[This post first appeared on MTP in 2009. AFTRA is part of the coalition of labor unions and guilds (including the AFL-CIO) supporting rogue sites legislation in the US Congress]
There are two principle unions in the music industry, the American Federation of Musicians (“AFM“) and the American Federation of Radio & Television Artists (“AFTRA“). AFTRA is a member of the AFL-CIO, which is the largest federation of unions in the United States with over 10 million members. AFTRA is an important voice for artists on Capitol Hill and helps artists to exercise their fundamental Constitutional right of association (Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Virginia, 377 U.S. 1 (1964)).
AFTRA and the AFM bargain with record companies to negotiate session rates, residuals and benefits for their members, set standard booking agency and one-nighter agreements for live performances and a host of other contracts designed to protect artists and maximize their economic rights.
AFTRA is an important member of the MusicFirst coalition supporting a performance royalty for recording artists on terrestrial radio.
In response to questions about the benefit of union membership for professional artists, MTP’s Chris Castle interviewed Randy Himes, who is the National Director of Sound Recordings for AFTRA and Director of the AFTRA Nashville local. AFTRA is one of the leading labor unions for recording artists and vocalists (as well as many other fields). Randy’s a busy guy, so we are lucky that he was able to take time to answer some questions.
MTP: Randy, tell us a little about how you came to be at AFTRA and what your job entails?
Hi Chris – it’s great to see you again and thank you for this opportunity to get the word out on AFTRA.
Well, I’ll try to give you the abbreviated version. I’m now in my 31st year with AFTRA and this is where I have worked my entire professional career. During college, I helped run an Exxon station for a guy who treated me like a member of his family, named Tommy Stump. Tommy had ties to Johnny Cash and people in the Nashville Music Industry. Marty Stuart was a regular customer. Tommy helped many Nashville musicians, performers and professionals by waiving car repair charges while they were on tough times. He always told them, “don’t worry about the bill, someday you will make it and we’ll settle up then.” To give you an idea of how loved he was by the community, cars lined up to buy his gas even though his prices were a nickel higher than anyone around him. People loved him.
This was 1978, and at that time, I held a degree in Mass Comm, with a business major/music minor and I thought I wanted to be a recording engineer. Tommy called in some favors with Nashville pros and asked them to simply help me get a foot in the door. One of those people was Charlie Monk, former AFTRA Nashville President and who then worked at ASCAP. One day, Charlie came through and gave me a slip of paper and said “you need to give this guy a call.” I went on an interview for a “field rep” position with AFTRA Nashville Director/attorney David Maddox (who continues today in private practice). Before going on the job interview, I had to look back in my Mass Comm notes to see exactly what “AFTRA” stood for.
From that field rep position, I moved to National Representative, which in that day was a sort of AFTRA Special Forces – they sent us to places all over the U.S. that needed help. I was trained and worked with three AFTRA National Reps that had 103 years of collective experience between them. You had to be able to do every task, from negotiating radio & TV station contracts, organizing performers or a jurisdiction, straightening out the Local’s financial books, replacing staff (hiring and firing) and anything that was required. Out of necessity, I even re-wired the New Orleans office for telephone service.
I became the Executive Director of the Nashville Local in 1986 and became AFTRA’s National Director of Sound Recordings in 2005, while continuing in my role as the Director in Nashville. I’m the only person in AFTRA that has such a hybrid local/national position and thank God, my boss has been understanding and didn’t require a move to L.A. Living in Nashville keeps me centered and there are opportunities and doors that open in Nashville that subsequently assist AFTRA’s efforts in LA and other parts of the country.
My position deals with all things sound recordings. My job is to make sure AFTRA is a full service organization for royalty artists and performers who work on sound recordings. We address all contractual, legislative, and judicial issues that affect our members and any other issue that would put more money in their pockets or make life easier for them. AFTRA is the only union or organization authorized to bargain with the major labels for a contract that covers employment in that area.
MTP: What’s the difference between AFTRA and the American Federation of Musicans?
The difference between AFTRA and the AFM……..if you play an instrument, you are represented by the AFM (musicians). If you sing or speak, you are represented by AFTRA. AFTRA represents performers who work in the “vocal side” of performance, such as singers (this includes royalty artists that sing), actors, voice-over announcers, and those that work in AFTRA’s jurisdiction and don’t play an instrument. So the musicians on a recording are AFM and the royalty artist(s) (who sing) and session/studio singers are AFTRA.
There is a little twist to this if someone plays and sings at the same time and this usually occurs during the production of a television show. An AFTRA friend of mine and I affectionately created a category for this type of performer we call “hummer/strummers.” A performer that plays and sings can elect to be paid under the Union (AFTRA or AFM) with the higher scale compensation for that job, or through the Union of their choice. This performer is not paid under both Union contracts.
For example: Let’s say that Alan Jackson is performing on a television show with two singers and five band members. Alan plays guitar while he sings and he elects to be paid under AFTRA. The two singers can only be paid through AFTRA since they don’t play an instrument. Two of the five band members sing and play and they elect to be paid under AFTRA, with the final three musicians paid through the AFM (since they don’t sing). Final count: Alan, two singers, two band members paid through AFTRA…..three band members paid through AFM.
There are musicians that want to be paid through AFTRA regardless of which Union has the higher scale compensation for that job because they need to keep their AFTRA earnings high enough to continue to qualify for AFTRA health and retirement benefits. There are also musicians who occasionally sing and play on tv shows who want to be paid under the Musicians contract even though AFTRA rates may be higher, since they don’t do enough tv shows to warrant joining AFTRA.
The determination as to how artists/bands/singers are paid on tv show is determined by an AFTRA television rep working in conjunction with the show producer prior to performance. Artists and managers should take note and be sure their singers and band members are paid correctly and in a manner that is most beneficial to that performer.
MTP: How many members does AFTRA have and what fields are they in?
Currently, AFTRA has about 70,000 members. Out of this number, there are approximately 14,000 royalty artists and session singers who perform on sound recordings, commercials and TV shows.
AFTRA’s strength is in the diversity of our members who are employed as royalty artists, session singers, actors, broadcasters, announcers, dancers, and extras……..if you work in front of a camera or microphone and that performance is recorded or broadcast, AFTRA has a contract that will address that employment. Basically, AFTRA members entertain and inform America and the world.
MTP: What is the relationship of AFTRA to the AFL-CIO and organized labor?
For decades, AFTRA was affiliated with the AFL-CIO through the organization called the “4A’s”, which stands for the Associated Actors and Artistes of America. In addition to AFTRA, the other unions in the 4A’s are SAG, [Actors’] Equity, AGMA, and AGVA.
In February, 2008, AFTRA received a direct charter from the AFL-CIO, which was a monumental action. AFTRA now sits at the AFL-CIO as an equal partner to other unions in terms of participation, support and action. This is the difference between having to ask for the keys to the car (affiliation) as opposed to owning the car and having the keys in your pocket (direct charter).
AFTRA members now have a greater voice in decisions affecting performers and unions in our country, particularly since we are such a unique union within the AFL-CIO.
MTP: If I were sitting down with a young recording artist in an indie band, what should I tell them about the benefits of AFTRA membership?
Tell that Artist that AFTRA is fighting to put money in their pocket. AFTRA is fighting for their rights at the bargaining table with the record labels and on Capitol Hill (and what we do at the table and on Capitol Hill will affect that indie artist) .…that AFTRA is the artist’s voice in local, national and international affairs. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, there is no other union or organization that does so much for royalty artists, during their career and after they retire.
An AFTRA contract protects and follows the recording throughout its life and collects money if that recording is used in used in a movie, television show or in television and radio commercials. AFTRA collects millions of dollars in monies that would otherwise not be paid to the artist or performers on recordings.
And by the way, AFTRA just created a contract for the indie artist that now enables indie artists to receive all the health and retirement benefits exactly like those benefits offered to artists signed to a major label contract. Just think, work as an indie artist and receive phenomenal health insurance benefits and have a pension when you retire!
Most young indie artists are totally focused on playing music and usually don’t think about the business side of their career until it is too late. To be pro-AFTRA is to be pro-artist. If making music is more than a hobby, indie artists should join with other professional AFTRA artists to protect their work and make changes that put money in their pockets. They should join AFTRA.
MTP: What does an AFTRA membership cost?
If the artist works on either coast (LA or NY), the initiation fee is currently $1,300. Nashville has a reduced initiation fee of $758 because Tennessee is a right-to-work State. You only pay one initiation fee in your life, unless you resign or terminate your membership. AFTRA also offers payment plans for the initiation fee.
After the initiation fee, base dues are $63.90 every six months and 1.486% of your AFTRA covered earnings. As a general rule, “AFTRA covered earnings” are those earnings on which a health and retirement contribution was made.
For example, an artist earning $50K per year in AFTRA covered earnings would pay $806.90 in total dues for that year.
MTP: AFTRA has a suite of group insurance and retirement plans, can you tell me a little bit about those?
The AFTRA Health and Retirement Funds benefits are some of the premier benefits offered in the entertainment industry. You couldn’t create such a benefits plan in today’s world…….major medical, hospitalization, preventive dental, $30K/$48 accidental death life insurance, loss of voice, drug and alcohol rehab benefits and a defined pension plan………and all without pre-existing conditions, with a majority of the benefits funded by the many employers who hire AFTRA performers!
Most people don’t understand how the AFTRA Funds are structured. It is important to note that the AFTRA Funds are completely separate from AFTRA, the union. Employers make contributions to the performers (not the union’s) health and retirement account at the AFTRA Funds. I mention this because many times, performers and managers confuse these employer contributions with AFTRA initiation fees or premium payments. As much as I would like for AFTRA to take credit for these benefits, it is the AFTRA H&R Funds that collects the contributions and administers the benefits to performers, not AFTRA, the union.
Performers work under AFTRA contracts and those good AFTRA employers make a contribution to the performer’s health and retirement account on those earnings. For example, if you worked on a UMG session and earned $300, UMG would pay 11.5% of that $300, or $34.50 to your AFTRA H&R account. When you have earned $10K in gross AFTRA earnings, you are eligible for individual benefits coverage, and at $30K, you become qualified for family coverage. Performers then pay premiums to be covered for benefits. The current premium for individual coverage is $330 per quarter and the premium for family coverage is $633 per quarter.
You won’t see royalty artists having fund raising concerts for another artist’s medical expenses because roster (royalty) artists at major labels have guaranteed access to health benefits through the AFTRA Sound Code.
In my tenure at AFTRA, the AFTRA Funds have saved many lives and kept many performers from bankruptcy with their medical bills. The Funds have treated artists and their family (including the artist’s children) for most everything, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, organ transplants, AIDS and cancer. Artists and performers should be dedicated to working under AFTRA contracts for not only the contractual protections and monies, but to also support this premier health and retirement benefit plan for them and for their performing peers in the music industry.