The Corporate and Entrepreneurial Generations of Arts Trade Union Activists
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter looks at how a new generation of Nashville arts trade unionists is reinventing arts trade unionism for the contemporary generation of enterprising artists. With the advent of recorded music, corporate major labels, and mass distribution through radio airplay by the early 1950s, the chapter shows how Nashville AFM Local 257 had been transformed into a union representing both live and recording musicians and artists by a generation of arts trade union leaders who act as “corporate-era arts union activists.” Throughout the corporate era, Local 257 has developed and enforced master contracts with corporate signatories that apply especially to the major-label recording industry. The new generation of arts trade union leaders—the “entrepreneurial-era union activists”—are endeavoring to revitalize arts trade unionism as the Nashville music scene transitions from the corporate era of major labels into an era of indie entrepreneurial music production and distribution.
Artist advocates are creating an arts trade unionism that is attuned to the interests and aspirations of the contemporary generation of enterprising artists in Nashville. The hotly contested election for the presidency of Nashville Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) in 2008 reflected the rise of a new arts trade unionism. The cover-story characterization in the Nashville Scene of the Local 257 presidential election heralded a new approach to arts trade unionism. “To onlookers on the coasts, Local 257 had become a battleground far larger than Nashville’s city limits, in a sort of proxy grudge match for control.”1 In this “election of historic proportions,” as the Local 257 newsletter put it, insurgent Dave Pomeroy defeated eighteen-year incumbent and Music Row icon Harold Bradley for the Local 257 presidency in “what was widely viewed as an upset” in an election with “the most vigorous turnout in years.”2
Eighteen months after the Local 257 election, Pomeroy, who hailed from the ranks of recording musicians, joined a rising, national “Unity Slate” of insurgent candidates who went on to win the top international AFM offices at the 98th AFM convention in Las Vegas in June 2010.3 Bradley, who also lost his bid for re-election as international vice president, was honored by the conferral of “emeritus” status by the convention, and Pomeroy gained a seat on the international AFM executive board.4 Commenting on the implications of AFM leadership change for the revitalization of the union, Pomeroy stated in the Local 257 newsletter that “the future of the music business is people owning their own stuff. We are reinventing ourselves so we can be the organization that young musicians look to for advice and ways to help them protect themselves.”5
AFM leadership change also signaled an agenda to revitalize the sagging membership base of the union. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) attributed the dramatic decrease in national AFM membership, which declined from 255,000 to 7,000 between 1955 and 2013, primarily to digitalization and technological displacement of musicians, as well as the focus of the union on achieving collective bargaining gains for the remaining recording musicians.6 Local 257 had lost about 1,000 members during the decade of the 2000s.7
(p.122) AFM vice president and Local 257 president Harold Bradley had encountered political opposition to his efforts to reform federal labor law on behalf of freelance performing musicians. He had chaired the international AFM Freelance Committee, whose August 2000 report made multiple recommendations, ranging between outreach among young musicians and the amendment of national labor relations law that would have allowed union “pre-hire” arrangements with live-venue employers.8 These amendments—the Live Performing Arts Labor Relations Amendments—were introduced in Congress several times between 1989 and 2001 but never made it to the president’s desk for his signature.9
In this chapter, I examine how a new generation of Nashville arts trade unionists are reinventing arts trade unionism for the contemporary generation of enterprising artists. Arts trade unionism is at least a century old in the United States.10 Nashville AFM Local 257, for example, was founded in 1902 in the era of live music. With the advent of recorded music, corporate major labels, and mass distribution through radio airplay by the early 1950s, Local 257 had been transformed into a union representing both live and recording musicians and artists by a generation of arts trade union leaders who I refer to as “corporate-era arts union activists.”11 Throughout the corporate era, Local 257 has developed and enforced master contracts with corporate signatories that apply especially to the major-label recording industry. The new generation of arts trade union leaders—who I refer to as “entrepreneurial-era union activists,” are endeavoring to revitalize arts trade unionism as the Nashville music scene transitions from the corporate era of major labels into an era of indie entrepreneurial music production and distribution.
The advent of new entrepreneurial-era arts union activism is embedded in the generational shift of enterprising artists in Nashville. In terms of generations of enterprising artists, entrepreneurial-era arts union activists hail from the ranks of the transformative generation of enterprising artists. As discussed in chapter 3, the transformative generation broke from the corporate era of major-label production and distribution during the 1980s and 1990s by forging the emerging indie community of enterprising artists in Nashville. The transformative generation is presently mentoring the contemporary generation of enterprising artists. As discussed in chapter 4, the contemporary generation of enterprising artists is the socially and artistically diverse generation of non-union, early-career artists in Nashville. They are occupational generalists who are honing their broad portfolios of artistic and art-support skills in order to self-produce on indie labels and self-promote their own work in live venues and over the Internet in niche markets.
Labor union leaders are often faced with the dual challenge of recruiting new members—“organizing the unorganized,” and of maintaining internal “labor solidarity” among diverse union members. Previous scholarly research on U.S. labor union revitalization has addressed institutional factors—political-legal, organizational, technological, macroeconomic, and social factors—in accounting for organized labor’s demise and revitalization. Less attention has (p.123) been given to the development of individual artist activists and activists who envision and emerge as leaders to realize a new trade unionism that resonates with the new generation of artists of the new art world.12
In terms of the theory of artist activism, arts union activists are what I call “artist advocates,” the third type of artist activist theorized in chapter 2. Their strategic orientation toward community-building is the most “collective” of the three artist activists—more collective than that of the artistic social entrepreneur and that of the “individualistic” enterprising artist. Artist advocates are the most “collective” type of artist activist in that they are uniquely focused strategically on sustaining the artistic freedom, career success, and livelihood of the whole occupational peer community, beyond that of individual occupational peers.
Furthermore, unlike enterprising artists and artistic social entrepreneurs, who act with personal and interpersonal risk orientations, artist advocates act with an impersonal risk orientation.13 They envision union-organizational initiatives that are intended to align with the new economic interests of the contemporary generation of enterprising artists who “own their own stuff.” These new economic interests in intellectual property are brought about by such impersonal risk factors as the rise of occupational generalism in the form of “hyphenated” occupational roles (e.g., singer-songwriter),14 structuring of competitive niche consumer markets, geographical decentralization of self- and home-production of music, and the advent of digital distribution and self-promotion.
I examine and compare in this chapter the strategic and risk orientations, career inspirations and pathways of corporate-era and entrepreneurial-era arts union activists.15 Specifically, I profile four Nashville artist advocates who are distinguished by the sources of their original career inspiration—whether movement- or family-inspired—and by the era in which they became trade union activists.16
In each era of Nashville music production, the profiled arts union activists envisioned, organized, and practiced an arts trade unionism that advanced the interests of professional musicians. Movement- and family-inspired activists were moved by a personal morality—whether it was pragmatic idealism or a religious or political morality—to actively empower, protect, and pursue the artistic and economic interests of their fellow musicians. In addition, arts union activists envision and enact a unique trade unionism that conforms to the socio-spatial logic of that era of music production, and is linked to the type of career pathway the musician has taken in becoming an arts union activist (see table 2).
In socio-spatial terms, the corporate and entrepreneurial eras differ in their organizational ecology, employment relationships, and degree of occupational specialization. In the corporate era, music is produced and mass-distributed by a spatially centralized, small number of corporate major labels, recording studios, publishing companies, arts unions, and performance rights organizations. In contrast, the emerging entrepreneurial era is one of a spatially decentralized (p.124)
Table 2. Arts Union Activism by Type of Career Pathway and Art-World Era
Extend union contract coverage to non-union sectors of music-recording industry
Promote individual union-contracting, professional development, and musician self-promotion in all music-production sites—studio, live venue, home
Promote social inclusion of occupational and demographic subgroups of musician labor force in the union
Help corporate-era musician specialists to reinvent them-selves as generalist, enterprising artists
array of a large number of small, loosely coupled, non-union, independent, often home-based music producers distributing music via the Internet to niche markets. Musicians in the corporate era are employees who are hired on a project basis to record others’ work, whereas the self-employed musicians of the entrepreneurial era often are self-contained bands and other enterprising artists who self-record and self-promote their music in live venues and over the Internet. Occupationally, the musician of the corporate era is a specialist with a narrow range of income streams, whereas the enterprising artist of the entrepreneurial era is a generalist with multiple income streams from a range of music-related economic activities.17
Movement-inspired and family-inspired union activists enact their roles differently in each era. In both eras, movement-inspired activists extend union-contract coverage to non-union sectors of musicians (table 2, top row). In the corporate era, union-contract coverage was extended to the major labels who became signatories to a union music-recording agreement. In the entrepreneurial era, movement-inspired activists help enterprising artists to network and to attain individual union contracts with employers in live venues and home production sites. For example, Local 257 posts networking resources on its website and has developed union contract templates for live performances and for solo overdubbing by home-recording musicians.18
In both eras, family-inspired activists promote “labor solidarity” and social inclusion within the union occupational peer community (table 2, bottom row). The corporate era coincided with industry growth, occupational specialization, national arts union mergers, and the civil rights and women’s movements. During this era, family-inspired activists endeavored to ensure representation and participation of occupational and demographic subgroups of musicians in the political and communal life of the increasingly diverse and complex arts union. In the emerging entrepreneurial era of declining union membership, the chief challenge facing union activists is union revitalization among different age cohorts of musicians. The challenge is not only to attract younger cohorts of enterprising artists who are skeptical of arts unionism, but also to help older cohorts of corporate-era musicians to participate in the (p.125) union occupational peer community as self-reinvented enterprising artists of the entrepreneurial era.
Corporate-Era Arts Union Activists
Rick and Vicki served as arts union activists during the corporate era of growth and consolidation of the major labels in Nashville. Both are white and college-educated and identified strongly with their peer community of professional musicians. Rick took a movement-inspired career pathway that led him to envision and practice an arts trade unionism that promoted both the Nashville Sound and the individual expression of his fellow professional musicians. Vicki took a family-inspired career pathway toward an arts union activism that envisioned and promoted an inclusive and cohesive community of her fellow professional musicians.
Rick arrived in Nashville from Southern City as Owen and Harold Bradley were launching the Nashville Sound on Music Row in the 1950s. His arrival also coincided with the transition in the union role from performing-musician advocate toward advocate for recording-industry session musicians. Rick’s career as an award-winning, Nashville session musician, performing and recording artist, and producer took off with the continuous growth of the Nashville recording industry through the 1970s. The lifelong union member became active in the union some twenty-five years into his career along with the consolidation and digitalization of the Nashville recording industry, and the advent of rock ’n’ roll.19
Rick reflected on the rise and decline of the union. He linked the rise of the union to the emergence of a tight occupational community of professional Nashville recording musicians:
I come from the old school, so it’s very important for me to deem myself a professional and to be a member of the union, because that’s the union slogan is that we are the professionals, and it puts you with a better class of players, or talented bunch of players, which means that you’re always able to learn from playing with guys that are even better than you. Also, your career is like a pie, you work for multi[ple] employers … if the phone doesn’t ring you don’t work, as a recording musician. It would be different if you were working as a road musician, but even that you’re not on the road forever, so you work for different employers. It really takes a lot of faith … [i]n your ability.
I asked Rick to distinguish the “new school” from what he referred to as the “old school.” The new school of younger, more individualistic rock musicians, (p.126) he maintained, was disinclined to join the union. Linking the “new school” to the recent decline in national union membership, Rick explained:
I think it [new school] has a different attitude. The union has lost [members] partly because the union ignored the rock ’n’ roll players when they came along. All the old guys sitting in these locals, if there was some work that came in they got it … they didn’t like rock ’n’ roll. So we missed recruiting that whole bunch of guys, and then we came to a point where they really didn’t need us if they were successful. So right now some of the younger players, or even the ones here that are making good money, it’s always what can the union do for me, not realizing that the union has already done it for them, that they’re just the beneficiaries of the previous musicians and record producers, singers and songwriters who have built the business. But they have a “I want more” attitude and it’s a little different, because the older musicians realize that the union, first they made sure we got the right scale, then they put in a pension for us, and so they recognize the union as a good thing.
Vision of an Arts Union
In Rick’s view, artistic professionals differ from other unionized workers. Nashville musicians are mainly self-trained artistic workers who are hired by multiple employers for project work on the basis of their professional reputations, rather than on the basis of an individual credential portfolio of formal training and skill-level achievements. As freelance workers in a reputational labor market, they are dedicated to music, encourage one another’s professional development in an occupational peer community, and are less militant than other unionized workers. Rick explained:
I think emotionally they’re different people, they’re artistic, they’re creative, and I think that might be the difference because if you’re a worker, you’re not that creative, you’re doing whatever they tell you to do. But these artists have to be creative to exist, and … we’re not the kind of people that normally go out and march and strike and do stuff like that. It’s really different, because with everybody having their own recording studios we can’t do a recording strike and the record companies know that…. But really we’re different, we’re artistic, we’re creative, which to me is different from a guy who’s punching the clock.
Rick continued by distinguishing between an arts union and a building trades union, both of which represent workers who do project work in occupational labor markets. The building trades union operates an apprenticeship and training program and a formal skill hierarchy through which individual workers ascend. The arts union, in contrast, does not evaluate the skill level of the individual (p.127) worker. Rather, it is the employer who evaluates the artist’s skill level on the basis of the artist’s professional reputation:
They [building trades] start out with apprentices on up to masters or whatever, and we [musicians] can’t do that. My prime example of that is the person that hires you determines whether you’re an apprentice or a master. For instance, Chet Atkins is a prime example. You call him for a record session, we’ve got him listed here as a master guitar player, which he is. But all of a sudden he goes in and you want heavy metal. He’s not a heavy metal player…. So we can’t label people as apprentices as a cover-all, the people who hire us really label us, and it’s a real big difference because if you’re an apprentice in the electrical union or the carpenter’s union, then I think you’re assigned to do a certain amount of work and when you get all of that you move up to another one, and then you move up, and then finally hopefully make whatever master is or whatever their designations are. But we don’t have those designations.
For Rick, the arts union primarily advocates through collective bargaining with recording companies to improve the terms of employment and promote the job security of its members. Through collective bargaining, the union often attempts to minimize the constant threat of displacement of artistic workers by the continuous changes in music production technology and to raise wages by extending union agreements to non-union sectors of the industry. Rick illustrated the challenge of changing production technology with the case of the VOM—the “virtual orchestra machine”:
It’s the machine that can replace an entire symphony, and also can replace … a pit band, and of course they used that during the last strike of the Rockettes. And of course now they’re trying to get it to say that it’s an instrument, and we’re saying no, it’s not an instrument, it’s a storage device. And so far we’ve won because it’s more like a computer and a guy’s banging on a computer, and we don’t think that’s a musical instrument.
The union’s “unholy war,” as Rick put it, with the non-union Christian music recording industry in the 1990s illustrates the union role in extending union agreements to a formerly non-union sector of the recording industry. According to Rick, the gospel companies were unable to escape from the union by recording in England because of the union’s influence with symphony orchestra musicians and because the requisite musical talent resided in Nashville:
The musicians are here. When we had the unholy war, the problem we had with the gospel companies not being signatory … what won the whole thing, [the union] told the musicians they couldn’t work for anybody … they won the war … it was because of the rhythm players, bass, drum, (p.128) piano and guitar. We seem to have a feel that they can’t get anywhere else. Because one of the first responses from [a gospel music producer] was they’d record in England, which [the union]couldn’t stop him there, but [the union] put out an alert that if [the gospel music producers] wanted to do two or three sessions that they had to make sure the people were signatory.
The union also provides its members with a retirement income through the union pension program. In recent years, Rick acknowledged, the union has run up against employer resistance to extending pension coverage to freelance club musicians who present the club owner with a union contract when negotiating the terms of employment prior to a live gig:
You want to make it simple for them [employers], because if you give him two pieces of paper, give him a contract and then another form for pension, he’s going to say well I’ve got to go see my lawyer…. That was where we were running afoul, we had too many pieces of paper. Because there’s not that much money changing hands on a small job, a club job, or anything like that … we don’t have as many people [members] taking advantage of it as we should, and we keep trying to harp on it, hey, you can control your destiny. And the pension thing is the best thing that [the union has] got going because it’s something that you can collect while you’re alive.
For Rick, success is gaining an excellent reputation as a professional musician and as a member of a peer community of talented professional musicians. Pursuing one’s artistic expression, gaining a reputation, earning recognition from one’s peers, and supporting one’s peers are objectives unto themselves, as well as instrumental for one’s ongoing professional development and for receiving a call for the next job:
If you’re playing really well, up to the best of your ability, then that makes you feel successful. If you’re making enough money to make a good living and provide for your family then very definitely that’s a bonus and you also are successful. Then if you’re able to translate both of those things and help others, other musicians, and not have to go through the real hard times or collect money for them or do things for them, then to me that’s another form of success.
Rick was proud of his international reputation:
That’s really the ultimate and it’s something you can’t control. If you were successful just in the United States that’s something…. I think that for (p.129) your work to be played around the world is very rewarding, to go into another country and hear a record that you played on, or to hear an artist doing a song that you played on and doing that arrangement.
One builds a reputation by playing and learning in one’s peer community. For Rick, the peer community furthered his professional development, expanded his repertoire, and opened up work opportunities:
I played all kinds of different music. I played in [a] Dixieland band, … [a] dance band, … [in a] big orchestra … on the road with [a country artist], I played … country music. So if you’re playing with all these really good players like that, well you have to learn, it has to improve your playing, and it makes you very diverse. It gives you so many more opportunities…. I think it all improves your playing.
Rick grew into his trade union activism on a movement-inspired career path. He was enamored with the popular music of his adolescence and, with the encouragement of his pro-union and musical family, embarked on a musical career. Rick recalled the beginning of his career:
I thought I wanted to be a banjo player because I heard somebody playing it on a radio station in Chicago, and [a family member] came to me when I said I want to play banjo, it’s kind of a happy sound, and he said no, no, banjo is going out, you got to learn to play guitar. So my dad bought one at a junkyard for about $6…. Then when I was 15 my cousin came by and told my mother everybody in the union is working…. I want to take him on his first job and I won’t let him have anything but a Coke and I’ll take care of him. So my dad was a traveling salesman, he was out of town, so mother finally relented and I went over and played at [a bar], and I must have been awful. But we just played and had a good old time, a typical kind of a beer joint.
Rick’s emergence as a trade union activist occurred organically with the growth of the Nashville Sound and the deepening of his membership in a tight peer community of unionized Nashville recording musicians. The consolidation of this peer community occurred prior to the advent of digital, multi-tracking, and solo overdubbing in the 1970s and home studios later, when analog-recording musicians would arrange and record music with the Nashville number charts as a cohesive, virtually autonomous (from the producer), self-determining, improvising musical group. Rick described the pre-digital recording process in which he participated with his fellow session musicians:
(p.130) We’re together right off the bat, we don’t have to say well what are you going to play there? And if a guy [musician] says well I don’t like that, I got something better, then you listen to it and if you like it you take credit for it. We all thought we were arrangers, honestly. We always wanted to be involved in the record and we always wanted to come up with ideas of what to do. And then you filter it to the leader [musician], and in the meantime the record producers in the booth are usually not even hearing this, and the leader thinks that’s a good idea and he’ll say let’s try that. Sometimes the A&R man will never know it happened. But then if the leader doesn’t like it he’ll say well, that sounds good, but we’ll save it for another time…. It is a group process, and we’ve had some guys here who were successful as publishers, and they would come in to do sessions and we’d be playing, and the guy [publisher] would come out and say well, what if you played this, and he would tell us what to play, and we’d never get the hits with him because his usually weren’t as good as what ours were…. [The producer would] give us the format and then he’d sit in there and talk to the engineer a while and after about 10 or 15 minutes say what have you guys got, are you ready? He’d say play it, and if it was a minor change he’d say well I’d rather have the steel play instead of the piano on the intro, and then if it was a major overhaul, … [the producer] … still didn’t dictate notes to us, he depended on … whoever was playing all the lead to come up with the good notes. If he didn’t like that well then he’d tell them I don’t like that and try something else.
Rick’s union activism rests on a cradle-to-grave commitment to his fellow musicians, a commitment that weathers the vicissitudes of consumer taste and industry market conditions and the ups and downs of musician careers. He illustrated his commitment with the example of a lifelong musician friend who ended up retiring as a cab driver: “He was a pop jazz player when I was growing up, and … he was playing the commercial country music … for many years. And then he ended up driving a cab after that went down. So he’s the kind of guy that I’m trying to protect in whatever way we can.” Rick took great pride in the Nashville local union’s death benefit: “[The union has] the best death benefit. If you’re a member twenty consecutive years you qualify for an $8,000 death benefit. It’s self-funded, … and [o]ther locals don’t have that, they have maybe a $1,000, $1,500 in LA and New York…. A lot of them don’t have it, the small locals don’t have it.”
An award-winning performing, touring, and recording artist and musician, Vicki has worked in country, jazz, rock, and other popular music as musician, songwriter, teacher, producer, session musician, jingle writer, and radio show talk host. She first joined the union when she moved from Southern Town to launch her musical career in the Nashville music scene in the early 1960s. A (p.131) lifelong union member, and propelled by the civil rights, women’s, and peace movements of the 1960s, she would become active in arts unions for some two decades beginning in the late 1970s.
Her activism expressed a social ethos that stemmed from deep social relations among a cohesive group of professional musicians who had performed and recorded together for many years. Stymied by a recent, failed attempt to convince a younger colleague of the benefits of trade unionism, she contrasted the social ethos with a contemporary individualism:
The fact that he’s getting hired a lot tells me that he’s good at what he does and he’s professional, so he’s a real good example of the kind of guy we’d like to have in the union, but … I couldn’t give him any real answers that would make him feel better about it. The fact is, there’s so much non-union work now and there’s so much technology, and everything’s all over the map…. When I was coming up, joining the union was like you wanted to be with your buddies, you were all in this together, and you were protected. But now everybody’s got their own things.
Vision of an Arts Union
Vicki’s recollections of her becoming active in the union reveal her vision of an arts union as an inclusive, advocacy organization for her fellow professional musicians. The union itself, she recalled, was a tight occupational community, and her activism, especially participating as a Nashville delegate to the national union convention, allowed her to meet many fellow musicians whom she admired as musicians:
The conventions were about three days long and they were always major things. Like every two years the wages and working conditions things would be up for renewal or not, and there were always resolutions and amendments and stuff, and that’s voted on not only by committees, but by everybody on the floor. First of all, I was hanging out with my friends. Everybody on that board … is a singer and/or a musician … or whatever, and they’re just very interesting people, and a lot of them were my friends…. I would always stick my name in the hopper, because I enjoyed going. You see a new city, and then our counterparts in other cities, especially in New York and California, were other singers and musicians like us, and quite a few of them were people that you’d hear of.
As she became active in an arts union with a multi-occupational membership jurisdiction, she encountered an intra-union rivalry between actors and her fellow singers. Vicki would become an advocate for singers:
One of my friends in New York who’s a famous singer and television performer said if we’re not careful the singers get left behind … the actors (p.132) had a lot of clout because they had these numbers so they could show up at their local elections and just bomb everybody out of the water. So with the blessing of the directorship we formed a singer’s caucus … all of the singers from all of the locals would break off from the group and have a half day thing themselves. People used to say when you walked down the hall you could always tell who was in the rooms because when you walked by the singers we were all laughing and drinking coffee, and singing a tune once in a while, and enjoying each other. When they walked down where the actors were they would be throwing chairs and screaming at each other. Everything was drama.
Vicki’s orientation toward union inclusivity extended to gender inclusivity. An original member of the Nashville chapter of the National Organization for Women, Vicki was recruited into a national union committee position by her powerful union sister:
She was formidable, and she was the head of [a] national … committee and they were taking nominations for additions to the committee…. She came over to my table and said she wanted to put my name in nomination. I said … I don’t know anything about [that]…. She said you’re a clear thinker, and you can learn, and I want more women on my committee. So I did. And that was fun, I learned a lot…. At that point … she felt like they needed some new blood … she had two things that she always worked on, and that was protecting the singers, whenever anything was going on on the floor if it didn’t include the singers in terms of whatever was happening, up she would go to the microphone. The other thing was that she always wanted the women to have a bigger voice in everything.
As an advocacy organization, the arts union endeavored to improve the wages, working conditions, and workplace safety for its members. Vicki described some of the chief issues facing singers and others working, especially for corporate employers:
Say a variety show that had lots of people coming out to play and sing. If they’re using special effects like the smoke machines, that’s very hard on your lungs, it’s some kind of chemical. The other thing is if they are using dancers, like when they’re doing the Oscars or something, if they use smoke machines on certain kinds of floors it makes the surface slick and dancers would fall and injure themselves. So we had issues like that to bring to the table and say write some of these things in the contract, that this dancer is not required to dance on a floor that’s unsafe, that kind of thing. We had a lot of issues, the singers did, about breaks and how long you could keep a chorus, after so many hours you’ve got to let them go to the bathroom and have a break. That stuff all had to be written and (p.133) rewritten all the time because corporate management was always trying to get the last nickel out of everybody.
Vicki looked back with pride on her years as an activist: “The first year I was a … board member I had a whole week of sitting in rooms with people, actors that you would have seen on the screen your whole life … and some of them are wonderful, nice people, and singers that had been on the Bob Hope Show and Perry Como. It was great. And I was so proud to be a part of this group of people.”
If the union is integral to and reflective of a tight artistic community, Vicki’s concept of success is the joy of playing music with her fellow musicians who sustain one another with deep mutual admiration. At the start of her career, she had never expected to be able to earn a living by succeeding in this way: “I think being recognized as a decent musician by your peers and/or people that you look up to or idolize, is real success … getting to play music that I love with musicians that are wonderful, and actually getting paid for it, is pretty much far beyond what I thought I was doing when I started teaching school.”
Although the primary orientation of her music making is toward her peers, Vicki also makes music for music consumers, friends, and family. She acknowledged the importance of “fans,” “because if they don’t like us, we don’t sell any records,” but was not oriented toward making music for music executives. Referring to her peer community, “There’s a kind of an unwritten law that we all say … that the worst audiences you can ever play for are … Music Row or California … music executives, and publishers, because they don’t listen to anything. They’re busy making their deals with each other.”
Vicki took a family-inspired career pathway toward becoming a union activist. The daughter of a tire-dealer and master-mechanic father and a mother who worked as a bookkeeper at the service station, Vicki grew up in a household imbued with a wide range of popular and religious music. Her parents played musical instruments, were more musical than other households in Vicki’s small, Southern hometown, and encouraged their daughter to take music lessons and pursue a music career. For Vicki, her family imparted a social meaning of music based in family togetherness:
I don’t know that I ever thought about doing anything else. So I don’t know if it was one particular person or if it was a string of stuff. There was just never a time in my life when there was not music…. As far back as I can remember. My parents were both musical, my grandparents, (p.134) everybody … when I grew up we didn’t have television, everybody had a piano and a radio, and there was always music around. Weekends were like times to get together with friends and play music, which is what my parents did…. They were both blue collar people … the family was tobacco farmers…. It’s very ordinary folks, farm folks and stuff, but there was always music around. My father played guitar, and played a little bit of fiddle. He could pretty much play a little of any string instrument, but mostly guitar. I still got a couple of his guitars…. He loved bluegrass and mountain music, and he loved hillbilly music. We listened to the Grand Ole Opry all the time. He loved Ernest Tubb and people like that. My mother liked the little bit more urban stuff, she liked Perry Como, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and that kind of thing…. My father was exceptionally musical, and my mother had a really good ear, and she could plunk a little bit on the piano. She came from a bigger family than my father did. Everybody was Scotch Irish on both sides. A lot of talk, everybody read books, and sang, and harmonized. There was just always music around…. I’ve got a recording of my mother and me singing “Whispering Hope” when I was 10 years old. My father had a little recording machine, and I wound up being able to retrieve some of that stuff and have it put on CD. Again, the hymns were things, it was not unusual on a Saturday night for everybody to be playing the blues and singing and carrying on, and then by the end of the night after everybody had a bunch of beers and somebody got a little maudlin, they would sing “I Come to the Garden Alone,” or old gospel things like “Amazing Grace.”
Beginning at age five, Vicki took music lessons throughout school and entered college knowing that she would pursue a professional music career: “Well, I wanted to, and my mother wanted me to. My dad wanted me to become a piano teacher and move next door so I wouldn’t move away. But yeah, I didn’t really plan for it other than I got the degree and then I taught for three years.” Vicki became politically “radicalized,” as she put it, as her initial professional immersion in the Nashville music scene coincided with the Nashville non-violent civil rights movement of the early 1960s. Vicki’s radicalization extended her family’s pro-labor, New Deal populism:
Neither of my folks were ever union members…. Early on I developed a real trade unionist sense because the whole idea of the union to me was good…. One of my mother and dad’s friends was a heavy equipment operator, he was like an uncle to me, and he was a union member. As he got older, … and he was retired, … he and I would sit and talk about union stuff, … after I’d been in the union for many years. But he would sit and talk to me about what it was like before he joined the union. He was really sold on the idea of unions, and this was a [Southern] farm boy…. My grandparents and my parents went to the polls every time the door (p.135) opened. We read the morning paper every day, cover to cover. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have the paper at the breakfast table, and my grandfather always worked on every Democratic campaign…. On election days my grandmother would drop him at the polls and he’d be working the whole day. It was like Franklin Roosevelt was God in our house…. He saved the country during the Depression as far as my grandmother was concerned, and my father, too…. They thought he was a great man. My father wept, I remember very clearly when Roosevelt died, I was about 7, and my father was just in tears. So I grew up thinking being a Democrat was where it’s at. But as I got older I grew into the idea that that was not a bad thing. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more liberal.
Reading labor history and philosophy in college led to the further development of Vicki’s pro-union orientation and her embrace of an integrationist and feminist orientation toward civil rights and group relations:
I read a lot of biography, I read a lot of memoirs, I read all kinds of stuff. I read detective novels, too. I just got interested in the whole history of unionism and part of it was because, I mean everything from the partisans in the Spanish Civil War all the way to the dock workers that were beaten up back in the ’30s. I always kind of resented the fact that everybody that believed in integration and fair treatment all were considered Communist sympathizers or something. Early on I didn’t like that, that was back in the early ’60s. By the time the Civil Rights movement got here, and the women’s movement, I was like ready to go out in the street and march. I didn’t, but I did a lot of reading and thinking and talking.
Although she wrote pro-integration letters to the editor and wanted to march on downtown Nashville, she was constrained from marching by middle-class norms:
I remember seeing the sit-ins on West End Avenue, and also not being able to go down 5th Avenue. There were a lot of stores down there at that time that I shopped in because they were sitting in at Kresge’s and the police had cordoned off the thing. Yeah, I remember all that very clearly…. I couldn’t figure out how to keep my family life intact if I [participated in the march] … nice people just didn’t go out and march in the streets. They just behaved themselves and shut up basically.
Throughout the 1960s, Vicki participated professionally in the predominantly white, Nashville country music industry, all the while crossing the racial divide by mingling and performing in integrated music venues in Nashville in her off time. She emerged from the 1960s as an integrationist and a founding member of the Nashville chapter of the National Organization for Women:
(p.136) I remember talking to some of the guys, not at recording sessions, … and one of them was [a] drummer…. I remember having a conversation with him in ’63, God what a year, about the Birmingham church that exploded, killed those little girls, and how appalled everybody was at that…. This was a blond-haired blue-eyed guy from East Nashville, but he had been in bands all over the country, and he had black friends, I had black friends, and we would sit and commiserate, people like that would sit and commiserate about it, but we didn’t do it a lot around people we didn’t know. It was always just the guys you hung out with at work, and I remember thinking, because I had been really troubled by all the stuff going on and people’s heads getting banged…. But I remember that after that bomb in that church killed those little girls, a switch went off some way. I felt like I am now officially radicalized. That’s it, I’ve had enough … it was such a gradual thing. I mean I was the little Green Hills housewife, dressed to the teeth and every hair in place…. But then I’d go home at night and I’m seeing pictures of Vietnam on the 6 o’clock news, and then people getting killed, and then Robert Kennedy was killed, and Martin Luther King. And ’68 was just awful for everybody, and it was such a gradual thing that I don’t think I realized it until the ’70s that I was coming through the liberation of black people and the liberation of women, plus Vietnam was all over it, so that whole thing was like such a big hunk of stuff. I just woke up in ’71 or ’72 thinking what? … we started keeping track, some girlfriends of mine and I, about how many couples we knew got divorced during that time, from ’69 to ’73 or ’74, and in every case the woman was saying I’ve been unhappy for ten years and I finally got the courage to walk out. All these weird things were happening, families were going asunder and all this stuff.
Vicki gravitated toward union activism as her commercial singing career unfolded during the 1970s, along with the deepening of her membership in the Nashville community of musicians and the transformation of her political orientation.
Entrepreneurial-Era Arts Union Activists
Bill and Marty have served as arts union activists during the entrepreneurial era of major-label contraction and the emergence of a community of enterprising artists in Nashville. Both are white and college-educated and identified strongly with their peer community of professional musicians. Bill took a movement-inspired career pathway that led him to envision and practice an arts trade unionism focused on facilitating the self-expression, self-promotion, and self-advancement of younger artists. Marty took a family-inspired career pathway toward an arts union activism especially aimed at helping his fellow (p.137) specialized professional musicians to transform themselves into multi-faceted generalists and enterprising artists.
Bill’s trade union activism expresses trade unionism for enterprising artists. His union work of engaging young enterprising artists extends his own wide set of enterprising artistic activities as recording and performing artist and musician, self-published songwriter, producer, engineer, record-label owner, and freelance journalist. A member of the transformative generation of enterprising artists, he entered the Nashville music scene in the late 1970s, played in clubs and as a member of a touring and recording country-artist band, developed as a major-label session musician, and launched his own artistic and production work. Bill became a trade union activist some fifteen years into his music career as Nashville entered the entrepreneurial era of music production.
Bill’s union activism grows out of a pragmatic idealism about fairness in compensation. In the contemporary era of digital production and distribution and self-promotion, Bill’s activism focuses on empowering enterprising artists to navigate through the challenges and opportunities of digital technology and self-promotion:
We’ve gone from … physical distribution … to a record store, to buying something over the Internet or stealing over the Internet. You know, it’s very well-documented that the decline in physical sales has not even remotely been matched by the rise of digital distribution…. It’s a challenge … because it’s all about being fairly compensated for your work. I mean that is what we are supposed to be doing and when people are stealing your work, you know, you don’t make as much money … and it’s killing the major labels. They didn’t react to the rise of technology with the kind of swift transition that might have kept the money flowing…. So, the Internet, the upside of the Internet is that it is much easier to promote yourself…. I wrote my own press for years because I could never afford to hire a press agent, you know? … I mean the things we had to do to promote ourselves…. I’ve kept some of my little promo packages from years gone by and they are so primitive and horrible. And now it’s like, man, everybody has a digital camera.
In this era of self-promotion, the union instructs the individual artist in the art of negotiating a fair deal for a job under a union contract. As Bill put it:
You have got to stand up for yourself. And at a certain point, you’ve got to start trying to promote doing the right thing … we [union members] are the salespeople. Somebody calls up and says, hey, we got a session next Saturday 10 o’clock. Where is it? So-and-so. Okay, cool. Who is playing? (p.138) Oh, okay cool…. And if you are not in the union, you just go, what’s it pay? And you can try to have a negotiation, but you are going to get what everybody else is getting, most likely. But you can say, is it on the [union] card? … We have all had to learn how to do that…. We have to learn how to be the union salesperson, yet, the union never taught us how to do that. We had to learn for ourselves.
Vision of an Arts Union
An arts union, for Bill, is a platform and instrument of artist self-promotion. It is an age-diverse, occupational community that serves emerging and established, enterprising artists by providing a foundation of health insurance and a pension and by instructing the artist to individually negotiate work under a union contract. Bill delighted in the union’s new group health insurance arrangement:
People come in [to the union] and go, man, this new healthcare thing is great, I’m saving $800 a month. We had a guy … come in … a couple of weeks ago, he was a prostate cancer survivor that was paying $1,200 a month, $5,000 deductible and was for lousy coverage. Now, he’s got $400 a month and $1,200 deductible, so like man that gets me through a lot. And so, it’s just like, it’s really about the sense of community.
The arts union also informs its members of benefits. Bill explained how touring musicians often are unaware of their pension benefits when they negotiate with their employers:
These poor guys who were out on the road for twenty-five years never got any pension. There was a pension plan available. Nobody sold it to them. Nobody helped them sell it to their boss…. It saves them money. If everybody in a band defers 10 percent of their wages to put in a pension fund, then the employer doesn’t have to pay payroll taxes on that 10 percent. So, they are actually going to save money by mailing one check to the pension fund on the behalf of all their musicians. But somebody has to teach those people that. It’s like passing it down, the passing of the torch.
Member awareness of benefits is important for recruiting young artists into the union, and for strengthening the pension fund for older union members. Bill explained: “The music business has changed so drastically that we have to adapt and we have to be flexible. And if we don’t get young members, our pension is going to run out. Or at some point. I think at this point I think they have it amortized out to 2041. So we’ve got forty-one years. I’ll be eighty-four. It’ll be a real drag to have my pension run out at eighty-four. The arts union also empowers young enterprising artists by instructing them in the art of individual union-contract negotiation. Bill illustrated this point with (p.139) the hypothetical case of an artist negotiating a limited-press, union session agreement:
You need to know how to talk to people and say, it is a series of questions, you know, where we working? Okay. What time? Two sessions or one? Uh, so is this a record? Well, what kind of record? Okay, so, are we on the card? Silence. What’s that mean? Well, is this a union session? I don’t know man, I’ve never done that before. Well whose on the date? Okay, so-and-so. So have you talked to anyone about being a band leader on this thing? I don’t know, no. Well, like, if we do it as a union thing and if you were for example to make me your band leader. I’ll write the charts. Oh, you haven’t called the players yet? I’ll help you call the players. We’ll get together and talk about guys you want. Guys, if you can’t get the guy you want, I can get somebody else who does that same sort of thing. You know. I’ll be there at the studio to make sure everything gets done. I’ll take care of all the paperwork. All you’ve got to do is sign these couple of pieces of paper. Doesn’t cost anything to have a limited pressing agreement. And that way, until you sell 10 thousand copies of this record, you know? We are all good. If you get to 10 thousand, everybody gets a little bump. But you know, you’ll be happy at 10 thousand, right? … I’ve learned how to do these for 20 years…. But some young kid, it’s just, who has just moved to town—he doesn’t know how to say that. We have to teach him how to say that. And you know, it’s like how to get something on the card.
The union also helps the touring indie artist to enforce the contract. Bill illustrated how the union contract protected the touring artist from intellectual property theft and from last-minute broken deals:
I think we have to help these people [touring indie artists] protect themselves. We are going to help them look out for their intellectual property, because there is always going to be big … entertainment companies, you know, who are eventually going to be the gatekeepers for all this, you know, individual music. So, … you do your little record with your friends and you pay everybody and you are just paying cash and there is no contract. And then you go out and you are on the road and you are booking yourself, you know. One scenario is you get to Vail, Colorado to do that ski lodge that you booked and the guy goes, no man, slow week, sorry man, can’t pay you. It’s like, I know we said two weeks, but we can only do one week. You get fired. If you don’t have a contract, you just did a verbal handshake, you are screwed, and you’ve got to go home…. Or, you get there to the gig and the gig goes fine. And you are selling CDs at your gig in the ski lodge and [famous Hollywood movie director]’s assistant buys your CD and really likes that one song that you wrote about your grandma and then goes back to California and she is playing the CD in (p.140) her office and [famous director] walks by and goes, man, that is a cool song about grandma. That’d be pretty for that thing we are about to do. Oh great. You know and they put it in the movie and you go to the movie theater one day and there is your song. And maybe they got a hold of you, maybe they didn’t. But it’s you against [major film production company] or you’ve got a paper trail because you did the record with your buddies and the same amount of money changed hands, but it is on paper. And we’ve got a contract and we can enforce.
Although the arts union does not line up work for individual members, the union should, Bill maintained, facilitate job seeking by helping the artist to network and negotiate with other artists and employers: “What we [the union] can’t do is make a value judgment and say guitar player X…. It’s like, here is a list of people who are available…. We’re not going to get you work. It’s like, okay, but we can teach people how to network. We can help people network. We can help people understand how these contracts work.”
Having financial success is only secondary to the meaning Bill derives from being creative. His own satisfaction with being creative derives from his passionate pursuit of a music career and is reinforced by recognition from his peers, his many music awards, and from his association with award-winning recordings:
Financial security probably means more to a lot of people than it means to me…. I try not to be oblivious to it, but I’ve never let money rule my life or make my decisions for me. I’ve probably made some mistakes in that area, but to me creative and personal satisfaction is much more important than how much money I’ve got in the bank. As long as I can pay my bills, I’m pretty happy … if you think about it … I can make a living doing what I love to do and would do for free. What could be better than that? I’m not rich but … I have had a very rich life and very varied experiences. And a lot of it is because I went out and … took the initiative. I didn’t wait for it to come to me…. I went and found it, it happened to be here. If you had told me when I was 16 that by the time I was 21 I’d be living in Nashville, I’d have thought you were out of your mind.
The satisfaction Bill gains from earning a living by doing what he loves to do is reinforced by the peer recognition he receives for his contributions and achievements:
So those kinds of things [music awards] and … playing on records that got Grammy nominations or Grammy awards. That is nice. I think I’ve been on six records that won Grammys over the years … but honestly, (p.141) I think the recognition of my peers with or without awards is more meaningful and to me the satisfaction of a job well done is still the single most rewarding thing and that kind of just applies all across the board. Just knowing that I did the best I could do and it helped other people do the best they can do. Those are all, those are all good feelings.
Bill was swept away by the Beatles and rock ’n’ roll of his youth and adolescence in Eastern City. He was also swept away by the movement of loud, playing-by-ear, self-contained bands. The son of a career military officer and homemaker, Bill took a movement-inspired career path to becoming a union activist, as he transitioned from playing the notes on acoustic instruments to playing by ear on electric instruments:
I fell in love with music … and at that time, the Beatles were taking off, the Rolling Stones were coming along and there were, they were on TV constantly … I loved it … I mean I was still messing around with it, but somebody had showed me the riff to “Sunshine of Your Love” and I just sort of played that over and over again. This is cool. I’m not having to read this. This is just like I know where to put my fingers. It was all very incremental and then I remember I mowed yards for a summer and I earned $42 for the whole summer and I bought this really cheap electric [instrument] and I started playing it because my parents had kind of pooh-poohed the other thing. But then when they saw how serious I was they said okay, well, you aren’t playing this other thing. So, I traded my [acoustic instrument] from 5th and 6th grade for an electric [instrument] … I would have been 13. And, from that point, everything really changed. You know, I just wanted to rock. I just wanted to rock ’n’ roll … I guess I had enough rudimentary skills. I knew all the names of the notes and I knew a few things about major and minor and that was about it. And a lot of it was you just tried to get with guys who knew more about it than you did … that is what my heroes were doing. That’s what the Beatles were doing … I loved popular music. I loved all that stuff. I loved Motown. Because you know back then, the radio was very eclectic and you heard a lot of different things on the same radio. I didn’t hear a lot of country growing up, but it would be The Electric Prunes and then it would be Tom Jones and then it would be The Mike Curb Congregation and then—it was just, I just remember liking almost everything I heard…. Because for me, all I really wanted from the time I was 13 was to get into a successful band or just a band that was doing something…. So that was kind of how the fire got started and then it was just a question of learning and just, and you know it was all trial and error and you know, reading music is very empirical and playing by ear is very subjective. And I was just drawn to that and you know, I was always better at coming up with (p.142) my own version of a song rather than sitting down and perfecting it note for note. I was always like, I think we are close enough, let’s do it…. And I was just into rock ’n’ roll, I was into guitars, I was into volume. I liked loud, drove my mom crazy. I blew up amps left and right, you know? That was just … what we were doing.
For Bill, the self-contained band would become not only a vehicle for artistic professional development and self-expression but also a tight, human learning community. The compassionate and award-winning country artist led the band with an inclusive, democratic ethos during the decade Bill served as a band member under his tutelage. As the band came to enjoy market success, the band leader co-wrote with Bill, encouraged Bill’s own professional development, and instilled in Bill the value of maintaining one’s own artistic integrity. Although the band leader never discussed trade unionism with Bill, Bill partly attributed his formation as a trade union activist to his band leader as mentor.
The band leader took the young Bill under his wing:
I’m coming from this high energy, oh man, I just want to impress everybody and man. And all of a sudden I’m in some kind of slow motion movie … but, I sensed right away, even with … some ignorance of the subtleties of country music, … that [band leader] was … a nice guy even though he didn’t say much. And so, we do the first job and it’s 5 or 6 thousand people and I had never played to people who didn’t make noise before and who would shut up and listen and it freaked me out.
Bill’s band leader became his late-night mentor on the road:
And so, … the rest of my career was like … almost all because of [band leader]. He really taught me a whole lot about everything…. He saw some things in me. He saw potential in me that I was completely oblivious to and nurtured it and pulled it out in a way that most artists and stars would not do. So I was very fortunate in that respect…. He always treated me kind of like an equal even though, you know, when I joined his band, he was probably in his, I guess, mid-40s and I was 20 years old, you know, I was half his age. And yet, … when we were all on one bus, [band leader] was the relief driver. And I’ve always been kind of an insomniac anyways and so I stay up pretty late, most of the time. And everybody else would go to bed and [band leader] would be the relief driver. He’d crash out for a few hours after the show and then the driver would pull over and [band leader] would be the relief driver and I’d just sit up and talk to him. We’d just drive all night and just talk about all kinds of stuff.
Bill’s band leader led the band with a selfless, paternal, and democratic ethos, including at large shows:
(p.143) They’d want to put [band leader] way out front and put us like way in the back. And [band leader] would go, no, we are a band, I’m just the singer. I gotta have my guys. And we’d get up there and because I was up close and in proximity and in pretty good camera shape on the sideline and singing, I would get extra money because … I would get money to sing, as well as to play. And [band leader] would always just take care of us, he treated us good. But it was never from a unionism point of view.
Bill recalled one especially momentous evening of his band leader’s selfless support of the band at a large stage show:
There was one night we were on stage…. I’ll never forget this, I don’t think any of us will. [band leader] would introduce the band in the middle of the show…. He would stop and introduce and say some nice things about everybody, not a lot … he would say and now these guys are going to play a couple of songs for you. And he just walked off the stage and we are like, what? What did you just do? He’s giving us his audience in the middle of a show, which no one would ever do. And so, we did like two songs and everybody liked it and then [band leader] came out and … the show was back on and we are all looking at each other like, wow, what just happened … and [band leader] was just amazingly generous that way.
As his own career unfolded and ramified, Bill became known as a musician advocate among his peers. As he developed his advocacy skills and interest in arts unionism, he became increasingly involved in the union:
And so I sort of became the source for useful information for people who are working. And it got to the point where people … called, hey [Bill], I’ve got a union question…. I was getting that all the time. Hey, can I do this? How do you do such? And I just started, well if I didn’t know, I’d find out. And I just started getting more knowledgeable about some of these things…. You know, so I just started to realize, I’ve got some kind of affinity for this … I just started to be a little more assertive and I began to take on the powers … a little more…. And … all I’m trying to do is look out for the guys and look out for what is right and I’m coming from a … a pretty pure place.
Bill carries his original torch every day:
I’m still a fan … I still get excited. I don’t ever want to lose that. I really really don’t want to lose that. And I think that that maybe has helped me sustain … doing a lot of different things and willingly putting myself in crazy situations…. Not very well organized, but a helluva lot of fun. So to me the excitement that I had as a kid just starting to play, that still colors everything I do.
An enterprising artist, Marty is a recording and performing artist, musician and singer, a self-published songwriter, a board member of an international music professional association, a music teacher at two area schools, the owner-operator of an instrument repair business, and an owner-manager of a few residential rental properties, as well as a trade union activist. He embarked on his music career in the 1980s shortly before the advent of the entrepreneurial era of music production. His activism in an arts union is part and parcel of the increasingly diverse ensemble of professional and entrepreneurial activities that he has developed to support his artistic career and generate multiple income streams:
The business has certainly changed drastically since I’ve moved here. And I think the people that survive in the creative arts in general in any career involving intellectual property are the ones that are able to bob and weave and reinvent themselves. So that’s why now I’m doing a little more work in my [repair] shop, … [d]oing a little more teaching, concentrating also on my own individual solo career as a singer and [musician], and trying to develop ideas for clinician work, the [music] education community. Just trying to stay viable and active.
If the union provides him and his fellow artists with an economic foundation, Marty’s repair business affords him a measure of economic self-determination:
Most of the areas of my professional life I have no control over. Certainly if I work in a recording studio, or if I work on a television show or something like that, there are negotiated rates and I get paid fairly. But for live work and for teaching, it’s take it or leave it kind of a situation…. The only area of my professional life that I have control of is my workshop…. I can charge what I think is fair, I can work when I want to, and not work when I don’t want to. I have total control of that. Oddly enough I can make better money per hour out there. And I have a lot of respect for what I do out there. It’s validating in a whole other area. I always say it’s one of the few areas of work, apart from the music business, that the business will sort of forgive you for. It’s sort of considered an extension of who I am as a player.
Vision of an Arts Union
Marty envisions an arts union that addresses both general, enduring employment issues and contemporary compensation issues in live music among emerging and established artists and musicians. His general vision of arts unionism rests on a deeply held belief in fairness:
(p.145) In the arts without a union you’re just out there. Once you do what you do, it’s in the ether. If you haven’t been paid for it, there’s nothing tangible to show. Particularly live music. In the recording sense, without a union you may do a recording session for a songwriter demo that ends up being part of a commercial, or part of a movie or whatever. And so without the union you have no protection, and it just seemed to be as a person pursuing a career, that the only way to make the career viable was to put a few locks on the doors when you left the office at night. So I still believe that. Again, I’m annoyed that we have to do it, in a perfect world everybody would treat everyone fairly, we would all make a reasonable percentage of the revenue streams. But it just doesn’t ever happen.
Marty explained that a chief contemporary challenge for arts unions is compensation for live artists and musicians:
There’s two definitions of non-union. There’s non-union that hires people who aren’t members of the union, and then there’s non-union work, what we call dark dates, done by union musicians that don’t go on a union card. The [union] here has never been effective at policing live work…. For one thing it’s a huge issue of man hours. There are a lot of places to play. How do you get around to all of them and make sure that everybody’s paid up members and that they’re being treated right? The other issue is that in order to accommodate those on the low end of pay scales, the clubs, the coffee houses and places that have lower margins of profitability, the scales are so low that most of us don’t work for scale. I can’t even tell you what scale for a live two- or three-hour date in a club would be because I don’t work for that, it’s too low. It would be like maybe for a side man maybe $60 for a four-hour gig or $70 maybe, but I’m not going to play for four hours for $70 unless it’s so enjoyable I couldn’t stand it. Most of the time it’s enjoyable, but not that enjoyable.
Marty noted that much of the live non-union work is performed by aspiring artists and musicians who are attempting to gain audience and market exposure and by non-professional music aficionados:
They’re sort of fringe guys who have come here to try to get in the music business, or the Lower Broadway type guys, or Opryland guys, or the kids that come out of [music school] who have two or three years singing those tunes under their belt at school, … so they’re trying to get whatever gig they can get to get started. So they’re going to do whatever they do, they’ll play a coffeehouse for $15 or $20, whatever they can do just to say they’re up there on stage performing for a live audience. And that’s where they should be, frankly. But then you have the other side of the coin, you have well-meaning folks who have made their monies in other industries (p.146) and may even have a nice pension built up, health insurance and all that, and find themselves in love with this music so they’ll go out and play for free and pay their band, and give the club owner a quintet what I would give them a trio for. So that’s an issue. And I think it’s an issue country-wide, I really do. My friends in New York tell me that you used to work a week or two weeks in a venue for a set fee, and now it’s a night or two for the door at the … clubs. So it’s just what it is…. The music business is not for the faint of heart. It’s a business that there are always more people wanting to be in it than there’s room for. So consequently it’s always difficult to keep any sort of a reasonable scale. The recording industry for musicians is, I always tell people when they ask me why should I fool with the union, I say well you know if it wasn’t for union scale, even non-scale work would not be as high as it is. It lifts all boats, as they say. If it wasn’t for organized labor we’d all be in a musical sweatshop in essence. In some ways we still are.
Arts unions, according to Marty, are developing new mechanisms for compensating indie and major-labor live work under a union contract by enabling
independent artists and artists on labels to sign union contracts, and for touring artists to have their employers, the main artist, contribute to the health and retirement plan based on their salaries in live music. And for recording artists to contribute into the health and retirement plan based on sales of product on the road. Not just royalties earned through the record companies, which is always hard to trace. So I mean there’s some very innovative things to try to continue to add value to the card for a union member. There are things happening.
For Marty, individual artistic expression, professionalism, artistic community, and family well-being cohere as a meaningful whole. He conceives of success and professionalism as peer recognition of his own lifelong legacy of artistic expression:
I think for my individual work, my solo performances and my recording work, feedback from other musicians probably means more to me than anything else. I’ve always gotten very strong feedback from other performers, so that makes it worth doing. And then I’ve got some recognition from national publications and international publications.
The successful professional, as Marty sees it, is an artist who can financially sustain his peer-recognized artistic legacy:
(p.147) Having enough preparation to be able to carve out your niche of work areas and hopefully be able to secure a steady enough list of engagements to sustain yourself financially. And then I guess the other aspect of being professional would be to try to turn out a body of work over the course of your musical life that would demonstrate that you have contributed to the music.
The music consumer, Marty acknowledged, helps to sustain artist morale and to generate the financial support of what is otherwise the artist’s peer-recognized legacy. Regarding fan recognition of his artistry, Marty noted: “That’s important too because it’s sustaining. You can’t continue to do your work if you have no support, and I think support from a fan base is important psychologically as well as financially.”
Marty’s family-inspired career pathway, coupled with his passive entry into union membership, the encouragement of his fellow union members, and his own pragmatic and religious idealism, led him to run for elected union office. The son of a graduate-school-educated, Southern Baptist music minister father and a mother who worked in a bank and served as a church-based, child music educator, Marty’s parents encouraged him and his two sisters to play music and to study music in school. He studied with professionals through college, when he also began performing in live venues in Southern City and considers his fellow Southern City professional musicians to be among his early mentors:
I was singing in the choir at four years old. I was just by osmosis getting a certain amount of music education in the choir programs and taking piano lessons with the church organist. And so by the time I was in high school I was singing solos in the church choir. Easter and Christmas productions, things like that. My junior year of high school I started studying with a college level … teacher at the [university]…. For me I was already out performing two or three times a week and supporting myself through college, and I realized I was much more interested in a more active performing career, and this music gave me that opportunity. The other thing, little by little as I got to Nashville I realized that as an improvising musician I could perform a whole lot more diverse selection of music, so I loved to be involved with all kinds of things, folk to country to bluegrass to jazz to pop music, whatever.
Having joined the Southern City local union, Marty transferred his union membership to the Nashville local upon his entry into the Nashville music scene. His fellow union members admired his organizational skills and (p.148) commitment and subsequently successfully recruited him to run for union office.
If Marty’s father inspired him to pursue a music career, he did not encourage him to become an arts union activist: “Not my dad certainly. He was an Eisenhower Republican, born in 1912, so he came up under the Red scare and all that business. Unions to him were more socialism. So it didn’t come from him.” Marty attributed his pro-union beliefs to personal need and pragmatic and religious idealism. He attributed his pragmatic idealism to his personal need to stabilize the musician’s volatile income:
Well the one really radical idea that I have is that when a performing artist works they should be paid, and they should also have access to health insurance and a pension plan … it comes from a personal need. Unfortunately we use the expression “play music.” A lot of people think we’re just playing, we’re just goofing around, and getting paid for it. The music business is a hard business. Sure when I go out and work I may make $50 or $100 or $200 an hour for whatever I can do or get. But I may not work but three or four times that month. And the rest of the time I’m scuffling, I’m on the phone, I’m writing, I’m organizing and trying to make things happen. And it’s an almost impossible business to really be in part-time.
Underlying Marty’s pragmatic idealism is a populist religious idealism that is linked to his strong identification with the Democratic Party. Comparing his Democratic Party identification with his union activism, Marty explained:
It’s deeper than just my union affiliation. I look at the Scripture and I see the things that Jesus said about go and sell what you have and take care of the poor and those in need. Those are the kind of things that I think the Democratic Party at least tries to do. Are there abuses? Certainly there are. The democratic system, as my father used to love to say, is not perfect. It’s a terrible way of governing. But it’s the best we have.
Artist Advocates in an Entrepreneurial Era: Toward a New Arts Trade Unionism
Artist advocates are forging a new arts trade unionism for the emerging community of enterprising artists in Nashville. The arts trade unionism of the earlier corporate era addressed the interests of recording musicians through collective bargaining with the major labels, which were signatories to a master union contract. The new arts trade unionism of the contemporary entrepreneurial era addresses the interests of self-promoting enterprising artists who “own their own stuff” by supporting the artist’s individual bargaining with employers.
(p.149) The shift from collective bargaining toward individual bargaining is being driven by transformative and contemporary generations of enterprising artists and artist activists. Arts union activists today hail from the transformative generation of enterprising artists who have taken the union leadership baton from the earlier, corporate-era generation of arts union activists. The transformative generation of enterprising artists is the same generation that initially forged the emerging community of enterprising artists in the 1980s and 1990s; mentored subsequent generations of contemporary enterprising artists; and, along with younger generations of artistic social entrepreneurs, created social spaces—artistic social enterprises—for the professional development of the emerging community of enterprising artists.
The work of artist advocates—i.e., reinventing arts trade unionism—complements and reinforces the efforts of enterprising artists and artistic social entrepreneurs by addressing the economic livelihood of the whole, emerging peer community of diverse enterprising artists. Artist advocates encounter resistance from employers and age-generational differences in interests among the union members that challenge the development of the new unionism and, consequently, the emerging peer community of enterprising artists.
In Nashville, all three types of artist activists—enterprising artists, artistic social entrepreneurs, and artist advocates—theorized in chapter 2 have arisen with the musician migration to forge an emerging and loosely coupled community of diverse enterprising artists as Nashville transitions into an entrepreneurial era of multi-genre music production. The resulting occupational self-determination of enterprising artists is a place-based model of artist peer community whose sustainability in Nashville remains uncertain. Future research should be directed at examining its applicability to other cities, and to other occupations and economic sectors, in this competitive era of precarious employment, identity politics, and entrepreneurial economic production.
(1.) Brantley Hargrove, “A Power Shift within Nashville’s Musicians Union Signals Changing Times on Music Row,” Nashville Scene, March 19, 2009, http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/a-power-shift-within-nashvilles-musicians-union-signals-changing-times-on-music-row/Content?oid=1200399.
(p.184) (2.) Mark T. Jordan, Election Committee Member, “Record Vote Sweeps in New 257 Officers,” Nashville Musician, January–March 2009, p. 2, http://www.nashvillemusicians.org/uploaded/archive/1258009742January-March2009.pdf.
(3.) National U.S. labor unions often refer to themselves as “international” unions in light of their Canadian memberships.
(4.) Warren Denney, “Delegates Deal Winning Hand in Vegas,” Nashville Musician, July–September 2010, pp. 19–22, http://www.nashvillemusicians.org/uploaded/archive/1283226562TheNashvilleMusicianJulyAugSept.pdf; Laura Ross, “Convention Diary,” The Nashville Musician, July–September 2010, p. 23, http://www.nashvillemusicians.org/uploaded/archive/1283226562TheNashvilleMusicianJulyAugSept.pdf.
(6.) AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees, “Professional Performers,” http://dpeaflcio.org/professionals/professionals-in-the-workplace/professional-performers/. AFM membership statistics are from AFL-CIO, “Membership Report,” p. 70, http://www.aflcio.org/content/download/99671/2676111/ECReporttoConv_FINAL.pdf.
(9.) The amendments were first introduced in the 1st session of the 101st Congress as H.R. 2025 on April 18, 1989 and last introduced in the 1st session of the 107th Congress as H.R. 1083 on March 15, 2001.
(10.) John Amman, “The New Media Union: What New Media Professionals Can Learn from Old Media Unions,” in Surviving the New Economy, eds. John Amman, Tris Carpenter, and Gina Neff (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007), 157–71; Jon Burlingame, For the Record: The Struggle and Ultimate Political Rise of American Recording Musicians within Their Labor Movement (Hollywood: Recording Musicians Association, 1997); Lois Gray and Maria Figueroa, Empire State’s Cultural Capital at Risk? Assessing Challenges to the Workforce and Educational Infrastructure of Arts and Entertainment in New York, Report to New York Empire State Development Corporation by Cornell University ILR School, June 2009; Edmund Heery, “Trade Unions and Contingent Labour: Scale and Method,” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 2, no. 3 (2009): 429–42; Lois Gray and Ronald Seeber, eds., Under the Stars: Essays on Labor Relations in Arts and Entertainment (Ithaca: ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 1996).
(12.) Daniel B. Cornfield and Randy Hodson, eds., Worlds of Work: Building an International Sociology of Work (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2002); Daniel B. Cornfield and Holly J. McCammon, eds., Labor Revitalization: Global Perspectives and New Initiatives (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2003); Lowell Turner and Daniel B. Cornfield, eds., Labor in the New Urban Battlegrounds: Local Solidarity in a Global Economy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007). C. Wright Mills’s The New Men of Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948) is the classic treatment of intergenerational changes of labor leaders with new visions of trade unionism during the era of the rivalry between the older American Federation of Labor and the new Congress of Industrial Organizations, published seven years before their merger in 1955.
(14.) Wayne Baker and Robert Faulkner, “Role as Resource in the Hollywood Film Industry,” American Journal of Sociology 97, no. 2 (1991): 292.
(16.) I define an arts trade union activist as a music professional who served in an arts union position for at least five years. In order to maintain the anonymity of the four trade union activists, I have given them pseudonyms, not identified the union(s) in which they were active, and not indicated in which level (national or local) and type (elected, appointed, paid, volunteer) of union position(s) they served.
(p.185) (17.) Kristin Thomson, “Roles, Revenue, and Responsibilities: The Changing Nature of Being a Working Musician,” Work and Occupations 40, no. 4 (2013): 514–25.
(18.) See the AFM Local 257 websites for networking, live performance scales, and single song overdub scales, respectively: http://www.nashvillemusicians.org/?pg=networking, http://www.nashvillemusicians.org/?pg=live_contract; and http://www.nashvillemusicians.org/?pg=scales. Also see Gray and Figueroa, Empire State’s Cultural Capital, 33–40.
(19.) “The World of Country Music,” Billboard, November 2, 1963; Robert K. Oermann, America’s Music: The Roots of Country (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1996), 115–34; Oermann, A Century of Country: An Illustrated History of Country Music (New York: TV Books, 1999), 152–173; Richard A. Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 221–33.