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Interview with Portland Musicians Union President Bruce Fife
Published August 6, 2014
When I went to my first jam session in Portland at the Blue Diamond in 2011, I noticed a sign around the corner for the Musicians Union. I didn't know what to make of it. I knew a little bit about the union; I remember getting a pamphlet at Berklee in the mid 1990s with some info about it. I looked into it briefly, decided against joining, and more or less forgot they existed. Over the next 20 years, I don't remember ever meeting anyone who was a musicians union member. So when I saw the sign for the union on the street every time I went to the Blue Diamond, it continually got my attention, in a "Wow, these guys still exist and have a building and a sign!" kind of way. Being a musician myself, it seemed like it should have some significance for me, and yet it virtually never came up in my professional pursuits. And I wondered: what goes on there? I decided to go in and find out.
I met with Bruce Fife, who is the current president of the Portland chapter, called the Local 99 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM 99). He had been a member of the union for many years before being elected as an officer to the executive board in 1999. Two years later in 2001 he was elected President of the Portland chapter, and in 2010 he was elected International Vice President. I sat down with him in an attempt to learn about the people involved and demystify what the Musicians Union is all about.
Lance: What is your musical background?
Bruce: I was a club musician for all practical purposes. I did a bit of everything, but that was my 5 nights a week/50 weeks a year for 20 years. Eventually I lost my voice and that kinda took the joy out of it, I’d been fronting bands for 20 years. I had already been involved with the union and moved my way sideways at that point. All kinds of music, whatever was required, some session work and some jingles, the focus was live gigs.
Lance: Was that all in Portland?
Bruce: On the road.
Lance: What was your band? Portland Musicians Union
President Bruce Fife
Bruce: Different bands. None of them name acts, but different groups over the years.
Lance: Original and cover?
Lance: What kind of style?
Bruce: Every popular style, depending on the flavor of the day, jazz country, rock, singer/songwriter. I started out as a guitar player/singer/songwriter, but I played keys, bass, harmonica, sang, fronted bands.
Lance: You had a wide skill set then. That’s always good to have.
Bruce: Especially in today’s environment.
Lance: Yeah. Would you agree, it seems like… you have to do more nowadays… in a strange way, because it seems like in other industries it’s better to be more specialized, but it seems like in music, as a performer anyway, that’s not necessarily an advantage to be so specialized.
Bruce: You gotta have chops, you gotta be able to pull it off, you gotta be able to say yes to almost anything to make it work. One of our members I consider to be the contemporary model for a popular musician. He has corporate show bands, he can do big stuff up to 24 pieces down to 4 and everything in between. Both show and cover bands. He has his original projects, he’s a side musician for mid-level national acts, he goes out on the road with them all the time, internationally. His original projects he collaborates with well established musicians in LA and other places, and there’s almost no job that is too small or too big that he can’t step into. And that to me is the world that we live it today.
Lance: Compared to let’s say 40 years ago, how is it different?
Bruce: You just didn't do those things. If you were looking to make it as a musician, your sole goal at that time was to get a major label deal. I don't mean this to sound like old guy talking... I think we are awash in mediocrity (today). When I was playing, you really had to be at a certain level to get gigs. And your promo had to be right there, your quality had to be right there, everything that you did had to be at a pretty high level because the competition was steep and the jobs were few, and you had to be good. Now because there’s no money involved (in the clubs)... it doesn't matter whether you’re good.
Bruce: Let me give you some back story. We have 80,000 members across the United States and Canada. We've been as many as 350,000 in our heyday. The first big blow to the union came in 1978. Up until then, our focus was truly working musicians in the clubs, weddings, types of employment like that. In ‘78, there had been lawsuits filed against the union, the courts determined that musicians working in clubs were not employees of the clubs, they were independent contractors. And an independent contractor cannot be represented by a union. So almost overnight, a large slice of the work that we had been doing was erased by these court cases.
Lance: So prior to 1978, musicians were considered club employees?
Bruce: Yes, they were considered employees of the club. We had contracts negotiated with the clubs… I came through the tail end of that era, it took a while for the changes to happen, but I was able to make a middle class living because of those wage standards that had been set up at that time. So the first job I ever played in 1977 or 1976... I got paid $50. That (amount), if you adjust for inflation is $180 - $200 (today). That’s where we should be (now) if the flow had continued.
Lance: What was the inspiration behind that court decision, did somebody have an agenda?
Bruce: Yeah absolutely, it’s greed. It’s always greed.
Lance: On whose part? Who benefitted from that decision exactly?
Bruce: The clubs.
Lance: Were the clubs able to organize and lobby?
Bruce: There was one individual who really drove it, and he filed lawsuits in virtually every city in the nation… (If the clubs) don't have to pay payroll taxes, if they don't have to pay unemployment...
Lance: So you were actually getting benefits.
Bruce: Musicians were, prior to 1978, yes. They were employees.
Lance: Right. It’s just hard to imagine… Like in Portland say, any given band couldn't play in town more than once a month.
Bruce: No, see, that’s where the industry has changed. Completely.
Lance: It didn't used to be like that.
Bruce: No. One of the major shifts that has taken place, erroneously in my thought, is that the bands are now completely responsible for bringing people into the club. The way it used to work, to a large degree, except at the very top level, is that the clubs were responsible for having their own clientele. The bands job was to come in and keep them there and obviously build on it. I still had mailing lists… I still built followings, and had followings in every (town). But I wasn't solely responsible for putting butts in the seats so to speak. It was the responsibility of the clubs and our job was to hold them and entertain them while they were there... One of the areas where we have extreme density is in the orchestral world. Our density in the orchestral world is 90% - 92%.
Lance: You mean 92% of orchestral players are union members?
Bruce: Yes. And the orchestras are under contract.
Lance: How many orchestras are there in Portland?
Bruce: The ones that are under our contracts are Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera Orchestra, Oregon Ballet Theater Orchestra, Portland Festival Symphony, Portland Summerfest, Portland Symphonic Choir, Gay Mens Chorus, Choral Arts Ensemble Portland. (This is only some of them - incomplete list.). So that's that part of it. But then the other part of it is nationally we negotiate contracts with Portland film musicians, that's negotiated with Universal, Warner Bros., Columbia, Disney, all the majors. We have something called the Sound Recording Labor Agreement, that's negotiated with the Big 4, in essence Universal, Warner Bros, Sony and Disney, Hollywood Records is Disney. And those contracts all filter down to other labels, but it's negotiated with the majors. Live TV/Videotape, all musicians are covered on Fallon, Saturday Night Live, Dancing With The Stars, American Idol, all those shows are all covered by our Live TV/Videotape Agreement.
Lance: What about the Portland office, what's their connection with Jimmy Fallon and those musicians there?
Bruce: We don't have any connection with them, but it's the same contract that works internationally. So for instance, I was talking about the film agreement. Nebraska, the film that came out not long ago, that was scored here in Portland, parts of it, with Oregon musicians, and it's done under the same agreement that it would be done in LA. It's all the same contract. The national agreements or international agreements are not about where they're done, it's the same rules that apply everywhere, wherever it's done.... We also have Commercial Announcements Agreement, so Wieden + Kennedy, the big ad agency, is signatory to our agreement, so any of the jingles that they do with live original music on them, they're done under our contracts. So a lot of that work is being done here, it's actually coming back into town. For many years they did their session work in LA, Chicago, and New York, and now they're doing a lot of it here. Not all of it, but some of it. So that affects us directly, even though that's a national agreement.
Lance: Can you give me a breakdown percentage-wise of musicians by genre? For example, how many musicians identify with just one or two genres, and how many identify with practically all of them?
Bruce: No, I can't give you a breakdown. I'm not sure why that's relevant. I think, as we said earlier, musicians more and more do more and more things because they have to. If they're capable of it, they do it. If you look at classical musicians, which are pretty narrowly focused, you'll find them crossing over into all styles of music. Even if you look at the Oregon Symphony, their Pops component of what they do brings in a wide range of musicians, they're playing their instruments in potentially more of a classical fashion as a backup for Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. Or they bring in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell to do their show last year. They're a support structure for those kind of things but it certainly is in the pop realm. But they're also more and more going out into the clubs and doing a variety of things. I don't know if you know what Classical Revolution PDX is, but that's a group whose goal is to take classical music out of the concert venue and into the more accessible venues, and they actually have jam sessions if you can imagine. Certainly jazz musicians are always playing all kinds of things. I think the better quality and more experience a musician has, the more genres they can fit into and are, but I don't have any percentages or numbers.
Lance: How many new members do you get each year? How many members leave each year?
Bruce: We have been very, very stable for many years, running between about 600-700 (members). Right now we're in a downturn, I think mostly based on the economy and the fact that work still hasn't returned… One of the changes in the industry that is affecting membership, is the hobby group is much bigger than it’s ever, ever, ever been. And when I say “hobby group”, I don't mean to say they're not professional quality musicians, but they're not full time. They have a day job that pays the bills. They do this for fun and giggles on the weekend. And because of the level that that’s risen, it’s pushed the pros down and out. It’s harder for someone to be a full time musician.
Lance: How frequently does the union have to advocate for a union member because of a dispute?
Bruce: It’s hard to put a number on it, but I would say virtually daily. There’s different realms and different types of things. For example, I have to in essence enforce the (Oregon) Symphony contract on an ongoing, daily basis. So there are always waivers, there are always issues, there can be terminations, so there’s processes for that. We're involved in the audition phase. So every aspect of everything that goes on in that orchestra is governed by the contract. And so that means you're advocating every day. I know that’s not what you're talking about but I think it’s important to understand the daily involvement in that kind of thing. Right now we're ratifying an agreement we put together with the musicians. You're probably talking more about when somebody gets stiffed for a gig, what we do there and how does that all take place.
Lance: If that’s common.
Bruce: Sure. I had a band, not long ago, that was playing a festival. They had a fairly substantial payment due them, in the thousands, and the guy wrote them a rubber check. And so in that particular situation there’s a process involved. Those kinds of calls I get weekly. You go after them. So we enforce contracts for our members no matter what they are. And in that particular situation, because of the experience and background that I have, they got paid, and probably nobody else at that festival has gotten paid that wasn't a union band because they don’t know how to go about getting the money as well as we do. Another example is a band who canceled the job themselves before it was ever supposed to happen, it was a $10,000 gig, and the band actually did everything wrong, including canceling the job themselves, and then asked me to try to get them money. And I got them a couple grand. We know how to work these types of things. Portland Opera had a situation where it canceled the orchestra for one of its performances and brought in a solo piano player. That’s a situation where we negotiated, we follow contract process, potentially goes to arbitration, in this case we went to mediation and we were able to reach a settlement, and the musicians got paid for that cancellation.
Lance: And in both of those cases there were contracts that whoever did the hiring disregarded the contract?
Bruce: There are always reasons why people think what they're doing is right. That’s why attorneys have jobs, because you’re interpreting the contracts. In this case, their claim was that it was an Act of God, so they didn't owe any money, and our claim was that it wasn't an Act of God. So then you have to work through that process and make a determination as to what the actual circumstances are.
Lance: Are there any myths or misperceptions about the union floating out there, and if so, what are they?
Bruce: Thousands. You can almost break them down by age. If you’re maybe 45 and above, your perception of the union is that it’s a police state type of thing - controls everything, punishes its members for playing for under scale and doing any manner of things that may undermine our industry. There’s a certain truth to that when we controlled 80% of the workforce - the goal of a union is to maintain standards. So what I always find funny is that even from those who say they don't believe in the union, will call me up and ask me what scale is, because there’s no other organization that sets standards out there for what goes on. So there’s that myth.
I think one of the challenges that anybody faces in any organization, not just us, is understanding what the end goals and end results are. So sometimes it’s tough to get everybody to understand the big picture. My hardest job as International Vice President is we represent 80,000 musicians. We have to make sure what we do over here to effect positive change doesn’t negatively affect over here.
Lance: You mean locally?
Bruce: Locally, nationally, everything. You have to make sure that everybody is equally represented. So when it comes down to setting scales or doing certain things, we do want everybody to work under contract and for union scale. If somebody goes out and does work for less than scale, they're driving the industry down. Our job is to not let that happen. So there’s a tough push and pull there as we try to maintain standards.
Lance: I would imagine the challenge is convincing musicians of the value of the union, of being a union member.
Bruce: And the value of themselves. I said earlier, I didn’t used to walk out the door for less than $100. I didn't need the union to tell me to do that. It wasn't worth my time and it was driving the industry down if I did that. So that’s one of the biggest shifts in our industry today, is everybody feels they just have to do it, they just have to play. Because if they don't, somebody else is going to. And that’s one of our great challenges.
Lance: How do you get it back?
Bruce: Organizing. That’s the challenge. We have to get people to understand that what they do has value. We have a campaign right now going on that’s called Fair Trade Music (http://www.fairtrademusicpdx.org/). It’s a campaign that we built, we put together here who’s goal is to raise the wages in the club scene. It was built by us along with both union and nonunion musicians because this industry is full of both. In essence what it is, when you pay your $5 at the door, we believe that money actually ought to get to the band. As it currently is structured, the band is the last to get the money. It's pulled out for the sound guy, it's pulled out for the door guy, the house may take some, and if there's anything left then it goes to the band. We think that's insane. It's the band that is bringing the people in there. So the way that we do that is we have a tiered structure that the club has to buy into. If they buy into that tiered pay system with minimums, then we will help put butts in the seats in that club and try to lift the whole business. So this is what the musicians put together, there were bomb throwers on one side, there were kumbaya-ers on the other side, and neither one of those were the majority. In the middle was "how do we build this whole thing?", and so that's what we've done.
Lance: It sounds like a tough thing to get the clubs to feel obligated to sign on for that.
Bruce: It wouldn't be if the musicians were to engage and empower themselves. That's what organizing is. And that's our challenge. You know, we hear constantly, everyday, that the wages suck. I need to make more money. It's not fair. There's only one way to change that, that's to step up and start organizing in such a way that you can change that environment out there.
Lance: Have there been any success stories in that regard?
Bruce: We have organized events, we haven't organized clubs yet. This has gone somewhat nationwide. We have a Local 1000 nationally that is our non-geographic local, basically touring folk artists. They have about 22 clubs signed on to it. They are the most successful at having done that, even though it was created here. We are expanding what we are doing in that realm to engage in other areas. The Seattle local has taken it on, and one of the things they've been able to successfully do under the moniker of Fair Trade Music is something we're working on here, access to loading zones for musicians in front of clubs. Jimmy Mak's is a key place, there's really no parking around there, there's a loading zone right in front and there's a parking person that actually seems to watch for the musicians so that she can ticket them there. Another thing we're looking at what's become a big issue is sound. We actually want to try to potentially do some things around improving the quality of sound systems within the clubs that provide their own sound. One of the other ideas that's floating around but hasn't taken off yet is having people actually monitor the door to make sure that the door person taking the money at the door is taking it from everybody and getting an accurate count, and the band is getting what they're supposed to be getting. We hear too many horror stories of that kind of stuff.
Lance: What kinds of organizations do you regularly come into contact with? Are they city organizations, music clubs, arts organizations, performance rights organizations? Is it an equal split amongst all of them or is it some more than others?
Bruce: I would say it’s a fairly equal split amongst a lot of them. It depends on what's going on. I deal with city hall a lot depending upon the circumstances, like with the parking (situation) right now I'm in touch with commissioner Steve Novick because he's in charge of transportation (Portland Bureau of Transportation). I've talked to Commissioner Nick Fish since he's kinda the arts guy right now in city hall. I'm also part of the AFL-CIO, I sit on the executive board of the AFL State Fed, and we deal with the legislature and things dependent upon what's going on in the legislature. Performance rights organizations I spend way too much time dealing with, especially ASCAP and BMI. I told them I ought to be on their payroll because I answer more questions about them than they do. SoundExchange, are you familiar with SoundExchange?
Lance: Sounds familiar, I'm not sure what they are though.
Bruce: They're a performance rights organization as well. You have two types of copyrights: copyright PA is for the composer and publisher, those collections are administered by ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. We also have copyright SR, that's the actual sound recording. That only exists in the digital world. A quick and easy explanation is, Bob Dylan wrote "All Along the Watchtower", he's the composer. Jimi Hendrix played the more definitive version of it. When that gets played on AM/FM radio, Bob Dylan gets paid, Jimi Hendrix's estate gets nothing. However, in the digital domain, Jimi Hendrix's estate will get paid. So if it's on SiriusXM, Pandora, cable radio, any webcasting that is streaming, not on demand, not Spotify, but streaming, they get paid for that. So SoundExchange is the collection agency to collect those royalties.
Lance: Specifically for digital, online...
Bruce: For digital, online, and cable radio. Anything in the digital domain. Not AM/FM radio, cause we don't have rights there. Now we have been working for years to get those rights, we're one of only very few countries in the world that don't have those rights. Earl Blumenauer (U.S. Representative for Oregon's 3rd congressional district) is signed on to legislation that is anti-royalty for musicians on AM/FM (under the current system, musicians don't get paid when their work is played on AM/FM radio). This musicFIRST coalition, we're one of the key players on it, and we almost had those rights passed in 2010. We were this close, it had gotten out of the Federal House and Senate, and was in negotiations to finalize it and it got stalled for a really stupid reason. The National Association of Broadcasters was able to hijack the process by demanding that there be an FM chip in smart phones. And that stalled until the Democrats lost the House in 2010, and the bill died with it. So we're back, we're gonna be re-introducing a new bill. But this is an anti-royalty thing.
Lance: Is the RIAA in this case one of the opponents of this?
Bruce: They’re one of our partners in this issue.
Lance: Who’s the battle against specifically?
Bruce: The broadcasters. They don’t want to pay.
Lance: So the radio stations.
Bruce: Yeah, the National Association of Broadcasters. The RIAA is with us. In other words, we work with them on certain things, we battle against them on other things.
Bruce: You have to choose your friends and allies based on the circumstances not on just who they are.
Lance: Can you finish up what you were saying before, how perceptions of the union change with how old you are?
Bruce: I think if you’re between 30 - 45 or 35 - 50, somewhere in that middle realm, I think you have mixed feelings. I think if you’re under 30, you might not even know we exist. It’s interesting, I tell people, and it’s tough to explain, some of the most important stuff we do is stuff that is done nationally, internationally, and it affects every musicians whether you’re a member or not. And you don’t know how it happened or how it got there. For instance, if musicians all of a sudden got paid royalties for their AM/FM radio airplay like they’re getting for digital now, that affects everybody. It’s not just our members, it’s everybody. And nobody will know where it came from unless they’re a member and they actually see the stories coming out monthly on the work that’s being done.
Lance: It’s not the sort of thing the Oregonian would typically report on, unless you win or you lose.
Bruce: Although, I will say this. In 2004 when we had a big push, we used (as an example) - I’m not gonna remember his name, but he sang “Louie Louie”.
Lance: The Kingsmen.
Bruce: The Kingsmen was the band. But the guy in the Kingsmen who actually sang has never made a nickel from that song because he was in the band for that time, recorded the song, was there for maybe 6 months after and then left the band or was kicked out or whatever. This is the most oft-played song probably in music history, and the guy who sang it has never gotten a plugged nickel. So we met with the Oregonian editorial board at that point and they endorsed the campaign, which is very unusual for them cause they’re such a right-leaning paper. So that was great. This work that affects everybody oftentimes goes unnoticed. Another one that we’re still fighting with, it took us 10 years to get the law passed, was instrument carry-on on airplanes.
Lance: That’s a big one.
Bruce: So who’s driving that? That would be us. Does anybody know that? No. It was passed 2 years ago, and it still has not been officially implemented because they had no funding to implement. They had 2 years to implement the rules. So we met with the Secretary of Transportation, our president met with him 2 weeks ago with the airlines all in the room, saying “What are you guys doing? This is the law, it was passed, we’re still having problems, we gotta get this done.” And it will be done now, in fact it’ll be done quicker than we thought because most of the airlines have implemented rules, they’re on their websites. So now that they’re on their websites... if they violate their own rules, it goes back to the DOT and the airlines don’t want that. So we’re gonna get that finalized. The big issue du jour is endangered ivory. Have you heard anything about that? All violin bows are...
Lance: Prohibited from traveling?
Bruce: Well there’s a process to make it so, but we’re trying to work through that whole thing and get through the madness and the ridiculousness. So one of the first things that came out is if you had purchased your bow after 1974, you couldn’t travel with it.
Lance: Because the law was in effect after that year.
Bruce: So we’ve already got a change there. Now it’s February 2014 rather than 1974. But again we’re working through all those issues. So there was a Budapest Symphony that came into the U.S. that had all their bows confiscated when they came in and had to scrounge around and get somebody to rent or loan or whatever to do their performances. But it doesn’t affect just violinists. It’s rosewood; so my guitar has a rosewood back on it, if I were to take it out of the country I couldn’t bring it back in, they could confiscate it. So that affects everybody.
Lance: Flying with a rosewood guitar within the country is OK, it’s just traveling internationally that’s a problem?
Bruce: Yes, it’s customs. And they’re not qualified, how are they gonna tell… And the ivory, there are tests to determine whether it’s actually elephant ivory which is endangered versus rhinoceros tusks which are not, but they look virtually the same. How are you going to be able to tell what’s what?
I think what’s important to understand, regardless of what people feel about the musicians union, unions in general are under attack constantly. And it’s a concerted attack by people that want them gone. Why would the symphony want to have to run everything through the union to make sure it can do what it wants to do? If I were the employer, I probably wouldn’t want to either. And those with the big bucks and the corporate control, they want to see unions gone, because they don’t want to have to answer to…
Lance: I think there’s something to be said for happier employees.
Bruce: And there are good companies out there that do have happy employees, and when they do, they don’t have problems with their employees. But management is our best organizing tool, cause they don’t. So for instance… there’s a company in Ohio, Cleveland or somewhere, that is timing bathroom breaks. And a musician actually has to slide a card in, they get 6 minutes, and they gotta be back. Six minutes is probably enough most of the time but not every time. Do you want a company monitoring… And there’s gonna be a grievance on that. That’s a union shop and there will be a battle over how much time you spend in the bathroom. So everybody looks to the union rules and they say “These things are just nutty, wow.” Every clause in a contract is there because of an abuse that the employer did at some point. That’s why they’re there. They’re reactionary documents, and they deal with circumstances that came up. So I can guarantee you that the issue we have with Portland Opera will be a subject of negotiations when that contract expires and we have to discuss it because they didn’t like the outcome. They will want to change that language to better impact them. Teachers - teachers have somehow become the evil entity - “They’re ruining the education system for our children.” Do you see these attacks on teachers all the time?
Lance: No, nothing like that, the typical thing I hear about teachers is that they’re underpaid and overworked. Nothing about them ruining our kids lives.
Bruce: If you look very close, under the surface, you will see that because of the teachers unions, that you can’t fire the bad teachers, they’re paid too much. What you’re hearing is actually accurate, but what the rhetoric out there is is that they’re awful, their unions are awful, they don’t care about the kids, all they want to do is make lots of money and you can’t get rid of the bad teachers. You can get rid of bad teachers, you can get rid of bad musicians. There are ways for an organization to fire a musician for not being able to perform anymore, even though they are tenured. Orchestra jobs in the Oregon Symphony, Opera, or Ballet, those are tenured jobs. They have to follow a process. Most importantly they have to tell the person that he’s not doing his job. They can’t just walk in and say “You’re fired.” There’s a timeframe, there’s a process that allows for the musicians to actually…
Lance: You gotta be fair to them.
Bruce: Yeah. But in a non-union orchestra, that doesn’t exist. You can just walk in and say you’re gone without ever telling them why. So these are things that were built over years and years of union and musician organizing to get these things under contract.
Copyright 2014 Lance Vallis