Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

Solidarity for Music: PDX Jazz Festival’s concert with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and Musicians Union Local 99

PJCE’s concert February 19 at Hallowed Halls will spotlight the efforts of musicians and other workers for fair pay and working conditions.

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Ryan Meagher. Photo by Kathryn Elsesser, courtesy Montavilla Jazz.

Ryan Meagher is caught in the middle. On one hand, the veteran Portland jazz guitarist is a working, gigging musician, constantly striving to make great music despite frequently low pay for performances (and none for practicing) and other arduous working conditions. He’s worked for years to improve pay and conditions for working musicians like himself. 

But Meagher wears another hat, or maybe green eyeshade. As artistic director of Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and co-founder of the Montavilla Jazz Festival, he’s also an employer who’s trying to present performances and keep costs low enough to make ticket prices affordable for the listeners that musicians depend on. And one of the biggest costs is paying the musicians. Or, in a word, labor.

That’s a word arts lovers don’t typically associate with music and other (snooty effete accent, gesturing heavenward) art (Ahhhht!). But making art is, among many other things, work. For conscientious musicians, besides the performance itself, it’s also training, individual practice, study, rehearsal—all adding up to the moving, sometimes even transcendent experiences we lucky audience members enjoy. 

We’re accustomed to paying for things we enjoy, so that workers can afford to produce them. Yet, especially in the 21st century, when music is available at the touch of a key with no apparent cost, we’re increasingly accustomed to getting it for free. And the people who bring live performances to us, even Meagher when wearing his PJCE hard hat, too often pay as little as possible to the musicians who are the reason people are coming to the shows and venues in the first place. Which means more and more musicians unable to afford to create or perfect their art, which means, eventually, less art, less music, less beauty in the world. That makes no one happy. 

There’s a way out of that trap, another term we don’t typically associate with Ahhhht: union. Musicians, artists, workers joining together have more ability to earn a living wage and work under conditions conducive to creating the beauty the rest of us enjoy.

And union is the word, the goal that Meagher is trying, despite his conflicting interests, to advance in Portland with PJCE’s February 19 concert at The Hallowed Halls, Union Makes Us Strong. Part of the 2024 Biamp Portland Jazz Festival, the show, co-presented with Musicians Union Local 99, contains original creations by a quintet of ace Portland composers inspired by the collective work of artists and other laborers. And it aims to put a spotlight not just on the music, but on the work — and workers — that make it possible.

Oh, and said concert that aims at winning musicians higher pay— it’s free. What?! Read on.

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

The Work Behind the Works

“Readers might be surprised at the huge variety of things professional working musicians do to make a living,” says trombonist Lars Campbell, one of the composers on the program. “Even the relatively few people who do nothing but play  — they’re teaching private lessons, playing organ at church on Sundays, working as music librarians,” or, like Campbell, teaching at college. Besides directing the Clackamas Community College music program, he teaches several classes, runs two ensembles and two festivals there, performs with the Oregon Symphony and Oregon Ballet Theater orchestras, plays many national touring shows and much more. To sustain the skills that place him in such high demand, “I spend hours a day practicing, preparing my craft, uncompensated,” the longtime musician’s union member says. “People might be surprised how much time is spent before you set foot on stage preparing that music.” 

Why is it so hard for musicians to make a living by, y’know, making music? Wasn’t it ever thus? Once upon a time, many regularly performing American musicians enjoyed decent pay scales, in part because many of them belonged to musicians unions that could negotiate decent wages and working conditions. Campbell’s American Federation of Musicians was actually the 14th affiliate to join the national Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1896, and was one of the country’s biggest unions. 

Lars Campbell

That clout started to erode when technology began to change the music business — player pianos, jukeboxes, then records, cassettes, CDs, MP3s and now streaming. The 20,000-plus live orchestra musicians that once provided soundtracks in movie theaters disappeared when films added sound. Radio station orchestras were supplanted by recordings. Netflix and other home streaming has undermined live performances. 

“Musicians’ work and the value it brings has been overlooked for centuries,” says AFM Local 99 secretary-treasurer Mont Chris Hubbard. “Music is one of those things people take for granted, and musicians have not benefited because we don’t have a strong enough union. There’s millions of musicians in the world, but most are not in our union and many aren’t hip to the power of collective action. The record companies are trillion-dollar organizations, but musicians themselves are not doing well, and there’s no organized group of musicians right now strong enough to take on Spotify or the record companies.”

This week, in fact, renowned civil rights attorney Ben Crump became the latest of many litigators against allegedly predatory record companies who stiffed artists. “In the absence of a strong union like SAG-AFTRA [the actors union], record companies are built on the backs of artists who walked away with virtually nothing,” Skid Row guitarist Snake Sabo told the Los Angeles Times. “When you’re 19, you just want to be able to perform and play and create, you’ll sell your soul to the devil. It’s like we’re not even on the totem pole, we’re the dirt around the pole.” 

Legal Obstacles

As if multiple technological whammies weren’t bad enough, musicians suffered another staggering setback in the early 1980s, with the advent of the anti-worker Reagan Administration and a federal court decision that, Hubbard explains, effectively removed musicians’ longstanding ability to bargain collectively with owners of clubs, casinos, hotels and other performance venues. 

“Before that time, we had union contracts with most clubs,” he says. “That court decision shredded those contracts. So jazz and rock musicians and others cannot bargain collectively for their work. They can still use contracts that our union draws up [and] will enforce, but that’s not the same as a collective bargaining agreement.”

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

For one thing, it and other anti labor policies created what economists call a “free rider problem,” in which musicians don’t have to join the union to benefit from its work. Membership in the AFM plummeted from 320,000 in 1975 to 60,000 today, Hubbard says. 

Marilyn Keller with PJCE. Photo by Kathryn Elsesser, courtesy Montavilla Jazz.

Another consequence: it became easier for clubs and other bookers to treat musicians who worked there as gig (contract) workers, rather than employees entitled to benefits. Between the classification change and the prohibition on collective bargaining, union strength withered, contract musicians’ pay declined, other rights — unemployment insurance, worker compensation for injuries suffered on the job, minimum wage, protections from workplace harassment — evaporated. Even violations prohibited by law can happen if laws aren’t enforced (especially with so many anti-labor administrations in office over the past four decades), and without strong unions and their lawyers to challenge anti-worker practices and government policies, they proliferated. 

No Safety Net

Hubbard gives examples of how that plays out in Oregon. One Portland-area theater regularly misclassified its performers as gig workers instead of employees, relieving it of the burden of providing worker compensation. “When an actor got hurt onstage, the theater got in trouble and started paying worker comp for its actors. But not the musicians.” 

Many other Oregon theaters, ensembles, orchestras and other arts presenters also deprive their regular artistic contributors of the benefits of employment, like workers compensation and unemployment insurance. Another drawback: self-employed workers are also responsible for paying twice as much FICA tax (i.e. Social Security and Medicare) as artists classified instead as employees, for whom the employer pays half the tax. 

The consequences of what Hubbard calls pervasive misclassification of arts workers became even more obvious recently. “When the pandemic hit, tons of artists suddenly became unemployed and didn’t have that social safety net of unemployment insurance because their employers were treating them as contractors instead of employees,” Hubbard says. It took a federal government emergency bailout, now expired, to protect them.

With little protection from the power imbalance exerted by the recording and live event industries, many of today’s musicians are vulnerable to exploitation and the vicissitudes of the volatile music biz. And with so many presenters and producers “making art as cheaply as possible, paying performers less than minimum wage, then all of a sudden you have a [pandemic-inspired] reckoning that we need to treat all of us better, we need to reexamine our business practices,” Hubbard says. “But that’s going to cost a lot more money, and at the same time, arts funding is drying up and we’ve been relying on government grants and private philanthropy, which have also dried up.” 

Kerry Politzer is one of five composers on the PJCE program. Photo: Douglas Detrick.

Music fans might worry that with so many arts venues and presenters struggling, clubs closing (and reopening), paying musicians a fair wage might threaten their existence. Hubbard says the union recognizes each employer’s unique circumstances, and the wide range of hiring and pay practices among clubs—unlike, say, orchestra performers, who play in the same place each time. And even there, the musicians union wouldn’t, for example, demand for players Oregon’s smaller orchestras a pay scale equivalent to the Oregon Symphony’s. 

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

“We’re trying to improve working conditions, not put people out of business,” Hubbard insists. “It’s not in the workers’ interests. Musicians who unionize will negotiate a rate that is fair. If a fair rate is going to put them out of business, then they shouldn’t be in business. It’s precarious and the for-profit business model may need some re-looking at.” Of course, if chronically low pay drives performers from the field entirely, that’s a big loss for not just musicians but also listeners.

Hubbard also points out that clubs and concert halls must abide by other regulations, like minimum pay for their servers and cooks, fire codes, zoning, and many others. “But there is no law that affects how clubs treat their musicians,” he says. “There should be a high priority placed on compensating the musicians,” who are after all the reason audiences are coming in the first place. “When businesses look to find a way to do that, they do. It is possible to run a successful live music business and pay performers a fair wage. Most are paying minimum wage for time on stage,” at least for most jazz players. (He says rock musicians have it tougher.) “It’s not the cost of the musicians that drives some of them out of business.” 

For example, Portland jazz club The 1905 closed last year not because it was paying musicians too much. “We found the troubles to be more the prior leadership than financial, as reported,” incoming new manager Chris Pfeifer wrote this week in a press release announcing the club’s recent leadership change and imminent reopening.

Union Interventions

Hubbard sees his 550-member union local as a force to protect Oregon musicians from anti-worker forces and work with presenters to help them find ways to succeed and hire musicians. It establishes a union pay scale that varies based on several factors; members who work under collective bargaining agreements  negotiate their pay rate collectively with the management of their employers. Nationally, the union has worked to protect musicians’ intellectual property rights (e.g. song copyrights, performance royalties) and on other legal and political fronts.

In Oregon, the union worked in the early 2000s to change the notorious Oregon Liquor Control Commission rules that prevented underage musicians from performing in clubs — an especially serious handicap for ambitious young jazz players who crave the wisdom learned and earned in working with their elders onstage. That same decade, it was instrumental in the push to ban smoking in clubs and bars, where musicians would work for 4-5 hours a night breathing second-hand smoke. 

Hubbard says AFM Local 99 also gained tangible benefits for musicians in disputes over less-obvious issues, like noise ordinances and loading zone permits, that impeded musicians’ performing opportunities. 

Portland composer Caroline Miller

The union doesn’t focus solely on economic equity. It also works to improve working conditions, like protecting musicians from jeopardizing their health by working onstage during a pandemic, or outside during dangerous, wildfire- and climate-catastrophe-driven air quality hazards, or negotiating with theaters to install railings to protect musicians from falling offstage. 

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Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon

The union can win some of those battles because of the collective strength of its members and their ability to withhold their most valuable commodity — their labor. “Because of labor law, we have the power that if you don’t listen to us, we’re not going to work, and that action is protected by federal and state labor laws,” Hubbard explains. “That’s more than just advocacy. We have the power to affect the workplace and hold up the means of production, and we have laws that protect us.” 

With the labor movement surging around the country, and even the theater world recently beginning to reassess its own practices that burn out or even endanger performers, maybe it’s time for more musicians to pull together to protect their own interests. Hubbard has seen increased interest in the union from younger workers. “I’m really encouraged and excited about the future of our local and national union,” he says, “because more and more musicians are realizing that the only way forward is through collective action.”

Free as in Beer

One such action is the Music Performance Trust Fund, created through negotiations between the union and record companies way back during the infamous recording strike that paralyzed the industry in the early 1940s, leading to a big gap in jazz and other recorded legacies, and speeding the demise of big bands. As part of the settlement, “a royalty stream from every record sale goes to the music trust fund, whose purpose is to support live performance,” Hubbard says, including paying the performers a fair wage. One prime condition: performances must be free to the public. 

When Meagher was discussing the possibility of a union-oriented concert, Hubbard told him PJCE could apply for MPTF matching funding, as long as the show was free. The Oregon Nurses Association and other labor organizations also contributed. 

Hubbard says the fund also helps pay for about $20,000 worth of local shows annually, often at schools and retirement homes and holiday celebrations. But this is the only time in recent history that he can recall the local also partnering directly with an Oregon arts organization for such an event.  

In this concert, the union is promoting the creation of new music as well as providing a welcome gig for more than a dozen of Portland’s most accomplished jazz musicians. Campbell, a member of both the union and PJCE, sought input from members about possible subjects for his piece, and decided to focus on the recent birth of smaller local unions. Its three movements channel, film-score style, the Burgerville workers union, the nascent New Seasons organizing drive, and the dancers from the Magic Tavern’s unionization efforts. Drawing from news accounts, press materials and other sources, “I’m trying to show the commonality in those three different sets of workers who’ve come together to make their working lives better,” Campbell explains. “It’s a perfect example of what people can do when they work together.” Peerless Portland vocalist and PJCE board member Marilyn Keller will intone the narrative that ties the trio together.

Another PJCE board member, Portland pianist/composer Kerry Politzer, was inspired by the powerful story of farmworkers leader Dolores Huerta, still out on the front lines making good trouble at age 93 (¡Si, se puede!), and wrote a new work incorporating Mexican music influences. Jasnam Daya Singh’s new work about health care workers and long COVID arose from his experience as an in-home care worker. PSU faculty member Caroline Miller approaches her composition from an avant-classical perspective, broadening the show’s stylistic range. 

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Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon

Portland composer Jasnam Daya Singh

Keller will sing on that one too, as well as on Meagher’s contribution. His grandfather was a logger in 1950s Coos Bay who died on the job, and Meagher’s song draws loosely on his life, including the dangers and demands of that job, which was a family operation not protected by the unions that covered corporate operations.

Stronger Together

Meagher is also inspired by his wife, a member of the flight attendants union who under the dynamic leadership of Oregon native Sara Nelson is asserting its members’ needs after years of going unrepresented. The guitarist/composer hopes the concert will herald a closer relationship ‘twixt PJCE and the AFM local 99. “Entertainers, artists are workers too,” he says. “As [PJCE’s] administrator, I know that when we make people feel valued by the money we pay them, by listening to their input and contributions, we get a better product. You get what you pay for.” 

Eventually, Meagher hopes, PJCE musicians would organize collectively and, with representation by the union, negotiate a contract with the organization that lays out wage and safety rules, such as limiting the length of time musicians would be required to play without a break. And he hopes that PJCE’s efforts will transcend the organization.

“I’d like to see PJCE be a leader in changing the presenter model in the jazz world,” he says. “I want musicians in this community to feel more empowered about the employment choices we make. We know we’re underpaid, and this one concert is not going to change that, but as an organization, we want to get to that place.”

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and Musicians Union Local 99 present Union Makes Us Strong at 7:30 PM Monday, at The Hallowed Halls, 4420 SE 64th Avenue, Portland.

The 2024 Biamp Portland Jazz Festival begins this weekend and runs through the first weekend of March.

Sponsor

Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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