Musicians, like plumbers and electricians, often need an organization to stand up for them.
Labor Day is a result of political efforts undertaken by organized labor unions 130 years ago. The American Federation of Labor pushed hard for Congress to declare a national holiday in honor of the working classes of the country. It finally did so in 1894. Just two years later, the American Federation of Musicians was created to represent the interests of all those who made their living playing instruments. Even before the age of recordings, there were live musicians who played everywhere, and thought of themselves as workers.
I can imagine someone saying “Well, musicians are artists, not exactly workers—not like a teacher or an electrician or a teamster.” But like all of us, musicians live in a world dominated by the attitudes and
assumptions of business, filled with people who, for instance, seek to profit from art but who aren’t particularly concerned about the well-being of artists.
The AFM seeks to negotiate for fair contracts, to protect ownership of music by the musicians who make it, and works to ensure that musicians can profit from their creativity as much as anyone else gets to do. It also tackles issues like health care and, during economic downturns, lobbies legislatures to not forget musicians.
In the late 1920s and early 30s, the Federation helped established minimum wage scales for musicians who worked in the emerging movie industry. In 1938, Hollywood film companies signed their first contract with the Union. During WWII, the American Federation of Musicians had a big showdown with the increasingly powerful record business, and in 1942 its members went on strike, not recording for two years until the industry agreed to a better system for paying royalties on record sales.
I’ve discovered there’s a great assumption out there that musicians don’t mind working for free. That the joy of creating their art is more than enough for payment, or that the exposure a working musician gets is as valuable as money. To think this way is to miss the point entirely.
I don’t know many plumbers who would react very well if I explained to them that the joy of fixing my toilet was surely payment enough, or that instead of giving them mere money I’ll be sure to tell other people what a bang-up job they did on my bathtub faucets.
Many Federation members are freelancers—people are not regularly employed by a symphony, theater production, or media company. Musicians have been part of the gig economy since before it was ever called that. From young bands starting out to seasoned performers working regularly—all musicians deserve fair wages and decent working conditions and to profit from their art. It’s fitting and proper to remember them, and their work, on Labor Day.