Working musician? Live in Austin? Join Local 433!
Every year on Labor Day, I reflect on what it means to belong to a labor union.
Really, I think about it a lot more often than that. I think about it every time I read another headline about workers being laid off, about factories shutting down, about jobs being outsourced overseas. I think about it whenever I read about another Fortune 500 CEO getting a multi-million dollar bonus while my friends are scrambling to pay the bills by holding down two or more jobs. In other words, I think about it a lot.
There has been a lot of media attention lately on the shrinking middle class in America. Now that the situation is finally affecting a significant number of white people, some notice is being taken.
The causes of wealth disparity in our nation are varied and deep, and others have written about it much more eloquently and authoritatively than I can hope to. Anyway, I’ve always found it more constructive to work in my tiny corner of the universe and improve the situation in my own backyard. That’s why I’m a 20-year member of the Austin Federation of Musicians.
Union membership can be a hard sell to the musicians who work mostly club dates and casuals. I know this firsthand, because Austin is teeming with such musicians, and many of them are not in the union. Some of these folks are working five gigs a week. When I point out to them that they ought to join the union, the response is most often, “Why? What can the union do for me?”
I resist the urge to say, “Maybe get you gigs with the Austin Jazz Workshop”, since we only hire from Local 433. Instead, I dutifully tick off the benefits that are well known to Executive Board members: collective bargaining on contracts with large employers like the symphony and lyric opera, group insurance deals on health and dental, local union card discounts, gigs at the AFM Free Concert Series, comprehensive instrument insurance geared to the professional working musician, a pension fund, legal protection in the event of broken contracts and unauthorized re-use of audio, video, and broadcast, protection on the road, etc, etc…
But what I really should be saying is: “Your question is backwards. It’s not ‘what can the union do for me?’, it’s ‘what can I do for the union?’ “
I mean, think about it. You live and work in this town. Your chance at a decent livelihood depends on Austin’s viability as a place that supports working musicians (i.e., you). Considering the large number of forces that conspire directly or indirectly to rob you of local employment, why would you not want to join and strengthen the only organization whose primary purpose is to advocate for a fair wage for you? It just boggles my mind that people can’t see this.
“Oh, but dues are too expensive.” No, they’re not. One decent gig pays your dues for the year. “Oh, but I don’t want to be told not to work with non-union musicians.” Nobody is telling you that. Texas is a right-to-work state, so work with whoever you want. If it’s that stressful, get them to join the union too, like they should have in the first place. “Oh, but I still want to work for less than scale, because I’m getting a free meal and ‘exposure’.” Well…
That’s the heart of what is wrong with the Austin live music scene. There are plenty of musicians willing to work for free. They have been duped by some (not all) club owners and event promoters to believe that there is a pot of gold waiting for them somewhere, as long as they ‘pay their dues’ and ‘build a following’.
Man, I hate to be Bobby Buzzkill who has to lay out the truth about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but here it is: if you play for zero, that’s what you are worth. It’s not leading you anywhere except to more zero-paying gigs. Because once you start demanding money after giving it away for free, it’s too late. There’s a line of shmucks down the block waiting to take your place for what you’re getting, which is zero, and the club owner doesn’t care how good the music is, as long as paying the band is not part of his overhead. In his mind, you’re a zero; the shmucks waiting in line to replace you are zeros; that’s what you’re worth, and that’s what you’re getting. End of story.
How long will this sorry state of affairs last? Forever, or until musicians wise up enough to demand a living wage and refuse to work for less. Ask yourself this question: “What would happen if every working musician in Austin joined the union and refused to work for less than scale?” I know, that’s another question we will never have to answer, because it ain’t gonna happen. But it can happen for you. And if it does, I’ll tell you two things that will happen right away:
1. You will be working fewer gigs.
2. The gigs you do end up working will pay better, and be more fun, than the gigs you gave up.
Why more fun? Because now you are working with self-respecting professionals who care about the quality of the music. And if the quality of music improves, so do the bookings, the pay, and the perks. And after awhile, assuming you are persistent, you are making a decent living instead of passing around the tip bucket. This is not pie-in-the-sky; I have seen it happen firsthand, over and over again.
It really is true: change comes from within. A question I get a lot from kids in the classroom is “How do you get to be a professional musician?” And my answer to them sounds like a non-answer: “To become a professional musician, you first have to decide that you are a professional musician.”
Before they think I’m drifting off into Inscrutable Buddha-Land, I elaborate: “That means to learn your instrument really well, and learn how to work with others in a band, and show up early, and do a good job, and make sure you keep the people who hired you happy, and build referrals. But the root of it is that you set your wage, not somebody else. And you have to decide what you are worth, and refuse to go below that amount.”
A wise man once wrote, “If you don’t turn down at least two gigs per month because they don’t pay enough, then you are asking too little.”
At this point, some people are probably saying with exasperation, “But then I would never work!” To them I say: “You’re not working now. You’re performing charity.” And if you’re feeling charitable, there’s a slew of causes more worthy than the Sixth Street Entertainment District.
So think it over, and when you’re ready to step up, call the Austin Fed of Musicians. I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up: 512-440-1414.
And to my union brethren across the labor spectrum, I wish you all a Happy Labor Day!