Alan Willaert and the Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM) is on the warpath to change how music showcases have operated for aeons in Canada and abroad.
The ED of the CFM and VP from Canada to the American Federation of Musicians successfully managed to skewer media attention away from the BreakOut West conference and festival in Edmonton with a very public demonstration noting that most of the indie bands showcasing were not getting paid.
It’s debatable as to whether the goods in kind that conference organizers offered the showcasing bands was fair compensation, but Willaert and his organization are after cold hard cash, and some are suggesting a topping-up fee for the association’s pension fund.
Traditionally, both in Canada and abroad, so-called baby bands or emerging talent are given an opportunity to showcase at these events and are compensated with a basket of non-fee benefits. The basket often includes conference passes that can cost several hundred dollars to buy—and the chance to perform at the events where a high-number of music industry power- players are in attendance. Sometimes the bands get the door payments or a portion of the ticket sales, depending on how the promoters have structured their deals with the venues.
The acts are also partially subsidized through a patchwork of grant programs offered through trade associations and federal and provincial arts organizations.
It's a quid pro quo that has been accepted as the norm forever; that is until now.
Willaert says the Edmonton demonstrations came about because the CFM was unable to strike a deal with the organizers of the BreakOut West events. He also suggests that by demonstrating outside the host hotel and campaigning for attention by presenting the fee-for-play premise has been noted by various officials, including the province’s NDP government who, he says, “were extremely sympathetic” to the cause.
Ominously, he adds that “I don’t think they (the event organizers) are going to end up with the kind of sponsorship that they want for next year.”
Willaert says the next target is Canadian Music Week; however, these negotiations are under the jurisdiction of Local 149 of the Toronto Musicians Union.
Complicating matters is the fact that there is no set rule in place about paying showcasing acts. For instance, the East Coast Music Awards do pay, which didn’t stop Willaert’s org from a showdown with the organizers a year ago.
After some hardball negotiations, a three-year agreement was struck, but the details aren't available for public scrutiny. It's worth noting here that the ECMA event is somewhat different in that it has a regional telecast component, and the CFM does have agreements in place with TV networks and radio broadcasters.
Several other festivals including The Beaches International Jazz Festival in Toronto make it a policy to pay all musicians appearing at its events.
Back to the ECMAs, Willaert said in a phone interview that “I can’t go into the details because you’re not a party (to the agreement) but it was a three-year deal and each year offered an improvement for the musicians. The first year was kind of a status quo with second and third year improvements, and we agreed with this to be a sponsor and participate in their panels and seminars and do whatever it takes to make them successful.
Continuing: “I can tell you the next one up is Canadian Music Week, which is a little bit tricky because the jurisdiction is Local 149 of the Toronto Musicians Association; so, it is up to them to make the first move.
“Canadian Music Week doesn’t bop around from city to city as the others do,” he says referring to the ECMAs and BreakOut West that have different host cities in separate provinces each year.
“The locals out west who were involved said ‘look, instead of us individually bargaining with the event when it comes to our town, let’s get the national organization to do it and do a multi-year deal for all the provinces. The same as was the case with the East Coast Music Awards of course because it moves around from PEI to Nova Scotia to Newfoundland to Cape Breton.”
Asked by what authority his federation has to negotiate on behalf of non-union musicians, he suggests the cards are in his hand.
“How do we square it? Because under the federal status of the artist legislation we have been certified as the bargaining agent for all independent contractor musicians. Under Labour Laws as well, when we bargain an agreement we have to make sure that all non-members have that available to them as well. Now they have to pay a small service fee under the Rand formula, but it is no more than what the members pay, obviously. Everyone has to be treated equally and receive the same benefit.”
Depending on who one speaks to, the Canadian arm of the US AFM is different in that Canada’s collective is not a registered union, whereas the US counterpart is. Other than Willaert and his federation of musicians, no one quite seems to know whether the CFM has any jurisdiction to negotiate fees for non-members in these sorts of situations where there are no TV or radio broadcast agreements and the venues used are non-union halls.
One person knowledgeable about the CFM’s charter suggests that they are a legitimate bargaining authority for members and are the de facto negotiating body to strike agreements for their members with the symphonies or the opera companies or the CBC.
This same person, who asked for anonymity, suggests the CFM’s drum beating “sounds like an excellent incentivising tool to become a member, but in the long term it won’t be. "The only reason the bands might want to join is that it is hard to get a work permit to go across the border, but if you are a member of the association you have the process expedited. It’s faster, cheaper and more guaranteed (when one is a member).”
But it’s not a one-time fee for a band: “Everyone has to be a member (in a group) and the joining fees and annual memberships are expensive. For most of the bands showcasing they aren’t in a position to join, and until they have a career there is no need to be crossing the border.”