music and entertainment law Mclane and Wong - Entertainment Law

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by Ben McLane, Esq.

If a person is planning to pursue a successful career as a professional musician (either as a player or vocalist), he or she will eventually have to join the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) which is the musicians' union. There are other music-related unions such as the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) which represents singers and radio/television talent, and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) which represents actors; however, the AFM will be the focus of this article.

The AFM is a labor union whose membership is comprised of musicians. The AFM regulates wages and working conditions as well as providing a level of job security to its members. The essential reason the AFM formed was because musicians bargaining as a group would have greater negotiating strength than individual musicians. The AFM is a national union with local charters which have their own specific territories (e.g., AFM Local 47 in Los Angeles). Each local union sets minimum wage scales at clubs and theaters in its own jurisdiction. As an AFM member, a musician is free to negotiate wages above union scale, the musician simply cannot work for less than scale.

All of the major record companies have signed an agreement with the AFM whereby as an employer they promise to hire only union members and to provide at least the minimum pay and working conditions set forth in the agreement. Any music employer signing such an agreement is called a "signatory company". As a member of the AFM, a musician authorizes all employers to deduct "work dues", which are a small percentage of the scale wages, from their pay and to have the dues sent to the local union.

As a member of the AFM, one must pay an initiation fee to the AFM, as well as quarterly dues. However, the benefits are comprehensive. As well as better pay and working conditions, benefits include, but are not limited to: a pension, job referrals, insurance, legal counsel, discounts, collection of unpaid fees, consultation, industry contact information, workshops, etc.

One drawback to being an AFM member is that a person may not work for employers that are not signatory companies. Doing so may result in fines or expulsion from the union. An obvious problem is that many small clubs/coffeehouses and small record companies cannot afford to pay the union minimums. For a musician just starting out his or her career, these smaller outlets are the only supportive showcases for their talents.

The important question to answer is when, or if, to join the AFM? The best guideline would be for a musician to join the union when he or she has decided to become a full-time professional musician and when there is some reasonable basis to assume that one can survive as a musician.

Copyright 1998, Ben McLane
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