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Home » Officer Columns » Winners and Losers in the Pandemic Economy

Winners and Losers in the Pandemic Economy

  -  AFM International President

You might recall that I wrote in a recent IM column that in every economic downturn, there are winners and losers, and for this discussion I’m including natural disasters and armed conflicts in the equation. We can see what the COVID short-term consequences are by looking at what’s happening in our own communities. But what may be the longer-term aftereffects?

Economic scholars now believe the pandemic’s economic hit will endure for decades, even if a vaccine is approved. Economists say rates of return on capital (cash, land, and assets) will be depressed for at least a decade—with interest rates between zero and 1%. This is in contrast to what happens in wars and natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornados, where capital is physically destroyed. Capital is not destroyed in pandemics.

Despite the coronavirus, our instruments and our abilities to perform with them still exist. And for orchestral, theater, and touring musicians, our venues also still exist, but are idled. This contrasts with wars and natural disasters where buildings, venues, possessions, means of production, and infrastructure are blown away by nature or bombed into oblivion. The pandemic is modulating labor markets, resulting in more worker availability and competition for jobs—which, for non-essential workers, have become scarce. And in our own case, the managers and custodians of capital are conservative and precautionary. But no one really knows what’s next.

With the advent of COVID, we are seeing the flight of resources and capital toward the domination and control of key essential markets by a small number of corporations.

Large mega-companies immediately took advantage of opportunities presented by the coronavirus. Where local restaurants, bars, movie theaters, nightclubs, and shops were shut down, many of which cohabit the neighborhoods where our live theaters and concert halls are located, the market for food, retail, and entertainment morphed into trips to fast food chain drive-through windows, like Taco Bell, and trips to the supermarket. Demand for shopping and live entertainment, including moviegoing, was re-routed online.

The supermarket and fast food firms are big winners, because they have lots of properties, plenty of staff, and resources to recruit additional workers quickly to re-employ the suddenly unemployed. Kroger and Costco, for example, also have logistical hubs, warehousing, and trucking networks to assure customers of adequate supplies of food, drugs, liquor, and, of course, toilet paper.

Another big winner is the online retail industry, particularly Amazon and eBay. Web retailers have been giving brick-and-mortar stores like Sears a run for their money for years. The pandemic spike in online shopping is clearly attributable to emergency governmental lockdowns and fear of public in-person contact. This trend has led to major COVID-related bankruptcies including Pier 1 Imports, JC Penney, GNC, Neiman Marcus, and Brooks Brothers. This is a cause for concern, as many of these companies were benefactors of community arts organizations that employ our members. I remember having lunch with Stanley Marcus and Dallas Symphony executives, years ago. Neiman Marcus was a solid supporter of the Dallas Orchestra.

Still another big winner is the streaming entertainment industry—Amazon, Netflix, Disney, NBC/Universal (Peacock), CBS All-Access, Apple, SiriusXM, Pandora, Spotify, Google-owned YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Professional musicians work under Federation agreements for content producers and we collect and distribute royalties for digital uses of our members’ work. There is certainly a COVID-related uptick in consumption of digital media, but will it be enough to offset the loss of film producers’ television advertising revenue and worldwide box office receipts?

Then we have the big winners in the delivery business—UPS, FedEx, Amazon (again)—dominating the distribution of everything, products small and large.

The paranoia about trading in cash, thought by some to facilitate virus transmission, has benefitted the credit card companies and contactless payment services—Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and Apple Pay.

The hospitality and travel industries are heavy losers and on life support, where winners Zoom, Skype, Webex, and BlueJeans have offset the need for hotel rooms, air tickets, and rental cars.

The billionaires are getting richer from this pandemic, while millions of working people are out of their jobs. Mega-companies are gaining big chunks of ground, not just in market share, but in their ability to influence politicians, and entire governments.

The richest person on earth, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, now has a net worth of $196 billion, including a $16.2 billion bump he accumulated during one week in July, and $7 billion gained during a single day.

Unlike other disasters over the past 100 years that killed tens of millions and diminished the available workforce—World War I (21 million dead), 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic (50 to 100 million dead), or World War II (70 to 85 million dead)—COVID consequences will not result in a shortage of working people. It’s entirely the opposite.

The disruption and closure of small businesses and large retail chains, where stores fail to reopen, jobs are permanently lost. Millions of workers and business owners in non-essential sectors are facing catastrophe, which will keep unemployment levels high. The workforce is largely divided into three categories: those able to work from home, essential workers who have to report to work, and over 50 million unemployed. The longer the disruptions, the deeper the pain and the slower the recovery.

And because COVID hit the leisure and live entertainment sectors the hardest and will be among the last to recover, the gig economy is flooded with unemployed musicians. Don’t be surprised when a gig opportunity arises for a restaurant, bar, or party date and the purchaser or booking agent wants you to work for lower pay because of the fierce competition for jobs.

I have walked you through these difficult issues to help illustrate the obvious. Coronavirus has strengthened the power of the employers.

Next month’s column: Coping with Fear Through Collective Action