Monday, July 25, 2011

Looking for A Guest Post?

After some thought and some private communications from some folks named in -- and hurt by -- Chaim Rosenblatt’s guest post, I’ve decided to pull it. The reason I am doing so is because upon rereading it, I believe that he made some unfair characterizations about other offices' historical behavior that are incorrect. Snark and good-natured humor is ok. Put downs ought not be. Neither should misrepresentations. And, people who do the right thing by their musicians and by the public, ought not have their names publicly dragged into this. I should have vetted the post before putting it up, and I apologize for that and for any hurt caused by the post. And, rather than just rebutting those assertions, I'd rather leave these people out of it. They didn't ask to be brought into this conversation and their actions don't warrant it either.

Even though I’m pulling the post for those reasons, I will share my thoughts on the specifics of Rosenblatt’s comments, because I think his points are worthy of comment.

At the beginning of his essay, Rosenblatt listed reasons why musicians sign up with the union.

1) To make their needs heard
2) To assure they are guaranteed at lest a minimum payment
3) To assure themselves health and pension
4) To oversee that they are treated properly

He also gives a reason for why the orchestras sign with the union.

1) Orchestras sign up so that they can get access to the vast musicians the union represents.

It seems to me, that while these are all true, there are other reasons for why a musician might join the union. A major one, which Rosenblatt omitted, is to help assure their peers are also treated fairly. This concept of “arevus”, a sense of responsibility towards others, rather than just oneself, reflects a sensitivity that I see as lacking throughout the piece. I will elaborate shortly.

Rosenblatt listed a number of reasons for why musicians aren’t joining the union.
1) The health plan isn’t great for larger “frum” families.
2) The pension plan is in trouble. (He provided a link to document this).
3) The notion that the union represents union offices more than the individual musicians.

Based on what I’ve seen, these are all legitimate criticisms.

As far as working with the union… Rosenblatt, has offered to pay into the union pension/health fund for all union musicians he’s hired. To me, that sounds like a fair option, which would preserve union members benefits, while allowing Rosenblatt the right to decide not to join the union.

However, according to Rosenblatt, the union has demanded that he
1) Hire only union musicians
2) Or else, pay into the union pension/health payments, even for non-union musicians.

Since, even union bands in this field regularly hire non-union musicians and there is no reason for the union to collect payments on behalf of musicians it doesn’t represent (and who will never benefit from those payments), it seems to me that those demands are fundamentally unfair.

Rosenblatt also asserts that his non-union five-piece band costs him more than a union five-piece band would.

In this case, I believe he is comparing apples to oranges. Comparing first stringers who deserve, and get a premium, to generic “bottom tier” union musicians, might look good on paper, but is not realistic. The reality is, if you want to consistently present a good band, at least some of the musicians will command more than “scale” for their work.

Rosenblatt also listed a number of well-known mistreatments that occur in the business.
1) Getting cancelled for an in-demand date, like a Sunday in June, on the Thursday before.
2) Needing to wait one, two, or even six months to get paid.
3) Being treated disrespectfully by the bandleader.
4) Situations where there is animosity between a musician and the office, but he still takes work because he needs the money and they have the most jobs available for him.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the largest offenders in this regard are some of the union offices. (As I noted before, this should not be taken as a criticism of all union offices.)

Rosenblatt presented his policy, which is:
1) He reserves the right to hire whoever he wants, union or non-union.
2) He will not use a musician who cancels on him after confirming a date.

It seems to me that he is well within his right to adopt those policies.

As far as his characterization of specific people as haters… I think he unfairly included one pro-union musician in that list. There is a difference between arguing a pro-union position, as this person did, and unfair accusations as Mr. Farrington did. He should have acknowledged the difference. Again, good-natured teasing is one thing. Name-calling is another.

Rosenblatt included a bit about undercutting and named a lot of names, asserting that different bands have done the same thing he is doing to break in etc. I don’t want to get into the specifics of that, except to say that from what I know, he mischaracterized at least one band/bandleader there unfairly.

I do want to address the general concept on two levels. This will bring me back to the notion of “areyvus”, of looking after one’s peers/community and not just oneself.

There is a difference between lowering the commission a booking agent makes, which might be a fair tactic to use while breaking into an industry, and charging so low a rate, or even playing for free, in a way that harms existing businesses.

For instance, as I believe I've written about in the past, I’ve had competitors approach steady clients and offer to play for free. I believe this is an immoral tactic. (As an aside, I recently heard of a shul that had hired a band for their annual dinner and were then made such an offer by a competing band. To their credit, the dinner committee consulted with the shul’s rabbi, who told them that they should not accept the offer.)

Anyone can play one such gig for free on a given date. No one can play for free, or very little $ regularly. Adopting such tactics, while they may be beneficial to the individual making the offer, (and to the client) directly harm the community of musicians at large. A slight discount, to account for perhaps lesser experience, is appropriate. So is starting out playing smaller, low-budget affairs. But, the numbers I’ve heard quoted for some bands, indicate that at the very least, the regulars – who were living in their parent's home at the time and did not have real financial obligation of their own – literally took jobs that other musicians need to eat.

And, there is always someone else that can do this. To the extent that Rosenblatt alleges that other offices have done this, in those cases they are also wrong. However, based on price quotes I heard at the time, he took this to an extreme when starting out. I think this is unfair. It reflects the valuing of self, regardless of the consequences to others.

Incidentally, this criticism does not only apply to offices that use unfair booking tactics. It also directly relates to how the individual musicians within this part of the industry ought to view their obligations with regard to accepting work from certain offices. It seems to me that perhaps the largest criticism of the musicians union is that they don’t protect the individual musicians from unfair offices. Yet, to a large extent, those offices would simply be unable to continue their unfair practices if musicians -- union or not -- wouldn’t take work from them.

This is especially true when musicians take gigs where an office has lowballed a gig, beyond what their steady office can compete with, because the steady office is committed to paying everyone scale or above.

I think this illustrates the tension I personally see with regard to union/non union in the frum industry. In other words, I’m not convinced that Local 802 is relevant to the frum community. Thus far in this discussion, I’m leaning strongly in the opposite direction, and I take strong issue with a lot of what they do/have done. (I am open to hearing another perspective, and would love to see a guest-post from that side.) Yet, I still think there is a need for musicians to demonstrate solidarity (to use a popular union concept) within the frum industry. Perhaps its idealistic, but ultimately, thinking this way will benefit everyone.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More Email About Unions

Michael writes:
One final thought:
Any musician that worked for a band and got stiffed should NEVER agree to work for them again. Or better yet, before cutting them off accept a gig and show up and NOT play until the thief gives you what he owes you plus the current gig up front. If you let someone abuse you more than once you enable him to do it to others. (I do not believe Rosenblatt ever stiffed anyone out of money) On the band side: If a musician cancels a gig on me without justifiable cause I will Never book him for another one no matter how great a musician he is.
I have a similar policy. There are great musicians I will never call for a gig, because they cancelled for no reason or last minute without making any effort to cover the slot.

This actually raises a good point about something the union ought to be doing, but which, to the best of my knowledge doesn't do. We hear talk, as threatened in the Allegro article against Chaim Rosenblatt, about an office being labeled "unfair", with the result that union members would not be allowed to accept work from that office.

It seems to me that a more appropriate place to make that threat would be against union offices that are stiffing union members. This would serve a few goals. First, it would protect union members directly, which is ostensibly the union's main goal. Second, it would prevent these offices from undercutting those bands who do pay their musicians. I've lost a few gigs over the years to a union band who quoted prices so low, that the only way he could have do so, is by intending at the outset to either stiff some musicians at the end of the night, hire unprofessional kids to cover some slots, or, as has happened, both. In an extremely price sensitive economy, it's simply impossible to compete with that, in situations where cost is a/the major component of the client's decision process.

So, why didn't doesn't the union talk about this? If the tactic of not permitting union workers to working for a certain band does have an impact, why is that tactic not used here?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some Pro Union Responses...

JP Farrington writes:
So the way you get to the bottom of things is you go to Chaim and ask him if the union's allegations are true? That's real investigative reporting. Hard to understand your complaint about the union doing nothing for musicians, when after several years they are actually trying to do something and musicians like you take them to task for it. Everything the union says about Chaim I am sure is true, including the contradictory statements that he is paying scale and not paying scale. He's doing both! That's the point. He entices certain musicians he likes for certain chairs and exploits the rest. He is the typical exploiter. Divide and conquer. But hey, don't take my word for it. Ask Chaim. I'm sure he'll tell you the whole truth. Then you can proudly carry his water for him. God save us musicians from your kind of truth seeker.
Actually, I asked Rosenblatt about some allegations the union made that were, in the main, absurd on their face. There is a lot of resentment at Rosenblatt/Evenal within the industry for their undercutting, yet, in several years of hearing complaints, and playing on other bandstands with these musicians, I have yet to hear of even ONE musician who claims that he was paid under scale, let alone that he was shorted, stiffed, booked for two gigs on a Sunday, then switched to a twi. etc. These are complaints I hear regularly about certain bands. When people talk about offices that have stiffed them, the top offenders have been union bands. (To be clear: I'm not claiming that all union bands mistreat their workers. Only, that the biggest offenders in this regard in the "frum" industry have all been union shops. Everyone in the field knows this.)

It seems to me that there ought to be a case the union can make, without misrepresentations or distortions. If you'd like to write a guest post about why "frum" musicians should join the union, I'd be happy to post it.

Jordan Hirsch writes:
I think that the complaints of union inaction against Barock are well founded, to a point. One of the things you have to realize is that the union can only go after employers for stiffing musicians if the musicians inform the union about it. In fact, when that has hjappened in the past, the union has been very effective in getting the money. But a lot of times, musicians are reluctant to go to the union because they are afraid of retaliation by their employers. Unfortunately, the union was not focussed on the Jewish Club date field for about four years, in the previous administration.

But all this talk of above scale makes me laugh. There would be no scale to pay above if the union, with the support of musicians, did not negotiate for it. The Union, in fact, any Union, is only as good as the interest of the members in getting involved. When musicians have gotten involved, the Union has done amazing things. By the way, it is not just scale that is secured by the Union negotiators, but Pension and health benefits. In other words, the Union can make it possible for the music business to be a professional endeavor, not just a way to pick up extra income. Chaim Rosenblatt does not pay a cent into anyone's pension. Unions are a fantastic way to make the needs of the musicians heard, but it can only happen if the musicians are willing to be involved.

You are too young toremember when scale was $89.00 for four hours, and overtime was paid at a little less than time. Now scale is much higher, and will get higher still if musicians are willing to make a commitment to working together. And overtime is paid at time plus 20%, which frankly happened because I was on a commitee that made it happen. Scale does not just magically appear, it has to be fought for.

That's just the beginning of my response. Feel free to ask me any questions.
I've invited Jordan to guest post. I hope he does.

Jordan's response actually highlights one of the issues with the union, which is, that although it is supposed to protect members from exploitation by management, it really can't when management is booking a lot of work.

With regard to the idea of musicians not complaining to the union for fear of retaliation.... even without complaints, the union ought to have known something was wrong and acted. We're talking years of non-payments here. It shouldn't take a complaint (and this was public knowledge in the industry) to get the union to do something.

I agree with Jordan that there would be no scale without the union. I'm going to leave the discussion of scale for a separate post.

Monday, July 18, 2011

More On The Musicians Union

So, I'd been hoping to get things started with a nice presentation of both sides of this issue. However, thus far, there has been no compelling pro-union case made in any of the emails I've received. So, we'll look at things from a critical angle first.

Let's look at the two recent stories I linked from the union newsletter...

On the surface, these stories (which the union has put out there) seem like union success stories, at least in part. In one, the union tells of its success at winning a $39,631.21 judgement against Barock Orchestra for health benefit contributions owed to the Local 802 Health Fund, its lawsuit against Neginah Orchestra and Shelly Lang to recoup $78,000 owed to the Local 802 Health Fund, and its convincing of Aaron Teitlebaum to sign a union contract.

The other one tells of the union efforts against Chaim Rosenblatt.

Yet, when reading these stories and thinking about them for a moment, it seems clear that the union does not protect musicians as it should, and that it selectively presents or misrepresents "facts" to suit its agenda.

Lets look at the first story...

Its been an open secret for years that Barock Orchestra has been regularly stiffing musicians, yet, where has the union been? The fact that things were allowed to get to the point where these kinds of amounts of p/w could be owed at all, seems to demonstrate that the union is NOT on top of situations where rank and file members are concerned. Similarly, without getting into specifics, there are an awful lot of known abuses by union bands that have gone unchecked for decades. Where is the union on this? Well, apparently, after the numbers accumulate enough, they are willing to go after money that will sit in their bank accounts for a while. But, as far as achieving justice for individual musicians who have been screwed, it seems, not so much.

The same with Neginah. There are decades of stories, and in fact, when I broke into the business many of the musicians I most respected were refusing to work for them after having been screwed.... yet the union did virtually nothing. And the idea of holding up one of the main actors there as "doing the right thing" since he split off, is weak tea at best.

OK, so the union isn't quick to stand up for rank and file members in the Jewish field... but certainly their organizing campaign against Chaim Rosenblatt is legit, right? Well, let's take a closer look at what they are trying to do...

The concept of the union, as I understand it, is to protect musicians from exploitation by unscrupulous management. So let's see....

The union makes a number of assertions about Rosenblatt in their article. On the face of it, some of them seemed absurd, so I emailed Rosenblatt to ask him a few questions about these issues.

Here are the questions I asked him:
I'm planning to write a piece about the union article you sent me. If you'd like to write a guest post, that offer stands.

I have a few quick questions for you... I've put some quotes from the article below with a quick question or two after each one, asking if the assertions made about you/your business practices are true.

"While claiming to be paying above scale to his musicians, a claim that we know is a lie, Rosenblatt cited the recent upheaval in Wisconsin in order to press home a point that should not be lost on Local 802 members."

1) Do you pay above scale to all of your musicians?
2) Do you or have you ever paid any musicians below scale?

"He also wants to paint the union as an organization that does not represent musicians but represents the Jewish club date offices who hire Local 802 musicians and who do the right thing and pay into the health and pension funds."

3) Is this a correct characterization?

"The truth is that the members themselves are calling us and asking us to please do something about Rosenblatt. By undercutting scales and not paying pension and health benefits, Rosenblatt’s ability to undercut bids from legitimate offices that hire union musicians is greatly increased."

4) Are you aware of any union musicians you've hired, who have complaints about your pay rates or the way you treated them?

"Rosenblatt may pay some players "scale" or even more – that’s fine with us. But we feel that Rosenblatt’s intention is to destroy the union in the Jewish club date field. Let’s say that Local 802 was forced to withdraw completely from this field. If that happened, does anyone think for one moment that Rosenblatt would continue to pay an amount greater than "union scale" if this scale didn’t exist anymore? And then, guess what would happen next? Another unscrupulous employer out there might then undercut Rosenblatt. More and more undercutting would lead to a race to the bottom. The union exists to prevent this scenario. We provide a minimum scale, a line in the sand that may not be crossed. That is why the grassroots musicians in this field are fundamentally on the union’s side – not Rosenblatt’s."

5) Do you really intend to "destroy" the union, so that you can pay musicians less?

"What kind of person is Chaim Rosenblatt? I think he’s a young businessman who exploits his employees and, because of that, undercuts his competition. He is apparently not a musician and does not understand or appreciate what it means to be a musician. I feel he is the kind of person who should not be allowed around art in any of its forms."

6) Has any musician ever complained to you that he/she feels exploited by you?
6a) Have you ever heard of such a claim being made to others by your musicians.
In his response, Rosenblatt told me that he treats his musicians well and always pays above scale - not just scale. Those union musicians who have health plans through the union need to have their jobs go through the union in order to count those jobs towards the required number of gigs to get those health benefits. Rosenblatt has offered to pay those musicians through the union, but the union is insisting that all musicians be paid that way. This insistence that he only use union musicians/pay through the union means that, if he signed a union contract, the union could (theoretically) stop him from hiring non-union musicians. Since many Jewish musicians are not union, this would potentially limit his ability to hire the musicians he wants. (In practice, the union hasn't forced this issue that I'm aware of with other bands.)

He does believe the the union represents the interests of the union offices, not the individual players. He says he is unaware of any musicians who are unhappy with their pay. (This allegation by the union seemed absurd on its face.)

It seems to me that an objective observer reading the union article against Rosenblatt would find it confusing -- (It both asserts that he pays less then scale AND that he pays over scale allegedly to "destroy the union") and not compelling.

Note: I am not a fan of the way Rosenblatt/Evenal broke into the business, but that still does not justify a smear campaign based on innuendo and distortion.

I'd still like to present a coherent argument for unions in general and for Local 802's continued involvement in the "frum" music business, so if you feel you can make one, please send it in.

If a good submission comes in, I'll post it. Otherwise, I intend to start looking at general claims the union makes, and explore whether they are true or relevant to the "frum" music industry.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shed No Tears for the Death of JDUB

Over at Commentary, Matthew Ackerman blogs "Shed No Tears for the Death of JDUB."

A Personal Plea About the Boro Park Tragedy!

Please, guys! Can we, just this once, not write a song/capitalize on this? Thank you!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

JDub Records is Closing

JTA report here.

This could be a good opportunity for someone(s).

Union emails

Michael writes:
Here is my take on the matter:
Chaim got started booking gigs for Evenal. (3 guys who could play a wedding but at that time could not get work with the 'reguler ' bands. They were willing to work for a pittance just to get work. Isn't that ok? The other guys they hired were paid scale+ but they still could pull off a 5 piece band for 1500.) After they got busy chaim figured it was time to start booking some stuff on his own. To my knowledge everyone who works for him demands and gets paid at least union scale.
A reader (if you want attribution, let me know) writes:
I am not keen for this discussion to take place, because many people who are affected by the Union, both positively and negatively, are often unequipped to put aside their prejudices from either the left or the right, and often the discussion of these issues turns into a yelling match. In addition, many of the participants are not old enough or in the business long enough to have an informed perspective on what the Union has until now accomplished for musicians, especially in NYC and LA. Suffice it to say that outside of the strong musicians Union locals, the freelance music field is a catch as catch can business, and there is no way to gauge of people are able to make a living as musicians.

The question can be divided in another way: Do you think a Union can help sidemen keep their wages and benefits stable and growing? And do you think THIS Union can do that? I think the answers to those questions will force people to think differently about the issue than they do now. I have much more to say, but Shabbos is coming.
I'm interested in hearing from more folks on this. Please send in your comments.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Housekeeping - New Email Address!

I've changed email addresses. For all future blog-related correspondence, please use the email address in the sidebar. Please update your files, as the old address will be out of service shortly. Thanks!

More Union Matters

I've received a number of emails with regard to the post "Does the Musicians Union Have A Role in the Jewish Club Date Field?"

I'll be posting these for discussion. I am hoping for a productive discussion.

First up, Chaim Rosenblatt emails to tell us about the union article against him. It is in the May issue of Allegro, the union newsletter. It is the fourth article titled, "'Are You Ready for Us?' Organizing Matters" by Michael Donovan

Unfortunately, the union website is not setup to allow hot-linking to specific articles, but you can navigate to it from their homepage.

Here's the opening, but I strongly encourage reading the whole thing for the purposes of this discussion.
"We enjoy paying our musicians well above what unions tell musicians they are to be paid. We enjoy treating them right! Wisconsin agrees!"

That was a recent text message sent by Chaim Rosenblatt, owner of the EvanAl Orchestra, to Local 802 Representative Peter Voccola.

As we demonstrate and protest against EvanAl Orchestra and Chaim Rosenblatt Productions in order to get the Jewish club date field in order, it is interesting to note Rosenblatt’s choice of words.

While claiming to be paying above scale to his musicians, a claim that we know is a lie, Rosenblatt cited the recent upheaval in Wisconsin in order to press home a point that should not be lost on Local 802 members.

For informed union people, this particular method of attack from an employer who exploits his workers in order to undercut scales is both insulting and ridiculous at the same time....
I've offered Rosenblatt the opportunity to write a guest post on the subject, and I hope that he will. I'll give him a chance to do so, before addressing the specifics of this article.

At the same time, I am happy to post guest posts from other perspectives. Send 'em in, and I'll put 'em up on the blog.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Not A New Lipa Schmeltzer Ban - Updated

Failed Messiah posts A New Lipa Schmeltzer Ban. Only problem is, he either misunderstands or misrepresents the material. It's not a ban on Lipa Schmeltzer at all, although the flyer does refer to Lipa negatively, in the context of condemning the notion of concerts in Uman.

Update: A post-event report (in Hebrew) here.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Does the Musicians Union Have A Role in the Jewish Club Date Field?

It's been a while since we've had a good discussion thread on the blog. Here's one that many folks have strong opinions on. I'd like to hear from folks on both sides on this. Pro and anti. From management, union workers, and the union too, if they want to contribute. Let's see if we can get a useful conversation going.

A few questions to start...

1) Does the union have a serious role in the Jewish club date field?
1a) Should the union have a role?

2) For union members: How specifically has the union helped you personally? Do you feel it is worth joining/staying in the union?

3) For non-union members: Why haven't you joined the union? Has there been any down side for you?

4) For offices who have a union contract: How has being union helped or hindered your business?

5) For offices who don't have a union contract: How has being non-union helped or hindered your business?

6) For all, any general thoughts or questions on this topic you want to share or discuss?

As a trigger, for this discussion, I'm going to repost a link I shared in an earlier link dump, "Let's Stabilize the Jewish Club Date Field."

This situation can be viewed in a variety of ways, as either demonstrating a strength or weakness of the union. What's your take on it?

Some Links for Y'all

Jello Biafra cancels Israel gig, but will go to Israel, and may reschedule. He attacks boycotters. Check this:
"I can't back anyone whose real goal or fantasy is a country ethnically cleansed of Jews or anyone else, where people who think for themselves or talk to the wrong person are automatically a sellout."
Read the whole thing.

Teruah posts "The Wondering Jew Talks Jewish Music." Jack's on a roll these days. check out some of his other recent posts while you're there!

JDub Records interviews the self-proclaimed Gangsta Rabbi. I remember seeing reviews of his cassettes in the Musician's Exchange mag they used to give out in local music stores in NY years ago.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

7/2 link dump

Haven't done one 'o these in a while...

"A nigun a day" says "No joke. This song was composed, lyricized, recorded, and sold!" Look for a sequel coming soon! "Me and My Eidim's Five!

Over @ HuffPo, Josh Fleet posts "Words Of Wonder: How Jewish Poems Become Songs Of Praise."

Some yeshiva students rock Jerualem of Gold.

Oy, Mayn Libe Basarabye!"

Deleon releases a "Soca Hora Hora Medley."‬‏

Over at Sh'ma "Rethinking Music Making: A Teshuvah for the Conservative Movement."

Over at the musician's union website, frum wedding band offices gone bad.

Sibelius released "Scorch for iPad."

The Forward had a bit on "Daniel Kahn and the Relevance of Yiddish Protest Songs" and a piece on and Benjy Fox-Rosen's. latest. There are audio clips. Go listen!

This is Yiddish on " Rocking Out — In Yiddish."

Finally, Menachem Herman posts "Not Another Brick In The Wall".