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There’s a Musician’s Union. Many Musicians Are Unaware — or Unable to Join

A wave of workers-first rhetoric is sweeping through pop. Can SAG-AFTRA and the AFM capitalize on it? This clearly poses a challenge to these unions. It’s crucial for these organizations to exploit the growing militancy of their potential membership.

In 2016, Lady Gaga said "we don't have a union as artists." SAG-AFTRA, a union which represents major-label vocalists, presented her with an award last year.,credit: Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock // RolingStone

In a video interview uploaded to YouTube in February, Joe Budden, a former major-label rapper who is enjoying a popular second career as a podcast star, tried to recruit 2 Chainz to lead a strike in hip-hop.

“You don’t think we need a union?” Budden asked. “You should be our Derek Fisher” — the head of the NBA players union during the league’s 2011 lockout. “They gonna pay me to be the head of that?” 2 Chainz wondered.

Budden shook his head as if mildly disappointed. “Chainz ain’t fuckin’ with stoppage of work.”

This exchange is not an isolated incident: A wave of workers-first rhetoric is sweeping through multiple creative industries at the moment, reaching all the way to the highest levels of pop stardom. Meek Mill tweeted about the importance of artists’ maintaining ownership of their art; when Taylor Swift signed a new record deal last year, she claimed that she did so only on the condition that Universal Music distribute all the proceeds from sales of its equity in Spotify to other artists on its roster. Don’t be surprised if Drake is chanting labor slogans in his next video.

But there’s an odd disconnect. While everyone’s talking the unions’ language, not many artists are talking about the unions themselves. In fact, two organizations that are supposed to provide musicians with collective power already exist: SAG-AFTRA, which covers around 5,000 vocalists, and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which covers around 70,000 instrumentalists.

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While Budden wants 2 Chainz for his potential union, the rapper is actually automatically eligible for SAG-AFTRA membership through his major-label contract — as is anyone else who signs to Universal, Sony or Warner Music Group. What’s more, even if 2 Chainz is not a union member, his label is still contributing 12.75% of gross earnings from his music to the union’s healthcare and retirement fund. A representative for the rapper declined to comment on his union status.

This clearly poses a challenge to SAG-AFTRA (and the AFM as well). It’s crucial for these organizations to exploit the growing militancy of their potential membership. However, those potential members have a general lack of knowledge about their unions — how to join, what joining means and why it might matter. SAG-AFTRA and the AFM need to close an awareness gap quickly if they hope to capitalize on the renewed interest in creator’s rights and play a major role in shaping the 21st century musical landscape.

“Most artists don’t realize that we just spent months negotiating a contract that is going to add millions of dollars to their bottom line every year,” acknowledges David White, SAG-AFTRA’s executive director. “Most artists don’t realize we work directly with SoundExchange and other groups to ensure that jurisdictions worldwide are paying artists appropriately. We have a ways to go to make sure that we are at the top of mind with actual artists.”

To be fair, every union’s top-of-mind index has suffered in the last half-century. In the 1950s, more than a third of the American workforce was unionized. Thanks to an extended war on labor, that number has fallen to an historic low — roughly one in ten American workers is a union member today.

Musicians hoping to unionize also face obstacles unlike those in many other industries. “You’ve got stars passing in and out of union databases, sometimes as the employer, and sometimes as a card-holding member,” explains Shaun Richman, a former organizer who now serves as the program director at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies. If 2 Chainz hires a string section to record with him, he’s the boss; when he turns around to negotiate a contract with his label, he’s the employee. “That’s totally screwy,” Richman says.

Richman attributes the uncertainty of this system, in part, to the success of rock and roll. Before rock came along, “the AFM had a very high-functioning model and basically a 100% unionized workforce,” he says. “They approached it as, the producers are the boss. The producer hires the songwriters and the band is just working musicians.” The lines between worker and employer eroded when rock “started to merge the role of songwriter, producer and artist.”

Rock quickly became big business, and its model of musical production became increasingly common. That meant “the amount of work that is under collective bargaining declined,” says Don Gorder, a longtime AFM member who currently serves as Chair of Berklee’s Music Business/Management Department. “Now it mainly exists in cities where there are symphonies and orchestras and the recording industry [the small part that still relies on studio musicians] which exists primarily in L.A. and Nashville.”

The new model also disrupted the labor dynamic in the live music scene. “The older legacy jazz clubs are still union, as are places like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” Richman says. But rock acts weren’t often welcome at established venues when the genre was just becoming popular. Consequently, “early rock ‘n’ roll had to find and create new venues to perform — think of Bill Graham’s Fillmore, Winterland, etc. Those new clubs opened non-union and remained non-union.”

This means the two major unions for musicians cater primarily to major-label vocalists — effectively the top 1% of artists — and the instrumentalists who work mostly with orchestras or in opera or musical theater. A large chunk of artists falls through the gap between those two constituencies — no one on an indie label, for example, or the multitudes of unsigned artists striving to make it big. “The majority of working musicians may never interface with a major label,” says Kevin Erickson, the director of the Future of Music coalition, a non-profit think tank that fights to “put artists first.” “The diversity of practices and business models presents a challenge for traditional modes of organizing.”

The unions’ inability to connect with the day-to-day needs of so many working musicians creates a negative feedback loop: “People don’t know about them because they’re not necessarily able to work on issues of immediate concern to that population,” says one executive familiar with music unions who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And then because that population is not part of the union, they’re less able to drive the union in a direction of being more attentive to their issues.”

Listen here.

Gorder has watched the union’s importance fade for his students. He estimates that less than 10% of Berklee attendees “know anything about either SAG-AFTRA or the AFM.” That lack of knowledge extends outside of Berklee’s walls as well — insiders point out that major labels have little incentive to alert the artists they sign about their SAG-AFTRA eligibility. So it’s maybe not surprising that in 2016, Lady Gaga declared, “we don’t have a union as artists. We’re just fighting for ourselves.”

Despite the awareness gap, access to a union can still provide useful benefits. “Income inequality and other issues in the workplace are never going to be addressed by individual musicians alone,” asserts Adam Krauthamer, the new president of AFM’s New York chapter. “Labor is the way forward.”

Like most unions, both SAG-AFTRA and the AFM provide healthcare and pensions. White says SAG-AFTRA membership “is like having a legal team at your disposal for those battles that arise under the agreement around working conditions, payment and the royalties you’re going to collect.” Several high-profile contract disputes have been in the news lately — De La Soul, Lil Uzi Vert — and legal experts say that SAG-AFTRA could provide arbitration to both acts if they asked.

SAG-AFTRA and AFM both say that they are committed to uncovering new modes of organizing and reaching populations that might not have been aware of them in the past. “We are fully engaged in expanding that type of outreach,” White says. In 2015, SAG-AFTRA created a new position in its organizing department for the express purpose of connecting with more royalty-earning artists as well as professional singers. The SAG-AFTRA Foundation gave Lady Gaga an “Artist Inspiration Award” last fall.

Krauthamer ran explicitly on a platform of modernizing his chapter of the union.”A lot of the business models changed overnight, and we fell really behind,” he says. “I wanted to start adapting our practices here at Local 802 to what musicians are dealing with every day.”

Part of a new AFM initiative in New York, 802 Strong, involves reaching out to those in hip-hop “and other communities that haven’t historically been represented by the union.” “We want them to educate us on what their business is like,” Krauthamer says. “And we hope to educate them on the value of being part of the union.”

The Local 802 head is aware of conversations like the one between Budden and 2 Chainz. “There’s a discussion in the hip-hop world: Should rappers be in a union?” Krauthamer acknowledges. “My answer is, of course they should be.” The challenge for him — and others hoping to organize musicians — will be articulating why.