I can remember growing up in rural Pennsylvania, gigging in my cover band, where I couldn’t wait to join the Musicians Union (or American Federation of Musicians – AFM – as it’s officially known). I was under the mistaken impression that as soon as I joined, the union would get me and my band a lot of work. After a while when that didn’t happen I began to wonder, “Why am I paying these dues if all I get is a magazine every month?” Little did I know then that the real benefits of the union primarily extended to musicians working in the studio and on the concert stage.
The fact of the matter is that if you rise to that level, the Union is quite helpful, setting minimum rates that you will get paid, making sure that you’re not overworked or taken advantage of, and collecting money for your pension, among other things.
The problem comes when a union (any union) begins to dip into your pocket and take money that it’s not entitled to, and that’s the basis of a class action lawsuit filed by 30,000 musicians against the Musicians Union and SAG-AFTRA. The suit claims that those unions charged an improper “service fee” on streaming royalty payments.
The conflict arose because of a new 3% fee that the unions charge, which the musicians claimed to be a conflict of interest and not in the spirit of actually helping them out.
The lawsuit was originally filed by musician Kevin Risto in June 2018, accusing AFM and SAG-AFTRA of taking a cut from the recording royalties that are paid to non-featured artists, meaning session musicians.
It’s Real Money
A Los Angeles federal judge agreed and granted preliminary approval of the agreement, which sets the stage for final approval of a deal that will pay $5.35 million to members and decrease this fee in the future. The agreement is expected to become final sometime early next year. This averages out to about $17,800 per member.
The two unions administer what’s know as the Intellectual Property Rights Distribution Fund, which collects performance royalties from non-interactive digital streaming services like Pandora for the sound recordings that its members contribute their services to. The fund then distributes these funds to both union and non-union session musicians.
Ironically, Risto isn’t even a member of either union.
This is just another lesson is not taking anything for granted. Read the paperwork and take not of the fine print of any agreement to make sure that there’s not something there that’s not in your best interest.