(Image by Flickr user hitchica, Creative Commons license)
A while back, an intrepid reader of this blog got in touch to inform me of the American Federation of Musicians Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists! campaign, which seeks to establish pension payments for jazz musicians who play at venues in New York City. The campaign has a petition, which you can still sign, and has garnered endorsements from several public officials, including New York City Council President Christine Quinn. AFM hosted a rally on September 29 to draw further support and deliver signatures to the Blue Note; you can see video here.
The official story behind the campaign is as follows:
Since 2006, the Justice for Jazz Artists! campaign has attempted repeatedly to engage New York City’s Jazz clubs in constructive dialogue to secure retirement benefits for the Jazz musicians they employ. Some have agreed to meet with Local 802. Most however, have been unresponsive.
In 2007, Local 802 in partnership with some club owners, successfully lobbied the State Legislature to forgive the sales tax on tickets for Jazz club. [sic] That was done in order to allow the sums formerly collected as admission sales tax to go toward Jazz musicians’ benefits especially for retirement, at no cost to the clubs. However, since the law’s passage, no club has volunteered to make any pension fund contributions.
A fact sheet (see page 2) explains the proposal in more detail. The basic idea is that rather than pay taxes to the state, the jazz club would pay the funds to the union instead, which would then figure out the appropriate distribution to the artists. A similar model has been in place since 1963 on Broadway.
Interested to learn more, I wrote my tipster back and eventually found myself speaking to Todd Weeks, who represents jazz at Local 802. Todd confirmed for me that the legislation pushed by 802 in 2006 and 2007 (the timeline is not clear; though the press release says the legislation was signed in 2007, this article celebrating its passage dates from October 2006) was not accompanied by any signed agreements between the union and the clubs that they were hoping to induce to pay pension benefits. The union did get lukewarm indications of support from a handful of high-profile clubs such as the Village Vanguard Jazz Standard prior to passage, hoping that this support would translate into industry-wide practice after the legislation was in place.
Not only did this not happen, but the expected support from the high-profile clubs vanished into thin air as well once the tax money no longer had to be paid to the government. Suddenly, club owners stopped returning calls. The problem is well illustrated in symbolic terms by the Times‘s coverage of the rally:
When the procession reached the front of the [Blue Note] club, Bill Dennison, a vice president of the musicians union, brought forward a petition as thick as a cereal box signed by more than 2,000 professional musicians that forcefully asked management to change its ways. The doors to the Blue Note did not open all the way. There was no dialogue. Mr. Dennison handed the stack of papers to a worker at the door, politely waved and thanked the representative and rejoined the crew outside.
The Blue Note had no comment.
I couldn’t agree more that jazz musicians deserve better pay and working conditions than most of them get. But with all due respect to the J4JA! campaign and the people behind it, it seems to me like this situation is the product of a serious strategic blunder on the part of AFM. To be sure, the logic leading to pushing for the original legislation was nothing short of brilliant. Jazz clubs are something of an endangered species in New York – judging by how many of them have closed in the past decade, it’s safe to assume it’s not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme for the club owners. Surely there is a public benefit to having places to see, hear, and experience jazz, America’s classical music, particularly in America’s largest and most famous city. So why not “increase the pie” by having the government rescind its sales tax on club admissions? It’s legislation whose time has come, and the amount gained from having an extra 8.75% to play with would be a clear win-win for clubs and musicians.
AFM’s first problem, then, is that it apparently expected the clubs to pass along 100% of this benefit to the musicians, without keeping any for themselves. That’s not the way to build a coalition. If I come to you and say, “this issue is about both of us, we have to support this legislation together, are you in?” and then add, “oh, and by the way, you don’t get anything for yourself from supporting it,” your support of my issue is probably going to be lukewarm at best. And AFM’s contention that the pension plan comes “at no cost to the clubs” is rather disingenuous, as there would be both one-time costs associated with changing business practices to accommodate the new system, and ongoing costs associated with increased paperwork (the clubs would have to submit information on who played and how much they got paid in order for the system to work, unless the bandleaders took care of that for them). As noted above, it’s not like clubs are rolling in money, so letting them keep some of the spoils seems like a potentially crucial incentive.
The bigger issue, though, is that there was really nothing to prevent the clubs from doing exactly what they’ve done – turning their backs on an agreement that was never formalized as soon as it was convenient to do so. Frankly, I’m a little shocked that Local 802 expected anything different. When nonprofits negotiate with for-profits, especially those with whom there has traditionally been a contentious relationship, you have to prepare for eventualities like this. Combined with a strategy of including the clubs in the process as described above, AFM’s support of this bill could have been very valuable to the clubs, valuable enough to serve as a useful negotiating tool.
In any case, now the union is left to argue its case in public instead. Unfortunately, it faces a collective action problem on the part of the clubs. A club acting alone to contribute to the pension fund would put itself at a competitive disadvantage relative to its peers; in a for-profit context, that’s a non-starter. So they would essentially have to collude with each other in order for it to make sense for them, which, in the absence of a strong industry association for for-profit jazz venues, seems a tall order. Even if that problem is overcome, though, there’s another: the campaign focuses on the top jazz venues in New York City, but the law (repealing the sales tax on admissions) applies to all live music and theater venues in New York State. The Blue Note and the Vanguard might thus convincingly question why, in a fluid market for night-time entertainment, they should have to pay pension contributions when Madison Square Garden and Irving Plaza get to keep the entire tax savings for themselves.
Finally, even jazz musicians aren’t unanimous in their support, as their relationship with the AFM has not always been smooth and the initial strategy would benefit only those who are famous/lucky enough to play at top jazz clubs. (See the NPR stories here and here for more on this.)
Whatever else can be said of the J4JA! campaign (and it still may find success), at best it seems like a band-aid on a much larger problem: the chronic undercapitalization of jazz venues in the country that gave birth to the art form. When a team of my business school classmates and I were conceptualizing programming for a hypothetical new arts foundation in New York, one of the programs we dreamed up was specifically designed to attack this problem:
A smaller part of the Building Infrastructure program would be aimed at existing venues and organizations. [...] The second is a unique idea: identify key for-profit companies that provide an important service to the arts community and find themselves struggling financially because of it (think Tonic), and offer them a package of management/legal consulting services and up to five years’ worth of bridge funding to turn them nonprofit. This “offer they can’t refuse” would be primarily targeted at organizations that are at severe risk of failing, but the program could also consider comparatively healthy organizations that wish to take a more proactive approach to their situation. (Depending on how the L3C develops, that could be a viable alternative to nonprofit status as well.)
It couldn’t be clearer that the for-profit marketplace is a bad fit for jazz, which is a niche genre whose audience’s passion is not matched by the depth of its pockets. By removing the profit incentive from the equation, it would be much easier for stakeholders to insist on minimally adequate treatment of artists, whether those expenses can be made up in bar tabs or not. Nonprofit status would not necessarily need to go hand-in-hand with sterile “institutionalization” associated with a place like Jazz at Lincoln Center; there are plenty of gritty, intimate live music spaces across the country that operate as nonprofits. Furthermore, venue subsidies are common in Europe, where many NYC-based jazz musicians travel to make up for the losses they incur in their hometown.
I’m sure there’s more to say on the subject, but this post is long enough already. What do you think, dear reader?
[UPDATE: Todd Weeks has submitted a lengthy response that provides a wealth of additional information on this topic.]