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.