Musicians, it’s your Union

by Keith Laurent

The motto for Portland area Musicians Union Local 99 is: Unity, Strength and Power. How does that exactly translate to you, the local musician? Before you can really get a grasp on the motto of this local, you need to identify a little of the organization’s history.

In the mid 1880s musicians in the United States began exploring ways to improve their professional lives. They formed Mutual Aid Societies to provide members with loans and financial assistance during illness or extended unemployment, and death benefits. A number of these organizations became early unions serving various constituencies, however, problems arose between them due to competition. In 1896, delegates from these organizations gathered at the invitation of The American Federation of Labor (AFL) President to organize and charter a musician’s trade union. A majority of the delegates voted to form the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), representing 3000 musicians nationally. They resolved: “That any musician who receives pay for his musical services, shall be considered a professional musician.” Within the first 10 years, the AMF expanded to serve the US and Canada, organized 424 Locals, and represented 45,000 musicians throughout North America.

Bruce Fife, president of the AFM union local 99
Bruce Fife President of AFM Local 99

Musicians Union Local 99 was formed in 1899 in Portland, Oregon. Operated by musicians, “for” musicians. A lot has happened in the realm of music and entertainment business since 1899. Fair wage scales (minimum prices) for traveling orchestras, comic operas, musical comedies and similar shows and attractions were set in 1904. With the production of Thomas Edison’s voice recording on tin foil in 1877, a revolution began with the way music was heard and sold. By the early 20th century, the recording of everything from vaudeville sketches to the classical repertoire was under way. Unemployment for musicians increased with the growing success of the commercial recordings. When the US congress passed the 18th amendment in 1918 and adopted a 20% “Cabaret Tax” on admissions to various entertainment establishments, to support the war, it also lead to decreased employment for musicians. Radio broadcasts of musical performances began to reduce the number of job opportunities for live performers. Within three years of the release of the first “Talkie” (film with sound), 22,000 theater jobs for musicians who accompanied silent movies where lost. With this new technology however only a few hundred jobs were created for musicians performing on sound tracks. The AFM got to work and in 1928 set minimum wage scales with Vitaphone, Movietone and phonograph record work. In the 1930’s The Encyclopedia of Recorded Music was published. Newspapers started record columns. Radio, recorded music and music education created a music conscious nation.

In the 1940’s the AFM worked with the record companies and created what we know as the Recording Industries Music Performance Funds which continues to promote music appreciation and music education through sponsorship of free public performances throughout the US and Canada. The AFM obtained its first written collective bargaining agreement with the motion picture industry. In the 1960’s record sales increased as the landscape for the listener became abundant with numerous styles of music including “Rock & Roll” and “Folk Music”.

The U.S. Congress cut the Cabaret Tax to 10% and nightclub bookings rose. In 1972 the Congress passed a law making music piracy subject to criminal prosecution. Serious. In the 1980’s the union worked to make the Digital Audio Recorder Act a reality. The union established the “ROADGIG” Emergency Traveling Assistance Program, which provides aid and emergency cash relief when members experience a contract default while on the road. The AFM then follows up with the enforcement of the terms of the contract. With new technologies arriving almost everyday, the 1990’s proved to be huge for the whole industry. Multimedia technologies and sound sampling on the internet were just some of the issues facing the musicians. The AFM has been involved with the protection of the musician’s rights on a national level to a local level for over 100 years.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Portland’s Musician Union President, Bruce Fife. Fife was a veteran musician himself performing full time for over 25 years. Moving to Portland, he became a Musicians Union Local 99 member and became highly involved in union activities. His enthusiasm leads to his election as Portland’s Union President in 2001, and is currently serving his 3rd term. Portland’s Local 99 is one of the most active musician’s unions in the U.S. and Canada. By active, I mean involved in issues that affect the well being of not only the national, but also the local musician. Fife’s demeanor was one of passion for his work. His excitement and pride was evident as he spoke of the new radio station license issued in May 2008. This station’s (91.1 FM) broadcast signal will reach most of the East Metro area, as well as much of Portland east of the Willamette. The license was granted as part of a rare opening of non-commercial radio licenses available to non-profit organizations. As a non-commercial station, 91.1 FM will run no advertising and will be supported by its listeners and underwriting. As the format of the station’s airplay is yet to be determined, all indications are that 91.1 FM is going to put its emphasis on the local music community. With the announcement of the license in May, Fife said, “We are hopeful that Portland’s diverse and vibrant local music scene will be well represented on this new station. It’s long past due for these talented musicians to share valuable space on the airwaves.”

Another recent issue the Musicians Union Local 99 had been involved in was a unanimous vote by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) to changes in the Minor Posting rules. The new Minor Posting, #VI, makes it possible for minors to be present at a show if the venue has an approved (by the OLCC) control plan, to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors. This has been allowed under certain conditions already such as Blazer games and the Crystal Ballroom, but the new ruling formalizes the process and opens up the all age potential for more mixed-use facilities.

In the end of the 1990’s, with declining presence of music education in the local schools, the Musicians Union Local 99, along with private donations, created a non-profit organization titled: The Music Education Assistance Project (MEAP). The focus of MEAP is to provide funds for private lesson instruction to talented and needy students from late elementary to high school. The Music Education Assistance Project extends its benefits to students in Northern Oregon and Southwest Washington.

The Portland Musicians Union Local 99, which services an area from Albany, Oregon to Centralia, Washington, has close to 700 members, which range from classical players to club and casual performers. Local 99 maintains offices and a meeting hall facility at 325 N.E. 20th Ave in Portland, Oregon. Meeting hall rentals are available for small to medium-sized private events. Members have free use of the hall for rehearsal space. As a local musician the scale of benefits the Musician Union has to offer is vast to say the least. Some offering include: Union Plus benefits, political advocacy, federation contracts, legal services, group insurance rates, referral hotline, toll free road help, national and international recording contracts, pension plan, payroll service, music performance and film trust funds (RIMPTF), business guidance and seminars. Here are few samplings from the Portland Musicians Union’s website which explain some of the current issues at hand:

“Local 99 advocates for labor and human rights, as well as on issues of arts and free speech. Local 99, as part of the American Federation of Musicians, is part of a coalition working to bring sound performance royalties to terrestrial radio. This group, the musicFirst coalition is a partnership of artists and organizations in the music community who support compensating performers for their work when it’s played over the air. Corporate radio has had a free pass for too long. It’s time to level the playing field and promote fairness among all types of radio.”

This is from the musicFirst Mission Statement. “People who love music understand that creativity, talent and hard work are required to bring it to life. The goal of musicFirst (Fairness in Radio Starting Today) is to ensure that struggling performers, local musicians and well-known artists are compensated for their music when it is played both today and in the future. Of all the ways we listen to music, corporate radio is the only one that receives special treatment. Big radio has a free pass to play music, refusing to pay even a fraction of a penny to the performers that brought it to life. musicFirst (Fairness in Radio Starting Today) is committed to making sure everyone, from up-and-coming artists to our favorites from years-ago, is guaranteed Fair Pay for Air Play.”

The work of the Musicians Union Local 99 is constantly changing, as is the landscape of the world of music itself. These folks are on the cutting edge of protecting you and your rights as a musician. Their knowledge base is deep, however the technologies of the day always make it a challenge to protect the rights of the musician. The motto: Unity, Strength and Power, and how that exactly translates to you, the local musician, is up to you! Get the word out to unite fellow musicians to rally around what’s important to them. Together, you can achieve the strength necessary to elevate the rights of a musician to a higher standard, along with building power by joining forces to be a proud, professional, musician. If you would like more information about Portland’s Musicians Union Local 99, you can find them on the web at:

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