By Bobby Borg

Many aspiring artists don't know what music unions do, let alone that they even exist. You should know that the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) was established specifically to secure and enforce fair wages and good working conditions for musicians as well as to provide a variety of benefit packages including health and retirement funds. Though the music business may often seem like the Wild West, with no apparent guidelines, regulations, or support for musicians, the AFM may offer some hope!

The American Federation of Musicians

Founded in 1897, the American Federation of Musicians is one of the oldest entertainment labor organizations in existence today. Like any other labor union, the AFM is based on the idea that through "strength in numbers," or as they put it, "collective empowerment," musicians will have a stronger voice in the workplace. The AFM is 120,000 members strong and includes artists from every field of musical endeavor. Bruce Springsteen is an AFM member, as are the guys in Bon Jovi; Paul Shaffer and the whole CBS Orchestra are members, as are Kevin Eubanks and The Tonight Show band; Metallica is booked on AFM contracts, and is Aerosmith. The list of famous AFM members could fill this book.

The AFM has 360 branch offices, called "locals," in cities throughout the United States and Canada. These include The Professional Musicians Union Local 47 of Los Angeles and The Associated Musicians Local 802 of Greater New York City. Since each local is run autonomously, the benefits they offer may fluctuate slightly from branch to branch depending on its membership strength. The following information outlines the major benefits of joining the union.

Major Union Benefits.

Though the AFM provides a variety of benefits to its members, the most significant is that they bargain with thousands of employers—record companies, broadcasting and cable companies, motion pictures companies, theaters, symphony managements, circuses, and theme parks—to establish fair wages, good working conditions, and fringe benefits. The union enforces these rules and regulations, and collects payment defaults by the employer when necessary. Some of the specific categories they regulate include:
  • Live performances, including performance rehearsals, cartage (the cost of transporting your equipment), travel expenses (such as air travel and hotels), travel time (the time it takes to go back and fourth from each gig), personal mileage on your vehicle (when using your own car or van to get back and forth to gigs), per diems (daily allowances for food), and holiday payments scales (for performing on New Year's Eve and other holidays)

  • Recording sessions, including major label recording sessions and some smaller label sessions, as well as live concert recordings

  • Television and radio performances, including all commercial advertisements

  • Video taping, including live concert performances, promotional video shoots such as for MTV and VH1, and performances on live television such as The Tonight Show, Conan O'Brien, Saturday Night Live, and David Letterman

  • Motion picture performances, including on-camera appearances (for instance, the filming of a bar or concert scene in a movie), and off-camera appearances (for instance, a studio recording for a movie sound track
The union also provides health care and retirement benefits for qualifying members. Through the union's health care programs, you will receive medical and hospital benefits (subject to availability at your local branch). If you've ever been sick or injured and incurred costly hospital bills, then you understand the importance of insurance. Your local may also provide dental plans and prescription drug benefits for qualifying members. And though retirement may seem like a long way off, it's comforting to know that money will be waiting for you—even if you're no longer working in the music business.

Other union benefits such as receiving "special payment funds," the union's monitoring of film and TV for "new use" payments of your recorded works, job referral data base, access to affordable equipment insurance and so much more—all be covered in part two next month. Additionally, we'll take a look at requirements for membership and considerations as to why joining the union may not be right for you at this time in your career. There's a lot of information, but keep in mind that a representative at your local is always available to answer any questions that you may have. The AFM can by calling AFM at (800) 762-3444 or online at

Bobby Borg is the author of "The Musician's Handbook: A Practical Guide To Understanding The Music Business," published by Billboard Books. For more or .

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