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  • Writer's pictureNicholas O'Toole

On the Topic of Unionization of Composers

This has always been an interesting topic to me. I really want to keep this short but...I'll do my best.

• Personally, I absolutely oppose a unionization of composers and do not believe it will ever happen or can happen.

• Before reading this I suggest you first read the following article.

Hollywood composers in bid to unionize | Reuters

I was an assistant and witnessed one of the earliest meetings on this and most of the people listed were there. The guy leading the charge struck me as being motivated by bitterness. He was advocating for himself, mainly. Even at the time I felt he was over-reaching by speaking for anyone but himself. While complaining about conditions, it became apparent that what he really wanted was a guarantee that he would have work FIRST, and SECOND he wanted specific conditions. The first thing I said after this meeting was "he should not be the face of whatever this is. He is way too angry".

• Scoring film at the high end is a fine art and fine artists do not need, want to, or strive to rely on collective bargaining because it is not a collective. Isn't bargaining what agents do?

• Composers are typically not employees and do not wish to be. If a composer is an employee, then they are trading independence and variety for a stable paycheck from one master and is covered under existing employment laws protecting basic worker rights. True, there are unions for talented people who are employed but they are craftsmen. For example, the construction worker. It takes skill and talent to operate a crane. But the architect, not unionized (technically there is an international union but it's not the same).

• Minimums drive fees down, not up. Setting minimums means you must negotiate up. An independent artist who knows their "established" value enjoys more opportunity and is positioned to enjoy the other side must negotiate down. You can argue that fees or budgets have gone down but unionizing will lock them in and set severe obstacles virtually nullifying the ability to negotiate without getting a collective to strike.

• The musician's union basically established some benefits of employment without being employed plus basic rates which they can easily charge double or triple the rate based on who they are. What happened next? Studios squeezed the composers and they simply started hiring non-union musicians in other regions. The world has many composers.

• A poorly structured union just makes it illegal to hire/work in Hollywood and like the musician's union, makes low budget/indi work nearly impossible.

• Being in demand as a composer is based on things having nothing to do with the items being argued for unionization.

• If a composer can prove they have a unique gifted insight, a voice, and an ability to manifest music which translates and expresses the emotion of the film to the director's taste, RELIABLY and MASTERFULLY, and can deliver within a timeframe then they will have work. Work is based on relationships. A good relationship comes with better conditions.

• Anyone can incorporate a business and engage in commerce. The world does business according to a UNIFORM COMMERCIAL CODE. A corporation saves money in taxes, enables one to set up their own group health plan, invest in insurance funds that they can borrow against without repayment... do it for yourself and be free. Ask someone else to do it for you and you make them your master.

• Busy composers need management not union watchdogs who project the constant threat of striking.

• Who are the abused when it comes to composers? Who, people who agreed to do a job for a certain budget? Is a union meant to demand a minimum budget for scoring? That will become the new ceiling offset by the other mundane benefits being asked for. It only seems like an employer "pays" half of this or all of that. They don't. It's all factored in. You will get what you are going to get. I always got more because I was incorporated and managed the rest myself. This makes you easier to hire.

• A union will not find anyone work and I think this is half of what is really being sought after which is why you won't find many in-demand composers arguing for a union.

• the other half is time. Composers are complaining about the time demands but what they forget is that a whole bunch of people have already spent months or longer getting up early, flying and driving to places, in meetings and doing the work to prepare the media for them. Then we come in at the end, working from home with virtually no oversight and very little overhead cost to write music and they certainly don't care or want to hear us whine. They give us money and expect us to figure out how to deliver.

• I've witnessed and experienced so many occasions where I or another composer was given more time or more money to get the job done because it was needed, reasonable and because it was asked. No big deal. Some situations will be better than others.

• It takes grit. Have grit. If you don't have grit, a union won't help you. They will just make you look weak. Speak for yourself. Be an authority. Be humble, grateful, work hard and ask for what you are worth, unapologetically.

• The whole unionization topic seems to revolve around the lower end and unemployed. There is no real need.

• Unions are for laborers and craftsmen. Notice the actors, writers and directors are part of a "guild" NOT a union. Words matter.

• Composers cannot unionize because the only way to ever pull it off is to do it overnight, in secret with everyone on board. Won't happen. Talent is cultivated over time. Nobody starts at the top. A union is a blockade to getting there and as much as everyone wants this to be a loving community, we are all competitors. Of course, we can help each other and be civil. But, as we have seen, we don't tend to give away work. We will take more on and hire. That's how we help.

• Just google Las Vegas unionization and read about the many different groups currently trying to unionize. What do they all have in common? They are employees. We are not employees of anyone. Doesn't even make sense to unionize against entities who offer contract work. This is commerce. If there are 100 in-house composers working for Company XYZ who are not happy with the conditions, they can unionize, and it makes sense that they would if they are confined and abused and need to ask for change in a collective voice. Composers do not have a collective voice in this matter and if you are considering one position or another then you really need to consider if the point of view you are adopting is based on the message coming from the movement or your own experience.

• Composers are better off as entrepreneurs. This is a much more powerful position. The risk is there but it is also respected.

• It would certainly be nice if a production budgeted more for music and if the package deal didn't replace studios paying other production costs but that is what happened. They knew it would put pressure on composers to innovate and they did so at the expense of union musicians, basically. It’s unfortunate. But, if that union didn't exist, then the workers wouldn't leave town. Top talent will always be able to dictate a fair rate. Everyone else must prove themselves and it's hard. It's hard because there are way more people trying than there is work. Unions won't change that. The industry will react and retaliate. Know how the world works. Don't be naive. There is no should, only "it would be nice if... but a free society has costs".

• A composer strike doesn't shut down a city or industry. They will just license or get someone from Romania and make an object lesson.

• At least know what you are trading for what you are asking for. The studios, productions are not the enemy. Don't ask, don't get. Keep doing what you do, keep getting what you got. But if you are going to least have the grit to ask for it yourself. Agents serve in that capacity to avoid awkwardness and know terms so the creatives can focus on that. They exist for those who need them, and composers exist for agents who can sell them. It's that simple.

• If a union sprung up and made it impossible for a production to hire me as a composer or there was a strike which demanded halting work, here's what I would do. Because I'm incorporated, I'd just write the score and then license it on an exclusive world•wide license agreement, enjoy the benefits of that which probably includes retaining publishing since it is a license. I wouldn't shoot myself in the foot over a fight I never wanted to be a part of and was forced on me. Can't do that with acting, writing or directing.

• That is what studios and businesses want. They want to engage in commerce with people and entities who can stand on their own, negotiate and deliver. Ones they can respect. They view employees as property. Unionizing makes you an employee without equitable commitment. There are plenty who are not seeking to unionize, and they are surely the most valuable ones to the industry. They are likely the ones who are already getting the bulk of the work and it's not because they unionized.

•Where is the organized list of complaints and grievances? If someone who is not employed by you, a contractor who you engage with on a per need basis, sends you a list of complaints on behalf of all contractors demanding specific things including minimum budgets, minimum time requirements, benefits, and other considerations…what would you do? The first thing I’d do is make them prove that they do indeed speak for all contractors. If a union is formed, it must be backed by a law requiring compliance.

• I’ve witnessed a lot of flexibility when needed. Nobody is perfect. Nobody budgets perfectly. They will find more money if time is unavailable. Understand though, you agreed to deliver a product on a budget and deadline.

• If you support a composer union because it sounds nice then you don’t really understand it. If you support it because you have complaints, what are they? I’m sure I know but I’m curious why and if you really know and if it is based on one or a few past situations or a constant set of circumstances.

• We are not employees. I don’t want to be so I cannot support a union, nor do I feel I or anyone needs one and I’ve experienced directly or indirectly almost every variation of the job.

I asked CHAT GPT “what are the requirements for a group to unionize in California”. Here is what it said. Note the very first item.

As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, the requirements for a group to unionize in California are as follows:

1. Employee Status: The group seeking to unionize must consist of employees rather than independent contractors. Independent contractors typically do not have the same rights to organize and collectively bargain under labor laws.

2. Support and Interest: The employees interested in forming a union must demonstrate sufficient interest and support for unionization. This is often achieved through signing union authorization cards or expressing interest in writing.

3. Majority Support: Generally, most of the employees in the proposed bargaining unit must express their desire to be represented by the union. In some cases, the specific threshold may vary depending on the type of employees and the labor laws governing their industry.

4. Exclusive Representation: The group seeking to unionize must seek exclusive representation, meaning they want the union to negotiate on their behalf with the employer regarding wages, working conditions, and other terms of employment.

5. Appropriate Bargaining Unit: The group must define an appropriate bargaining unit, which is a group of employees who share common interests and working conditions. This unit will be the one represented by the union during negotiations.

6. Petition for Election: If the employees satisfy the majority support requirement and have defined an appropriate bargaining unit, they can petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to hold an election to determine if the union will be officially recognized as the employees' bargaining representative.

It's important to note that labor laws can change, and specific regulations may vary based on the industry and type of employment. Additionally, my information might be outdated as my last update was in September 2021. Therefore, I recommend checking the official websites of the NLRB and the California PERB or consulting with legal experts for the most current and accurate information regarding unionization requirements in California.

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