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A Call to Music Professors: Education about the Musicians' Union

Every year, large numbers of music students leave school with a limited understanding of what resources exist to help them further their careers. Union awareness is not always a part of a music education, and students often make it through music school without a firm understanding of the power of solidarity among musicians.

American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 802, the musicians’ union local covering the New York City area, prevents a race to the bottom in performers’ wages and acts as a firewall to protect live music in theatres, operas and ballets. The union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign works for fair pay and benefits for jazz club performers, and to ensure that they don’t have to retire in poverty.

For musicians, this is obviously important, but audiences also benefit from the efforts of the union. That’s particularly true for Local 802’s defense of live music in performance: if it weren’t for the union, many producers would switch to canned music, while still charging the same amount for tickets. It’s the union that keeps the pressure on producers to make sure that live music continues to play a full role in these performances.

“As a longtime member of Local 802 myself, I think it’s invaluable for both aspiring musicians and the larger student body to know about the union’s role,” said Howard Meltzer, associate professor of music at BMCC. “Students can have a romantic notion of music as a business, and talking with a union member introduces an important dose of reality.”

Unfortunately, misconceptions about what the musicians’ union does and what being a member means are not uncommon. In new-member orientations at Local 802, recent college graduates often have impressions about the union that turn out to be false, such as the notion that the union would reprimand them if they were “caught” doing any non-union work. We at Local 802 need to do a better job dispelling myths and ensuring that as students learn about the music business, they learn how the union can be an advocate for their interests, and a vehicle for musicians to exercise their collective power.

If you are a music professor, especially in the field of music business, you have an opportunity to give students a better understanding of what the union does as you guide them in beginning their professional careers.

Several NYC-area music professors already integrate union issues into their curricula. For example, Gene Perla, a professor at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, invites a Local 802 rep to speak in his music business class each semester. “Response from my students has been positive,” says Perla. The chance to talk directly with someone from Local 802, he explains, gives students “a better understanding of the benefits of collective bargaining.”

“The AFM has a long history in the labor movement,” adds Meltzer, “and that’s often something students find interesting to hear about.”

Classroom Performance

Representatives of Local 802 already visit a small number of classes every year, and they are interested in expanding this effort. Local 802 also wants to consult with professors on how they might include appropriate information on the union in their curricula.

If you teach music and you would like a union representative to speak in your class, or if you would like information or materials to help you discuss the union’s role, you can contact Local 802 by phone (212) 245-4802 x143, or by e-mail at Sgasteyer@Local802afm.org.