Some revisionist history from the AFM

An article in the August 2014 International Musician got me thinking about Electronic Media Guarantees and their history:

…[former ICSOM chairman Brad] Buckley recalled that the earliest instance of what was then called a “recording guarantee” came into existence decades ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra, during the tenure of Music Director Eugene Ormandy.

The maestro oftentimes played favorites by inviting selected members of the orchestra to record, rather than using the full orchestra who performed these works in concert. At that time, under the terms of the national recording agreements, only those that played got paid. Members of the orchestra felt that the entire orchestra should record, not just the maestro’s favorites, and as a result, the entire orchestra would then be paid. This continued practice led to a successful campaign within the Philadelphia Orchestra to establish a recording guarantee in addition to the musicians’ existing salary. The thinking behind the guarantee was that having to pay every member of the orchestra the same amount would inspire the music director to use the entire orchestra for recordings. All members of the orchestra would share in the work and all would share in the fruits of the orchestra’s labor.

Ultimately, recording guarantees morphed into electronic media guarantees and many orchestras embraced the concept of amortizing the cost of media over an entire season rather than follow the pay-as-you-go model. Around the same time, an effort was made at the national level to modify the existing payment structure in the symphonic section of the then-named, AFM Phonograph Recording Labor Agreement (PRLA) (now the Sound Recording Labor Agreement, or SRLA), the primary AFM recording agreement then and now.

The first mention of an Electronic Media Guarantee I can find is in the November 1973 issue of Senza Sordino, in which a description of a recent contract settlement mentions a guarantee of $1040 (ie $20 per week) for “recording activity.” This is not to say that this was the first EMG, but certainly within a couple of years EMGs began to be reported in the ICSOM wage charts.

My understanding, however, had always been that the EMG was a way both to incentivize management to record and to effectively lower the price for making recordings to record companies. The great debate within the symphonic community has always been to what extent EMGs were actually “new money” for musicians or whether they were raises that management had planned on paying anyway. If the latter, then musicians would not actually be making any more money for the additional work. Paul Frankenfeld aptly summarized that point of view in the March 2002 issue of Senza Sordino:

…The Electronic Media Guarantee was characterized as a financial “shell game” whereby musicians working under EMGs are actually subsidizing recordings. This view ignores the point that EMG may also be used as payment for other services, such as television broadcasts. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, compensation for electronic services is in the perception (and pockets) of the musicians, whether they receive EMG or separate payments.

The most important fact about EMGs, however, was how they were used by orchestra managements. EMGs were paid by the orchestra to the musicians directly. While in the beginning, recording companies may have been paying managements the full labor costs of the recordings, there was never a requirement to do so if the musicians were fully paid by the orchestra management in the form of EMG. As time went on, more and more orchestras adopted the EMG model. more and more orchestras made recordings, and the less the managements were paid by the record companies for those recordings. (The same logic held true for other forms of media, of course).

The AFM would like us to believe that this is a new phenomenon:

EMGs are used to cover the costs of symphony, opera, or ballet media projects under the terms of the applicable symphony, opera, or ballet AFM media agreement. They can also be used to cover the wages of local radio and local TV broadcasts whose payments are stipulated in the orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement. The basic construct is to utilize the guarantee for work of a symphonic, operatic, or ballet nature, and not to offer up an EMG to an outside commercial third-party producer to subsidize their costs. This issue has come up recently as orchestras begin to record with pop stars…

In a hypothetical example, an orchestra is approached to back up a big-named pop star in a live concert, as well for some type of media release (e.g., CDs, Internet streaming and downloads, or DVDs). This commercial recording artist typically works for a record label, which assumes the cost of recordings released by this artist. Along comes the employer of orchestra “x” who offers to credit the banked EMG, which in turn results in subsidy to the commercial producer who now doesn’t have to come up with the costs of paying the musicians for the recording. The end result is that the record label walks away without having to pay the musicians’ recording wages when creating a recording with a commercial recording artist. This is not what EMGs were designed to do. They were never meant to provide third-party producers with free or discounted recordings. They exist to support the media work created from performances of traditional repertoire of symphony, opera, and ballet orchestras.

While it is true that EMGs were not generally envisioned as helping to fund non-symphonic work, it is not true that EMGs were “never meant to provide third-party producers with free or discounted recordings.” EMGs have been doing that for decades, with the full knowledge of both musicians and the AFM. It was this fact that drove the logic behind the Internet Agreement and its progeny, which was to favor recordings made and owned by the orchestral institution over those owned by third parties. The musicians at those negotiations – and eventually the employer representatives as well –  believed that the record companies’ interests were so far from being aligned with those of orchestras and their employers that giving them discounted labor rates for product they would own and control – through any mechanism – no longer made any sense.

The really egregious error in the AFM’s recounting of the history of EMGs is one of omission, though. Frankenfeld’s analysis quoted above hints at it. Any orchestra musician of a certain age with even a minimal interest in electronic media will recall that the AFM absolutely loathed EMGs. SSD directors and staff would preach tirelessly against them on precisely the basis Frankenfeld remembers: that EMGs were a “shell game” whereby musicians subsidized recordings by effectively working for less than scale. This was certainly the case when I became involved in ICSOM in the late 1980s, and I don’t recall it having completely gone away during my tenure on the Governing Board.

Does this really matter anymore? I’m not sure. Truthfulness is an important value in any human endeavor, and I don’t think the AFM helps itself by rewriting the history of EMGs, especially with those of us who were actually around during the events portrayed, or mis-portrayed, by the AFM in this article.

On the other hand, the AFM has a point, even if its supporting arguments are weak. EMGS were certainly not intended for paying the labor costs for commercial pop albums. Unfortunately, most contractual language regarding EMGS doesn’t distinguish between what we might believe were the intended uses and what appears now to be happening. Whether the AFM will have any more success in fighting this than they did in fighting the concept of EMGs in past decades is an open question. Being honest – at least with themselves – about their previous failures might be a good start.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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