NEW YORK, N.Y.—The arc of the musicians was long. Will it bend toward justice?
An arc of about 20 musicians, horn players with a few drummers mixed in formed on the sidewalk across Broadway from CBS’s Ed Sullivan Theatre Oct. 6, preparing to provide the pulse for an American Federation of Musicians march. The union is demanding that the three main television networks give the more than 6,000 musicians who play on their live shows better wages, health insurance, and residual payments from their performances being streamed on Websites such as YouTube and the networks’ platforms.
“We’re going to rock it out a bit, then repeat it,” a trombonist told the band after singing a riff. “We enhance your visuals, pay us fair residuals,” the protesters, many wearing black “#RespectUs” face masks, chanted over the run-through.
“The musicians who work on TV have been denied a raise for the last three years,” Louis Fouché, alto saxophonist in Stay Human, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s house band, told the rally. To qualify for health insurance, they have to work 160 episodes a year, while actors only need to work 45 episodes. And while singers, actors, and directors get residuals from streaming, he continued, “musicians get nothing”—even for clips of just the band.
“They’re happy to add our sound to everything,” said Stay Human sousaphonist Jonathan Lampley, “but for years these networks have told us that we’re literally not ‘talent.’”
Streaming is not a new issue, AFM Local 802 President Adam Krauthamer said: It first came up during the writers’ strike in 2007. “The networks have made billions of dollars in profits over the last ten years, and the musicians have seen zero,” he told the rally—to the point where musicians on late-night shows now make less than they did 35 years ago.
The networks like to show off their musicians’ racial diversity, “but they don’t want to pay,” Krauthamer added. “In 2020, it’s not fair.”
New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez said he was perplexed when Krauthamer explained the situation to him. “I don’t get the fundamental unfairness,” he said. “They have the ability to pay.”
CBS, NBC, and ABC make more than $600 million a year in profits, said state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), while late-night hosts like Colbert and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel get paid $15 million. Rep. Jerry Nadler and City Councilmembers Keith Powers and Helen Rosenthal, all Manhattan Democrats also spoke.
None of the three networks responded to messages from LaborPress.
The about 100 people there then marched down Broadway toward ABC’s studio in Times Square, as the band launched into Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not GonnaTake It,” driven by massive bass notes from the four sousaphones. They segued into Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” as the march passed the shuttered Iridium jazz club, a picture of the late electric-guitar pioneer Les Paul next to a “Pass the HEROES Act” sticker; Ellen’s Stardust Diner, renowned for its singing servers; and the Winter Garden theater, its closed doors papered with posters for a revival of The Music Man.
The march concluded in an epidemic-emptied pedestrian plaza in Times Square. Freelance violinist Adriana Molello, wearing purple tinsel over an AFM T-shirt, said she was proud that when the networks offered a deal that would give residuals to full-time musicians but exclude freelancers, “the house bands refused.”
She told the crowd that she’s been playing for 28 years, since she was 5.
“Here I am at the top of my game, making more money for playing a goddamn wedding than for being on TV,” she said.
The pandemic has cut off virtually all live work for musicians, Louis Fouché told LaborPress after the rally. He did his first live show in seven months last weekend, at an outdoor jazz festival in Cape May, New Jersey. His only gigs other than the Colbert show had been recording sessions where he could overdub without other people being in the room.
That has crystallized musicians’ frustration, he explained. “What’s happened has really exposed just how bad things are for musicians and how exploited we are,” he says. “We decided to put this to an end.”
There’s a racial component too, he believes. Network negotiators, he says, have told musicians, “‘I know you guys want parity. That’s not going to happen.’”
“That’s literally the level of disrespect,” he adds.