Thursday, May 19, 2011

Letter to Dan Wakin

Today I wrote Dan Wakin, writer of two pieces in the New York Times on foreign "sweatshop" orchestras, with the following message.

Thank you for your pieces on foreign orchestras like the Moscow State Radio Symphony. I am the president of AFM Local 143 (Worcester, Mass.). I've seen firsthand that foreign "sweatshop tours" have displaced local musicians, and have written about it since 2007 on my blog, Sounds (

I want to highlight two points relevant to your recent pieces. First, though the AFM purports to denounce these foreign tours, it generates significant revenue by issuing "no-objection" letters and charging a fee. From 2004-2009, the AFM president's office has collected over $3.7 million in such fees, with nothing accruing to displaced musicians in places like Worcester. This revenue began in 2004 and continues to grow each year.

Second, I proposed a resolution at the 2010 AFM Convention to redirect a portion of these fees to the Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF), to compensate local musicians displaced by foreign orchestras. As you probably know, MPTF was created in the 1940s to compensate live musicians for the displacement of recorded music. MPTF is in dire need of funding, and is set up specifically to fund local musicians playing live, admission-free concerts across the US and Canada. The AFM Convention refused to adopt this resolution, claiming that it could not do without the no-objection letter revenue.

The upshot is that the MPTF will likely be defunct very soon, promoters will continue to hire foreign "sweatshop" orchestras instead of professional local musicians, and the AFM, beyond lip service, has done nothing about it.

Best wishes,

Ed Shamgochian

Dan Wakin's pieces:

Orchestras on Tour: Names Strike a False Note, May 16, 2011.

Russian Orchestra Tour: From the Bus to the Stage, March 3, 2010.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What the President Left Out

In the April 2011 International Musician, President Ray Hair says that foreign orchestra "sweatshop tours degrade our profession."

This is the first time the issue of sweatshop tours has ever appeared in the IM. I first wrote about the issue in May 2007. It even made The New York Times before it made the IM — before the convention at which I proposed that we do something constructive about it.

Unfortunately, the President's piece is no more than lip service. The only action he proposes is "partnering with other US entertainment unions at the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees to examine the introduction of legislative options in the US Congress."

The President's message conveniently leaves out the $3.7 million the AFM President's Office collected from 2004-2009 in visa processing fees, much of it from the same sweatshop tours he denounces. This accidental and unjustified cash cow is jealously guarded by the AFM, which doesn't want members to know that without it, the union would be insolvent.

The President's message skirts the fact that foreign sweatshop tours displace AFM musicians. When I proposed that we offset this displacement by directing visa processing fees to the Music Performance Trust Fund — just like Petrillo did in the 1940s when recorded music was displacing live music — the union cried poverty.

But when AFM forfeits attorney fees of $379,000 to a handful of unsuccessful recording musician litigants, the members can afford it.

When AFM officers collect double salaries (one from their Local, one from the AFM), plus benefits and expenses, the members can afford it.

Members, most of whom get hardly anything from AFM, won't be able to afford it much longer. Without serious constructive action — far beyond this President's lip service — the AFM will continue its descent into ruin.