158858806_aa1dec10e8_o(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.]

  • While we at Justice for Jazz Artists! appreciate the attention the usually erudite Mr. Moss has given our campaign, we can’t help noticing that he has either glossed over or patently misrepresented the facts concerning our efforts to get NY area club owners to make contributions into the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF).
    In regard to the original legislation that makes it possible for the clubs to redirect forgiven sales tax dollars into the musicians’ pension, he states that the time line isn’t clear. Had he researched the law, he would have discovered that legislation was signed into law with the support of the clubs in 2006 under Governor Pataki, and became effective under Governor Spitzer in early 2007. This may be a minor point, but his seeming lack of interest in tracking down basic facts tends to undermine his credibility as a critic of a broad based effort such as this.
    In his statement: “The campaign has a petition, which you can still sign,” Mr. Moss neglects to state that J4JA! has already garnered the support of over 2,500 professional musicians in NYC, many of them world class jazz artists.
    He also overlooks the fact that current campaign endorsers include over 15 members of the NYC City Council, including Speaker Christine Quinn, and several prominent members of the NY State Legislature. Other endorsers include Amiri Baraka, Gary Giddins, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, the New York Labor-Religion Coalition and the Jazz Ministry of St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. It should also be clarified that four of NYC’s major clubs all supported the original legislation, which was sponsored by the Chairman of the NY State House Ways and Means Committee, Herman “Denny” Farrell.
    The clubs who openly supported the legislation in 2006 were the Blue Note, Birdland, Iridium and Jazz Standard, all major players in the industry. As Mr. Moss correctly states, it is true that the legislation as it came to pass was not accompanied by any signed agreements between the union and the clubs, but he is wrong when he writes that “the union did get lukewarm indications of support from a handful of high-profile clubs such as the Village Vanguard.” In point of fact, it should be noted that in 2006 representatives from the major clubs attended meetings or had communications with 802 where they gave assurances that they fully planned to support the legislation once it passed. The Village Vanguard was not among them.
    Mr. Moss also refers to the fact that, under the plan, rather than pay the sales tax on admission to NY State, the clubs would pay the “funds to the union instead.” This is a misrepresentation. Under the J4JA! plan, the forgiven sales tax would be added back to the clubs’ admission charge but would not be paid “to the union instead.” Rather the funds would go into the AFM-EPF on behalf of the musicians who were working in the venue on any given night. Despite the recent recession, the AFM-EPF remains one the most financially soluble pension funds of its kind.
    Regarding his depiction of the validity of the pension plan in the context of live jazz, Mr. Moss mentions that a “similar model has been in place since 1963 on Broadway.” What he does not offer is that this “similar model” achieves a 17-22% pension contribution with little or no hardship to the Broadway Producers’ League and a huge benefit to the artists and theater professionals who work in that field.
    When Mr. Moss refers to the union’s plan, he fails to note that the entire J4JA! concept was envisioned by jazz artists for jazz artists, and in any talks with the clubs, tentative agreements would be negotiated with and approved by jazz musicians who work in those clubs, many of whom are not necessarily members of Local 802 or the AFM.
    By citing, out of context, one mildly snarky paragraph of what was actually a very well-rounded and supportive New York Times piece covering the J4JA! rally in September, Mr Moss’s treatment of the issues is reductive.
    In fact, the union and J4JA!, throughout the course of the campaign, have had to walk a very fine line with regard to preserving work in the clubs, and continue to do so, even as we have made extensive efforts to educate musicians about their rights as workers. Most jazz artists are so accustomed to poor working conditions and substandard wages that the notion of anything like a real retirement benefit is outside the spectrum of what they imagine possible.
    802 does not want to see any clubs close down, and has worked with the NY State Department of Labor to stave off potential audits, which could result in closures. On the day of the September 29th rally, 802 and J4JA! were already engaged in negotiations with the Blue Note, so the delivery of the 2,500 signatures, though important, was largely symbolic. Negotiations continue.
    Mr. Moss also refers to “a strategic blunder on the part of the AFM,” insisting that the clubs should not expect to have to bear the burden of these contributions on their own without getting anything in return. Here Mr. Moss ignores the fact that of all AFM locals in the US, Local 802 has the only significant representation of jazz artists, and that the authors of J4JA! are in fact local jazz musicians, not a third party. The Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee is made up of about 15 dedicated jazz artists who want to see change on this issue (and many other issues) during their lifetimes. That group includes Jimmy Owens, Bernard Purdie, Bob Cranshaw, Charles Tolliver, Matt Plummer, Rufus Reid, Sue Terry, Wade Barnes, Reggie Workman, etc, etc.
    The “blunder” to which Mr. Moss refers—the notion that Local 802/J4JA! never should have expected the clubs to agree to shoulder the burden of a pension contribution without getting anything in return, ignores the fact that A.) Under an existing 1987 NY State law, musicians are employees, should be paid as such, and are eligible for state statutory benefits like unemployment insurance and worker’s comp—and of course, Social Security—none of which they currently receive due to negligence on the part of the clubs and lack of enforcement on the part of the state. (So, what is it that the clubs should “get back”? They are already operating outside the law at a substantial gain. ) B.) That the sales tax on admission had been in effect for 60 years when it was rescinded, and historically all these clubs have been able to survive while making payments to the state. At any rate, the redirected tax should be envisioned as a line item that can be added to the final check as “Musicians’ Benefit” or “Common Good Tax.” Our research shows jazz fans support this idea wholeheartedly, and would pay the extra $2.21 (on a $25.00 cover charge) to support a retirement plan for musicians. The tax dollars come out of the club owner’s pocket only if the club has been continuing to charge the (now uncollected) tax after the 2007 abatement; if so, then they have been in receipt of an illegal tax break which they immediately need to give up.
    Regarding those who continually sound the death knell for jazz, and contend that we really should be subsidizing club owners by giving them the opportunity to become not for profits, despite a shrinking audience nationally, jazz is still a highly viable part of the NYC economy—and tens of thousands of devoted fans (many of them Europeans and Asians) spend good money every month to see and hear live jazz here in town. And yes, of course it’s hard to run a small business in the current climate (or in NYC period). However, many clubs continue to thrive—look at Small’s and Fat Cat, Galapagos, Les Poisson Rouge, etc. Look at Blue Note, Birdland, Iridium, Jazz Standard and the Vanguard.
    Busboys make more money than jazz musicians.
    Why do the clubs deserve a tax break (secured by musicians), while the musicians continue to make sub-standard wages? Performers are the reason jazz clubs exist in the first place.
    Mr. Moss takes issue with 802’s contention that “the pension plan comes “at no cost to the clubs” calling it “rather disingenuous,” citing “one-time costs associated with changing business practices to accommodate the new system, and ongoing costs associated with increased paperwork.” If the clubs passed on this responsibility to a payroll service, they would be looking at paying 3-4% additional in fees relative to their over-all payroll. That’s it. In many instances, the bandleaders could share the cost of this.
    The benefit? Bandleaders and/or side musicians wouldn’t get stuck with onerous 1099 liabilities at the end of the year, as state statutory benefits could also be covered by this plan, with enough money left over for a healthy (11%, on average) pension contribution. Mr. Moss is the one being disingenuous here.
    Mr. Moss also states that “it’s not like clubs are rolling in money, so letting them keep some of the spoils seems like a potentially crucial incentive.” It should be noted that the Blue Note has multiple corporations under its name, and is a part owner of the lucrative B.B King’s Blues Club chain. They have clubs in Milan, Tokyo, Nashville, and New Orleans. They can afford it. Danny Meyer (owner of Jazz Standard; Blue Smoke; Tabla; Gramercy Tavern; Union Square Cafe) can afford it. Lorraine Gordon of the Village Vanguard can afford it. The Sturm family (Iridium) can afford it. By paying the tax in the past, they’ve already proved this to be the case.

    Mr. Moss’s points about the difficult relationship between for profits and non-profits are not without merit, but Mr. Moss neglects to mention that during our interview I explained to him that the club owners have been continually invited to engage with the union in an open forum to discuss ways in which these groups (and the NYC City Council) might come together with the larger jazz community to stimulate this undernourished but still viable economic sector, while still providing for the artists who make the music possible. Our intention has always been to see live music flourish, and that goes for those who produce it and support it as well.
    By painting the union as wrongheaded or self serving, Mr. Moss tacitly manages to lend weight to the idea that musical performers are artistes who, by virtue of their chosen profession, don’t really deserve access to benefits like health insurance or retirement plans. The J4JA! campaign is actually designed to help “side musicians” who need the benefits more than the stars who book them.
    Additionally, one need not be a union member to access the pension contributions, as the AFM does not discriminate against non members. 2,500 signatures in 5 months (mostly working jazz artists) is strong support from within the community.
    Finally, Mr. Moss’s claim that the “the law (repealing the sales tax on admissions) applies to all live music and theater venues in New York State” is specious. By comparing the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard to Madison Square Garden (a venue, by the way, that is owned by the notorious anti-labor Dolan family) he misses the point. The law is for small venues only—under 250 seats.

    J4JA! is about creating a level playing field for a seriously under-served sector of the local work force.

    Todd Weeks

  • Hi Todd,

    I appreciate your very long and thorough response to my piece, and I am not surprised that you take issue with aspects of it, especially since I did not share some of these misgivings with you when we talked. If nothing else, I feel bad that I apparently made you spend a good chunk of your day writing that comment when I’m sure you had more pressing priorities on your plate. (Though I’m not sorry if doing so helped refine your own thinking about the issues and the arguments that AFM will make to the public in its ongoing campaign.)

    I want to state for the record that I was not expecting to have a full interview with Todd when I called – I just intended to ask a few questions and then be on my way – so as a result, I was not recording the exchange or taking notes and came away with a broad understanding of the situation rather than a razor-sharp command of every detail. Because of this, it was impractical to include all of the many points that Todd claims I “neglected to mention,” the bulk of which I considered at best tangential to the issues that I was interested in talking about (namely the broader strategic decision-making at play). For example, I didn’t “overlook” the fact that the endorsers “include over 15 members of the NYC City Council, including Speaker Christine Quinn, and several prominent members of the NY State Legislature” — I just didn’t consider it relevant enough to mention in the main text (even though I did link to the full list of endorsers on J4JA!’s website).

    I actually did do (or, rather, attempt to do) quite a bit of research on the 2006-07 law, but was not able to find the text of the bill nor any articles that discussed it in more detail than the brief piece on the AFM’s website that I linked to. It’s hardly fair to call me out on the timeline issue, since J4JA’s own press release stated that “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” — clearly implying that both the lobbying and the “success” (i.e., the passage of the bill) took place in 2007, not 2006. In retrospect, I could have and probably should have asked you if you could point me to further resources before publishing the piece, but I didn’t. Sorry.

    I will gladly accept responsibility for my erroneous inclusion of the Village Vanguard among the clubs that agreed to play along at first; as I mentioned, I was going off of memory rather than notes. I will correct the piece accordingly.

    We can agree to disagree about the viability or appropriateness of a nonprofit solution for jazz venues. I still feel strongly that it is a good idea, but your points about the specific venues in question are well taken.

    In any case, I stand by the broad points that I brought up in the article and my general take on things, but fully acknowledge that there is plenty of room for disagreement and that my understanding of the technical details regarding the legislation itself and the mechanics of how the proposed solution would work were (and remain) incomplete. I appreciate the time you took to enlighten us on some of those details, and apologize that I wasn’t able to give a more comprehensive picture the first time around. It is not my intention to paint the union as “wrong-headed or self-serving” — I believe that it is trying to do the right thing — but I did feel that there were important questions that needed to be asked about this initiative and interesting ways to consider it from a management/policy perspective.

  • Matt Plummer

    Hi Ian,
    You critiqued Local 802/J4JA!’s tactics in great detail, which of course is your prerogative. Some of your criticisms hold more interest for me than others, which feel a bit like “coulda-woulda-shoulda”.

    The fact is, all jazz musicians (and many hard-core jazz fans) know that many of the greatest and most famous jazz musicians died penniless. That is the canary in the coal mine. When even the most prominent members of the jazz community, who should be doing exceedingly well, are suffering, something is horribly wrong.

    To partially address this problem, a group of well-respected jazz musicians spearheaded by Bob Cranshaw, Jimmy Owens, Benny Powell, Bernard Purdie and several others, as well as an extensive list of ‘regular’ working jazz musicians, worked within AFM Local 802 to craft a solution that would begin to alleviate the problem.

    You’ve already agreed with the 2,500 musicians that support J4JA! — this is a good cause. It’s limited in scope, but just and practical. It was driven and created by jazz musicians, and it WILL help musicians avoid spending their elder years in poverty.

    You write, “at best it seems like a band-aid on a much larger problem: the chronic undercapitalization of jazz venues”. I couldn’t agree less. Leaving aside the fact that you have no actual data about the clubs’ financial states, you’re still equating two separate issues. Take a look at any number of employer-employee pairings; it’s clear that if the employer is doing well (or poorly), it doesn’t necessarily follow that the employees are faring similarly.

    In the same vein, your jazz-clubs-as-non-profits idea, while interesting, is completely besides the point (again, the issue is jazz musicians with little or no retirement income). Non-profit status, as I can attest from personal experience, is very often is used as an excuse for not treating workers fairly.

    As a musician, I’m interested in taking control of my own destiny rather than waiting for clubs to become more financially stable at some indistinct point in the magical future, and then arbitrarily deciding to become benevolent patriarchs on behalf of musicians. That’s why I became involved with this campaign, and why, real-life complications and all, it’s a significant step ahead for NYC jazz musicians.

    • Hi Matt,
      Thanks for your even-handed comment. You’re right that we’re on the same page as far as the overall goal is concerned, the disagreement is about how best to achieve it. In any case, I understand that we’re coming at this from somewhat different perspectives, and for that reason different aspects of the story are more or less interesting to each of us. For my part, I’m trying to get to the bottom of how various arts disciplines work as an entire system, which is why I’m more drawn to the details of how the infrastructure operates and why I’m interested in the relationship of jazz to the marketplace. So while I can see how the discussion of the proper place of jazz in the nonprofit/for-profit continuum might be a bit beside the point for a working musician, it’s extremely germane to the subject matter of this blog as a whole.

      With that said, then, I’m very interested in your comment that nonprofit clubs or venues don’t treat musicians any better than their for-profit cousins, since if true that would be something of a challenge to the logic I relied on in this post. If you don’t mind, I’d love to get some more detail on that, either as a follow-up comment or by email. I think that the industry could certainly use a little more transparency about its compensation practices in general.

      • I get that we are focused on different issues. Perhaps your interest is greater in cultural institutions rather than the artists within those structures — hence your off-hand characterization of jazz venues as having given “birth to the art form”. However, your post is about the Justice for Jazz Artists! campaign, which IS focused on musicians’ retirement, and you specifically state that “at best [J4JA!] seems like a band-aid on a much larger problem: the chronic undercapitalization of jazz venues in the country”.

        You’ve got that backwards. If there’s a connection between the two, it’s that non-profit status or an infusion of government aid MAY help clubs pay musicians benefits. But that’s a tenuous connection at best; a wish and a dream.

        Support of a jazz club doesn’t necessary translate into support for the musicians inside.

        It’s not as if musicians or union activists haven’t thought of helping venues directly — jazz musicians are jazz venues’ biggest supporters. And it’s not like non-profit clubs are a bad idea. But take a look at other examples of musicians employed by non-profits. Wages and benefits are decidedly mixed bag (and yes, I will send examples). Those that do offer wages and benefits offer them in large part because musicians, bandleaders, and the public made it happen — just as we’re doing now. If anything, a club with non-profit status would simply provide another avenue for MUSICIANS to put pressure on the club to “do the right thing”.

  • * Make that Support of a jazz club doesn’t NECESSARILY translate into support for the musicians inside. Sorry, I’m quite sleep-deprived at the moment!

    • Matt,
      I think you misread my statement about venues and the origins of jazz. The language I used was, “the chronic undercapitalization of jazz venues in the country that gave birth to the art form.” In that phrasing, I meant that it’s the country that gave birth to the art form, not the jazz venues. Anyway, I’m not trying to argue that venues are more important than musicians, or anything like that–that’s why I called attention to the fact that artists aren’t paid enough of the money that goes to the arts in my review of Americans for the Arts’s cultural economics study, and why I talked about my own personal history as a performer in jazz venues earlier this year. However, my larger point is about the undercapitalization of jazz — you can leave the venues out of it if you prefer, though they’re obviously important. If there just isn’t much money to go around, the treatment of the performers is going to be shit no matter what. I personally believe two things to be true: 1) that jazz as a field–musicians, venues, everybody–is in trouble financially, and 2) that there are donors out there who would totally support jazz in a big way if given the chance and ASKED, but for the most part that doesn’t happen in the performance-oriented part of the jazz world, except for educational projects and sometimes festivals etc. outside of NYC (and little things like the CMA commissioning funds). It’s just a hypothesis at this point, and I could be wrong–but if I’m right about those two things, then every year that the industry keeps trying to pull it out in the free market is another missed opportunity to help ensure its future.

      • Yikes, I completely misinterpreted that statement. My profuse apologies!

        I think we have a lot of common ground — like I said, I’m interested in the non-profit concept, and I agree with practically all of your analysis here. That Ribot article you cite made a big impression on me when I read it a few years back.

        I just think that aid to jazz venues and aid to jazz musicians are two important issues that need to be addressed separately, though probably simultaneously.

        To give you an off-the-cuff example… in Colorado (where I used to live) the Scientific Cultural and Facilities District (SCFD) distributes tens of millions of dollars to a variety of cultural non-profits.

        It seems like a fantastic program, and it’s regularly touted around the country as a model for other states. However, it’s a bit of a mixed blessing. Here’s a post from Pete Vriesenga, the president of the Denver Musicians’ Union.

        SCFD and the Fair Labor Standards Act,” points to the minimum wage obligation and responsibilities of more than 300 metro-Denver nonprofit organizations that collectively received $38 million in local tax dollars last year. The story makes no mention of the 800 lb. gorilla in the room; the reality that wage abuse continues unnoticed or disregarded by hundreds (thousands?) of area performers. So many of these artists, dancers, actors and musicians are highly-trained and hold advanced degrees in the arts. They provide the talent and the product that generates box office sales. Sadly, most work for free.

        The Scientific & Cultural Facilities District tax is quite unique with metro-Denver being one of three cities (also Salt Lake City & St. Louis) in the nation with such a program. At $38 million, SCFD’s substantial annual budget equates to nearly one-third of the total allocation for the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite its minimal budget, the NEA has a strong and positive wage impact because founding legislation mandates that all performers must receive “prevailing wage” before an organization can qualify for funding. In contrast, SCFD’s legislation requires a much lower standard of “Federal Minimum Wage,” and that is rarely followed and never enforced.

        As we approach SCFD’s 20th anniversary, we recognize this mixed blessing. On the one hand SCFD provides necessary funding to arts and science organizations that have proven to be invaluable and essential components of our community. On the other hand, the creation of 300+ new organizations – most with no performer wage standards whatsoever – pulls prevailing wages down and reduces employment opportunities for students and aspiring performers who are just entering the profession.