AFTRA sound: grumbling

Musicians lead protest against labels

AFTRA turns 70 on Thursday, but the union's more than 9,000 recording artists won't be popping any champagne bottles.

AFTRA's sound-recordings contract expired June 30, and talks about a new agreement are going poorly enough to prompt an online protest campaign against major record labels.

Those affected by the negotiations include contract performers paid through royalties and recording session singers. On the management side, reps at the negotiating table include those for Sony BMG, Warner Music, Universal Music and EMI as well as about 2,000 related and other record labels.

"The negotiations are ongoing," AFTRA spokesman John Hinrichs said.

He refused to elaborate, but a posting on the union's Web site seeks member support for a petition drive aiming "to tell the record labels to negotiate a fair contract."

Snags in the talks mostly involve proposals on employers' health and pension benefits, the union claims.

"The major record labels need to hear from you right now," urged the posting, accompanied by an online petition form. "Tell them that their proposals are totally unacceptable."

AFTRA claims management proposals include givebacks in basic health benefits, continuing to pay benefits to group recording artists "as if they are one artist" and excluding background singers from digital distribution compensation.

"In this new age of digital distribution, older recordings are finding new popularity through subscriptions services, downloads, ringtones and ringbacks," the union said in a related message to record labels. "Background singers, whose voices are heard on these recordings, should share in these new sources of revenue, just like everyone else who contributes to the music you sell."

Label reps deferred comment to Norman Samnick, a labor lawyer and a trustee of AFTRA health and retirement plan who has been hired by the labels to negotiate the new sound-recordings contract on behalf of management.

"There is no impasse," Samnick said. "We are ongoing." He declined to address AFTRA's specific complaints.

However, a source close to management said the matter of background singers' benefits is not so much a question of whether they will share in digital-distribution money but how much they will receive and for how long.

The management insider also said any suggestion of a demand for benefit givebacks is "totally inaccurate."

AFTRA claims that its own proposals have been modest.

"The total cost of our union's proposals to the entire recording industry -- which would spread benefits and protection to thousands of artists seeking fair treatment -- is a small fraction of what a single label currently spends on the promotion of one new recording artist or what a single label might pay in a few executive bonuses," AFTRA said in the Web posting.

Separately on Wednesday, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon issued an upbeat membership message in advance of today's anniversary. Founded on this date in 1937 as the American Federation of Radio Artists, AFTRA aims continually to rise to new technological challenges, she said.

"AFTRA was born in a technology revolution 70 years ago," Reardon said. "And the 'T' was added to AFRA when television became 'the next big thing.' Moving forward together is the AFTRA way."

Indeed, in addition to figuring in the sound-recording talks, technology issues will be front and center when the union and its negotiating partner SAG meet with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to negotiate a new film and TV contract. Their current pact expires June 30, and the unions are expected to seek substantially broadened compensation for performances originated or re-used over the Internet or other new-media platforms.

But togetherness is hardly the best way to describe AFTRA's relationship with SAG, so Reardon's anniversary message will resonate most credibly within the union itself.

AFTRA's recent convention in Philadelphia was marked by upbeat member participation, and action items coming out of that confab include the union's seeking a first-time direct charter with the AFL-CIO (HR 8/15). The union represents more than 70,000 performers, broadcasters and recording artists.

Meanwhile, AFTRA's Hinrichs said scheduling difficulties make it uncertain whether another bargaining session can be scheduled in the sound-recording talks before Labor Day. AFTRA and label reps haven't met in person since July 3, though the parties did conduct an extensive conference call Aug. 9.

There has been a similar scheduling stall in fledgling film and TV negotiations between the AMPTP and the WGA. The parties' first two sessions were marked by sharp disagreement over compensation for digitally distributed content.