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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.
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.
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