There are quite a number of people that believe that composers for film and TV actually do have a union. There are two main reasons for that: One, there is a Musicians Union (AFM). Two there are Performing Rights Organizations that collect royalties on public performances. In the US they are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.
Nothing can be more telling than the experience I had while attending parties at the Sundance Film Festival. Now there are two things I should mention. A large amount of people at these parties are on their way up in the film biz or they have made at least one film that brought them to Sundance and even a larger portion have made many films. ASCAP and BMI both have a major presence at the festival. However, at this past year's festival, in January of 2008, while the WGA strike was going, during conversation after conversation the topic of unions would come up and nearly in every conversation that veered towards the topic of unions, I had to correct someone who thought that composers had a union. They either thought that the AFM covered composers or that BMI and ASCAP were unions.
So, if film makers, cast and crew all have the misnomer that composer have a union. What would they think or how would they react if composers tried to unionize?
So, what is the AFM? The American Federation of Musicians, represents musicians, in it's more pure scene of the word, musical performing artists. However, they do represent "non-musicians' as well, most notably, Conductors, Orchestrators and Copyists. The musicians union has four main arenas that it protects: 1. Broadway pit orchestras 2. Local Orchestras 3. Studio musicians 4. Touring popular musicians. Three of these areas are in the realm of live performing musicians and in most cases these people don't actually write the music, an argument could be made for rock bands that write songs as a group no fitting the profile... That leaves studio musicians, and this group would include musicians that play on recording as hired guns and of course there are the musician that play on scores that are for films, TV and video games. And what about those Conductors, Orchestrators and Copyists? Well, these jobs fill in the people employed between the composer for an orchestra, Broadway pit or live musicians.
I'll go more into how the AFM works and how it relates to the world of the film composer in later posts but for now the point is that we know who the AFM covers and who it does not.
Now on to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.
ASCAP, the American Society of Composers And Publishers, BMI, Broadcast Music Inc., and SESAC, the Society of European Stage Authors & Composers, are all collectively known as PROs,
Performing Rights Organizations. What do they do? They collect royalties on public performances and distribute them to their composers and publishers. These fees are paid by the venues where music is played. The easiest example of venues are theaters, clubs and concert halls. But these also are paid by those who broadcast music, TV networks, radio stations and even cell phones.
For decades the PROs have battled with those who benefit from music on what is Public and what is a Performance. Movie theaters are covered everywhere in the world but the US. More recently Bar owners were successful in lobing Capitol Hill to have their jukeboxes not qualify as a performance. What is covered is TV and the battle for the Internet is still waging.
For the sake of the film or TV composer, PROs do not factor into the actual labor or their work, only after the work is created. Film and TV composers get a cent here and a cent there for their music that is broadcast with a TV show or film.
There are factors that the PROs and the AFM do effect composer in their effort to unionize and
mostly these forces work against the composer but that will be left for another post.