Winter Film & TV Music: Fight club

Will film composers get their 'Norma Rae' moment in 2010?

After 28 years without a union, film and television composers are attempting to unionize again, this time partnering with the Teamsters Local 399.

The new union would be designated the Association of Media Composers and Lyricists and would be the first group of its kind since the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, which dissolved in 1982 after a punishing seven-year legal battle with the major studios. (A subsequent attempt to create a new union in 1984, with the assistance of the WGA, was derailed by the National Labor Relations Board, which denied the Society of Composers and Lyricists guild status.)

The attempt to organize is being led by record producer/composer Alan Elliott ("Cop Rock," "Celebrity Deathmatch"); Bruce Broughton, a former Society of Composers and Lyricists president; James Di Pasquale, who helped form the SCL in 1983; and Alf Clausen, the veteran composer of "The Simpsons." The timing in many ways couldn't be better because conditions for film and television composers have never been worse and fees have dropped radically from their levels a few years ago.

"Thirty years ago, the average television all-in fee was $35,000 -- for an hour of television," Elliott says. "That would include the money that would go to the studio, the contractor, the musicians, the orchestrators, the copyists, the players. With inflation from 1979 to 2010, that should be $104,000, but most network television shows now are around $14,000 all-in, which means that the total number has fallen to about 13% of what it was."

But not everyone in the industry supports the union plan.

"Where things could get mucked up is (by) trying to have working-condition issues that aren't really the (problem for) 95% of the people actually working," one film music agent notes. "There needs to be a greater respect for the services of composers, and you don't create that by imposing more restrictions. Composers will get better conditions when they are perceived more as creators of unique and valuable art than grinders of mass-produced musical sausages."

Elliott disagrees and notes that salaries and conditions have declined substantially during the past three decades, in contrast to those for members of other unions.

Composers now produce twice the amount of music for far less money, he says, and do work their predecessors never had to: creating detailed mockups of cues that frequently have to be redone several times and, in many cases, performing and recording elements of the score.

Technology has been a double-edged sword, giving composers more control but leading to the impression that composers should be able to do anything.

"Most of the people running music departments in the studios are former business affairs people," Elliott says. "They believe you just press a button on a computer marked 'next cue' and that's all there is to writing music."

More ominous for composers who have paid for years of musical training, new equipment and software can allow people with no musical background to conjure up an acceptable underscore.

"There was a show on FX a couple of years ago -- it's still on right now -- and they didn't have enough money for music," Elliott recalls. "So the editor started putting together music in this Apple program (called) Garage Band. He started doing cues in Garage Band and he is now a working composer, and the technology makes it very difficult to tell the difference between what a professional has done and an amateur."

With these challenges, along with the lack of health benefits, pensions and any collective-bargaining clout, there may be ample arguments for unionizing. But, while the political environment may have improved, the past year's economic upheaval complicates the situation.

"Corporations use any excuse, whether it's 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or a global economic meltdown," says composer George S. Clinton ("Austin Powers," "The Tooth Fairy"). "That's the nature of big business. And as studios have become more vertically owned, music divisions that used to be more composer-friendly have had to toe the bottom line."

While studios concentrate more furiously on the bottom line, the sheer number of young composers coming into the field means more people competing for a smaller pot. But that adds to the grounds for unionization, says composer Christopher Young ("Creation," "Drag Me to Hell"): "The time is right for a union, if for no other reason than to finally protect the multitude of greatly talented and unrepresented young composers that have been chasing their tails for years, competing to deliver complete scores for free."

Organizers say there are four clear goals a union would need to accomplish: health benefits, pensions, improved working conditions (largely related to the amount of time composers should have to produce a score) and fee minimums.

"Health benefits, pension benefits are a no-brainer," Broughton argues. "We would have to work on working conditions before minimums because we have to address the situations that are the worst. The main thrust of the unionization idea is not to go after the studios to get as much money as we can, but to get a firm bottom, so it doesn't get any worse."

Adds Elliott: "Less than 5% of the composers have health insurance through Motion Picture Health and Welfare. It's a desert -- so if we even put up a couple cactuses, we'll be doing something."

Another prominent agent, however, is skeptical: "I'm all for composers being able to better access health insurance and pension benefits, and if unionization faciliates that it would be great," he says. "I don't think, though, given current economic realities, that unionization -- even if successful -- will create any significant upward pressure on fees as there will always be composers willing to work non-union and producers who don't know the difference."

"Package" deals, where composers are given a fee they must use to pay for musician performances, recording and other costs, as well as their own salary, are becoming increasingly common -- and one reason composers have found it difficult to escape from their designation as independent contractors. That "independent" label was the reason the NLRB denied their bid for unionization before.

Composer Carter Burwell ("A Serious Man") notes that, while packages have been common in independent film for some time, they're now becoming common in bigger productions as well.

"It makes it very hard, particularly for new people in the industry, to do the job," he says. "I have noticed everything going down -- in terms of the amount of time people have to record and write their music, and what they're paid -- and unionization would be good, if only because it would at least establish some balance that you can't go below in terms of budget, the number of days you have to do your work and the amount musicians will be paid."

Elliott, Broughton and Teamsters organizer Steve Dayan call a Nov. 16 informational meeting in Burbank a success, with 400 composers in attendance and 200 taking sample union cards to indicate their interest. Their next step is to get two-thirds of working composers to agree to begin serious discussions about what a composers' union would entail and what its specific goals should be. While initial support has been there, the organizers say that there is a "stealth" aspect to some of it.

"There are a lot of guys who will be nominated for Emmys and Oscars soon, who wanted to quietly be involved," Elliott says. "If we wanted to press the issue in the next week, we have the strength to do it. Our job right now is to make sure we get to 100%, not 60%."

But others think that high-profile support from A-list composers, who may not have as much to gain personally, will be crucial to giving the push momentum. "Until a Tommy Newman or a Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman stands up and says, 'I am a member of this union and you have to hire me through this union,' unionization isn't going to happen," Clinton says. "You say to the studio, 'You have to hire me through this union,' they're just going to say, 'No thanks, we're going to go with this other guy.' "

Of course, with this fragile economy, the studios may be even less willing to hear about a union than before.

"Warner Bros. cut 40% of their music department right before New Year's, including firing the president who had two years left on his contract," Elliott says. "Unlike 30 or 40 years ago, where you had studios versus unions, the music departments all over town understand that, unless this goes through, they're (going to get) heat from their bosses as to why they even need a music department."

Elliott is optimistic that momentum will pick up as the effort moves into 2010. "We believe we're about halfway to the two-thirds now. The way we're moving, by year's end we'll have a union."