Recording Rules for Orchestras Page 2

One by one, the record companies agreed to the royalty payments—of between ¼ cent and 5 cents per record—and the American Federation of Musicians earned a reputation as a union to be feared. In fact, after that, it was unstoppable. Every recording contract thereafter, and every revised set of work rules, was more draconian than the last and, as recordings came into ever-widening use, more inspired by paranoia.

Here, in essence, is what those rules have to say about recording in 1987:

• For a recording session, all musicians must be paid at least a standard recording rate of $69 per hour, regardless of their usual pay for performances.

• A recording session must consist of a minimum of three hours of time or a maximum of four. Each half hour of overtime must be paid for at a rate of $52 per half hour.

• If a recording session involves fewer than 65 players (but not less than 25), those members of the orchestra who are not needed must nonetheless be paid the standard minimum hourly recording rate for at least the first two hours of the session. Their presence is not required.

• For each half-hour of recording, no more than 15 minutes of material may be used for final release. This time can be averaged over two sessions.

• A symphonic work can be recorded during a live concert performance. The orchestra shall be notified in advance of which work will be recorded, and no other work on the program can be recorded. Payment for a three-hour session must be guaranteed as of the start of the first recording take.

There is no limit to the number of performances of that work which can be recorded at subsequent concerts, but when the recording is released, payment above the guaranteed amount shall be predicated on the basis of one session hour for each 10 minutes of released material.

• All of the above shall be in effect if there is a microphone present in the hall, whether or not a recording is made, and whether or not any such recording is intended for commercial release.

• Any exceptions to the above must be negotiated with the orchestra members and approved by unanimous vote.

On the surface, it looks like a good deal for musicians. But is it really? Let's look at some of its implications.

The hourly pay is about three times what European musicians get paid for recording. Perhaps a virtuoso musician is worth it in the US, but the fact is that most professional orchestra players are not virtuosi; they are only very competent players. The virtuosos tend to gravitate to the major orchestras, which pay the most and earn their major status by the virtuosity of their players (footnote 1).

But we're talking here about a uniform recording payment rate. That means you will pay just as much to record 100 very competent musicians in Savannah or Memphis or Portland as you will to record 100 virtuoso musicians in Philadelphia or Boston or Minneapolis. Either way, that's $21,000 for a minimum session, from which you can use 45 minutes of material. Where, then, do you think a record company is going to record? Certainly not in Savannah or Memphis or Portland. The uniform-scale provision of the American Federation of Musicians, which is intended to reward all musicians equally for recording, ends up rewarding only those in a few top orchestras! The rest just don't get to make records.

In fact, it often costs more per minute of usable material to record a second-string orchestra, because virtuoso players are much more likely to get things right the first time through, whereas a second-stringer may require three or more takes to get certain passages down with the degree of perfection which everyone takes for granted from recordings. Rough edges which can be overlooked during an ephemeral live performance cannot be tolerated in a recording, where they will be heard over and over again with each playing. This is another reason why a record company will usually opt for the major orchestra, assuming it can find one that isn't already under contract to another record company.

So, regardless of what orchestra is recorded, the cost will work out to around $6900 per hour of playing for a 100-piece ensemble. And the three-hour session minimum multiplies that cost by a factor of three. That's a staggering $21,000 for 45 minutes of music, which works out to a whopping $460 a minute. No wonder Sheffield went to Europe!

Actually, 45 minutes is just about the exact amount of time needed to fill an LP, which usually runs to 22 minutes per side. But CD is another matter entirely.

A CD buyer who finds he has bought substantially less than 60 minutes of music for his $13.95 feels gypped—particularly when he looks at the 70-minute releases coming routinely from RCA these days. This means that a CD producer must get his full 15 minutes of usable material from every hour of recording. The chances of this happening depend on the competence of the orchestra members and the producer's standards for perfection in performance, and those chances are rather slim. The alternative is to go into overtime, at time and a half for everybody, or $5000 for half an hour for 100 players. And most AF of M shop stewards are meticulous about their time-keeping, often standing in the wings with a stop watch, fully prepared to call an end to the session after the 59th second of the final minute. If just two more minutes for a short retake are all that would be needed to get a perfect performance, the producer is faced with an agonizing choice between artistic integrity and Big Bucks. Guess what usually triumphs?

Footnote 1: This may sound like a good hourly rate, but in actual fact, a typical American orchestra does so little commercial recording that it does not represent a major source of income.—Larry Archibald