Winter JazzFest and AFM Announce New Pay Agreement
October 26, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
New York’s Winter Jazzfest will be back next year. More importantly, it will be back with support from Marc Ribot, Butch Morris and some of the other aggrieved musicians who signed a petition earlier this year to demand better pay and working conditions from the festival’s organizers, Brice Rosenbloom and Adam Schatz.
This positive outcome is in large part thanks to a targeted intervention by American Federation of Musicians Local 802, which brought both sides to the negotiating table, then to a press conference on Monday at Le Poisson Rouge to announce their agreement.
“This was a good demonstration of how grassroots organizing works,” said John O’Connor, Local 802’s recording vice president. “To the credit of Brice and Adam, they came very quickly, voluntarily to the bargaining table.”
The agreement establishes a minimum wage scale, recording rights and a profit-sharing scheme so performers may benefit from future sponsorships. The terms will be offered to all festival musicians, whether or not they are union members.
“A lot of musicians will see a significant increase in their pay,” said O’Connor. “We tried to be as creative as we could looking at an agreement that would be particular to this situation and not to be hung up on formulas that we have used before.”
Both sides claimed victory in the agreement, which O’Connor presented with Schatz, Rosenbloom, Ribot and Morris. They also suggested it offers a roadmap for future negotiations between jazz artists and presenters.
“Doing it through the union does not have to mean that you militantly attack and destroy your opponents and wind up with less for everybody,” said Ribot, a leader of the musicians’ side of the dispute. “It can mean, as we’re seeing here, that we respectfully negotiate our differences and collaborate on our areas of common interest in a way that makes life better.”
This is a happy end to a controversy which threatened to derail the Jazzfest, an important showcase for New York’s emerging jazz talent. Yet it is perhaps the AFM which emerges the biggest winner from the dispute: the union has long sought inroads into the world of indie musicians, with limited success before now.
“The opportunity arose out of this to look at festivals in downtown New York City,” said O’Connor. “This petition demonstrates that collective bargaining can be used in all parts of the city, to help protect musicians and be able to get them fair pay wherever they play.”
The Winter JazzFest has grown over seven years from a one-night event for out-of-town concert bookers into a two-night frenzy with which takes over five clubs around New York’s Bleecker Street in January. The success of the festival inspired the promoters to create a similar four-day event in June, the Undead JazzFest.
One key to the Winter JazzFest’s ability to attract fans – more than 4,000 this year – was its rock-bottom ticket prices: $35 for two days of unlimited access to sixty-nine bands of every imaginable size and style. But as the festival grew, so did the unrest of a growing number of performers, who felt they gained little from the bare-bones arrangement.
In April, Local 802 invited disgruntled performers to voice their concerns at a private meeting. In June, the New York Times reported a petition was circulating amongst musicians to target the pay practices of the Winter and Undead fests, which routinely offered performers a fraction of what they were paid by more established promoters.
“There are only so many times I can significantly lower my rates for them,” wrote one festival musician at the time, “before I feel like I'm being taken advantage of.”
Schatz and Rosenbloom, who consider themselves supporters of New York’s underground jazz scene, said they felt blindsided by the news, which came only days before the Undead JazzFest.
“For us, it was a little shocking,” said Rosenbloom. “It certainly got our attention.”
Yet the pair also quickly recognized the petition raised valid concerns, and entered into union-sponsored negotiations in good faith.
“One of the reasons wages were on the lower side is because… we felt that we were creating showcase opportunities for artists,” Schatz said. “But one thing that came out of this meeting was that we do need to own up to the fact that this is a full-fledged festival.”
Both sides cited profit-sharing as an innovative aspect of the agreement.
“We feel it’s important that we could create a model whereby the better we do, the better the musicians are paid,” said Rosenbloom. “The more we raise in sponsorship, the more goes directly into the pockets of the musicians.”
Yet for the moment, there are no profits to share, and the festival had only one small sponsorship from the French government, which has not been renewed for 2012. Both Schatz and Rosenbloom ended their comments with pleas for support from any “rich uncles” who might be in the audience.
“As long as it’s not blood diamonds, we’re not really concerned with where the money comes from, if it’s supporting the scene,” Schatz said. “The challenge now is going after it; it’s not an easy thing to do.”
Ticket prices, too, will rise, but only by $10. And the roster of thirty artists who have agreed to appear, which includes Ribot, pianist Vijay Iyer and guitarist Julian Lage, will play longer sets with longer breaks, in an effort to improve conditions for both performers and fans.
And how much more, exactly, will musicians receive? Neither side would say. The most anyone would divulge at the conference is that those musicians who were paid the least at past festivals could see their pay rise by several multiples. In other words, pay could rise from tens of dollars into the low hundreds.
The terms that were disclosed bear some similarites to an agreement Ribot and Local 802 negotiated for performers at a Knitting Factory jazz festival in 1999, who were offered a minimum of $200 each for groups of less than six. Other terms, like the profit-sharing scheme, are new.
So is this, in fact, a victory? If not in absolute terms, it is at least a modest moral victory, as it demonstrates that unions can work with independent musicians, and indie musicians now find value in the negotiating power and experience the unions provide.
“Without pay, it’s just not viable, and new and progressive music becomes a vanity project for those who can afford it,” said Ribot. “We want to keep jazz in touch with its working class American roots, and to their credit during negotiations, Brice and Adam acknowledged this and committed to it.”
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