Don’t get me wrong, I’m a union guy through and through. When I see public sector unions doing battle with the government, I don’t bitch about how good civil servants already have it compared to the rest of us, I bitch that the rest of us should have it as good as the unionized workers do. Besides, those relatively sweet pension plans and decent salaries they’ve won for themselves represents money going directly back into the local economy, which benefits everybody.
But then there’s the American Federation of Musicians. Why don’t the Scott Walkers of this world ever go after these cretins? I’ve been forced to sign up with the AFM on no fewer than four occasions, never because I wanted to, and never because there was anything they could do to forward my career or make my musician’s life a little easier. Nope, it was always because I was forced to in order to do some gig. It was a racket.
The last time I renewed my membership with them was admittedly a long time ago, in 1990, but I’d be surprised to learn much has changed. By that time I’d been in the union three times, always forfeiting my membership for falling behind on my dues. Back then it cost roughly $300 to sign up with local 406 in Montreal and if you’d fallen behind on your dues for awhile and found yourself needing to be unionized in order to do some TV or public radio show, it wasn’t a matter of catching up on your payments to be reinstated, nope, you had to give them another $300 to start all over again.
That time I had to rejoin local 406 so I could legally go into the CBC’s Montreal studios to record a live set of my band, 39 Steps, for a radio show called Brave New Waves, except I still had about $70 in unpaid dues. On top of the $300 to reinstate me, they insisted on the $70 as well.
I recall we were earning somewhere around $250 a man for the gig, a decent figure the union had negotiated for its members. Of course, you don’t have to be Warren Buffet to see it was actually going to cost us roughly $120 each just to do the show, which represented fairly decent national exposure for a band of our level. We were a so-called indie rock band at that point, none of us were trust fund kids and as often as not were collecting welfare just to get by. So coming up with $370 just to do a radio gig we’d get $250 for 90 days after the fact wasn’t a very appealing offer. When we cried to the AFM to at least let us do the gig and we’d pay them once the cheques came in, they flat out refused. All these guys cared about was money, their money.
I only remember one musician in all my years of “rockin’” who had anything good to say about the union, and with all due respect, he was a nice guy but dumb as a box of rocks, almost comically stupid, particularly when it came to fiscal matters. He argued there were benefits to AFM membership that couldn’t be had anywhere else. One of them was that the union had a deal with some insurance company who were prepared to cover musical instruments, something most home insurance policies didn’t offer at the time. It wasn’t a great deal by any means, the premiums were ridiculously high, but again, this guy wasn’t so great with the numbers so it seemed like a fair deal to him.
Of course when our van got broken into on some tour and he found himself minus a couple of guitars, his super—duper AFM-backed insurance company gave him considerable grief that he dare make an actual claim. It didn’t matter anyway because in the end, through some kind of an insurance miracle, we were able to claim the losses through our automobile insurance policy. Go figure.
Not surprisingly, I hadn’t given the AFM much thought until last week when I was contacted by a Helsinki-based record label that had somehow managed to acquire tapes of the CBC session 39 Steps had done back in 1990. They intend on releasing a couple of the tracks on a compilation record they’re doing. Better, as per the arrangement the AFM has with the CBC, they’re obligated to pay each member of the band a whoppin’ $100 for the rights to release the material. ‘”Wonderful”, I told them, “send my $100 to…’
Ah, but sending that sawbuck directly to me would be too easy, nope, not with the AFM involved. Instead, I was informed, they’re obliged to send the money directly to the AFM, and we can collect our cheques from them sometime god knows how long in the future. And if one of my former band members is dead or can’t be located, their $100 will be staying with the union, not distributed among the surviving band members. The label guy then informed me that this was actually the good news, the bad being that the union would be keeping $50-$75 out of each $100 for administration charges or some such nonsense. There’s nothing my band, the label, the CBC or anyone can do about it. The AFM still exists, still has their rackets going and that’s all there is to it. Workers of the world unite, indeed.
39 Steps – Chris Barry Al Rights Reserved
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Chris Barry is a freelance writer and musician based in Montreal, Canada.
Website / Blog: Loose Lips