The lack of work for studio musicians is sending a shockwave through the industry and it's being felt across the nation. Already this year we've heard from frustrated music industry professionals in Nashville who's job security remains uncertain. With artists, musicians, and industry leaders fleeing the country to record at lower costs, what we're feeling on our own soil is the strain of a crippled industry.
According to a report released on Dec. 15 by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, recording-session wages have dropped 68% over the last 15 years. A profession once generating $50 million in income for its workers hit an all time low of $15.5 million in 2013. Studio musicians in LA desperate for change are looking to their union leaders and expressing their frustrations - and they aren't the only ones frustrated.
The Nashville Songwriters Association International say that the number of full-time songwriters in Nashville has fallen by a staggering 80 percent since 2000. The unrelenting decline in album sales hit a new low this summer when they went below 4 million in August - a first for the industry since it started tracking data in 1991. Streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, etc. have been a breath of life into a bleeding industry, but even as popularity rises, their sustainability has proved fleeting and their payouts certainly don't sustain careers.
It is clear to all parties that a tipping point has been reached. John Acosta, incoming president of AFM Local 47, responsible for a large portion of TV and film recording, agrees it's time for change. “The biggest challenge for us is to reconcile the interests of those who are working and are invested in the system, and the other players who just want to work and in some ways see the union as an impediment to being able to do that work.”
The report mentioned the possibility of a buyout, where producers would pay musicians a premium in addition to their standard pay in lieu of residuals (approximately 1% of gross receipts in secondary markets like home video or pay per view TV). While this model has the potential to spur more work in the short term, especially for producers who would then commit to a premium vs. unknown residuals, musicians who have become accustomed to that portion of their income are wary.
Local 47 attempted to test the buyout theory in November when they scheduled a 75 piece orchasta to record the soundtrack for "The Age of Adaline" at a 25% increase in upfront wages, but the recording was canned by AFM president Ray Hair before it began once he learned Lionsgate, one of the unions prime offenders - would be responsible for distributing the film.
Acosta remains committed to finding more stable ground on which to rebuild the ecosystem for musicians in Los Angeles. "We've got to try anything and everything to stem the tide", he said. Acosta went on to say changes in policy needed to represent an equal give and take, “If we are making changes to our agreements, or giving concessions, what are we getting in return? If we could bring work to Los Angeles under the right conditions, I think musicians would be open to something like a buyout. But any discussion about that is very sensitive and has to be approached in a way that the numbers work out.”
Hair and representatives from Local 47 and RMA will meet again with AMPTP executives in hopes of constructing a mutually beneficial agreement with the AFM. Hair's only comment regarding the negotiations was “We are determined to improve employment opportunities and the economics of the agreement.”