Hollywood is the home of the big-name blockbuster. But in many ways, Los Angeles is a classic company town, where one industry supports legions of creative workers. For one particular class of artists, however, the business threatens to do an especially efficient job of turning their passion into penury: the recording musicians who bring you those dramatic orchestral swells of the cinematic experience are in danger of losing their jobs, as production companies go overseas for post-production work.
So while film corporations ring up mega-profits, the “offshoring” of film scoring, using musicians abroad to record accompanying music for a film, is muting the city’s vibrant community of working musicians.
With digital technology making music production more atomized and exportable than ever, the recording industry has evolved massively since the founding of the American Federation of Musicians more than a century ago. But the basic needs of its membership—for economic security and dignity in their profession—have remained constant. As a craft guild struggling to adapt to a commodified arts econmy, the AFM has launched the Listen Up! campaign to curb the industry practice of sending film-scoring work abroad.
The key target is Lionsgate, which recently courted controversy by commissioning musicians in Macedonia to score the American football-themed film Draft Day. Some major studios such as MGM and Fox generally have formal contracts with the union, but like other “independent” studios, Lionsgate operates autonomously and is not a signatory of the AFM contract. Out of twenty Lionsgate films produced since 2011, AFM estimates that the vast majority have not met prevailing industry standards according to AFM’s contract.
According to AFM, “the off-shoring of soundtrack scoring for just four Lionsgate films between 2008 and 2010 resulted in a total loss of lifetime compensation estimated at $10 million for thousands of domestic musicians including wages, and no payments were made into the AFM retirement and health care plans.” Meanwhile, the company has gobbled up tens of millions of dollars in tax credits from localities—a common scheme of local governments subsidizing entertainment business projects in the name of “incentivizing” development.
AFM Local 47, representing Los Angeles musicians, sees Lionsgate as a harbinger of a troubling trend. Despite the industry’s hyper-commercialism, it has long served as an economic bedrock for culture industry workers; many musicians earn their living from a variety of income streams, but film work provides both a steady job as well as residual payments in the future.
The union warns that as companies seek to lower labor costs, pulling jobs away from local musicians erodes the relationship between the craftsperson and the marketplace, and makes it harder for even the most talented to sustain themselves.
“We just want to be treated like every other guild that goes through this process when they make a film,” says Rafael Rishik, a Los Angeles-based violinist. Noting a general paucity of public support for culture, he adds, “In this day and age, when we’re being told libraries and schools have to be closed for lack of funds…. [if] motion picture companies, production companies are gonna take this money, they should do the right thing and not outsource our jobs.”