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*.
Since 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.