Tag Archives: musicians

Dan Beck

Coming Out of the Dark

We are all familiar with the impact of COVID-19 on our society over the past 18 months—tragic losses, excruciating health struggles, isolation, and a ravaged economy. And it is still not over. However, through the efforts of our health care professionals, essential workers, science, and a prudent approach taken in communities throughout North America, we are finding our way through this crisis.

Ironically, just as the Music Performance Trust Fund was beginning to regain its footing, re-establishing a revenue source, and starting to rebuild our annual grant budget initiatives, the music stopped. As we began our last fiscal year, in May 2020, not only were our overall grant initiatives at risk, but we were facing the possibility that there would be no way to culturally impact communities and support musicians.

After solving the various logistical, technical, and licensing issues, we were able to create a live streaming platform through our Facebook page that provided 722 online concerts from every corner of the continent, granting over $830,000 to make them happen. Due to the health crisis, we suspended the need for co-sponsorship, and fully funded an additional 717 traditional live performances through careful coordination with AFM locals across the US and Canada.

This brought our total grants to $ 1,260,000 for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Meanwhile, our Facebook page acquired over 5,000 followers who are now aware of every MPTF live stream. In addition, we developed a program that provided 125 scholarships, which provided over $100,000 to the students and families of professional musicians.

We were fortunate to get through those 12 months, as successfully as we did. However, the advent of a new fiscal year on May 1 has introduced new challenges and opportunities. Our first step was to announce a grant budget of $2.2 million. This is the largest grant budget in well over a decade.

We continued the suspension of co-sponsorship funding through the end of July, as well as providing 100% funding for special Labor Day weekend events to celebrate the return of admission-free, live music performances. We have also continued our Music Family Essay Scholarship grants, with the intention of maintaining that initiative for the foreseeable future.

Our efforts have been matched by the proactivity and coordinating efforts of over 90 AFM locals. The MPTF had more than $1 million in grant requests in the pipeline in the first eight weeks of the new fiscal year. Shortly thereafter, we exceeded the grant totals for any previous year in over a decade.

There are challenges that remain as we evolve from the extreme pandemic disruption. Both our Music in the Schools and MusicianFest senior center/assisted living facility initiatives have safety, logistics, and grant administration challenges to be solved.

One of the biggest challenges for the union locals and the MPTF is to re-establish community co-sponsors. It is essential to engage these regional partners to expand the impact of the trust fund’s resources. The MPTF is proving to be a significant bridge toward the commercial expansion of live music as we come out of COVID-19. However, it is leveraging our grants to create the participation of local businesses, arts organizations, and municipal governments that will position professional musicians more significantly and further prove that music is an economic power.

As we come out of this dark time, we must open our eyes to those who love live music, engage them, and shine a light on opportunity. The MPTF is here to support that engagement.


Detroit and Diversity—Working Toward Balanced Membership Involvement

by Susan Barna Ayoub Secretary-Treasurer Local 5 (Detroit, MI) and AFM Diversity Committee Member

It must qualify as some sort of pun that this article outlines the general state of inclusion and diversity today as a “mixed bag.”

Historically, Detroit musicians never had segregated white and black locals—a practice that was fairly common in large US cities until the 1960s when these locals merged. Often the members of the former black locals lost their treasuries and identity for the lack of a political champion and simply left the union. Local 5 (Detroit, MI) was fortunate to have no structural segregation; from the outset, we attempted to be musicians first, without other qualifiers.

It is worth noting that Detroit was one of the last “stops” on the Underground Railroad, allowing slaves to escape to Canada. Tours are regularly held at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church and First Congregational Church. Today, a number of Local 5 members point to these congregations with pride, calling them home.

In the October 2017 International Musician, both AFM Symphonic Services Director Rochelle Skolnick and ROPA Secretary Karen Sandene reported on the support shown by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) in furthering the cause of diversity and inclusion. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) has an African-American fellowship position for musicians who might otherwise find opportunities scarce.

Former fellow Joshua Jones says, “The program was what I needed to further my education in the field of orchestral performance. While school helps you grow as a student, the transition one must go through to become a professional is not really facilitated unless you are working in the field. Being a part of the DSO for that period of time was very influential in my personal transition from student to professional, and the people involved guided me through it every step of the way.”

Today, Local 5’s progress is undeniable. In addition to the full-time officers, the board comprises a globe-trotting former member of Mahavishnu Orchestra, also recognized as a Motown musician; a former member of DSO; a freelance drummer and teacher; a former music director for Anita Baker, Martha Reeves, and Etta James; theater musicians; a former member of Stan Kenton’s band; and a freelance oboist who works in cyber security for one of the Detroit “Big Three” automakers. It is fantastic to have that range of experience in our leadership. The other good news is that two women were recently elected—a first for us.

Looking ahead, we hope to achieve greater balanced involvement, especially from the young members and from sectors in our union’s cultural base that have rarely led our local. Indeed, at least 150 different languages are spoken in Detroit area homes—many of which are represented in our membership.

I’ve given you some of the “good stuff,” but let’s be clear: It has been 50 years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. There is palpable progress in the revitalization of Detroit’s metropolitan area that has brought about the beginning of a true expansion of neighborhood integration into the central city and suburbs. Still, the historical reality of this local musicians’ union is that it exists in an area that was torn apart by riots. It continues to have the reputation of being the most racially polarized metropolitan area in the US today.

At the beginning of 2018, we are sorely in need of an expanded appreciation for all of us. The fight for LGBT rights has scored substantial victories in the past 20 years; however, there is no federal antidiscrimination law, leaving some people without protection. Racism has reared its ugly head in a more open way than I can remember since my teen years in the 1960s. The 21st century chapter of the feminist movement is quickly gaining momentum. Hitting close to home for me: since 9/11, Americans of Middle Eastern descent (such as my husband, also a Local 5 member) have had to learn what it means to be FWL (flying while Lebanese), an expansion of the unfortunate but true DWB (driving while black) acronym.

Simply put: as a country, we are in danger of normalizing disrespect and suspicion of “the other” (political and otherwise), shrinking from the concept of nonviolent protest, and losing our free press. If we do not want to lose our rights and our ethics, we need to stand together as union brothers and sisters. We must protect the principles of humanity that we have all fought to obtain. It is the most powerful way to build trust. We cannot work together if we don’t value one another’s welfare.

It is my honor, as Detroit’s Secretary-Treasurer, to work on behalf of the entire membership of the AFM on its Diversity Committee.

Federal Government Tax Reform: What It Means for You

The Republican-led Congress and administration have now embarked on a debate over another feature piece of legislation promised during the 2016 campaign: tax reform. At this writing, the Republican-led House of Representatives has introduced its far reaching reform proposal, which it claims focuses on a tax savings for middle-class Americans. Along with White House regulatory reforms, the House says the bill will provide tax savings and incentives for American businesses, especially those with overseas or offshore operations.

Working alongside the majority party in Congress, the White House is expecting delivery of a complete tax package to the President’s desk before Christmas. The steady grind of the legislative machine in both the US House and Senate since the end of the August recess may drive this package through (loopholes and all), especially if the House and Senate can make a final deal with disgruntled Republicans and some nationally recognized outside groups like the Mortgage Bankers Association, national real estate organizations, and others who are on the fence.

Though the philosophy of the majority party is to move this process through before too many stakeholders weigh in, there are those who believe that the package as written, containing a limit on interest deductions for new home purchases of $500,000 or more and an expansion of the standard deduction (as outlined in a November 3 New York Times article), is a losing proposition, too difficult to sell to their constituents. In the same New York Times article, others, including Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation and the independent Tax Foundation, find that America’s highest earners would receive at least twice the tax cut that middle-class workers would get, as a percentage of their income.

Democrats, along with other outside groups who sit in opposition to the package, say that the plan is not well thought-out and is moving too quickly. It will harm, not help, middle-class Americans because it will raise taxes. Meanwhile, it will eliminate some much sought-after and expected annual tax staples such as state and local tax write-offs (businesses will continue to be able to deduct state and local taxes incurred in the conduct of a trade or business) and House reductions in the mortgage interest cap. Also, it will use funds from the elimination of important programs, such as the CHIP and state Medicaid Expansion, which were put in place to help middle-class Americans. Opponents say this, along with other loopholes, is all to help pay for a tax reform package designed to help wealthy taxpayers.

Concerns for Members

A look at the tax reform package reveals some issues—changes for the average American and for musicians and others in the media and entertainment fields.

The House Ways and Means Committee, the committee that oversees the drafting and implementation of tax legislation, has outlined what the new tax law does. You can read the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act at https://waysandmeans.house.gov/taxreform/. The committee states that the bill:

Lowers individual tax rates for low- and middle-income Americans

Eliminates special-interest deductions

Establishes a new Family Credit, which includes expanding the Child Tax Credit

Reduces the tax rate on the hard-earned business income of Main Street job creators

Significantly increases the standard deduction

Takes action to support American families

Preserves the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit

Lowers the corporate tax rate to 20%

Opposition forces say that the bill falls short of all these goals and leaves the average American subsidizing proposals that only benefit the rich.

Yeh Shen of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA) states, “Under GOP’s tax plan, all of the necessary costs associated with maintaining a freelance career and professional activities are not tax deductible, if players continue to be paid as W-2 wage [earners].”

Winners v. Losers

But, who are the winners and losers? An article from The Hill  describes who stands to gain and who stands to lose. Here’s a summary:

Winners—Corporations will see their tax rate go down from 35% to 20%. Companies would be allowed to deduct the full costs of buying new equipment for five years. And businesses that had been keeping profits overseas to avoid the 35% tax rate would be able to bring the money back, or repatriate to the US, and pay only a 12% tax for cash assets. Major business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers back provisions to lower rates for businesses, in order to move to a “territorial” tax system that exempts dividends from companies’ foreign subsidiaries and to enhance expensing of capital investments.

Super wealthy individuals will keep the top tax rate in place, but they have a lot to gain from the bill.  First off, the income tax bracket thresholds increase, which will accrue savings at the top. Second, the bill would double the limit on the estate tax and then phase it out altogether. Currently, the estate tax only applies to estates of $5.5 million or more, and twice that for couples. The bill would immediately double that, giving tax shelter to anyone with an estate between $5.5 million and $11 million (or, again, double those amounts for couples). After a few years, the tax would be eliminated altogether, meaning that the very wealthiest in the country could receive their inheritances tax-free. Third, the plan would lower the taxation rates of “pass-through” corporations, or S-corps, to 25%, allowing certain business owners to claim part of their income at the lower rate. Fourth, it would eliminate the alternative minimum tax, which was intended to create a floor on tax exemptions.

Losers—Blue states, the budget deficit, universities, homeowners, and nonprofit organizations.   

House v. Senate Bills

As for House and Senate bill comparisons, Sarah Babbage from Blumberg outlines direct differences in the bills. You can read her analysis at: https://about.bgov.com/blog/bgov-onpoint-comparing-house-senate-tax-bills/.

For musicians, the tax plan in its earliest form hit on two issues that would have directly impacted artists and their supporting institutions. The first was a provision in the code that provided the time and manner rules for electing capital asset treatment for certain self-created musical works. The original temporary regulatory proposal was published in the Federal Register February 8, 2008. No comments appeared in response of the proposed rulemaking and no request for a public hearing was received. The Treasury then decided to adopt the proposed regulation with some minor changes. However, on November 6, 2017, the provision was removed from the Ways and Means Manager’s Report. The Manager’s Report would have allowed a taxpayer to treat the sale or exchange of a musical composition or a copyright of their personal musical work as a capital gain or loss.

Secondly, the House bill eliminates certain language referring to business entertainment write-offs. This could mean fewer business professionals using theater, restaurant, and other performance venues as write-off activities for their clients. Section 3307 entitled “Entertainment, etc. Expenses,” denies a business deduction for entertainment, amusement, recreation, and other fringe benefits in the media and entertainment industry to embrace or entice business partners. The provision goes on to say: “No deduction otherwise allowable under this chapter shall be allowed for amounts paid or incurred for any of the following items … this may impact any entertainment, amusement, or recreation activity; membership dues; amenities not directly related to the taxpayers trade or business; or on-premise athletic facilities, not related to a trade or business.” 

The Senate bill, introduced November 14, is currently under debate. We must consider that, at this writing, the House bill is still under consideration and the Senate bill, though just introduced, has additional changes. No new policy is set in stone until the chamber has a final vote on it. However, we expect those votes very soon. The AFM will continue to work with its affiliates and outside partners to help mitigate the negative effects of this legislation.

Study Shows Musicians Have Superior Memory Skills

A study led by University of Padua psychologist Francesca Talamini shows that musicians tend to have stronger short-term and working memory (the ability to retain information as you process it) than nonmusicians. Published in the online journal PLoS One, the research also found a slight advantage in terms of long-term memory. Scientists looked at 29 studies (between 1987 and 2016) of young adults performing long-term, short-term, and working memory tasks. The musicians performed best on working memory tasks involving tonal stimuli, but also had an advantage regarding verbal stimuli. On short-term memory tasks, the musicians showed superior skills, whether they were asked to recall musical tones, verbal instructions, or visual images.

Researchers offer a few hypotheses including the possibility that people with better memories choose to become musicians. But, they believe it is more likely that their memories were improved because of the multi-sensorial nature of music training.

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.

Study Finds Jazz Musicians Have Unique Response to Unexpected Events

Wesleyan University Scientists used electroencephalography to examine the differences in the brain activity of classical and jazz musicians during unexpected chord progressions. The study, published in the journal, Brain and Cognition, included 12 jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians, observing them while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some progressions were typical of western music and others were unexpected progressions. Jazz musicians had a different response to the unexpected progressions that demonstrated increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.

Grand Ole Opry Musicians Covered Under New AFM Contract

Musicians performing at the Grand Ole Opry voted to approve a new four-year contract that includes progressive wage increases in each of its years. Musicians also won higher health and welfare payments and increased pension contributions. Aside from the house band, the new contract also covers the eight or more guest musicians who perform at each of the Opry shows. Hundreds of freelance musicians will benefit as well.

“The ‘show that made country music famous’ started as a humble radio broadcast almost a century ago, but is now viewed and listened to by millions on traditional radio, satellite radio, and the web,” says AFM President Ray Hair. “That’s why musicians fought for and won new satellite radio payments and a percent of the Opry’s receipts for streamed content.”

Kansas City Completes Endowment Campaign

This fall, the Kansas City Symphony completed its Masterpiece Endowment Campaign, having raised $55 million. The symphony raised $52 million in the quiet phase over four-and-a-half years and $3 million in the final six-month public phase. Gifts ranged from $10 to $10 million. The campaign effort was funded entirely from the organization’s annual operating budget. When the campaign pledges are fulfilled, the endowment will reach $100 million and provide a stable base of funding. The symphony plans to draw 4% annually to support operating expenses and there is no plan to slow fundraising. The symphony currently has an annual budget of $17 million.

“The musicians of the Kansas City Symphony are proud to belong to an organization that follows a vision of institutional growth and artistic achievement,” says Musicians’ Committee Chair Richard Ryan of Local 34-627 (Kansas City, MO). “The completion of our endowment campaign is a prime example of our symphony board, administration, and community working together to ensure that Kansas City has a world-class symphony orchestra now and in the future.”

The symphony has seen record attendance and revenue in recent seasons. Kansas City Symphony musicians, members of Local 34-627, are performing under a four-year CBA that runs through June 2021.

Musicians Return

Musicians Return to the Bandstand, The Circus Is Back in Town

On October 27, the Big Apple Circus made its return to Lincoln Center, just in time to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Created by former European street performers Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, Big Apple Circus debuted in New York City’s Battery Park in 1977, relocating to Lincoln Center in 1981. Over the years, it became a New York City holiday season staple. However, unable to recover from the 2008 recession, the nonprofit, one-ring circus filed for bankruptcy in 2016.

Last February, Big Top Works purchased Big Apple Circus and set to work restoring the beloved show and returning its performers to work.

Local 802 (New York City) Business Representative Marisa Friedman is in charge of the AFM contract covering the Big Apple Circus musicians. “Our main concern was that the circus would continue to use live music and that the musicians who worked for the old circus would continue to work for this new one,” she says. “Negotiations went very well. It was clear that the circus valued live music and wanted to make a fair deal with Local 802.” In the end, the union negotiated an improved three-year agreement for the musicians.

According to Big Apple Circus Conductor Rob Slowik of Local 802 (New York City), the show’s band has eight permanent musicians. “Everybody who is on the new primary hiring list has played with the circus before, but a few of the former musicians moved out of state and are doing gigs in other parts of the country,” he says.

Musicians Return

The Big Apple Circus band (L to R) back row: Wages Argott, Jacob Levitin, Jeff Barone, Brian Killeen, Patrick Firth, and Michael Bellusci; middle row Neil Johnson and Jim Lutz; in front, Conductor Rob Slowik.

“We essentially just made modifications to the old agreement. We expanded the scope of the recognition agreement to cover more work, added health and safety protections, and also included payment for promotional use of recorded material,” explains Friedman. “The musicians will receive increases in wages and health benefits—something they have not had in several years due to the circus’s financial problems.”

Among new band members is Local 802 and 256-733 (Birmingham, AL) member Wages Argott, a trumpet player who was the bandleader for the Ringling Blue show that closed earlier this year. Slowik brought him on as associate conductor. “It’s nice that I have a sub who has already conducted thousands of circuses,” says Slowik, also a trumpet player. A couple other former Ringling musicians are on the sub list for this year.

“Each year brings a new Big Apple Circus show, with a new cast and new music, but the same band,” explains Slowik. “We change the instrumentation depending on the show theme, but we always use our hiring list. Once a musician plays with us and is on the contract, they have the right to first refusal, if we use their instrument again.”

Musicians Return

The musicians of the Big Apple Circus band have returned to their bandstand with an improved three-year AFM contract negotiated by Local 802 (New York City).

The circus’s 2017 theme focuses on its 40th anniversary. “The set looks like the skyline of New York City and the music draws from all the different contemporary musical styles represented here—pop, rock, jazz, Latin, classical,” says Slowik. “It’s not music you would normally associate with a circus.”

Among performers headlining the new show are world record holder Nik Wallenda and the Fabulous Wallendas, trapeze artist Ammed Tuniziani of the Flying Tunizianis, as well as Grandma the Clown, who has returned from retirement.

When it comes to music selection for the various acts, Slowik says that the producer makes the final decision, but there is input from the director, as well as the performing act. “We try to honor the act’s needs in terms of tempo and timing, and we like to use music that is going to inspire,” he says. “While there is often some initial resistance to new music from acts who may have used the same music for 10 or 15 years, at the end of the season, they frequently want to buy the music and take it with them.”

Use of a click track helps the band keep to a steady tempo for performances, and Slowik keeps a constant eye on the show for split second adjustments. “We have a lot of vamps built into the music but often we’ll have to create new vamps on the fly,” he says. “Something can go wrong at any point, whether it’s somebody missing a trick, wanting to repeat a trick, or something that goes wrong with the rigging or a prop.”

“I try to get the dogs to count the downbeat of the bar but they don’t listen, and neither do the horses,” laughs Slowik. “One of the nice things about having a band with a lot of circus experience is that they can almost read my mind.”

Musicians new to the circus, even veteran Broadway players, require some training. “They have to come watch the show. I give them a video of me conducting and a pdf of the book. One of the things I tell them is: ‘This vamp is four bars, but the cue could come anywhere, including in the middle of the bar.’ On Broadway, if you have a two-bar or four-bar vamp, it is almost always at the end of four bars. It can take people a while to get used to that. You really have to be aware because the cue could come out of nowhere.”

On occasion, Slowik says he has even become a part of the act. He recalls a skit he did with Grandma the Clown where he was hoisted 30-feet up in the air to play his trumpet. “It was a lot of fun!” he says, adding that he looks forward to something like that happening in the future.

The new Big Apple Circus show premiered October 27 and runs through January 7. After that, it will begin an East Coast tour with stops between Atlanta and Boston. When on tour, the Big Apple Circus travels with about 50% of its core band, hiring local AFM musicians in whatever city it visits.