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Composers, lyricists make a union pitch

TV and movie music writers are moving toward an arrangement with the Teamsters.

November 18, 2009|Richard Verrier

David Carbonara has a gig many of his peers would covet: He writes music for the critically acclaimed AMC show "Mad Men."

A former jazz trombonist, Carbonara loves his job and is grateful for the work. Yet even after he labors on 13 episodes for a full year, he says he won't earn enough to support his family. A one-hour basic cable TV show like "Mad Men" pays $7,000 to $13,000 an episode, but at least half of that goes toward hiring musicians, paying for studio time, copying music and other costs that composers like Carbonara increasingly absorb as studios look to lower their expenses.

"You have to work 26 shows in a year to earn a living," said Carbonara, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston who recently began work on an ABC drama without any idea as to when, or how much, he would be paid. "People don't understand what we go through."

Unlike most other workers in Hollywood, Carbonara can't complain to a union about his pay rate or working conditions. That's because he doesn't have one.

In a heavily unionized industry, composers and lyricists are an anomaly in Hollywood. Along with production assistants, theirs are among the few remaining crafts not covered by a union contract.

Although conductors and orchestra musicians are covered by the American Federation of Musicians, composers and lyricists for television and movies are not represented by the AFM or anyone else. A group of them is determined to change that and is hooking up with an unlikely ally: the Teamsters.

About 400 composers and lyricists met in Burbank this week for an "information meeting" about joining Local 399. Artsy composers and lyricists would seem to have little in common with the brawny Teamsters, better known for representing studio drivers, location managers and, most recently, casting directors.

The tunesmiths had tried to join the Writers Guild of America a few years ago, but the union was then preoccupied with organizing workers in the animation and reality-TV sectors, and it suggested to its writing cousins that they approach the Teamsters, who are regarded as having more bargaining clout than the AFM.

"We are here to take advantage of a once-in-a-generation chance to rebuild our community and to redress the long-term health of our individual selves, our community and the craft of music for television and motion pictures," Alan Elliott, a veteran composer and one of the key organizers of the union push, told his peers Monday night.

The Society of Composers and Lyricists, a nonprofit trade group that represents 1,200 composers and lyricists in the industry but does not have the authority to negotiate contracts, has not taken a position on the union drive.

Some composers and lyricists acknowledge that the proposed marriage with the Teamsters might appear odd. "We thought of the Teamsters like Jimmy Hoffa and crooked noses," said James DiPasquale, a former president of the Society of Composers and Lyricists and a longtime TV music composer.

"We're artists. Why do we want to be with that? We realized this is not your father's Teamsters anymore."

Although some at Monday's meeting questioned the timing of the effort and whether it would succeed, half of those in attendance signed cards to join the Teamsters, the beginning of a process that could take at least a year. Two-thirds of working composers must agree to join the union before the Teamsters will take up their case. If employers dispute the claim, the matter could ultimately go to the National Labor Relations Board.

The board had previously determined, in 1984, that composers were "independent contractors," blocking efforts to revive the former Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, which negotiated contracts in the 1950s and 1960s but dissolved after a disastrous strike in 1971 and a protracted and costly lawsuit by composers seeking greater control over their music.

"This is not going to be easy, but these people make such an important contribution to the making of motion pictures and television shows, and what are they asking for?" said Steve Dayan, business agent for Teamsters Local 399. "What everyone else gets on the set: health and welfare benefits and some sort of minimum pay standard and some basic working conditions."

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates labor contracts on behalf of the Hollywood studios, declined to comment.

Although demand for music has actually grown in the last three decades, since synthesizers and later computer technology have made it much easier to score music, composers and lyricists are taking home less money as a consequence of shrinking music budgets and a change in how they are paid.

The average amount of music in a one-hour prime-time TV show has doubled from 15 to 30 minutes per episode over the last three decades. But the total music budget per episode has been cut by more than 50% to $14,000 from $35,000, Elliott said.

Compounding matters has been the rise of so-called packages that became more pervasive in the 1980s and 1990s, in which studios began to ask composers to cover costs they previously absorbed, dramatically shrinking their take-home pay.

That has made it tougher for composers to earn a living in the business, says Alf Clausen, composer and songwriter for "The Simpsons," who says the show is one of "the few remaining TV shows that picks up all of my costs and that treats composers with that old-time dignity. . . . I'm more worried about my son and all the young composers out there."

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

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