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Hitting a sound barrier

Industry shifts threaten a longtime fund for free concerts. It'll take some harmony to fix.

June 14, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

For 60 years, the Music Performance Fund, an unsung charity financed by a small fraction of record company sales, has paid the piper -- and just about every other kind of musician -- by helping to bankroll thousands of free concerts annually all over North America.

They have included Metropolitan Opera performances in New York's Central Park and a quartet led by a bassoonist who forged through icy waters in a small boat to play for Canadian villagers above the Arctic Circle.

Now, though, the popularity of music downloads and file-sharing via the Internet has eaten away at record company revenues. And as the industry has dwindled, so has the performance fund's ability to underwrite pro bono shows.

" 'Dwindled' is an easy way of saying it's gone to pot," said John Hall, the trustee who has managed the Music Performance Fund for most of the last 18 years.

At its peak in the early 1980s, Hall said, the fund got more than $20 million a year from record companies. Last year, the figure was $3.4 million. In 1984, the fund helped pay musicians' salaries for 55,000 free performances. Last year, there were 9,060. The organization's staff is down from 36 to eight.

Income from paid downloads, growing but still relatively small, is the music industry's hope for the future. But Web-generated sales are not in the agreement that governs the fund, negotiated between the American Federation of Musicians and the record companies.

Locally, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission has ended a partnership with the fund that dated back decades. Commission officials decided that the money, which comes with some bureaucratic strings and loss of hiring flexibility, had grown so scant that it no longer was worth the trouble.

The performance fund "is becoming a dinosaur," said Laura Zucker, executive director of the arts commission, a department of county government. She hopes the fund can "be creative" and find a way to regenerate itself for the Internet Age.

The arts commission's stake from the performance fund fell from $60,000 in 2000-01 to $32,000 in the current fiscal year, said Heather Rigby, the commission's public events coordinator. Next year, money from tax coffers will replace the fund's donation.

The city of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department continues to tap the performance fund, but its annual grants have dropped from $52,500 to $30,500, forcing it to find other donors to make up the shortfall.

The Music Performance Fund gets 0.2% of what consumers spend on records, tapes and compact discs -- up to a maximum payment of about 2.2 cents per disc. The labels can exclude about 30,000 copies of each release before having to pay the charitable tariff, said Patrick Varriale, who monitors the agreement for the musicians union.

Fund's roots

The fund owes its existence to James Caesar Petrillo, the son of a Chicago sewer worker who learned the trumpet, rose to the presidency of the American Federation of Musicians and wrote a chapter in U.S. labor history by marshaling the nation's musicians for a strike that silenced most record companies from summer 1942 to fall 1944.

Recorded music had been steadily supplanting live gigs for the rank and file. After 1929, film soundtracks eliminated the job of silent-movie accompanist. Jukeboxes were knocking humans off barroom bandstands, and radio stations increasingly filled their music hours with cheap discs instead of costly live performers.

Petrillo declared that there would be no more recordings until musicians were taken care of, even rejecting an appeal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to end the strike for the sake of wartime morale. The solution was the Music Performance Trust Fund, as it initially was known.

In November 1944, the Chicago Tribune reported that the record companies had agreed to ante up 2 cents per $2 record and a half a cent per 35-cent record -- or about $4 million a year -- to sponsor free concerts that would entertain the public and help put displaced musicians back to work. Other disagreements arose, leading to a second, yearlong strike, but in 1948 the fund began providing free concerts underwritten by record sales.

The musicians union expects to begin negotiations toward a new recording agreement this fall, and, as always, the terms governing the performance fund are potentially on the table. Trustee Hall wants the union to negotiate the fund into the Internet Age by insisting it receive a share of music downloads.

Thomas Lee, president of the musicians union, said he favors going to bat for the fund in negotiations, on the theory that more free concerts and music education will, in the long run, pay dividends by creating more music fans.

Getting folks on board

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