Why Union Scale is Killing Our Work

By Roger E. Bissell

Unemployment is the inevitable result of forcing wage rates above their free-market level.” Nathaniel Branden, “Common Fallacies about Capitalism: The Role of Labor Unions” (1963) reprinted in Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal (1967). 

[2005 note to the reader: in the intervening 20+ years since I wrote the following open letter, I have changed my career focus and have been doing much less recording work than in the 1970s and early 1980s. As a result, I have been out of daily contact with the people and circumstances that informed the views and proposals below. I would very much appreciate hearing from recording musicians in the Los Angeles and Nashville area, and to learn whether conditions are any better now than they were in 1984…REB] 

An Open Letter to Nashville Recording Musicians

September 6, 1984 

            After thirteen years of observing and taking part in our profession and the workings of our union, I’ve arrived at some conclusions I’d like to share with you. The most basic one is that, at this point in time, we desperately need some new ideas and a fresh approach to the problems of recording musicians. 

            The most serious problem currently facing those of us who do jingles and phonograph records is our “scale.” It’s killing our work! (By which I mean: on-card session work.) 

            Off-card, or “scab,” session work is flourishing. In fact, it’s practically an avalanche away from “legit” sessions to “scab” sessions.” For instance, Jay Berliner’s figures show that74%--that’s right, seventy-four percent—of all jingle work in America is now “scab,” or off-card. 

            I don’t know what percent of three-hour, master sessions are being done off-card, but I do know some rough dollar figures. Our current scale of $180+ breaks down to over $60 per hour. By comparison, a typical “scab” session is booked, I am told, for about $40 per hour—or $120 for three hours. (It’s done for even less for some producers and in other cities.) 

            What does that tell you? That free-market session wages are at least 33% lower than scale—in other words, that scale is 50% or more above what we could get on a supply-and-demand basis

            Is it any wonder why our work is disappearing off-card??!! 

            If that’s not bad enough, here are two more points of comparison: 

·        On a “legit” session, you typically wait for your money not just three weeks, but two months or longer. On a “scab” session, however, you typically get your money at the end of the session! 

·        And when was the last time you ever heard of someone getting “stiffed” for their money when they did a “scab” session? On the other hand, “legit” producers or companies all too frequently “stiff” us, because they don’t usually have to put up the money in advance (or have it there at the session). If they’re not stiffing use completely, a number of them are still stuffing their own pockets with the interest money they earn/save by delaying their payment to us. 

The union is supposed to be there to protect us, the working musicians. But who’s really being protected? The signatory record companies! Being signatory is a “seal of approval” from the union. “Trust these companies, they’ll treat you right.” 

That’s a laugh. It’s the “scab” companies that treat musicians more fairly. And why? Because they have to. How long would an off-card producer survive if he held up payment or stiffed the musicians even once? He doesn’t have a slow-moving (or non-moving) bureaucracy to act as a protective shield between him and the musicians. He doesn’t have a lenient payment system that relieves him of the pressure to pay us in a timely manner. 

Our payment system is too lenient in the following two ways: 

·        There is no requirement with teeth in it that forces contractors or leaders to turn contracts in to the union (rather than sitting on them until the company gives them a green light, if ever). 

·        There is (apparently) no procedure or system for our office to follow-up automatically on past-due contracts that are filed. 

This lenient payment system is a standing invitation for signatory companies to act like dead-beats and hold onto our money for as long as possible. Is it any wonder that more and more of them seem to be doing it??!! Signatory companies have a great incentive to “play it straight” by “going union.” But where’s our incentive to do so? Is it any wonder that more and more of our colleagues are spending more and more studio time off-card??!! 

One more, related problem: our business agents are supposed to be “out there, looking after our interests.” Yet, for the most part, what do they do? Are they out collecting past-due session money for recording musicians? No. Instead, they’re out looking for “naughty” A.F. of M. members who are working “scab.” Instead of giving us a good reason for staying on-card, where the work is shrinking and payment is uncertain at best, they want to punish us for going off-card, where the work is growing and the payment is prompt and reliable. 

Their approach is “all stick, no carrot.” And it has several bad effects: 

·        It puts our livelihoods more and more in the hands of signatory companies, who pose more of a threat to our livelihoods (i.e., getting paid for what we do) than do “scab” companies. 

·        It re-enforces the belief/perception that a business agent’s most important job is to police our behavior, rather than to help us collect money which is owned to us by signatory companies. 

·        It chases session work out of town. (A large amount of gospel recording session work is now done in places like London, England and Pinebrook, Indiana, at rates around $25-30 per hour, due to our local’s recent efforts to enforce the excessively high recording scale.) 

·        It impoverishes those musicians who were doing the session work (admittedly “scab”) that left town. (And yes, I do feel sorry for these people, even if they’re breaking their commitment to be “union,” for two reasons: (1) They’re not hurting those of us who “play it straight,” because that’s not work we would be doing anyway, not at the current scale level at least; they’re only hurting the people in London and Pinebrook, who would undercut us even further by working even cheaper; and (2) Good faith ought to go both ways, and the union certainly broke faith first, by refusing to budge on the excessively high scale and the dangerously lax payment system, both of which threaten people’s ability to earn/secure a living for themselves and their families.) 

Before I get to the solutions I’m proposing, I’ll mention, just for good measure, two other, related problems (but without a lot of detail): 

·        String and horn players (and some percussionists) are being hurt because we don’t have a special half-session rate for “over-dub” sessions (of 1-1/2 hours/2 songs or less) to complement the special half-session rate for cutting the tracks. 

·        We’re all being hurt because we don’t have a special rate for recording of published religious musical plays and of “custom” albums (whether country, gospel, jazz, or whatever)(you know the kind sold strictly at concerts and out of the back of the station wagon, so to speak). 

Note that, in both cases, the union requires that full master scale be charged, which is simply too much for most budgets. This results in widespread scabbing and/or misreporting (e.g., reporting master sessions as demos). 

            OK, then, here are the problems, one more time, in summary form: 

1.      Master scale and jingle scale (including re-use and multiple-use provisions) are too high, driving work off-card.

2.      Our payment/collection system is too lax, causing too much on-card work to be paid late or not at all.

3.      Business agents have the wrong priorities, spending too much time enforcing the scale on those who do off-card work, and not enough time enforcing the scale for those who do on-card work.

4.      The lack of a special half-session rate for overdubs drives work off-card.

5.      The lack of a special session rate for published musicals and “custom” albums drives work off-card. 

Now the question is: what should we do about these problems? What can we do? Other than “business-as-usual,” with the widespread cheating and hypocrisy that goes with it—which, I think, will eventually destroy on-card session work and the union’s ability to help protect us in legitimate ways—I can see only two basic alternatives: 

·        We can step up policing efforts. We can try to chase all the “scab” work out of town. And we can increase the prosecution and persecution of fellow musicians who choose to do this work. (We could even have a “Scab-Stoppers” program, where you get a reward by phoning in a report on fellow musicians who are working off-card.) 

·        Or, we can try to alter the amount and manner in which we’re paid, in order to coax as much “scab” work as possible back on the card, keeping it here in town and “legit.” In other words, lower the scale in various ways and step up collection efforts, in order to convince our members that their livelihoods are not in jeopardy if they “play it straight.” 

I don’t think I have to say much about the first alternative. Various of our union officials and top-ranking session-playing colleagues like this approach, but it will destroy what’s left of the union’s legitimate power and influence even faster than “business-as-usual.” I hope the officers and board members we elect this fall will see the light and, once and for all, reject this alternative. 

All right, here are the specific changes I would propose, so that we can put the second alternative into effect: 

1.    Negotiate a 33% discount for all master session and all national or regional jingle session wages that are paid at the session in case, or that are pre-paid into the union’s “escrow” account in advance of the session. (What about unanticipated overtime, doubles, etc.? They could be paid at standard scale when the contract goes to the union, unless the employer has extra cash handy!) This could not be done (or even negotiated) officially for two more years; but unofficially, for the time being, in order to get us through this crisis, why couldn’t we start doing it now? In the meantime, we can change our local scale, or the way it’s paid, for local jingles and demo sessions, in order to start the ball rolling and to demonstrate how the setup works and the benefits there will be for national contract work. Same deal: 33% discount for cash at the session or pre-payment to the union. What do you think??? A variation on this for jingles could be an extended “buy-out,” where we allow jingle companies one or two years’ re-use for a single payment which is larger than jingle scale, but smaller than jingle scale plus re-use currently is—provided it’s paid up-front (which is, by definition, what a “buy-out” is). What do you think???

2.    Reform our payment/collection system by amending the By-Laws, as follows: (a) require all contracts to be filed by leader or contractor no later than two working days after the session, subject to fine for failure to do so; (b) inform all signatory companies and producers that they have only sixteen working days (at most) from the day of the session before late charges begin to accumulate; (c) set up a system, on computer, of reviewing and following-up on past-due contracts, so that they don’t become very past-due contracts, including, if necessary, an office and assistant for the business agent(s) assigned to this job, as well as a clear-cut procedure from telephone contact through personal contact through a collection agency all the way to legal action; and (this is optional) (d) a one-time moratorium on late charges for each past-due contract that is paid during the first sixty days (or whatever) of this new system. We could do this at our next union meeting, if enough people want to. What do you think???

3.    Insist—perhaps by way of a signed petition—that our business agents be directed to stop their police activities and focus on collection work. What do you think???

4.    and  5.  Negotiate a special half-session rate for over-dubs and a special session rate for published musicals and “custom” albums. What do you think??? 

These changes, I am convinced, would largely solve our “scab” situation, without punishing those who want to work. They would shrink the number of past-due sessions and would increase the “legitimate” work opportunities for recording musicians. This would result in better income for us—and more work dues revenue for the union. 

If you’re still not convinced, just ask yourself: do you have so much income that you couldn’t use some more? Does the union have so much money that it wouldn’t like some more work dues revenue? (Notice I said “like,” not “need.”)

Yes, there are some serious objections that can be made to these proposals. The most serious one is that proposals 1, 4, and 5 represent a form of “scale-cutting.” I admit that proposal 5 is that kind of “special deal,” but it’s for two types of recording that should be in a separate category from “commercial” phonograph records. Proposal 4 merely brings special over-dub sessions into line with special basic-track sessions. Proposal 1 is the real “fur-ball” of the bunch.

Proposal 1 is a partial step toward scale-cutting—but, please notice, without the stigma of “giving back” or “retreating from the gains we’ve made in the past.” In addition to the incentive it provides to put more sessions on the card, it also offers an incentive for prompt payment that mere scale-cutting wouldn’t offer.

In other words, discounting recognizes the free-market principle of offering an incentive to prompt payment—while keeping us solidly in the camp of “negotiated union scale” and “collective bargaining.” These are true benefits to working musicians, but only so long as the scale and the bargaining are realistic. And discounting would help keep them realistic.

There’s one basic objection I frequently hear union officials and session players make, and no doubt some of them will make it to this proposal: “You could cut the scale back to $100 and there would be companies who would offer $65 and musicians who would “scab” for that amount. You could cut the scale back to $25, and some would still work for $15.

Excuse me, but that’s just plain goofy. Economics and common sense both tell us that there is a point of “diminishing returns” when it comes to working under scale. There is a “market price” for three-hour sessions (about $120), and people are working and making a living at that level—so long as the union doesn’t drive their work off, that is. That’s why so many people are doing it, because it is a living wage, not because they want to be “naughty” or “break the rules” just for the sake of doing it. But how many people could or would work at $65 (or $15) for a three-hour session? Perhaps a tiny handful—but not in the epidemic proportions we have now. I could live with that—couldn’t you???

What we need to do, in short, is to recognize reality and act accordingly. We need to encourage industry to hire union people legitimately at a realistic wage level—and stop reciting the memorized nonsense that “self-respecting union musicians never go backward.” (I’m reminded of the song lyric, “We’re knee-deep in the muddy Mississippi, and the damned fool says to push on.”)

If we don’t folks, the union is going down the tubes. The growing tidal wave of “scab” work will capsize the recording agreements. As long as the scale and payment system are not inline with reality and with the needs of working recording musicians, the amount of “scab” session work will grow. Neither policing nor “business-as-usual” will stop it.

Really, there is no alternative to something like the above proposals. Agree or disagree, I’d like to hear from you. Let’s work together to solve these problems while there’s still time. And thanks for your patience and thoughtfulness in reading this long letter!


Roger Bissell, board member

Recording Musicians of America—Nashville chapter

P.S.—This letter was not printed and mailed with R.M.A. funds and does not necessarily represent the views of the other board members. These are not all my own ideas, but rather than expose anyone else to the flak this letter will cause—especially if they’re not in total agreement—I’m taking responsibility for the form they’re presented in this letter. Anyone who wants to take credit for a specific proposal is welcome to do so! I just want to open the door, so we can start talking about all these things.