Union wants musicians to set standards for venues


American Federation of Musicians Local 99 is relaunching Fair Trade Music, a campaign to secure fair pay and minimum working standards for gigging musicians in Portland. The union wants freelance performers to help write a “grassroots social contract” for venues in the city.

Under federal labor law, most of the musicians who play at clubs and concert venues are classified as independent contractors and therefore don’t have a legally protected right to form unions or collectively bargain contracts with the venues that hire them to perform.

That means there are no set standards club owners must follow when they hire freelance musicians, and the job can be financially unstable. Local 99 Organizer Hunter Buen said he’s heard stories about musicians getting paid in drink tickets or losing a night’s work because a club cancels on them an hour before the show.

“Music is now a hobby pretty explicitly for most people. To do it as a career is to accept dire circumstances, unless you are very lucky,” Buen said.

Fair Trade Music would outline the minimum standards freelance musicians are willing to play for, Buen said. Any club that met those standards would be designated as a fair trade venue, so musicians and concert-goers would know they treat workers respectfully. The idea is to build a better music scene that makes it possible for musicians to make a living doing what they love, which improves the quality of live performances for audiences, Buen said.

The union launched a similar campaign in the early 2000s that tapered off in the 2010s.

“Over time, there was a lack of solidarity from musicians, so musicians would specifically start breaking their own rules,” Buen said. “It’s hard for me to blame musicians who were trying to squeeze as much as they could out of the industry … but the minute that a dozen or several dozen musicians say, ‘This minimum wage we’ve agreed on, I’ll play for less than that.’ Then it collapses.”

Local 99 is recruiting freelance musicians to draft the standards. It will host a fair trade music meeting 5:30-7 p.m. on the last Tuesday of each month open to all musicians, whether Local 99 members or not, and to non-musician supporters. The location for each meeting will be shared in advance by email; contact [email protected] to sign up for more information.

“What we need is solidarity among musicians, among venues, and among venue-goers, among people who enjoy music,” Buen said.


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