The Death of the Austin Federation of Musicians

At least we still have the bats.

At least we still have the bats.

Not this year, perhaps.  But whether there is still a Local in Austin TX in 2020–seven short years from now–is completely dependent on new members joining.  And particularly new members in their 20’s and 30’s, if the local is to have a future and not merely a reprieve.

It’s ironic that the self-proclaimed ‘Live Music Capitol of the World’ can’t seem to support the only union dedicated to the protection of working professional musicians, but there it is.  Membership continues to go down, because our aging core group of members is dying (literally) or retiring.  And younger working musicians are not rushing in to take their place.  Simple math tells us that this is not sustainable.

I have been a union member for over 25 years, both here and in Oregon.  And the most common argument I get from other musicians justifying not joining the union can be summed up in one sentence: “The union doesn’t do anything for me, so why should I support it with my dues?”

There are many answers to this question, including networking, wage protection, insurance, pension, and contract negotiation.  But let me set all that aside for a moment and instead offer an analogy.

Let’s say one you day you go out to your mailbox, and discover a rich uncle has passed away and left you his mansion, with the stipulation that you maintain the grounds for ten years.  All the taxes are paid; you just need to mow the lawn.  In ten years, it’s yours free and clear.

At this point, most people would happily shoulder the burden, because in ten years you can move into it, or sell it, whatever you wish.  You will be ‘set for life’.

Well, guess what, young musicians?  You have already been bequeathed that mansion.  It’s called ‘Local 433’.

The property has already been paid for through the efforts of over one hundred years worth of dues-paying musicians.  Working together, we built the stage at Zilker Park Amphitheater; the Free Concert Series at Auditorium Shores, and more recently the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum; and the wage guarantees and benefits enjoyed today by members of the Austin Symphony Orchestra and the Austin Lyric Opera.

All you have to do is maintain the lawn for a while.  It’s in your own self-interest not to throw away the investment already paid for by others.

But hold on, you say.  None of those protections apply to me.  I don’t play in the Symphony or Ballet.  I will never tour, and if I do tour, I will never suffer a loss of equipment or a broken contract on the road far from home.  I will never be asked to perform on a television or radio broadcast in a union state like New York or California, which would lead to secondary payments to me.  I will never write an original piece of music that needs to be protected, nor will I create original arrangements or recordings of the works of others.  I will never record, ever, with my own band or on someone else’s project.  My music will never inspire others to record it, leading to mechanical rights payments to me as the originator.  I will never play a live engagement, anywhere, ever, that requires a contract.  In fact, I will never play for a guaranteed wage–only for what people are willing to toss into the tip jar.

Really?  That’s your business plan?  What profession are you in again?

One of the hardest things for young people to do–I know, I was one once–is to take the long view.  In the beginning, it’s all jam sessions, late nights, groupies, and guest lists.  But somewhere around the time you approach your 30’s, you look around and realize there’s been an awful lot of wheel-spinning with little to show for it.  That’s when a lot of performers either quit altogether, or get serious.

And if you’re serious, it’s time to move on up to the mansion.

At this point, I will hear this:  “Great, but I’m barely scraping by as it is.  I can’t afford to join the union.”

Right.  Can’t afford $200 per year in union dues, and a buck a gig in work dues.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.  That’s not a staggering sum of money to come up with.  Start tracking your expenses, and I’ll bet you spend at least twice that annually at coffeehouses.  Eat lunch out three times a week?  There goes at least $1500 per year.  Make one of those meals breakfast instead, and your union dues are paid.

No, the reason people don’t join is because the union is a long-term investment, and lunch isn’t.  But lunch is over and done in a thirty minutes, and hopefully you’re going to be around a little longer than that.

Today, there is a lot of hand-wringing over protecting Austin’s ‘creatives’.  Panels are convened, the City Council is petitioned, sections of the city are set aside to further the arts, health and mental health aid organizations are springing up right and left.  Bully for all that.  But let’s get something straight here: professional musicians are not indigents.  This industry we create and sustain brings millions of tourist/entertainment dollars into the city every year.  It might take a strong step on your part to move away from ‘tip receiver’ and up to ’employer’.  But I did it, and I’m no genius.  I’m betting you can too.

What, no jokes?  OK, I’ll leave you with a token musician riddle.

What do you call a beautiful woman on the arm of a trombone player?  That’s right…a tattoo.

Now, JOIN THE DAMN UNION!  512-440-1414.  Thank you!

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8 Comments

  1. Very well said my Mike Melinger!!!!

    I am enjoying my Union Pension very much!!!

    Ernie Durawa-Texas Tornados

  2. In 5 years I’ll have my gold card. When I joined, bass players and drummers got a little extra for cartage, and the hotels in Kansas City had 12 man minimums for all the big ball rooms. The Labor Day picnic in New Orleans back in the day was just wonderful. Everyone was chowing down and passing out business cards. You might casually bump into Allen Toussaint or Mac Rebennack, have a nice conversation over a hot dog and score some tour dates if you came well recommended.

  3. Who all did this go out to?

    • Anyone brave enough to locate and read my blog. Counting you, probably fifty people.
      This might be a good time to re-state the obvious–any views I present on my blog are mine alone, submitted as a private citizen with a brain and a keyboard. Feel free to disagree at any point; ’tis everyone’s right.

      • I agree … I was just wondering if it “hit our target” … with me, it’s like preaching to the choir.
        I just wondered if this message was making it outside our circle.

  4. When I’m posting, is this “out there” or am sending a personal message to you? (It’s fine for it to be “out there”…we SHOULD get a dialog going. This is the oldest professional musicians association in Texas and we should keep it going. Now who else is “IN”?

    • The first comment by a new poster is moderated by me. After that, it just lands here on the page, in front of G-d and everybody.

      • And YES! I’m in, by the way.

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