Archive for September, 2012

Picking the Wrong Fight

Posted in Uncategorized on September 16, 2012 by jkiparsky

Sometimes people manage to get it all wrong. I read the other day in the Times that the American Federation of Musicians in Seattle has decided to rase a stink with Amanda Palmer about her clever notion of bringing her fans on stage to play string and horn parts in her next tour. Oy, gewalt.

The old union routine:
Step 1: Insert foot in mouth

Step 2: Shoot off mouth

Step 3: Shoot self in foot.

Step 4: ?????

The AFM is a fine union, one that I belonged to and organized for when I was a professional musician in Portland. I believe that union protections are good for all workers, and that musicians stand in real need of organizing. Specifically, I think that musicians as a whole need to learn that they are skilled workers who provide a service that their employers need, and that they should be paid for it, and that once they realize this they should take concrete steps to make this happen. The most important, the single important step in this process is to get together with the other people who work for the same employers and to agree on a few things. They need to agree on a reasonable wage, and on reasonable working conditions. They need to agree to stand up for each other, and to rely on each other, and they need to come up with a way to go from zero – which is where they are – to a wage that can support them from day to day.

The AFM can be a hide-bound and lead-footed organization, but if it serves this purpose, it offers a lot to the working musician. Contract protection, organizing support, the resources of an organzation with over a century behind it, and the solidarity of fellow workers in the orchestra pits, these are not things to sneeze at. And when I and my colleagues in the IWW went to the AFM in Portland, we were (eventually) welcomed with open arms and given serious and substantial support in an organizing drive among freelance musicians. I still think the AFM is a great organization, although I reserve the right to question their sanity at times.

Which brings us to the Amanda Palmer situation. Let me say, I am not a fan of Amanda Palmer’s music. Her singing is not good, her music is not interesting, and her lyrics do not impress me in the least. I have listened to her music, and I have not enjoyed the experience. I’m sure the’s a lovely person, and I wish her all the happiness her efforts can bring to her, but I just don’t like what she does. Her marketing skills, however, are fantastic: she has asked stacks of fans to put their time and their money behind her dreams, and they have responded in their droves. They have bought tickets to her concerts, they have bought her records, and now they are paying good money to produce her records, which they will then buy. (this, I suggest, is remarkable) So why would we be surprised if she offers her fans the chance to lend their musical talents to the furtherance of her career, or if they should accept?

From Palmer’s point of view, and the point of view of her fans, and the point of view of the people who she wants to bring on stage, this is not a matter of getting more musicians on stage for free. This is about bringing her fans into her participatory theater of show-tune rock and roll. From their point of view, the union’s demand is about as sensible as asking for the audience to be paid to sing along. The question here is not whether the union is right, or whether Palmer is right, the question is whether the union will achieve a worthwhile goal here, or whether they will alienate yet another round of musicians who really ought to be in the union. I’m afraid the result will end up being the latter, which is a shame because for all that I find Palmer’s music appalling, she is very much about supporting other musicians and finding creative ways to make a living as a musician in an era that seems determined to end the race to the bottom and lock the basement doors. Bringing Amanda Palmer and her fans towards the union would have been a brilliant move. Telling them that they may not and must not seems like another step on the royal road to irrelevance.

In practical terms, a few points can be made about the situation.

First of all, this is the same old mistake that unions have made. You can’t start out by acting as if the workers are already organized and then brow-beat them into obeying your dictates. The union is not your boss, and it shouldn’t be your boss. Joining the union is a voluntary act, by which you choose to bind yourself to a social contract among your fellow workers. As far as I can tell, none of the musicians involved are members of the Seattle local, which means the Seattle local has no jurisdiction over their actions. So clearly they have no basis to make claims about what rate those musicians should accept. This makes it hard to take the union’s objections seriously.
Second, going by the web page of the Seattle AFM local, even if these musicians are members of the Seattle local, there really isn’t an issue about playing for free:

If members feel it is appropriate to play lower than scale, they are encouraged to request permission of the Board. The Union recognizes that there are always exceptions to playing for scale and the Board generally grants these requests.

I recognize this clause, because I fought hard to get a clause very much like this one inserted into the AFM Local 99’s scale book, and I was successful. At the time I observed that it was a necessary measure for an unorganize workforce, but that as long as it was on the books, it would indicate that the union had not yet succeeded, or even properly begun its work. It’s interesting that it’s in the Seattle scale book today. What it means here is, the Seattle local is on shaky ground when they criticise the musicians who choose to play for Palmer’s show.

Finally, it’s stupid to pick a fight when there’s an obvious solution, and in this case Palmer could easily pay these musicians union scale for their time and trouble, and never lose a dime by it. It’s simple enough, really: all she has to do is sign the checks herself. This would be taking a leaf from the great compuer scientist and mathematician Donald Knuth, who wrote a check to anyone who found an error in one of his books. Knuth wrote hundreds of these checks until he discontinued the practice, and as far as I know not one of them was ever cashed.

After all, you can’t cash a check that’s framed and hanging on your wall.