Musicians can’t strike but face same struggles as actors, writers

“Musicians are treated in isolation, and there's been a real struggle to not just organize, but pass laws that would enable them to collectively bargain,” says the LA Times’ August Brown. Photo by Shutterstock.

Hollywood is still shut down with its two major unions, SAG-AFTRA and WGA, on strike over residual pay, artificial intelligence, and other issues. Now a swell of musicians and songwriters wish they could join the picket lines.

Unlike actors and writers, their industry isn’t unionized. That’s because many musicians are considered independent contractors, says August Brown, a Los Angeles Times staff writer who covers pop music, the music industry, and nightlife.

“The very term — gig worker — is drawn out of the language of live musicians. The idea that you gotta pop around from show to show is taken from the culture of performing musicians,” Brown tells KCRW.

Some corners of the music industry are unionized, Brown says, and are part of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which includes film, orchestra, and live theater musicians. 

That wasn’t always the case, however. In the 1940s, the AFM went on strike over concerns about the use of vinyl records  — a new technology at the time — and were able to secure protections and payment for its members. That included a trust fund that would pay members for live performances.

Multiple pieces of legislation have chipped away at the power of the AFM since then, Brown says. That includes the Lea Act of 1946 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which limited the union’s ability to bargain on behalf of its members.

Race relations of the time also impacted who could benefit from these changes. “They didn't see a lot of potential in organizing Black music styles like rock and roll and R&B, and therefore, missed out on a sea change in what popular music was at the time. A lot of musicians had to play shows to benefit from the trust fund, and because of segregation and redlining, they really limited a lot of Black musicians' abilities to even take advantage of the opportunities that the union fought and won.”

For decades, Brown says the AFM was the largest employer of musicians, with more than 250,000 members at its peak. Now, its numbers sit around 80,000.

Today, musicians face many of the same concerns as actors and writers, including meager streaming residuals and the threat of AI replacements. But unlike Hollywood, they don’t have a union that can fight for them. 

Brown adds that if musicians try to organize themselves, they’d be seen as a cartel. “Musicians are treated in isolation, and there's been a real struggle to not just organize, but pass laws that would enable them to collectively bargain.”

There is new legislation that could shift the landscape, including the Protect Working Musicians Act, which would change antitrust law and allow independent musicians to collectively bargain. However, Brown says streaming giants will fight tooth and nail to stop it.

“They have a pretty sweetheart deal as it is for not being able to pay comparable royalties in a way that network TV would have been able to in the past,” Brown says. “It used to be pretty easy to make a middle-class living. Working bands could sell you $20 CDs and do okay. Streaming services do not have an incentive to pay a living wage to musicians under the current circumstance.” 

Despite the challenges, musicians are fighting for better benefits. “It's clear that the entire music economy is really broken in so many ways. And I think a lot of people have been afraid to speak up about it because no one wants to say, ‘I'm poor in the music industry.’ But I think a lot of people realize nothing's going to move forward, and so people are honest about what they're actually having to do to make a living.”