There’s a new energy out there. You can feel it, right? 

It’s not just that things are starting to open up, even in our industry. It’s that this lost year may not have been a complete loss, but rather a realignment. Part of that realignment has to do with the level of activism and engagement that I’m seeing all around us. 

While some of these activities started before the pandemic hit, they were supercharged by the stark reality of the unfairness of our industry to musicians, coupled with having time on our hands to actually do something about it. 

The AFM and our sibling union, SAG-AFTRA are legacy organizations. In our case, a union of musicians for nearly 125 years. We’re both unions in the traditional sense. We operate under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act and supplementary laws. While that gives us some leverage, protections, and stability, we know that those laws have been weakened over the years. This undermines our ability to organize, and hence, the critical push for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021. 

As important as the PRO Act is, let me go down a different path here. An economist by the name of Clayton Christensen developed a theory called “disruptive innovation.” In a nutshell, it’s when a company is able to enter the marketplace in an area that is under appreciated or ignored and uses that position as a new market entrant to build their market share and disrupt existing market leaders. Eventually, they build themselves into the de facto market leader. 

As an example, think of Toyota entering the car market in the ’70s. No American auto manufacture took them seriously, but they found an entry point, a niche, that was being ignored. They built upon that niche and are now the second largest auto manufacturer in the world. 

So, what does this have to do with our union? Because of our legacy, our focus on negotiating with employers in the orchestral, theater, and electronic media environments, we have gotten locked into a way of working that may not be serving a portion of our membership, as well as parts of the music industry at-large. 

There is disruption everywhere, supercharged by the pandemic. Every agreement we have is being challenged by the necessity of organizations trying to adapt to the realities on the ground. Don’t get me wrong, we have worked hard to protect our legacy agreements, while working to adapt to the realities of the pandemic. A number of new “start-up” music organizations are engaging with musicians in areas of the industry, and on issues, that we are not directly involved in, for whatever reason. In other words, this is disruptive innovation. 

There are many of these organizations, some old, some brand new. We used to work with the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington, DC, based advocacy organization, but we haven’t partnered with them directly for a few years. 

A new group that is getting attention for their picketing of Spotify offices around the world is the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). While this is not a union, in the traditional sense, they are certainly a group of musicians coming together to organize in a segment of our industry that everyone complains about. No other group has engaged directly in the unfair streaming royalties for recorded music. 

It’s not to say that the AFM is not playing a role here. We just negotiated with the TV networks for royalties for musicians working under the TV/Video Agreement. But we are doing that work contract by contract, understandably, a very slow process. What we are not dealing with is musician payouts from the radio-like streaming services of Spotify, Apple, and Amazon. 

Other newly minted activist organizations include the Music Policy Forum, MUSE (Musicians United for Social Equity), We See You White American Theater, and Music Workers Alliance coming out of New York. And in my hometown, there’s an organization called MusicPortland. All of them are taking on a range of issues underrepresented in our industry. 

There is a common thread here. Most of these organizations appear to be built from the bottom up, by musicians, working on isolated issues that are important to them. They remind us how organizing works. In the AFM, we can and do organize around many important issues and have the ability to utilize our existing union power, infrastructure, and experience. 

At the end of the day, we are all working to expand the well-being of musicians. When we identify issues that are affecting us in the workplace, we need to bring those ideas to our local’s attention, revitalizing a grassroots energy and approach to build the future we need. Where possible, we should work in conjunction with these new advocacy groups—locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. 

We are all in this together and the more we combine forces, the greater our leverage and the potential for success for all musicians. 

Article Link