People usually associate unions with factory workers, trades, or a large group of employees, but not usually with musicians. Musicians are typically freelancers, and by nature of the job, you wouldn’t expect them to have a union. But guess what, we do!
Nearly every country has a musician’s union. In the UK, it’s called the MU (Musician’s Union). In the US, it’s called AFM (American Federation of Musicians), and Canada’s union is called CFM, but it falls under the umbrella of AFM. If you are a member of one, you are a member of both.
More specifically, cities and areas usually have a Local that will represent all of the union members in the area. For example, I am a member of Local 190 in Winnipeg, Canada.
All very interesting, but what is it for? Who uses these unions and why do they use them? Should you join one?
There are many reasons to join the union. Sometimes, you have to be a union member to advance your career or play a certain gig. There are also some benefits provided by the union that are otherwise hard to obtain as a freelancer.
That said, there are many musicians who never join the union and do not want to. There are many equally valid reasons for this attitude.
So, let's get into the details.
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Why You Might Join A Union As A Musician
Here are several reasons why joining the union might be the right move for you.
You Are A Musician In A Symphony
Being a salaried symphony member is a bit of a dream job for many classically trained musicians. A good chunk of the union is made up of symphony players who need to go through the union to get paid and get their benefits.
This is evidenced when you visit the union’s website; there are lots of pictures of symphonies and classical players. The union’s magazine also seems to be directed primarily towards symphonic players.
For this reason, a lot of the union’s rules seem to apply only to symphony players and not to regular working musicians. For example, you’re not supposed to take any gigs that pay under union standards. You’re supposed to charge more if the performance is videotaped. And so on.
It is some of these rules that make being in the union undesirable and even confusing for many working musicians.
You Have To Get A Visa To Work In Another Country
This is why I joined the union. As a Canadian, I needed to be a union member in order to obtain a working visa and tour in the US. The union was fairly helpful and assisted me with the the paperwork, but beyond that I don’t really have to use them for much else.
In my opinion, you shouldn’t really have to be union member to do this. It’s a piece of bureaucratic tape that makes it more expensive and difficult than it already is to tour another country. That said, being a union member has given me access to some other benefits that I now use.
You Need To Be A Member To Get Paid For A Gig
Occasionally, you will run into gigs that pay union rates and require you to be a union member to play and get paid. This can be a great inconvenience, however in my experience, whoever is paying you often covers the costs associates with becoming a union member.
TV, movie and radio work sometimes require you to be a union member. Particularly if you are performing on air for public broadcasters. These gigs are paid through the union. In my case, this is useful for CBC (the Canadian public broadcaster) performances.
You Are Interested In Their Benefits
The union can provide musicians with some helpful benefits that can be hard to obtain otherwise.
These benefits are some of the same benefits one might expect from a full-time salaried job.
Here are a few of the benefits that a AFM membership offers:
In Canada, as a union member, I can pay into the Musicians’ Pension Fund of Canada. As a working musician, it’s my only option for a pension fund.
The pension provides Disability Benefits, Retirement Benefits, and Survivor Benefits. It’s also one of the best-managed pension funds in the country. It’s worth looking into if you are a working musician making an adequate amount of money.
AFM automatically signs you up for royalty collection and will work on your behalf to collect royalties. Specifically, many musicians find their neighbouring rights royalty collection to be useful.
Purchasing insurance through AFM is sometimes cheaper than purchasing it through a third party.
Home and Renters insurance don’t adequately cover the amount of gear I have on the road. Equipment insurance is designed for musicians.
The union also offers Health and Travel Insurance as well as Liability Insurance. These options are tailor-made for musicians and often offer better coverage than third-party insurance options.
Where The Union Falls Short
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, the musician’s union will not prove to be terribly useful.
Their equipment insurance is very useful, the pension can be useful if that’s how you choose to manage your money, and sometimes you are forced to join. But if you don’t have to, you’re not missing out.
While the union “fights for musician’s rights”, there are a number of things that the union cannot do for you. For example, if you get stiffed on a gig, they will not go after that person for you, unless they too are a union member. Even then, they probably won’t.
The union also hasn’t caught up to the average musician’s lifestyle. The fact is, most gigs don’t pay union rates. Technically, you are not supposed to play gigs that don’t pay union rates, but you are of course going to do it anyways.
The union has a lot of work to do to get with the times. Until it does, most musicians will become union members only when they are required to do so.
I’m not going to tell you not to become a member, nor am I going to tell you to sign up. To find out more about your union, head down to your local union office and see what they can do for you!