Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Three Faces of Tom

About a month ago, when the annual New England Conference convened in Newport, Rhode Island, I had the opportunity to see three faces of Tom Lee.


President Lee stood to address a great mix of local and national officers, supporters of his agenda and adversaries, but all committed to the survival of the American Federation of Musicians.

He began with the progress we've made at streamlining recruitment. The AFM website can enroll new members directly and collect dues, with no additional overhead to the locals. The AFM continues to develop recruitment strategies that focus on the Internet marketplace and its growing influence on our business.

He said we need to understand the twenty-first century music business to address the needs of young musicians. We can begin to shape and influence the business only with an effective recruitment campaign that focuses on the Internet. He reiterated the principles in his well-received speech at the 2007 Convention. Everyone in the audience knew that President Lee's campaign for 2010 had begun.

The ongoing lawsuit, Parmenter v. AFM, was casually mentioned, but President Lee graciously ended questions noting that under advice of counsel, he was obliged not to discuss the matter.


During a break, I asked Tom to have a drink and he kindly accepted. I asked him if there was any hope of settling the lawsuit, and if there were any developments in mediation. Tom said flatly that mediation was over. He said he had a confident gut feeling that the AFM would prevail. Only very few RMA musicians are involved, he said, and they simply "refuse to pay" because of their "elitist attitude."

Tom was referring to musicians that received distributions from the Film Musicians Secondary Market Fund. The AFM has recently sought to skim a percentage of these distributions, and the affected musicians are challenging their authority to do so in the Parmenter case. The "very few" that Tom mentioned are actually thousands of musicians who received a distribution of $2,500 or more in 2008.


My last connect with Tom was brief, but disturbing. He opened with a scowling face of contempt: "Bloggers don't get the facts right. You don't get the facts right, and you should quit because you don't know what's going on."

I thanked him for at least reading this blog, but didn't get the opportunity to defend my First Amendment rights to communicate however I please. That point would have been lost on Tom, who has already employed the AFM's million-dollar law firm to effectively shut down a popular union blog that he did not approve of.

If we can learn anything from these three encounters, it's that Tom Lee presents a different face depending on the occasion. In front of his subjects, President Lee is one of the most successful politicians in AFM history, and capable of persuasive rhetoric. At the bar, Tom is dismissive of the RMA members, whom he is gleefully confident will be steamrolled by his mighty AFM. But the true Tom is revealed in the face of dissenting opinion: if you don't agree with him, then you don't get the facts right, and you should just quit.

Anyone but Tom in 2010.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Canned Cleopatra Ballet

Union members from the AFL-CIO, along with AFM members from all over the country collectively waged a dynamic protest against the "Canned Cleopatra Ballet," a production of the Texas Ballet Theater in which the ballet company substituted live music with a taped soundtrack.

The performance in late March 2009 was doomed from the start, as ballet company artistic director Ben Stevenson, O.B.E. traveled to Shanghai in June 2008 to buy a recording from a Chinese government-subsidized orchestra for $30,000. The ballet company played this tape of Rimsky-Korsakov's score at the performance, hoping that audiences and critics would not notice the fraud.

Needless to say, they were wrong, and the production was a failure. The review in the Dallas Morning News called the performance "clumsy" and "hamstrung," and particularly panned the canned soundtrack: "Raw, rough-hewn, taped music barged forward, when a more caressing tempo was needed to mirror the emotions…”

President Ray Hair of Local 72-147 and over 300 musicians carried this powerful message to the ballet company and to the arts community in general: attempting a live ballet performance without live music is a travesty. It violates the creative soul of the performers, limits their artistic abilities and perpetrates a musical and visual fraud upon the paying audience and patrons of the arts.

Professional ballet requires professional musicians. Critics and audiences realize anything less is dishonest.

It's rare that a musicians' strike results in such favorable local press coverage. This should have been disseminated nationally by the AFM's public relations firm, which we paid $116,016 in 2008, but which is only ever employed to announce the feeble achievements of Tom Lee's administration.