Variances, Exceptions, And Special Considerations! Oh My!

Imagine for a moment that you’re passionate about Haggis, so much so that you went to school to study everything you could learn about Haggis and earned a degree in Culinary Arts with the goal of launching your very own startup food truck that does nothing but produce Haggis dishes, let’s call it Pluck You*.

Adaptistration People 023Since you’re in startup mode, Pluck You does generate revenue but not enough to live on so you hold down a job as a saucier at a local Steak House, Symphonic Steak, where you do a fantastic job.

As it turns out, you have a few chef colleagues who share your passion for Haggis and they want to help out at Pluck You provided you’re willing to work on some of their culinary projects from time to time but here’s the rub, your local government keeps a close eye on food truck and restaurant activity to make sure workers aren’t being taken advantage of by paying less than minimum wages.

Although you’re very happy about this enforcement in your saucier gig, after all Symphonic Steak has been around for a long time and does gangbuster business, you feel that it is an unreasonable standard to apply to something like Pluck You so you petition the local government to create an exception clause to the minimum wage for emerging culinary businesses that specialize in Haggis. In exchange for the special consideration, you and any other emerging Haggis culinary artists must agree to begin paying decent wages, pensions, and benefits once your business begins to grow financially and otherwise.

Does this make sense to you?

It sure doesn’t make any sense to me and if I managed Symphony Steak I would be hopping mad if the local government paid the proposal any attention.

Nonetheless, this scenario is what composer Aaron Gervais suggested the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) should adopt in order to facilitate the production of new music events.

The 10/21/2015 edition of NewMusicBox published an article by Gervais where the author laments the current degree of representation and service for new music composers and performers within the AFM, the largest union that represents the interests of professional musicians.

In a nutshell, Gervais is displeased with existing AFM minimum wage scales for single engagement performances and ensembles. He asserts that these scales stifle new music performances because many aren’t capable of generating enough revenue to pay those fees and by joining the AFM, these musicians ultimately limit their new music performing opportunities.

Gervais’ article eventually suggests that the AFM should create a tier of wage scales lower than existing levels with qualifying factors determined by the type of music performed (especially new music) and how long the group/contractor has been operating. He describes it as a “graduated path toward full union compliance” but what that simply means is lower wage scales for certain types of music and for musician collective ensembles.

[T]he AFM [should] create genre-specific, graduated paths toward full union compliance. At some point, all musical employers of a certain size should be providing decent wages, pensions, and benefits; it’s just not always feasible for a new organization on a shoestring budget. So instead of forcing emerging musical employers to work outside the union fold until they can afford full participation, start looking at what musical organizations of a similar scope are doing, then develop best practices and a roadmap for growth. As long as the employer stays within the bounds of what’s acceptable given its mandate and stage of development, it would get the stamp of compliance from the union.

What Gervais suggested is a permanent, codified version of what the AFM already offers in the form of granting isolated, engagement based waivers; in fact, he references the existing AFM waiver process in his post but regardless of how you spin it, Gervais’ proposal amounts to a special graduated wage tier for performances organized almost exclusively by union member musicians. In short, it a system that would allow union musicians to do their own gigs for less than what a formal organization would be required to pay those same musicians performing the same music.

On one hand, Gervais advocates for the protections and living wage benefits purported by the AFM but on the other, he doesn’t want musicians performing new music to be held accountable to those same ideals.

To be clear, this article isn’t about beating up on Aaron Gervais, the issue he’s examining is very real and causes a great deal of frustration, not just among the new music community but all micro-defined segments within the field that have a difficult time generating both earned and unearned revenue on par with traditional genres.

But solutions that focus on creating a host of protectionist minded special considerations with a myriad array of qualifying factors would only replace one set of problems with an even larger set of problems (and really, does the AFM need even more layers of bureaucracy?).

A better option would be focusing on finding ways to help musicians who are passionate about new music be better entrepreneurs. To that end, there is plenty the AFM can do to assist in those efforts along with implementing badly needed updates to streamline the existing processes for submitting forms and related dues/pension/etc. payments.

Ultimately, this will help increase the number of successful musicians and local performing arts groups along with generating higher member/work dues revenues to the union.

* The primary ingredient in Haggis is sheep’s pluck, which is comprised of the heart, liver, and lungs.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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4 thoughts on “Variances, Exceptions, And Special Considerations! Oh My!”

  1. I understand the need to promote “new music” because it involves alive composers trying to make a living (basically), so we try to get people to like new music because it’s new, and not necessarily because it’s good. Then people lament that a high percentage of these works never get heard again – but they’d be right to say that a small percentage of works written in the past 50 years (and since the beginning of time) are good enough in quality to be played again.
    Maybe a point of departure is music that at the time of composition created new sounds. Rite of Spring is such a work – any work where a seasoned listener would be challenged to determine how those sounds were achieved. That new sound concept could be extended back to Berlioz, Beethoven, Bach, etc. – so if it can go all the way back, it should go all the way forward too. There are some composers now making completely new sounds, or as Stravinsky said, making music for tomorrow – and perhaps some just trying to make a living – but, there’s something of a pop industry paradigm that the latest must be the greatest, and endurance or quality isn’t as much a consideration. In the music-making process we’re insisting on quality in the performance/execution, quality of the instruments, quality of the hall (some people want something that looks more beautiful than it sounds, that’s another issue) – but quality of the work itself isn’t a priority.

    • There are certainly no shortages of discussion topics when it comes to new music; I’m not certain if the direction you’re going is what Gervais had in mind, to that end, I could only speculate. But it did seem like he was restricting his talking points to the union connection.

      To that end, I noticed a good comment to his post from a reader that challenged the notion that there’s anything there the union should be responsible for anyway from a service provider standpoint. It’s certainly a thought provoking perspective.

  2. I know that the unionization of non-profits smaller than hospitals and universities is supposedly rare, but do we know how rare? If it is true, why would it seem that music/performing arts organizations are especially prone to becoming unionized versus other “smaller” non-public-sector entities?

    The equity ratio (net assets / total assets) under which many performing arts organizations operate is a bit amazing already. The added pressure of increasing employee wage and benefit liabilities for years in advance with a (typical?) CBA must make for many uneasy nights for those in management positions. Does there exist any consideration during a contract negotiation between a union group and employer the percentage that wages/benefits take of overall budget (or at least current liabilities)? I realize that the AFM represents musicians for many for-profit employers, but it is difficult to make false statements regarding budget for those non-profit. Perhaps it would be wrong-minded to think in terms of a percentage cap if one doesn’t already exist?

    I’m curious as to how closely unionized performing arts orgs relate to other unionized non-profits, especially when it relates to labor costs. Orchestras are not the only orgs with a labor intensive charity product. What do you think?

    • Some interesting thoughts there Zach but per your questions:

      1) yes, nonprofit employers exaggerate financials in order to manipulate negotiations; I wouldn’t say it is the norm but it is far from an exception to the rule.

      2) yes, many nonprofit employers look at the percentage of overall budget allocated to musician salary and use that as a benchmark. However, I’d say that using this for peer comparison is more common among musician employees.

      Using comparisons outside of the field for setting wages is mostly impractical due to a host of variables that simply aren’t comparable but otherwise impact the weight of those ratios (think non-labor costs of doing business). As such, if you’re thinking about comparing the percentage United Airlines pays pilots and using that as a basis for determining ratios orchestras should spend on musicians, I would suggest against that.

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