Hello again! September in NYC right now, despite what Starbucks would have you think with it’s PSL-spiced madness, isn’t so much sweater weather as it is just plain sweaty! Democratic primaries for state elections have just happened in New York and, while politics are very much on everyone’s minds these days, it turns out that the musicians’ union here, Local 802, is having elections of its own. As a non-employed musician pondering the candidates, I ask myself “What should I be getting from the union?”
The union here in NYC is incredibly busy and oversees many more ensembles than the average union in other states. The office holds daily business hours. It has entire floors for collecting recording royalties and providing health benefits for those who get enough union work to contribute the threshold for coverage. In other words, it is a vital machine that works behind the scenes to ensure that musicians are treated fairly and are taken care of in the groups they play in, provided that those groups are affiliated with 802.
In my case, I’m aware that I am lucky to play enough 802 work and teach enough students that I’m always in striking distance of that threshold, in turn providing health insurance for my family. And yet, I still feel like an outsider looking in; I see very little of myself in the union.
A part of me is definitely still influenced by that “you don’t matter until you win a job” mentality, and that’s my own business that I am still working through. At the same time, I know that I’m not alone. I know that musicians more talented than myself may never get that lucky phone call: there aren’t enough theaters to employ everyone in a pool that is massively saturated with talent. I know that there is a new generation of musicians like me that will end up as career subs if they’re lucky, and yet the Allegro newsletter from 802 is full of articles that apply almost exclusively to musicians that are chair holders on shows. So I ask myself again: “do I belong in this union?”
YES. In a business like ours that is fighting for its survival, we ALL belong in the union and in fact are the only way it will survive. This is a big city with some big groups, and for those few hundred musicians who do have guaranteed work, how many more freelancers are in between shows, or on tenure-track for a big job, or made it to a final round and didn’t have that push of luck to turn it their way? How many conductors are out there building their own orchestras because they have nowhere to conduct? How many stories do I not know about, because the union has no idea they exist?
In an exciting turn, there is a new political party that’s developed here within the musicians’ union, and they call themselves 802 Musicians for Change. I know several of these musicians personally, and I look forward to hearing more about the changes they propose to the way our union works. I hope that there will be an event of some kind where we can hear these ideas in person. In the meantime, I have a course of action of my own.
My biggest issue with “Musicians of Now” (visit my Facebook page to check out the videos I made!) was that it was still essentially about connections. It was my goal to feature the voices of the many musicians that were living honest lives and deserved their due credit, but I’m not nearly famous enough to reach people I don’t know, and give them the same opportunity I was giving to my friends. I find that problem with many podcasts and interview formats as well: there has to be a major success or accomplishment to warrant a musician’s presence on a series. No, what I want to do requires a regular space that is open and available for all musicians to be together where they can come of their own accord. As I know too well, it is clinically depressing to be alone when there are no phone calls coming in. I am finding ways that I can be involved in our union, and I hope to build a support system for these musicians from within it, regardless of which party is in power. I want to create an awareness of these musicians that live in our city, and maybe even create a support network that addresses the real need of self-marketing and how to stay mentally healthy during unemployment periods.
In my ideal union, no group is too small to be a part of the union, and every musician will see real value in joining the union as soon as possible. Is this a stretch? Maybe: I am the first to admit that I have more to learn about the inner workings of this organization that we owe much of our livelihoods too. However, I know that when it’s time for new people to step up and take charge of what is essentially ours, I want to be ready to have that conversation. So stay tuned and wish me luck. I hope I can make a difference for all of us, in some small way.
What do you want from your union as a freelancing musician? Comment below.