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‘We’re Not Being Paid’: Musicians Struggle Against Orchestra Management, Streaming Services

At the end of May, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra management informed their musicians that the summer season would be canceled and musicians would be locked out beginning June 17, the first work stoppage for the orchestra in 31 years.

“We’re not being paid. They told us our health insurance will end July 1. They canceled our long term disability insurance retroactive to June 17,” said Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ Players Committee.

Mulligan noted the lockout comes in the wake of pressure from management to reduce musicians’ wages by 20 percent after years of keeping pay stagnant.

In new contract negotiations, the Players’ Committee is asking for a two percent wage cost of-living increase. They also want the orchestra to abide by the required minimum of 83 full-time musicians as set out in the most recent contract. (Currently, there are only 76 full-time musicians.)

“Because we are the single biggest expense in the budget, I think they find it the easiest to try to lower our wages,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”

The orchestra management has cited deficits and lack of funding as reasons behind reducing the orchestra season by 12 weeks, but Mulligan refuted these claims, pointing to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s endowment trust of $60 million.

Earlier this year, musicians successfully lobbied to pass a bill that would provide $3.2 million to fund the orchestra over the next two years, but Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan refuses to release the funds.

The lockout is the latest labor struggle facing musicians, most of whom are not able to unionize, throughout the United States.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians went on strike earlier this year over proposed cuts to their wages and pensions.

The American Federations of Musicians, which represents 80,000 musicians across the country, has suffered drastic pension cuts due to declines in union membership and contracted work.

Orchestras around the world have increasingly relied on philanthropy for funding instead of ticket sales.

For some time, musicians have faced exploitation and various labor issues as members of the gig economy, which have only increased in the digital age.

“Musicians are the original gig economy if you will, and the kind of paradigm shift we’re seeing with Uber and Lyft drivers is something that musicians have been dealing with a longtime as being freelance employees,” said Michael Manley, the organizing and education director for the American Federation of Musicians.

Manley continued, “Labor law in the U.S. is an impediment to organizing in this realm because the way labor law has been interpreted, it hasn’t made it easy to establish an employee-employer relationship in that kind of freelance gig realm.”

The American Federation of Musicians is fighting to secure money for musicians from various music and entertainment streaming services.

“We’re just not getting any piece of that,” Manley added. “If you can imagine, one of the struggles of musicians in general is just responding to technological change almost constantly.”

For songwriters and content producers in a music industry dominated by streaming services, the efforts to obtain fair wages for their work is a constant struggle, as  streaming services like Spotify pay these workers little compared to the number of streams and audience engagement their work renders.

Because of federal labor law, most songwriters are classified as independent contractors and cannot legally unionize to pressure these providers.

Michael Olivas, who is a William B. Bates distinguished chair in law at the University of Houston, contended extremely popular musicians have the ability to dictate their own terms and manipulate the market, pointing to independent and timed releases from artists like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé.

“But what are you going to do if you’re just a small group barely making it or who makes it on YouTube. Those folks have no power,” Olivas declared.

“The labor in this as the artists, they suffer because the record companies and distributors have the large infrastructure in place to take care of the money, but smaller artists don’t have the legal or accounting access.”

Olivas suggested music artists get screwed throughout success partly because of the structure of the music industry, the system’s sheer complexity, and greed of various different players involved in music, who profit off of the art.

“The way that services like Spotify and Apple Music have built their business models are embarrassingly similar to the age old example of a venue or restaurant that tells a musician they should perform for free because they will ‘gain exposure,’” said Cullen King, who performs as Point Blank Society.

He explained streaming services have made music more accessible to the public and removed barriers for musicians to reach new audiences, but the providers have authority to make or break musicians on their platforms.

“I personally had an EP of mine removed from the platform because my listeners were ‘streaming it an inordinate amount of times,’ which would result in higher payouts. It took nearly four months to get this project reinstated on their platform,” King recalled.

In March 2019, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon, and Google appealed a Copyright Royalties Board decision to increase royalties for songwriters and publishers by 44 percent over the next four years.

That appeal is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and in the meantime Spotify is calling for a refund over claims it overpaid most content publishers in 2018.

Spotify did not respond to a request for comment.

“Fifteen years ago, people were buying products like CDs, and there [were] different rates on mechanical royalties than for streaming. If you had a song on a record, and it did relatively well, you did relatively well also,” recalled Mike Campbell, a songwriter who has written hit songs for artists like Christina Aguilera and Daya.

“But now in the streaming economy  the rates are insanely low, fractions of a penny per stream. So the result is you can be a writer in the business, have hundreds of millions of streams. You can have a song that’s a global hit and not make enough to pay your rent for a month.”

Joe Biden. Photo by Marc Nozell via Flickr.
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Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1