staff and musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the stagehands from IATSE Local 3. The concert benefited the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Fund for Victims of Terror and the First Responders Fund.

In the March issue of Senza Sordino, bass clarinetist Jack Howell wrote, “Every community that is visited by the specter of hate and violence must find a way to shape itself around the ugly fact. That a symphony orchestra would have a part to play in that shaping is an important statement for our art.”

ICSOM will continue to promote the relationships between our orchestras and their public.  Last summer’s ICSOM Conference highlighted four such programs. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Pistons’ Music Education and Diversity program offers music education to every 4th grade student in Detroit. The Utah Symphony’s Haiti Residency is an ongoing music education program. Grand Rapids Symphony Music for Health Initiative, in partnership with Spectrum Health Music Therapy, brings the healing power of music to the community. The Louisville Orchestra’s performance of The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, composed by Music Director Teddy Abrams, is a tribute to the extraordinary life of that legendary athlete, humanitarian, and Louisville native.

The interconnection of our orchestras and their communities goes to the very heart of our purpose. The most precious and fundamental principle of our music making is to unite hearts and minds in order to inspire an understanding of our common humanity. We must foster these relationships, not just for our success as orchestras, but as citizens of the communities in which we live.

The 2019 ICSOM Conference will be held this summer at the Park City Marriott in Park City, Utah, August 21–24. Any AFM member or member of an ICSOM orchestra is welcome to attend. All attendees must register for the conference in advance with ICSOM Secretary Laura Ross. Information on registration is available at ICSOM.org.

michael lisicky

Oboist Michael Lisicky Builds Bridges Between Baltimore and Its Orchestra

Oboist Michael Lisicky of Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD) was schooled in collective action during his first full-time orchestra position with  the Savannah Symphony. “It was the most supportive and organized group of musicians,” he says. “To be part of a union body in a very nonunion town was a great bonding experience. That’s how I came to understand the power of a union and how to work collectively.”

michael lisicky

“We were making just below the poverty line but we had full concert halls and lots of support,” he recalls. “In 1990, we had to prepare for an inevitable work stoppage.”

That’s when Michael Lisicky came up with the idea of creating an orchestra cookbook to raise funds and community awareness. The committee collected recipes from orchestra members, tested them, and printed and marketed the cookbook in just four months. “We put $4,000 in our kitty,” he says.

“We were out for upwards of 13 weeks, and in the end, we were able to get a 30% wage increase, spread over the course of the next three years,” says Lisicky. “Though we were still at a very modest annual salary, it was a big deal. In a small, sleepy, Southern city, union activity was not part of everyday life. We were so organized with concerts and working collectively that, in the long run, we got a settlement that we could be proud of.”

“At Savannah, I learned to be a good colleague; what affected one person, affected everybody; I learned how to stick together,” he says. “I don’t know if I would have been a leader or activist for 30 years without that early, firsthand training.”

Though Savannah was the first time he was part of a union action, his mom had instilled in him a deep respect for labor. “In the Philadelphia area most grocery stores were unionized and my mother would never cross a picket line. That’s when I first learned about solidarity and loyalty,” he says.

Growing up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Lisicky says he was lucky to have attended a public school with a strong music program. “It was the kind of program that insisted on excellence, whether you were thinking of going into music or not,” he says.

He graduated from the New England Conservatory before landing a job in Savannah, where he stayed just two years. In 1990, the strike forced him to look for other work. He won an audition for the Richmond Symphony.

While in Richmond, Lisicky attended his first Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) meeting and was immediately enthralled. “I loved hearing the different stories from all the orchestras; I found it fascinating, so I became a delegate, member at-large, conference host, and finally treasurer,” he explains. “For the next six years the ROPA organization became my family.”

Orchestra in Crisis

Then, when the president of Local 123 (Richmond, VA) had to step down, Lisicky stepped up. “It’s an important role in a ‘right to work’ state where it’s hard to convince people that they should belong to the local,” he says.

Michael  Lisicky recalls a particularly trying time at the local when an anonymous donor who wanted to “breathe new life into the orchestra” offered musicians with a certain number of years of seniority up to three years’ pay to retire. “You can’t retire on three-years’ salary at age 50, but when you are approached with this offer you wonder, ‘If I don’t do this, what is my future?’” explains Lisicky. “We saw this as age discrimination.”

“The buyout was probably my most difficult experience as a leader on an orchestra committee; it was debilitating,” he says. “One third of the orchestra took the buyout. It was a painful decision and there was a lack of transparency. We tried to get the best package we could working with the AFM.”

In 2004, Lisicky joined Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “I had a great experience learning the industry in Savannah and Richmond, but I love being in a non right to work state and I love being in a full 52-week orchestra playing big, full programs all year long,” he says.

“When I left Richmond it was a breath of fresh air and I felt that I had retired from union and orchestra committee activity. But people get tired, leave, and it’s time for new blood to step up,” he says. “I became an unemployment guru when we had to go through some furloughs, then I got involved in the players committee.”

michael lisicky

“There came a time, a few years ago, where we had to say what Baltimore Symphony’s role in the community was, but we had no clear role. We had done things individually, but collectively we didn’t have a face or a brand,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in the position where I had to defend an orchestra in our community.”

This all came up in April 2015, in the turbulent days following the death of Freddie Gray. “The city kind of shut down and we went through a hard night. Some people had been living with the issues that instigated the unrest, and many of us were just learning about what had been going on for decades,” he says.

“I came up with the idea of getting some colleagues together to sit outside the hall the next day and play some music. The committee supported me and the person in charge of marketing grabbed onto the idea. Lo and behold, I contacted every musician in the orchestra and we gave a nice chamber music performance,” he says. “We had every media outlet in the world coming to watch Baltimore collapse and we put on a performance.”

“It wasn’t a concert; it was about getting the community together and taking a break—a very moving experience. We had all the colors of the rainbow there—a thousand people or so outside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on a beautiful day at the end of April,” he says. “When it was over, we were still in crisis.”

Meyerhoff was one mile from the heart of the unrest, and some people felt that we should be at the epicenter. “So, the next week we sent a woodwind quintet out to the epicenter just to kind of show we were not afraid to go there,” he says. Noticing the library close by, Lisicky contacted them about doing a concert series the following spring. “Anyone can perform and leave; it doesn’t show any commitment. We want to make a real connection with the community.”

The Work of a Musician

The Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ community outreach, and Lisicky’s commitment to it, grew from there. “I think coming together is a good exercise in collective action. Our goal is to bring Baltimore Symphony Musicians into the best light possible—to have the community know who we are and realize we have a purpose.”

Michael Lisicky is also known for stepping into leadership roles in organizing and pressing others into service. “The standard response is ‘I wouldn’t be good at this,’” he says. “If you don’t want to get involved with the players committee, where the grunt work is, get involved with a subcommittee.”

“I would also encourage people to read their contract and know a little bit about the history,” he says. “There is a reason why we have work rules and certain conditions that are not necessarily applicable from orchestra to orchestra. There are reasons why certain things were put into a contract, not just to protect you, but also the organization. Longtime musicians should educate those who are coming on board.”

“I didn’t realize when I went to school to learn to play the oboe how much non-oboe work there was going to be,” he says. “You want to win that job, then you want to get tenure, then you want that job not just to survive, but to thrive. That takes extra work.”

History Buff

Aside from performing in the symphony and organizing community events, Lisicky is also a published author with a curious focus on  the history of department stores. “Through a crazy obsession I became something of an expert,” he says. “My mother loved these places and I was always intrigued by the history; they have been around for generations and defined communities. I never wanted to be an author, but I liked putting together these projects so we could remember the roles these stores played in these cities. It’s kind of how orchestras are part of their communities.”

He has also researched his orchestra and wrote the book, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: A Century of Sound (2015). “It’s hard writing about your job,” he says. “No one knew in 1916 what it was going to be like in 100 years; when I looked at 2016 I tried to remain optimistic in a challenging environment.”

“For its first 25 years, the Baltimore Symphony was the nation’s only fully-funded public symphony orchestra,” he says. “We were unable to grow because we had only so much funding. We had a revolving door of conductors who thought publicly funded orchestras were the way to go, then when they wanted to increase the quality and they didn’t have the money, they would leave.”

“Back in the 1930s, when they were challenging the line item, the mayor stood up and said that symphony orchestras are just as important to the quality of life as street lights and public toilets,” says Lisicky. “As a civically funded organization, we were cheaper to attend than the Philadelphia orchestra, so we were kind of a working class orchestra. By the 1940s, we became the face of Baltimore, traveling throughout the country and to Carnegie Hall.”

“It wasn’t until 1970, when we had a commitment to quality from Conductor Sergiu Comissiona and Joseph Meyerhoff, head of the board, who decided to invest in the orchestra and grow us from a sleepy little orchestra to one of the nation’s top orchestras,” he recounts. “The organization had two big work stoppages in the 1980s where they wouldn’t have received positive outcomes except for the collective work at the time.”

This summer, Lisicky looks forward to BSO’s August tour to Ireland and the United Kingdom, which includes a stop at the Proms festival. And Lisicky is always looking for the next outreach project. “Sometimes it’s a long-range thing—creatively coming up with an idea or it’s a ‘triage performance’ following an emergency.”

“As long as musicians, boards, management, and communities remain advocates for one another, we’ll have a chance,” he says. “Getting the next board together and looking ahead three, five, 10 years, that’s the challenge.”

In Baltimore, the focus on community engagement that began in 2015 has done much to raise the profile of the orchestra. Lisicky’s advice to other orchestras wanting to up their community outreach game: keep it simple.

“We have a tendency to overthink and that cripples you. Do it for the right reasons, not to just get it down on paper. Challenge yourself; when we take a step outside our comfort zone we can all accomplish things.” He adds, “Have a brand; make yourselves identifiable through social media. As you become identifiable, you develop more contacts in the media who will cover the orchestra in the future.”

Connecting with the communities

Orchestra Musicians Connecting with The Communities Beyond the Symphony Halls

Connecting with the communities we serve has never been more important for orchestra musicians. In this article, we explore the activities musicians in several orchestras have undertaken to foster an authentic connection with their communities and to raise their profile as musicians and members of a collective.

Baltimore Symphony Musicians

This month’s cover artist, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) oboist Michael Lisicky has been a leader in BSO musician outreach efforts. Projects from the Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD) members have ranged from “triage” performances, such as the one they gave during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, to program series at public libraries and local hospitals. They see these activities as providing opportunities to reach new audiences and connect with population that might not attend their concerts.

“Playing at the events Michael has put together over the past three years has been immensely satisfying for so many of us,” says BSO first violinist Greg Mulligan, who is also co-chair of the players committee and ICSOM member-at-large.

“This outreach connects Baltimore Symphony  Musicians directly and intimately with folks in our community,” he says. “Of course, it is also satisfying to perform in unusual places, in unusual ways, and to see the delight and gratitude on faces of people all over our region.”

He advises other musicians to think about who they would like to play music for—patients in hospitals, people at blood drives, schools, libraries, or maybe in response to a traumatic local or national/international event. “Think of these outreach activities as benefitting both your institution as a whole, and the group of musicians that makes up your orchestra.”

Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra Musicians


For Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians, members of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), Giving December is a way to show their gratitude and give back to the community during the busy holiday season. Among the 2017 events were: packing 11,846 meals for those in need; repurposing and gifting flower arrangements previously set to be discarded; and chamber music performances for people with little access to concerts, including Hollywood House senior living facility and Outside the Walls, an organization to support people recently released from incarceration.

“The reaction of the community has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra Violist Melissa Kirk. “Bringing live music to people in an intimate setting is a wonderful experience for all involved. Many of us volunteer and give to charities throughout the year, but we were looking for a way to join together as an orchestral family to show gratitude and give back to the community.”

“We urged our musicians to organize chamber groups to perform for people who normally don’t get to experience the joy of live music,” says Kirk. “Giving December took on a life of its own to include pop-up performances around the city and extending past the month.”

“Community outreach is an excellent way to break down the barrier between audience and performer. The benefits flow in both directions: the community gets to know the musicians and the musicians get to interact with the community in a more personal way,” she says. “We form bonds with each other outside of the workplace, through the shared experience of helping those in need.”

Symphony Musicians of Richmond


Symphony Musicians of Richmond (SMOR), members of Local 123 (Richmond, VA), put on an annual concert to benefit the United Way. Richmond Symphony Principal Bassoon Thomas Schneider says it got started in 2013 when SMOR reached out to the AFL-CIO Community Services Liaison C. B. Sinclair at United Way about partnering on a benefit concert.

“We decided that rather than have a black tie style fundraiser, we wanted to have a community focused event accessible to everyone; we were hoping to reach new audiences in the community. We especially wanted the concert to be accessible to fellow union members in the Richmond area, hoping the concert would help us build new relationships in the labor community,” he explains.

The first concert was a huge success, as was the s’more (SMOR) themed reception after the show. “Over the last five years the concert has continued to develop. The second year we branded the concert as ‘Music Unites.’ We tried charging money for tickets, but found that we got much better attendance and roughly the same revenue with a free concert,” says Schneider.

“Our venue for the concert is in the round; the audience members are all very close to the musicians and the sound. Musicians see the faces of the audience members as we perform. Connecting so profoundly with an audience through our art and helping United Way just feels right and is its own reward,” he says.

United Way is one of the only major charities that actively works with labor. They have also helped us get interviews in the press, explains Schneider. “I believe the concerts have significantly increased community awareness of our musician’s association. We want to build a reputation as good citizens in our community.”

MET Orchestra Musicians

“After some of our public engagement initiatives were scaled back or canceled, we felt that small scale, community-based concerts were the way to go,” says Metropolitan Opera (Met) Orchestra violist Mary Hammann. “I began searching for ways to do this. I was surprised by how quickly things fell into place.” 

MET Orchestra Musicians, members of Local 802 (New York City), ended up establishing their own 501(c)(3) charity focused on community outreach. William Short, Met principal bassoon says, “We felt there were opportunities to become more involved in the community outside of Lincoln Center, to give back to underserved populations, and to expand awareness and appreciation of classical music.”

Among MET Orchestra Musicians projects have been recurring performances at local VA hospitals and facilities, as well as visits to local public schools and libraries. “Communities are both enormously appreciative of these efforts and fascinated by a peek into what musicians actually do. We think that presents an extraordinary opportunity to engage with people from all walks of life and shows that classical music, an authentic experience in an increasingly inauthentic world, is just as relevant as it has ever been,” he says.

The community reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Hammann. “Our audiences are delighted to have such quality music in their libraries and schools. I see that the community is thirsty for this kind of musical sharing. On a personal level, it is heartening to see how powerful music is on this small community scale. I have gotten very positive feedback from audience members who were inspired (in countless ways) by our performance and also by meeting
us afterwards.”

National Arts Centre Orchestra Musicians


In Ottawa, the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra musicians’ FanFair is an annual fundraising project organized by the members of Local 180 (Ottawa, ON). Other NACO outreach includes coaching young musicians, performing at senior residences and hospitals, as well as other fundraising performances.

“FanFair started during a dark time in our history. In October 1989, a rummage sale and silent auction were held to raise funds for an expected labour action,” says Assistant Principal Second Violin Winston Webber. “During the seven-week strike community support was fantastic. We were grateful, so we repeated the event the next Christmas season as a charity fundraiser and it just took off. It’s since raised more than $800,000 for two local charities—the Snowsuit Fund for children and the Ottawa Food Bank.”

“From the beginning, all labour for the FanFair concerts has been donated, including NAC facilities, light and sound systems, management time, publicity, musicians, and stagehands,” adds Webber. “The conductors are orchestra members. Incidental costs are paid from the orchestra musicians’ association operating funds, so 100% of donations go directly to the charities.”

“Community concerts remind us how important music is to people and how it can draw people together,” says Local 180 President and retired NACO second oboe and English horn Francine Schutzman. “FanFair is truly a moving event. In addition to FanFair itself, ‘elves’ from the orchestra go out into the lobby immediately after each performance in December to collect donations for our two charities.”

“One valuable result of FanFair has been the opportunity to get to know our supporters on a very personal level, and to generate new fans,” she adds.

“The NAC Orchestra has 40 educational and outreach programs for young people of all ages, adults, and teachers—it’s a top priority,” says Webber.

“We all know we should do outreach, and it does come back to us in various positive ways, like a higher public profile. But when you see the results on the ground, out in the so-called real world, then it really hits you how important this is to people. Our inspiration is the amazing work the charities do,” he says.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Ratifies New Agreement

In November, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra announced that it has ratified a new CBA with its musicians, effective through 2020. The contract includes a wage increase of 2.5% per year for New York City rates, as well as restructured rates in other markets. The contract introduces a new chamber music scale, reflecting the orchestra’s increased presence throughout the tri-state area, and a community engagement scale, reflecting a commitment to broaden its reach in the local New York City community.

The new agreement provides more flexibility in touring rules, allowing Orpheus to adjust to complex travel schedules. A new Artistic Oversight Committee will continually evaluate the orchestra’s structure and artistic quality. Finally, the contract allows Orpheus to augment its roster by hiring musicians into a new “associate membership” tier.

The orchestra was recently awarded an increased grant of $175,000 from The Howard Gilman Foundation to support its 2017-2018 New York City performance activity. Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, whose musicians are members of Local 802 (New York City), is unique in its structure and governance, performing without a conductor and rotating musical leadership roles for each work.

Charity Fights Mental Health Problems Among Musicians

A study published by the charity group Help Musicians UK looked at mental health within the music community. The research was driven by 26 in-depth interviews with musicians drawn from a pool of more than 2,000 respondents to the Can Music Make You Sick academic study. Among the contributing factors to musician mental health problems were money worries, poor working conditions, bullying, insecurity, and isolation from friends and family. Those issues are compounded by the reluctance of musicians to discuss problems due to fear of losing work.

Help Musicians UK made three policy recommendations to help address mental health crisis among musicians:

  • To embed discussion of mental health awareness in music education and promote wider understanding in the industry.
  • To create a code of best practice to demonstrate an organization’s awareness of mental health issues in the industry.
  • To ensure that mental health support services for the music community are both affordable and accessible.

New Silkroad Leadership Announced

Twenty years after founding the arts orPganization Silkroad, Yo-Yo Ma of Local 802 (New York City) is passing the baton to three of his collaborators. “I am thrilled to hand over artistic direction of Silkroad to Jeffrey Beecher [of Local 149 (Toronto, ON)], Nicholas Cords [of Local 802], and Shane Shanahan [of Local 802], three extraordinary colleagues who have taught me so much about collaboration, music, and friendship,” Ma says in a written statement.

“Together with Executive Director Eduardo A. Braniff, these inaugural co-artistic directors will shape the next chapter of Silkroad, bringing the passion and curiosity that we have developed to new communities and inspiring radical cultural collaboration that is essential to creating a better world.”

The new directors have pledged a commitment to diversity and inclusion across their board, staff, and ensemble, as well as among collaborators and in its audiences. “It is a commitment rooted in the belief that to ensure Silkroad’s continued impact on the world’s stages, in classrooms, and in our communities, we must engage an ever-broader coalition of voices, one that represents the many perspectives that shape our world,” the directors said in a statement.

They announced a series of US-based residencies for the next year and promised to unveil an “ambitious array” of new commissions “that frame a wide range of traditions, human experiences, and social issues.”

Steven Tyler Selected for Nashville Harmony Award

Musician and philanthropist Steven Tyler of Local 7 (Orange County, CA) has been named the Nashville Symphony’s 2017 Harmony Award winner. He will perform and receive the award at the December 9 Symphony Ball fundraiser. The Harmony Award recognizes the individual who best exemplifies the harmonious spirit of Nashville’s musical community.

Tyler also received the United Nations Humanitarian Award in 2015 for his philanthropic initiative Janie’s Fund (www.JaniesFund.org), which in partnership with Youth Villages, brings hope and healing to girls who have suffered trauma of abuse and neglect. As a member of the Grammy Creators’ Alliance, Tyler is deeply involved in the fight to protect the rights of established and emerging songwriters. He is also a tireless advocate for raising awareness of addiction issues and recovery solutions.

Since its inception in 1985, the Symphony Ball has raised more than $7 million for the symphony. Nashville Symphony musicians are members of 257 (Nashville, TN). Past recipients of the Harmony Award include Local 257 members Béla Fleck, Brad Paisley, Lyle Lovett, Trisha Yearwood, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Chet Atkins, Taylor Swift, Marty Stuart, and Keith Urban.

Creating Visibility Within the Labor Community

joe-parenteby Joe Parente, AFM International Executive Board Member and President of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA)

Several years ago I wrote an article about the importance of our connection and involvement with other labor organizations in our communities. I feel it bears repeating.

Normally, when we think about the union, we think of our locals and the Federation. That’s where we look first to get work. But there are hundreds of unions out there apart from the musicians union—American unions covering the building trades (electricians, carpenters, roofers, etc.), the American Federation of Teachers, the Teamsters Union, unions of nurses, city workers, hotel workers, sheet metal workers, stagehands, and so on. These organizations represent thousands of union workers and are a valuable resource of potential employment for musicians.

I have (and you may have as well) attended various events held by other unions. On occasion, I have discovered that, these same unions that preach union solidarity and the use of union labor, hire nonunion musicians to provide entertainment for their functions. That is unacceptable. The concept of union solidarity must extend to and include musicians, especially on the local level, where the work is available. It’s up to us to remind them.

To take advantage of these employment opportunities within the labor community, musicians have to be visible to other unions. Not all unions belong to the AFL-CIO, but most do, so I’ll lump everyone under that umbrella. AFM locals should be in touch with their area AFL-CIO to let other unions know that union musicians are available to them.

Get a mailing list with all the contact information for each union and send them information about your local and its members; send them referral lists and CDs of bands in the local. Ask for a calendar of annual events. All unions have some sort of function during the year—banquets, holiday parties, conferences, even conventions. For years, my local has provided a band representing Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) in the annual Labor Day Parade. Many unions have their own catering hall. They wouldn’t think of having an affair without union bartenders or waiters. Why shouldn’t they feel the same about using union musicians?

However, it’s not only the local’s responsibility to go after work for its members. No one is going to knock on your door and ask if you want to work. Anyone who is working with any type of group—rock band, top 40s band, big band, trio, string quartet, or whatever—has a vested interest in promoting his/her own product. Everyone has a spouse or family member, friend, or neighbor who belongs to some union, somewhere. Talk to them; find out about their union and who the contact person is. Send out your promo packages. Call the union directly to let them know that you’re out there and available to meet their needs.

Nothing brings attention to the American Federation of Musicians more than supporting our brother and sister unions when they are involved in a labor dispute with an employer. Volunteering to play on a picket line or at a rally yields publicity within the labor community that goes much further than you might think toward instilling the idea of using live music. Building coalitions and partnerships within the labor community is how we stay visible and viable.

When you contact other unions, let them know that you use their members when you need work done. If you’re not using union labor, you should be. After all, how can we expect them to use our members, if we don’t use theirs? We can’t allow other members of the labor movement to ignore our union.

event grant

MPTF Staff Is Ready to Serve Applicants for an Event Grant

event grant

(L to R) MPTF Staff: Trustee Dan Beck, Grant Management Director Vidrey Blackburn, Grant Management Manager Samantha Ramos, and Finance Director Al Elvin.

The Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF) provides grants to co-sponsor free live music events for the public, while ensuring that professional musicians are compensated fairly. However, the process of applying for an event grant may seem daunting to organizations producing community-based events, as well as to the musicians who perform for them. MPTF staff is ready and available to help make the process easier.

The day-to-day fielding and processing of applications and assisting applicants is in the capable hands of Grant Management Director Vidrey Blackburn and Grant Management Manager Samantha Ramos. Blackburn is celebrating 30 years with the MPTF. She holds a deep commitment to the goals of supporting high quality events, while making the grant application process as user-friendly as possible.

Reflecting on her experiences, Blackburn says she often puts herself in the place of grant petitioners.  “It is not always easy for them. It’s important to help them through the process because we have changed our operations model many times over the years,” she says.

Ramos has been with the MPTF for 17 years. She shares in the grant application review process, and was instrumental in the MPTF’s transition to a new online grant application management system. “We are here to help everyone through the application process,” says Ramos. “We have worked hard to make the new system as user-friendly as possible, and we continue to collaborate with the software company to find more ways of improving it.”

One of the responsibilities of the MPTF is to spread grants as equitably as possible across North America, while making sure the co-sponsored events are of the highest quality in each community.  This, along with the economic pressures affecting the music industry, has made the grant fielding job of the MPTF all the more difficult.

While Blackburn and Ramos handle the applications and field questions about MPTF grants, Finance Director Al Elvin handles the day-to-day management of royalty receipts, operational costs, and investments—all the financial reporting. MPTF Trustee Dan Beck oversees the grants and operational issues, while he explores possible avenues to sustain the fund and maximize its value and impact at the community level, and as an industry institution.

Blackburn recalls learning patience and care, and how to build trusted relationships, from former MPTF General Manager Nick Cutrone. “I sat by his desk and I enjoyed listening to how he spoke to the musicians and the locals,” she says. Blackburn encourages applicants to seek the grant team’s help. “If you don’t understand, call us at (212)391-3950. We will help. If we can walk you through it, it’s a win for everyone,” she says.

we support fair trade music

Fair Trade Music Seattle Builds on Its Success

by Paul Bigman, Organizer Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA)

we support fair trade musicSeattle’s Fair Trade Music campaign has picked up momentum in recent months. More than 20 clubs have signed on as Fair Trade Music venues, City Council has declared Fair Trade Music Day, and additional musician loading zones are in the works. The campaign now has separate committees working on education, research, legislation, and outreach. With funding from Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA) and guidance from the AFM’s Organizing & Education (O&E) Division, Fair Trade Music has also hired a grad student through University of Washington’s Harry Bridges Labor Center to conduct research on the impact of the music industry on the local economy.

How did this happen?

Nate Omdal, a key campaign leader, is an upright bassist who plays jazz and hip-hop. As a result of getting involved in Fair Trade Music, he now sits on the board of Local 76-493. “The training that we had on organizing and on our local music scene was, in some ways, our greatest achievement,” he says. “It got us all on the same page. It showed musicians that we didn’t have any ulterior motives—that we had common problems that we could go after [by] working together.”

After more than a year of steadily building support, the campaign held a panel discussion with musicians from varied genres, stressing that Fair Trade Music needed their input to get a clear picture of the local music scene and to identify issues that are most important to them. “We were satisfied to go slow,” stresses Omdal. “We understood that we had to build the legs before the table. As a result, we picked up people who we can rely on for the next five years—not just activists, but torch-bearers.”

fair trade Seattle city council

Seattle City Council Finance and Culture Committee listens to musician testimony, (L to R) are: City Council President Tim Burgess, Council member and resolution co-sponsor Mike O’Brien, Council Member Jean Godden, and Committee Chair and resolution co-sponsor Council member Nick Licata.

Local 76-493 member Jay Kenney, a pianist and co-founder of Fair Trade Music in Seattle, also cited the importance of the process. “The most important gain of the campaign is the empowerment of musicians that have joined. By working together, we can get stuff done,” he says.

Building on the impetus of that panel, the organizing committee developed templates for performance agreements, as well as a sample e-mail to gather information for agreements. Since then, the campaign has run two successful classes on how to negotiate agreements with club owners.

At the same time that these educational efforts were carried out, the musicians reached out to club owners to sign a Fair Trade Music pledge, and to the political and labor communities to sign a statement of support for the campaign. A dozen musician activists met with members of the Seattle City Council, and with the mayor’s labor liaison. All council members, as well as the mayor, signed the support statement. From there, it was a fairly easy step to get the city council to declare Fair Trade Music Day. Half a dozen musicians joined Jeff Johnson, president of the 400,000-member Washington State Labor Council, in testifying for the resolution.

“We need to recognize that cultural workers are just like other workers,” Johnson says, “but many musicians have no income protection in the clubs.”

David Guilbault, a singer-songwriter, agrees: “Our work is given little or no value. It’s considered a labor of love. But it is labor, and I should be paid for my labor.”

The meetings with council members, as well as the musicians’ testimony, hit home with the city leaders. Council member Nick Licata, a co-sponsor of the resolution, stresses: “This legislation has literally come from the grass roots.” Based on what he learned from the Fair Trade Music leaders, he says that the situation facing many musicians is “basically a form of wage theft, dying from a thousand cuts. For Seattle to remain a national cultural hub, we must treat our musicians to fair working conditions.”

The publicity from Fair Trade Music Day has attracted widespread attention, both in Seattle and nationally. Locally, several more clubs have signed on, plus productions by Seattle Theatre Group at about 20 additional venues. The campaign has attracted attention from several other unions as a model for nontraditional organizing. Articles in Seattle Gay News raised Fair Trade Music’s profile in the LGBT community. Nationally, there has been interest from diverse sources: the AFL-CIO, Working America, as well as an Occupy Wall Street related blog.

Local 76-493 President Motter Snell emphasizes that key to the success of the campaign has been its firm roots among the affected musicians. “We’ve had 30 musicians engaged in organizing activity just in 2015,” she explains. “The outreach to the venues, recruitment of other musicians, talking with elected officials—that’s all been done by musician activists.”

Equally important, decisions about campaign priorities and direction have also come from musicians. “Our local’s leadership and staff, as well as the [AFM] International’s organizing staff, have helped to educate and train the club musicians,” Snell stresses, “but part of empowering the musicians is giving them the authority to make decisions about their work lives.”

fair trade musicians at city hall in Seattle

Seattle musicians prepare for testimony on the Fair Trade Music Day resolution, (L to R) are: Katrina Kope, Steve Roseta, Tara Babette, David Levin, Michael Owcharuk, Jay Kenney, Nate Omdal, and Jason Arnold.

One real asset in the campaign has been the involvement of seasoned professionals who may have little to gain for themselves, like Michael Owcharuk, an established jazz pianist and composer. “It’s a way I can do something civic-minded,” he says. “I can contribute to my field.” He sees his leadership as important for younger musicians, and for the future.

The work of the AFM O&E Division as important for the campaign, says Snell. “The existence of a coordinated national campaign has been tremendously helpful,” she says, “not only in providing guidance and advice, but also in connecting us with other locals facing similar issues.”

Snell also credited pioneering work done by other locals. “Portland came up with this concept, and laid the groundwork. Local 1000 [nongeographic] has provided a lot of guidance with their Fair Trade Music program. And, of course, Nashville [Local 257] led the way with musician loading zones.”

Moving forward, the campaign has several areas of focus,  including putting Fair Trade Music decals (pictured above) in the windows of participating venues and nailing down support from the Martin Luther King Jr. County Council. The Labor Center research project will build on a 2008 City of Seattle study, which found that music contributes $2.6 billion annually to the area economy. The new research will likely show an even greater impact. Fair Trade Music plans to develop classes on the use of social media to promote music, drawing on the knowledge of experienced musicians and the local community college.

On the legislative front, the campaign will explore unreasonable restrictions in noncompete clauses at area festivals, as well as the changing local taxes, which appear to serve neither the music community, nor the city.

Focus will remain on increasing musician involvement in the campaign, as well as expanding the venues signed on to the standards. Once more clubs have signed on, Fair Trade Music hopes to move toward stronger standards for the venues.

“We’re asking that people go to the clubs that treat musicians fairly,” says Omdal. “Seattle values our music, and we call ourselves a music city. We need to back that up by valuing musicians, as well as their music.”