Tag Archives: fair trade

Fair Trade Music

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!

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.”

Fair Trade Music Shows Seattle Musicians They Have Power

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

Fair Trade Music Seattle (FTMS) was launched through a public meeting in 2012. “We saw a major part of our industry in Seattle with no union presence,” explains Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA) President Motter Snell. “When affected musicians came to us, we took action. This has the potential to build new leadership, and help improve wages and working conditions for area musicians.”

Hard work building support among area musicians for Seattle’s Fair Trade Music campaign is paying off. Following the creation of the city’s first musician loading zones, FTMS is now signing on area venues to a Fair Trade Music pledge. The pledge commits the clubs to maintain standards, including negotiated written performance agreements, accountability and transparency, quality sound, and a mechanism to resolve grievances.

eattle (FTMS) activist and Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA) board member Marc Smason performs at FTMS venue Ples & Pints

Seattle (FTMS) activist and Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA) board member Marc Smason performs at FTMS venue Ples & Pints

Building on the loading zone victory, a panel of a dozen musicians from varied genres met to discuss area venues, priorities, and strategies. The panel identified two immediate new goals: teaching musicians how to get an effective performance agreement, and ensuring adequate sound in clubs.

The victory drew in new activists. Steve Roseta, a local producer, heard about the loading zones from a radio show. “It made so much sense to me,” Roseta explains. “Musicians get the short end of the stick. Everyone else gets paid—the dishwashers, the cook, the sound guy—but sometimes not the musicians, the most important part of the evening.” When he deals with a venue that mistreats musicians, he won’t book shows there again. Fair Trade Music fits perfectly with his views.

FTMS and Local 76-493 held a class on performance contracts in August, covering both content and how to negotiate a fair agreement. This included templates for an initial e-mail to establish specific terms, and for venue and private performance agreements.

Nate Omdal, a key FTMS leader and Local 76-493 board member, used the newly-developed agreement a few weeks later for a week-long gig at an area casino. He dealt with a lawyer on the other side, who initially questioned some of the terms. “But when I told him that it was developed with input from 30 musicians and the AFM local, he backed down and signed,” recounts Omdal. The other four members of Omdal’s band for the gig have now decided to join the union.

FTMS obtained funds from Local 76-493, the AFM, and the Washington State Labor Council to provide diagnostic and tune-up service for sound systems at venues that sign the pledge. The work will be done by IATSE sound technicians, and may cover modest equipment replacement.

The next month, FTMS activists approved a Fair Trade Music pledge to bring to area venues. Venue owners pledge:

  • To provide a detailed written performance agreement.
  • To have quality sound equipment and a competent sound tech, or an agreement for musicians to provide their own equipment and tech.
  • A commitment to resolve disputes.
  • In return, FTMS pledges:
  • To actively publicize FTMS venues, and mobilize our communities to support the clubs that support musicians.
  • A commitment to resolve disputes.

To date, six venues have signed this pledge. FTMS musicians are in discussions with another half-dozen venues, and hope to have at least 10 Fair Trade venues by next month. When that happens, FTMS and the local will put out publicity and start mobilizing our communities to patronize Fair Trade venues.

Omdal stresses that the successes are due to the involvement of musicians at every step. “It’s uniquely empowering,” he says, particularly when meeting with City Council members and officials. “I learned how much power my voice and expertise have as a professional musician. The union provided me with the opportunity to see that.” He says it was also important that FTMS was able to present a clear plan for getting from point A to point B: “As musicians saw that we’re doing our due diligence to achieve our goals, they’re more excited to get involved.”

Jay Kenney, an FTMS founder and Local 76-493 board member, believes that it also helped to focus more on advocacy for musicians’ needs—such as the loading zones—and less on adversarial actions with venues. He says that flexibility helped to develop a base among musicians outside the union. But he also notes that once FTMS has the clubs that treat musicians well on board, they’ll have to be prepared to target venues with less friendly policies, and look for effective strategies to bring them around.

Omdal recalls a personal experience that opened his eyes. His band and two others—one from out of town—had a gig at a well-known area club. When they got there to set up, the owner told them that their income would just be advance ticket sales. The touring band immediately said they’d leave to go to the next city on their tour, since it would be a waste of time to stay. Then Omdal said that, without that band to open, his band would also be wasting their time, and would just go home. The third band quickly followed. Suddenly the venue owner found it in his power to provide all three groups decent pay for the night. Omdal reports that he then understood the power that musicians have.

FTMS includes about 40 area musicians, close to 30 of whom have been at meetings this year and actively participate. A dozen musicians have initiated outreach to clubs to get them to sign on as FTM venues. Most are not yet union members, though there’s increasing consideration for joining.

Through their action, musicians are learning the importance of the labor movement. When FTMS found that an area restaurant at which they play is on labor’s “do not patronize” list for breaking the restaurant workers’ union (UNITE HERE), they asked a representative from the restaurant workers to come to a local board meeting to explain the situation. Kenney, who plays regularly at the restaurant, found the presentation helpful. He notes, “There are going to be times when we’re presented with a conflict of interest where, as here, publicizing a venue that treats us right may not be appropriate, given the way they treat other workers. We came down on the side of labor, our natural base.”

Omdal adds that, when he heard how dishwashers and servers had been treated, he recognized that musicians were higher on the food chain than he’d realized. He says that he identifies more now with the other workers at the restaurant. Both Omdal and Kenney are eager to work with UNITE HERE on common interests.

The campaign is spilling over into other areas of the local’s work. Susan McLain, a harpist and long-time leader of Local 76-493, credits the new emphasis on internal organizing for spurring efforts to improve area standards for harpists, patterned on the FTMS model. She’s working with the local’s organizer and other harpists to ensure reasonable pay and conditions.

“We need to see ourselves as workers,” stresses McLain. “We can’t be in a race to the bottom, or we all lose. When we go out to play, the key word is ‘sustainable’—we need a living wage. Fair Trade Music is a good platform for union and nonunion musicians working together.”

Local 76-493 President Snell believes that FTMS is helping the local as a whole. “It’s getting people talking,” she says, “and putting a good spin on the local. It’s raising the relevance of the union in our community.”

Next up, in addition to seeking more venues, are some new projects. Musicians will be meeting with each member of the Seattle City Council  to seek support for FTMS, and specifically to discuss musician loading zones and unreasonable restrictions in contracts with public music festivals that receive city funding. FTMS will explore contacting corporate festival sponsors that treat musicians unfairly. They’re planning another class on performance agreements in February or March.

Kenney is optimistic: “We’ve made real penetration into our community, and there’s a lot of excitement.” Omdal stresses the lesson that musicians can win when they have the will, and a strategic plan. Local 76-493 Vice President Joan Sandler, a violinist, says, “We’ve let the venue owners have all the power in dealing with us. But musicians can take that power back, and have greater control over our working conditions.”