Musicians Ask – “Should I Join A Musicians Union?”
In Todays Environment Are There Benefits To Belonging To A Union?
Musicians ask “Should I Join A Musicians Union?”
Well things were very different from today back in the 60’s when I was just learning to be a drummer and playing gigs in my first bands. Musicians ask “Should I Join A Musicians Union?”
Drinking age was 21 in Ontario, and 18 in New York state. As a minor I was not allowed to play in the local bars and I was not experienced enough to get gigs in the States. Although I was still under 18 it was easier to go drink in Buffalo and get away with it because, most of those bars did not check ID very closely and made it easy to go tip a few with our friends.
At the time I didn’t realize the drinking age being 21 was a blessing in disguise for local bands. We were Baby Boomers and there were a lot of us looking for a good time. The following is from my experiences in the Niagara Region of Ontario but I am confident that the same was going on throughout Ontario. So where did we go to have some fun?
“So Many Dance Halls”
Every weekend there were many teen dances being offered in my area. The banquet halls would be rented by a fraternity or sorority for dances and fundraisers. The churches would use their halls for teen dances put on by church youth groups. There were quite a few dance halls run for profit by banquet hall owners that were established since the 20’s. Let’s not forget the ever popular High School Dances.
The only real DJ’s were on the radio. No Karaoke. Just Live Music! performed by amateur and professional musicians.
The popular bands with air play on the radio would come and perform at larger venues to promote their latest release. These events catered to the the under 21 crowd and no alcohol was allowed to be served.
So it was common place for us minors to bring a mickey of our favourite alcoholic beverage and do our drinking outside before going into the dance hall. Not a very good scenario as many showed up drunk and you could always count on at least one fight.
In those days, bands that had drinking age members were playing the bars and touring the hotel circuits. The Gigs would be for shows 3 to 6 days a week and usually with a matinee somewhere in the mix. Rooms and some meals were often provided. One nighters in a bar/hotel would have been an exception.
“Does Belonging To The Canadian Federation of Musicians Help Me?“
The pay would be determined by an American Federation of Musicians contract that complied with the union minimum rates. This did not prevent a higher pay, just the minimum allowed. The venues and the musicians were usually members of the union. The bars and dance halls were not allowed to hire non union musicians or face being blackballed. The same was true for the musician that needed to be a member to play in union venues and faced repercussions if playing in a non union venue.
It was not unusual for a union inspector to ask to see your union card when playing a gig.
Getting Blackballed by the union meant venues had limited choice for entertainment and musicians limited choice for gigs. Not a good thing. When a band leader needed a musician to fill for a gig he would go through the union members list and avoid the blacklisted members. If musicians wanted to play the better venues and venues wanted the more popular musicians, they would become members.
“That Was Then But Change Was In The Wind”
In those days when drinking age was 21 and alcoholic beverages were only served in licensed hotels and banquets such as weddings. Restaurants sold only food.
Times have changed over the years. The drinking age in Ontario was lowered to 18 in 1971 and slowly the laws were changed as to who and where alcohol could be served. Young adults 18 and over stoped going to teen dances and started visiting the hotels. The hotels started featuring more Live Entertainment to draw the new legal drinkers. New bars started popping up. These were not hotels that had food services, rooms for rent and a bar with entertainment. The new norm became a bar that only required food to be served as well as alcohol with Live Entertainment.
The government of Ontario realized that by maintaining control over booze through the LCBO and putting high taxes on sales their coffers would be full.
The monopoly on booze sales of the hotel industry was coming to an end. Competition for sales of alcoholic beverages became intense. Ontario started looking more and more like Buffalo NY where there have been multiple bars on every corner since before the end of WW2. In many ways it was a good thing. Ontario liquor laws were antiquated and needed to be updated to a modern era.
With all the competition the old style hotels were forced to compete more for clientele. Owners looked for a draw to their establishments.
“Live Entertainment Rules the Day”
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s the bars were featuring Live Entertainment and drew big crowds. Bands were being paid relatively well and the AF of M membership shrunk. Lots of gigs for lots of bands. The local musicians and bars paid no attention to the union or its rules. Membership to the union started to drop.
It seemed that the only members were players in orchestras, national and international acts. The contracts complied with AF of M rules and regulations. These are acts that did not really need minimum pay protection but the contracts were legally binding in case of breach.
The local bar bands made deals on a handshake. Unfortunately when it came to getting paid at the end of the gig, the handshake agreement was not always enough if an owner refused to pay the agreed upon amount or they were presented with bar tabs amounting to more than their pay would cover. The musicians without contract had no recourse and sometimes the disagreements would end up with aggressive physical violence and or threats. Overall the bar owners were happy with the crowds and the bands had lots of work. Good times.
“Look Out Here Come the 80’s”
Things started to change in the 80’s. As the age of the computer started coming into play in our daily lives, it started having an impact on the music industry. Disco was becoming popular. Musicians started incorporating more and more electronics into their equipment list. And not just your wawa pedal or reverb unit either. Analog was being replaced by digital. Analog albums replaced by digital cd’s, drum machines started replacing accoustic drums and drummers and bands replaced by DJ’s. It did not happen over night but it did happen quickly. The pace of change was dictated by the innovation in technology, both hardware and software, that was growing at lightning speed.
“Overhead for Bars going up. Profit margins going down. What’s a Bar owner to do?”
While the tech was advancing at a fast rate, the liquor laws continued to be restrictive. The governments solution to prevent over use of alcohol was to increase the taxes. The bar owners were penalized further by being charged higher taxes on purchase from LCBO and were forced to collect higher taxes at point of sale of the alcohol. So the average person buying from LCBO (a government controlled outlet) paid less than a bar owner purchasing for resale. Add in the costs of operation (labour and fixed costs) and the bar owner had to charge higher prices for drinks. Advertising beverages and the prices was not allowed. Happy hour not permitted. Prices were not allowed to fluctuate. Alcohol for resale could only be purchased from the LCBO and not direct from distributers. LCBO was and is a monopoly in the truest sense of the word.
As more and more bars came into existance, the battle for customers became intense. Entertainment became the main draw. Live music was in demand. The lower drinking age killed the dance halls and now if you wanted live music you would either go to a bar or a large venue like concert halls, arenas etc.
“Drinking Age Was Lower, But Restrictions Became Tougher”
The laws for resale became more and more restrictive. Liability issues became a problem and the cost of liability insurance kept increasing. Taxes kept going higher on product and payroll. Add in the fact that these restrictive laws for legal establishments persisted, more and more bootleggers and after hour clubs were opening. No rules, cheap booze, illegal drugs all uncontrolled and avoiding the law through loop holes. Law enforcement could not touch them without violating the perpetrators rights. It was a total joke. The lawbreakers had more rights than the legal bar owner and made profits that surpassed anything the legals could imagine. All tax free.
It was not cheap to hire a decent band that could draw the crowds. The average band in the bars was getting around $100 per man so the cost of a band with 3 to 6 players was between $300 and $600 a night. A big cost for the bar owner especially if the band did not draw clientele. Competition got tougher and tougher with new bars opening regularily. Unlike the bigger bars, the small to medium sized local bars could not charge a cover charge for local acts. The local patrons wanted cheap entertainment while they enjoyed low cost food and beverages. Profit margins for the owners was low and costs kept increasing. Something had to give.
“Cut Those Expenses”
Like most business’ when times are tough they have to make decisions that will help them survive. What can they cut to save money? Unfortunately the choices made are not always the right ones, but they tend to attack the obvious. Labour, Advertising and Entertainment. All poor choices in my opinion, but to the distressed bar owner it seems like the easiest cuts to make. Most of the other expenses are fixed and they feel they have no power over controlling them. Since this article is about musicians we will focus on the cuts to Entertainment.
So how did the bar owners handle reducing the cost of live entertainment? In comes the new tech and Karaoke. instead of paying on average $600 per show an owner could invest a couple thousand bucks on a karaoke machine or hire a Dj with their own gear for a much lower price than a full band saving the owner a lot of money on entertainment.
As the technology progressed the DJ’s and Karaoke became a favoured choice of small and medium sized venues due to the low cost and savings provided, More and more bars followed, and more and more venues for live entertainment disappeared. So what are bands to do? With very few venues available to gig at and the competition from many new bands increasing it got harder and harder for musicians who depend on their living from their trade. Bar and venue owners started taking advantage by offering low pay or no pay for bands desperate to play. The new bands and weekend type bands that were made up of musicians who do not depend on monies earned playing but anxious to play would accept offers to play for exposure or a couple beers or a tiny amount of money that would not even amount to the pay of a fast food worker. This situation forced many established musicians to play for rates not seen since the 70’s. This was a real slap in the face for musicians who worked hard at mastering their trade.
It was tough enough pre pandemic but during the pandemic it got desperate, for both the venue owners and the working musicians.
“Here comes the Covid Pandemic”
No one expected what would happen to the industry when Covid hit. Restrictions. No indoor food service. Gatherings even with just families at funerals not allowed. Live entertainment not allowed. All evcnts cancelled. Total shut down. No industry was hit harder than the Hospitality and Entertainment sectors. The government set up programs to help people from most small business’ but help for people in the Arts and Entertainment were the last to receive any assistance. Even sports events took priority over Arts and Entertainment.
Everyone in the industry were caught unprepared for the devastation. Some fared better than others thanks to their membership to unions such as AFof M, CFofM and SAG-AFTRA.
“How Does Joining a Union Benefit Me?”
For example, The Canadian Federation of Musicians offers from comprehensive instrument, health and liability insurance, to a world-class pension plan, contract protection with emergency travel assistance, free Internet referral postings and access to AFM/CFM-licensed booking agents to keep those gigs coming and more. These are benefits that all musicians need to think about no matter what level you are at in your career experienced or just starting out.
If nothing else, belonging to a union will help set a base pay scale that will benefit all musicians. But the only way a union works effectively is through its membership that abides by the established minimums and only work for venues that abide to those same established minimum. Like any union the key is membership and compliance to the union (membership established) regulations. There is strength in numbers.
You decide. If you are satisfied with the current system then ignore all of this. If not, then do your research and join a union that meets your needs.
Copy of a FB post by Bobby Militello
(American jazz saxophonist and flautist who was a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and past owner of the Tralf in Buffalo)
MUSICIANS NEED TO COME TOGETHER!
I am getting phone calls for gigs that want to pay the same money that was paid 2 1/2 years ago. This is a problem that can only be changed by the musicians themselfs. $5.00 for a gallon of gas and the large increase in food and other comidities. The cost of strings, reeds and other items we need has gone up also. You go to the gig an hour to an hour and a half early and move your gear and setup. Then you play the gig and pack up for another 1/2 hour. Making 75.00 or 100.00 after the costs you incur leaves you in the hole, making less than 30 an hour, which, for the work you’ve put in for your craft is a bare minimum.
All of the places you play have raised their prices by around 30% or more. Most all of the employees are getting 15 per hr and up plus tips. I realize there are 2 sides to every story, but asking players to play for the same wages as they did 2 1/2 years ago is not fair or realistic.
Stand up for youselves. Understand the business we are in doesn’t automatically give us more money with inflation. The only one that can do that is US! Convince the owners to start a cover charge where possible to offset the cost of entertainment. People will understand and actually not mind at all. They enjoy what you do and will be willing to pay for your great music.
Think about it. If everyone starts to do something to raise our prices, life will be better and fairer for all.
This is part of a FB Messenger conversation I had with a very accomplished musician that had sort of disappeared from the scene and we were catching up. I will not post his name for privacy reasons and I respect conversations I have with everyone. This is a snippet of that conversation that I felt I should share with you all here since it reflects what is a common story these days among musicians.
It ain’t no break. I’m pretty well done with it all. The gigs I had with you WERE THE BEST. Got to do what I do and you let me. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THAT. Loved playing at your gigs that you asked me to play. Check this out from a recent inquiry for a gig THIS WEEK. Can’t do it anymore. They wanted 2 rehearsals, then I spend time at home shedding the tunes. Then, the gig. They offered 100 bucks . Come on. After the gas/ expenses to drive to the 2 rehearsals, then the gig plus the time at home working on the BS tunes that they wanted me to play ……. I would be in the hole before I even went to the gig. THEN …. GET THIS …… they wanted me to bring my B-3 and Leslie!!!!!!!!! That rents for 600 bucks a night. For you I brought it since I got to be me and do what I do. I passed on the gig. No wonder musicians are broke. Know your worth baby. They’ll never learn. Take care man.
Recently I went to a concert in Thorold where two of my favourite bands were featured. I had not been to a concert for over 2 years due to the pandemic and I was excited to attend. The park is awesome as a venue and the music was equally awesome.
I made a point of going back stage after the performances and said hello to Jack DeKeyzer and Jerome Godboo. While speaking with them Jeromes drummer came out and I realized it was Al Cross an amazing drummer who I met originally at Joe’s Place when he played with Big Sugar.
Anyway while speaking with Al the subject of the pandemic and its effect on the music industry came up. He agreed it was horrible and had a terrible effect on the industry. He did mention though that he was forturnate that he has been a member of AFofM out of Montreal throughout his career, and had received support through their pension plan. To quote Al ” ….it saved my ass through the pandemic”……
I had not mentioned this post as it was just a thought at that time, but his unsolicited comments reinforced my belief that musicians need protection from these type of situations, and of course from venue owners who want to profit off of the backs of the musicians that draw people to their establishments by paying poor wages. It’s sad that a bartender makes more money than the entertainers in a lot of cases. The bartender is guaranteed minimum wage through government legislation and tips from patrons. The musicians have no guarantees afforded by law.
1 thought on “Musicians Ask – “Should I Join A Musicians Union?””
very interesting article. Wonderful overview on the history of entertainment in clubs. I never knew there was such thing as a Musicians Union. Good to know.