An instrumental role

Despite a testy relationship with its conference leadership, the Recording Musicians Assn. continues to successfully represent the "players in the trenches."

The people who regularly gather on Hollywood scoring stages to create the music for film and TV productions generally have a couple of things in common. First, they share an astonishing level of talent, combining virtuoso musicianship with almost supernatural sight-reading prowess and an ability to work under tremendous pressure. Also, just about every player who makes a living on those scoring stages is a member of the Recording Musicians Assn.

The RMA is sometimes spoken of as "the musicians' union" -- the players' equivalent of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Screen Actors Guild or the Writers Guild of America -- but, actually, it isn't. The contracts and agreements recording musicians work under are all officially negotiated and ratified by the American Federation of Musicians, the national union that represents all working musicians -- from symphony violinists to jazz club sidemen to jingle-recording sessionmen.


So, what and who exactly is the RMA?

"Technically, the RMA is a conference within the AFM," says Dennis Dreith, a former RMA president who now serves as administrator of the Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund. "It's an officially recognized organization within the union, and while the RMA doesn't have agreements per se with film and television employers, it represents the players in the trenches and is in a position to advise and generate the framework for agreements."

The RMA isn't the only conference within the union -- there also are conferences established to address the particular concerns of players in large symphony orchestras, players in smaller regional orchestras, players in theatrical productions and a separate conference for musicians working in Canada.

While many trade unions and guilds have a lengthy or complicated admissions process, membership in both the AFM and RMA is fairly straightforward. Part of the AFM's charter is to be as inclusive and diverse a union as possible, so all that's required for membership is the filing of an application and the paying of dues. Any member of the AFM is then eligible to join the RMA, again by applying and paying additional dues to that organization. Los Angeles-based Local 47 of the AFM currently has approximately 9,000 members, most of whom work in live performance settings. Of that larger group, more than 1,000 players specializing in recording work have taken the additional step of joining the RMA.

"If people are working in recording situations, they're probably going to join the RMA, though they don't have to in order to get work," current RMA Los Angeles president Neil Stubenhaus says. "There's no obligation to join, but we have the most incentive to really understand our side of the business, and it's important for us to have a voice within the union. We have different tiers of RMA membership because some people are willing to pay more -- they don't get any different service from the RMA -- they're just willing to contribute more. The goal of the RMA is to protect and enhance the perceived value and actual value of professional musicians, and I think the smarter RMA members understand that goal and are willing to help fund it. The value of musicians is not where it deserves to be, and that's what we fight for."

The RMA membership roster includes several musical luminaries such as Danny Elfman, James Newton Howard, John Williams and Stevie Wonder. But for the most part, members are hardly household names. "We've got some big-time composers and songwriters as members," says RMA International president Phil Ayling, "but it's really a pretty anonymous group. Our job is to be consistently, anonymously brilliant, while backing up the composers and performers that are recording their work."

It's the brilliance -- not necessarily the RMA membership -- that gets a player a shot working on scoring stages. It's the job of contractor Sandy DeCrescent to put together whatever type of group or orchestra a film composer might need, but she says that when it comes to giving a musician a call to work, she does not consider anything beyond basic AFM membership.

"I would never pick anyone based on RMA membership or not," she says. "You pick the best players for the situation, and whether they're a member of this or that organization never enters into it. On a scoring stage, you've got all AFM players, and some may or may not be RMA, but that's something I can't even look at. I want a room full of brilliant players, and whether they're in one group or the other or whether they're even nice people can't enter into it. All I'm thinking of is what happens when they pick up their instrument and start to play."

While both AFM and RMA leadership generally have aimed for increased work and wages for union members, they haven't always agreed on where to stand ground and where to make concessions in contract negotiations, and the relationship between the union and its conference has sometimes been a stormy one.

"One time, early in my RMA career, an unhappy AFM officer called me an 'elitist overachiever,'" Dreith says. "I wanted to take it as a compliment, though I know it wasn't meant that way. Historically, there's been an interesting relationship between the AFM and RMA where there has been an ebb and flow of rancor and political conflict and also times of remarkable cooperation. To some extent, that push and pull propels both groups along. Things can be very strained, but out of those most strained periods come either the periods of greatest inaction or the greatest achievements."

AFM Local 47 president Hal Espinosa happily cites one recent achievement: Wages for Los Angeles musicians in the first half of 2006 were up $1 million over the same period in 2005. "I understand complaints about the union because I used to be the one doing the complaining," says Espinosa, who also is a dues-paying member of the RMA. "But I think we're making a lot of progress in spreading the word that if you want really quality recording, you do it here in L.A. And we've tried to make contracts as flexible as possible so that players can easily go from a recording gig to an opera gig to a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. There are a lot of trials and tribulations the union leadership and membership go through, but it certainly is wonderful when cooperation wins out."

The RMA works on a full slate of issues specific to film and TV recording, but a primary concern is the structuring of agreements to address the new complexities of the digital world.

In its fight to keep work on Los Angeles scoring stages, the group has lobbied for tax breaks and state incentives for film productions and was key in developing a low-budget film agreement to meet the needs of independent productions. The RMA also has pushed for that most basic of Hollywood acknowledgments -- inclusion in the credit crawl. AFM Local 47 recently took out trade ads to thank director John Lasseter and composer Randy Newman of Buena Vista's summer release "Cars," as well as director Spike Lee and composer Terence Blanchard of Universal's "Inside Man," for listing in the credits of those films all the musicians who played on the scores.

"In general, the RMA leadership has helped keep many movies from going out of town," contractor Debbi Datz-Pyle says. "I think composers would much prefer to stay here, but they don't always have leverage with the studios, producers or directors. The RMA leaders have helped to bridge the communication gap by stepping in and clearing up any misconceptions the studios have regarding the cost of scoring here."

At the Warner Bros. Pictures lot, president of music operations Doug Frank says he's happy to keep work in town and to keep Warners' Eastwood Scoring stage busy. "I don't ever find the union or the RMA difficult to deal with, and I think we want the same thing," he says. "I love to roll right out of my office and be able to monitor a scoring session without having to go halfway around the world. And we know that if we score in town, we're going to have a great-sounding score done quickly and flawlessly -- while you can find other great musicians around the world, nobody can sit down and sight read and play any style of music with feeling the way Los Angeles players can. The reasons somebody might score outside of L.A. certainly has nothing to do with the musicians."

In fact, even as film production has become increasingly international, Los Angeles-based musicians are still considered the world's finest. "Hollywood films get made in Germany and Japan and Australia, but I'm still amazed at the fact that with all these films being made all over the world, so many come back to L.A. for postproduction scoring," Ayling says. "I think that's a sign that we've got both great players and some strong, healthy contracts in place."

Adds Stubenhaus: "The people who want a really good product are willing to go where that product is and pay what it costs because they know it's good. A continuing part of the RMA's job is to sell our product well."