Across the film music industry, the recent composer unionization effort has been at the forefront of everyone’s mind for the last few weeks. Led by film composers Bruce Broughton, James DiPasquale, Alan Elliott, and Alf Clausen, the Teamsters Local 399 has offered a hand as one of the most powerful union organizations to help unionize composers — one of the last creative groups in Hollywood to still work without a collective bargaining agreement.
Since the announcement of this effort, there have been many opinions expressed, a lot of intense debate and discussion, and a load of mixed emotions on all fronts.
I’ve mentioned before that I am yet undecided on the issue. To be honest, I’ve enjoyed the conversation and I’ve been soaking up everyone’s viewpoints on the subject. I’ve been an insatiable reader of online opinions on the union issue and have also done my own homework to be sure that when I decide which way is best for my own career, I can make an informed and thoughtful decision.
There is, however, a significant voice that is missing from the conversation — something that I’ve relied on all my life to aid me in my decision making process: The voice of leadership.
I know that in many careers, including my own, the whisper of seasoned leadership has been vital in helping to make informed decisions. Few influencers can sway a personal choice more than the experience and counsel of a seasoned veteran who has seen it all and done even more. The film music industry is chock full of veteran composers who have not only witnessed decades of change and transformation in our business (and adapted successfully to those changes), but have also been through the wars politically with directors, studios, agents, soundtrack labels, and yes… unions.
So where are they? Where are the voices of our Generals that we as the “foot soldiers” of the film music army have come to rely on for everything else that we’ve pondered career-wise — from what plug-ins to spend our money on to how to best break into the industry? Why are the “heavies” not weighing in publicly on an issue that could potentially be the most important critical argument toward the sustenance of our beloved craft to come down the pike in twenty years?
If you were in attendance at the Teamsters information meeting that took place on November 16, it was obvious that the majority of composers coming out to represent the community as a consensus were extremely young. While there were a handful of what most would call “A-List” veteran composers in the audience, most folks in the seats were either emerging or beginning composers well under the age of 40. Arguably, accessible technology combined with an over-saturation of scorable media has provided the impetus for a formerly older gentleman’s game to give way to a trade more available to younger men and women over the course of the last ten years or so.
To me, a severe irony exists in the absence so-far of vocalized opinion or comment from any recognized composer. For a group of people traditionally known to be somewhat introverted, to witness a gathering of over 450 of us in one room is a little of an accomplishment. To see five or ten of our more respected and recognized composers in attendance is also a surprise, again, given the way in which we composers don’t like to “come out of the cave”. But to some, this was important enough to attend, consequences be damned (and I’m sure there *were* some the next day!).
I’d like to hear from those people. I’d like them to speak up and address us foot soldiers, whom, make no mistake, will be the initial base on which this proposed union will be built. After all, there is much more responsibility to being a composer than simply writing great music. There is a community at stake. A community that they are not only a part of, but certainly helped build. A community of young composers that is proud of their leaders’ accomplishments, but also looks up to them for their experience, wisdom, and candor in speaking of the craft. They had me at their music, but Messrs. Broughton, Clausen, and DiPasquale have all stepped up to the plate and swung the bat to start a conversation, earning them even more respect and admiration from me. This is exactly the kind of leadership I am talking about. Now it is time for the rest of our legacy composers to step out of the shadows of Hollywood politics and shed some light on both sides of the union argument for the betterment of the community and the craft.
Here is why I believe this is necessary:
As much as the newer, younger generations of composers are gung-ho and ready to tackle the pros and cons of unionization, I am certain — as it is simply a byproduct of the human condition — that lack of experience, limited perspective, and the simple awkwardness of youth will have a negative affect on how smooth a ride this could be. I saw it at the meeting on the 16th, and we’ve all seen it in hundreds of other life experiences. For those of you that are familiar, the story of the “old bull and the young bull” comes to mind.
The harsh reality is that the majority of film composers have never worked within the motion picture studio system. The argument that studios are controlling less and less of the movie business as days go by is an argument that, factually, does not hold water, which is why you often hear veteran composers counseling beginners to “move to Los Angeles”. True, there are independent productions that have seen great success in the last fifteen years, but the majority of work in film that can sustain the career of a working film composer still originates at the Hollywood studio level. Even with the iron-clad film music education that a first rate university can provide these days, young composers are simply not adequately prepared to deal with the needs and desires of a major Hollywood studio from a business standpoint. The art of handling the nuances of multi-million dollar studio music budgets is not something that can be easily learned in a classroom setting, nor would a studio saddle a first time composer with such an unfair expectation.
I would suggest that the majority of composers in the room on November 16th haven’t the foggiest clue what a collaboration with a major studio feels, looks, or tastes like. They have never had to work up a package deal to be approved by a music department, nor have they ever encountered the prickly situation of a director requesting the production and orchestral recording of alternate cues that were not included on the package agreement to begin with. Beginning composers simply do not have the perspective necessary to see anything from the studio’s vantage point, and to put it plainly… many won’t for some time. Even the most experienced independent composers have yet to walk the tightrope of artistic integrity and serving the needs of a major studio’s budgetary guidelines and business parameters — both of which require careful attention in order to bring about a fruitful collaboration at the blockbuster level.
Anyone who now works or has worked with a studio will tell you that the unionization of composers poses far greater ramifications for both sides than it does at the independent level. At the studio level — which is where most of us would like to be, don’t forget — unionization poses a wholly different set of hurdles and obstacles, and means a lot more than just whether or not composers “get the respect” we deserve. In fact, I would bet my next royalty check that most studio-level composers didn’t attend last week’s meeting simply because it would have been a waste of their time. The fact is that the problems that haunt “A-List” composers are a far cry from the issues that haunt beginners. The day-to-day issues of studio-level composing under a composers union are those that would ripple the pond in far greater and potentially more dangerous ways than a beginning composer could ever pretend to imagine.
This is precisely why we need more recognized composers speaking out on the issue of a potential composers union. The silence of wisdom and experience serves to only make the natives more and more restless. Of course, there could be good reason for silence from A-listers, the first being the importance of maintaining alliances with the studios. Even still, there are ways to speak on this issue without jeopardizing business relationships, and it seems to me like many of those A-list composer/studio relationships are now galvanized to the point where not much damage could be done by simply sharing a healthy conversation.
I would like to openly invite any recognized composer to weigh in on the issue of unionization here at SCOREcastOnline.com. Please feel free to log into the COMMENTS below and voice your opinions, address any issues you feel are ambiguous on either side of the argument, or simply encourage the younger set out there to get more involved in the exploration of the possibilities. Just knowing that you all are engaged would help those of who want to be engaged feel a lot better about… well… engaging.
Your music has helped move us all through some of life’s most difficult challenges. That music came from your own filtered perspective on your lives and success. Now, more than ever, we need unfiltered access to that life experience to help move us through an issue that will most certainly effect all of us one way or another.
We anxiously await your response.