To all Music Professionals, and all Parents of current or future Music Students:
Subject: Incentivizing professional musicians to consider applying their private lesson income toward a viable pension (and lots of other benefits).
1) President Biden has just signed a bill into law that guarantees multi-employer pension funds will be able to fund all pension obligations to their eligible members for the next 30 years.
2) In case some may not know, the name of the union that represents all performing professional musicians in the US and Canada is the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).
3) The pension fund for AFM union musicians is called the American Federation of Musicians and Employers' Pension Fund (AFM-EPF), and thankfully this very large pension fund is included on the list of multi-employer pension funds set to receive government assistance through this bill.
But, there remains an uncertain future for our musicians union and for our union pension fund.
Due to what some would currently call a frontal assault on labor unions in this country:
1) more and more musicians are performing jobs without filing union contracts,
2) many musicians (especially during this awful pandemic) are leaving the union entirely, and
3) fewer and fewer musicians are joining the union.
The combination of these three difficult challenges is understandably having an impact on the AFM's ability to protect and assist musicians in their careers. This is also resulting in fewer and fewer contributions being made to the union's pension fund. Combine that with the fact that more and more retiring musicians are beginning to draw funds from their pension, and it's clear how negatively this is all going to impact the AFM-EPF's assets going forward.
For this situation to improve, any solution certainly must include a plan to greatly increase contributions to the pension fund. The question is how to incentivize union members to file more pension-eligible work contracts with the union.
The idea of allowing union members to contribute MUSIC LESSON INCOME to the pension fund is an innovative approach to help with this incentivizing process. In other words, demonstrating to union members that there's a reason for them to feel hopeful about the health and longevity of the AFM-EPF will likely cause them to feel better and better about insisting that their work include both the AFM and the AFM-EPF. And enabling union members to see how much additional money would likely be added to the AFM-EPF (as a direct result of an initiative like the UPMTI) could have a huge impact on the decision-making process they'd use in how to serve their own best interest as both a musician and a music teacher.
Currently there are several AFM Locals throughout the US that give their members the ability to contribute lesson income toward the AFM-EPF, but this requires either:
1) filing a separate LS-1 contract for each and every lesson, or
2) having a group of union musicians create a separate corporation that's signatory to the AFM (see below) into which they would pool all of their lesson income.
Now, while I do admit that both of these current methods of contributing lesson income to the pension are better than nothing, it’s quite messy, because it requires that members be willing to let their earned lesson income be paid to them through another corporation, as well as requiring them to get all their teaching parents (and school coaching administrators) to agree to pay an outside corporation instead of paying them directly. Couple these awkward requirements with TAX implications, and this is definitely going to be an uncomfortable proposition for most musicians and teachers.
I believe the AFM can come up with a much more efficient, more private, and more attractive way to accomplish this, - but it's going to be a complex challenge.
Complex, but doable...
...and only we can make this happen!
PROPOSAL for an AFM Unionized Private Music Teacher Initiative (UPMTI):
Strengthening the AFM-EPF with a new division within the AFM to be centered around independent private music teachers
1) to EMPOWER private music teachers to protect themselves from unfair wages and excessive cancellations
2) to ENABLE private music teachers to retire with group pension benefits (and to receive many other benefits, as well)
3) to MOTIVATE private music teachers who aren’t yet AFM members to join the AFM, and thus pay work dues and have pension contributions made on their behalf (as well as incentivizing current AFM members to remain in the union)
4) to GENERATE additional contributions to the AFM-EPF, to enable the pension fund to begin thriving, to help AFM members gain a greater sense of confidence in the pension fund’s future, and to simplify the contribution process, thus motivating AFM members to file more pension-contribution-generating contracts.
5) to further ELEVATE the importance of childhood music education in our union's priorities. Promoting and protecting performing musicians will, of course, always remain a vital aspect of the AFM's overall mission.
METHOD OF IMPLEMENTATION:
1) Have the AFM’s legal department verify that such a change to the AFM’s and AFM-EPF’s charters would be legal in terms of the AFM’s jurisdiction with respect to private music teachers. The legal department shall assemble a complete list of issues that the Governing Board must agree to having resolved prior to its considering the UPMTI as a viable plan (i.e. finding ways to a) mitigate the risk of fraud and b) establish a union-based method of declaring all UPMTI lesson income as coming from a source other than each individual teacher).
2) Hold private meetings with top AFM brass in order to agree on how to best proceed with initiating discussions on this topic with the leadership from all AFM Locals throughout the US and Canada.
3) Have the AFM Locals collaborate to create a comprehensive list of all possible BENEFITS that AFM-affiliated private music teachers would be eligible to receive: pension, comprehensive liability insurance, group health insurance, group life insurance, group instrument insurance, AFM-sponsored competitions and scholarships for private students, and free job training opportunities (plus many, many others).
4) Using this list of benefits, have the AFM Locals gather as much anecdotal information as possible from its members and their private lesson parents in order to test the current public sentiment toward this initiative, and thus to gauge how to most effectively roll out the initiative, in terms of both the required resources and the most reasonable timeframe for each phase.
5) Have the AFM initiate an aggressive marketing campaign through which both current AFM members and non-AFM-affiliated musicians and teachers would be “sold” on the UPMTI, and ensure that all members and nonmembers will have their individual concerns about the UPMTI sufficiently addressed prior to any actual launch. Needless to say, almost all current AFM members would be eligible to become part of the UPMTI, in addition to their current AFM affiliations. Only AFM members who’d refuse to teach private lessons through the UPMTI would be ineligible for UPMTI benefits. Of course, this also has implications related to TAXES.
6) Have the AFM initiate a new policy whereby UPMTI-affiliated private music teachers will be voluntarily grouped together under legally-binding Personal Service Corporations (PSCs) that will exist within each Local's jurisdiction. These PSCs will be the signatory vehicles through which all UPMTI income will be distributed to that area's UPMTI teachers. Being paid through these PSCs shall also enable those teachers to receive a host of other valuable group benefits.
7) Have the AFM initiate an aggressive PR campaign designed to educate the general public (which, of course, includes those hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions, of private lesson parents and school music program administrators) about a) the current and future goals of the AFM, and specifically how the AFM is striving to promote childhood music education as its top priority in terms of both public and private funding, b) the need for a more accurate public perception of the crucial role that local private music teachers play in the push to make music education stronger and more readily available to all children, c) specifically how the AFM is capable of positively impacting this public perception, and thus how a stronger AFM will better serve the public good, and d) how the AFM is most effectively able to partner with other national music organizations (i.e. NMTA, SAA, ASTA, NFA, IDRS, ISA, NASA, NARAS, LAO, MA), local School Boards, Universities and Conservatories, and local Music Clubs, to ensure that there's always an agreed-upon message being broadcast to the public, and to make use of as many shared marketing resources as possible to avoid needless and costly redundancies.
We're all in this together, and the American Federation of Musicians can be a real leader in helping kids succeed in their musicial journeys!
My real name is Steven Sigurdson, but my professional identity is my nickname, Thor Sigurdson. I've played the cello since age 10, and after graduating from The Juilliard School the bulk of my professional orchestral career took place over 20 years in Southeastern Florida. As far back as I can remember, I've always believed I'd be able to rely on a halfway decent union pension when I retire at 65. But things have certainly changed over the last 10 years or so, and like many of my colleagues over the last year, I'm now basically a full-time private teacher of cello and double bass.
For my entire career I’ve been a loyal member of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). And as a member, I’ve been paying into the Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) for virtually every union gig I’ve ever had, including my 13-year tenure as a cellist with the now-defunct Florida Philharmonic Orchestra. Upon reading my proposal, I’m hopeful that most of you will understand why I feel this is such a crucial moment for musicians to be helping one another. Times are tough for all musicians, and times are especially tough for our AFM union and for our union pension fund (AFM-EPF).
Over the last year or so, most performing musicians have needed to greatly expand their teaching load just to survive. But sadly there’s been no way for us to easily contribute toward our pension fund through lessons. I believe that can change relatively quickly if we communicate to our AFM union that we really do need to be able to have our lessons designated as pension-eligible work, and certainly to do so without having to file a separate union contract for each and every lesson.
To do this, membership to our AFM should be made available to all legitimate private music teachers and music coaches. I realize this opens a huge can of worms. To begin with, how exactly does one designate someone as a “legitimate” teacher? Sadly, we can’t just take their word for it. And this is what I believe has been the union’s and the AFM-EPF’s primary concern as I’ve been addressiong this proposal with them over the last few years. But, I sincerely believe there’s a way to do it.
While I do not pretend to know precisely how the union would be able to successfully “vet” each and every "teacher applicant" for AFM membership, I’m a firm believer in their ability to do just that. Of course, I also think the union would be very happy to entertain ideas on this immensely complex issue from each and every one of its current members! My own ideas are put forth in the UPMTI proposal displayed above.
Ok, here's the bottom line: we’re facing an existential threat to our livelihoods right now, and we ought to be doing everything in our power to prepare ourselves for the coming “new normal”. Sure, most of us will eventually be returning to some semblance of normal performance work. But I believe we’re all gonna be much better off if we have both of the following: the ability to contribute to the pension fund though our own lesson income, and the ability to invite non-performing private music teachers to consider becoming AFM members so that they too can contribute some of their lesson income toward our (and their) pension.
As I've said, it’s a big issue, and one that I’d never dream could be completely addressed in a slick or speedy fashion. But, I believe it's an issue that will never be seriously addressed unless enough AFM members express their desire for some kind of unionized private music teacher initiative to be established within the AFM – at least enough members to prove to the union (and its partnering organizations) that such an initiative will succeed in its mission.
Now, I know some of you may be thinking I don’t believe our union's management will be able to complete the implementation of such an initiative all by themselves – and you’d be correct. They'll definitely need each of us to do our part - and I know we can do it.
Here's how I see the future of the AFM. Please keep in mind, I'm a lifelong AFM member and a believer in the union model. But I also think it may be high time for our union to have a serious facelift.
What if the AFM were renamed the AGMMT? (American Guild of Musicians and Music Teachers)
What if our union's mission statement were changed to something like this:
Serving the general public by helping to ensure that the music teachers and music performers in their area are properly trained, and protected from unfair wages and working conditions, - and by doing so, enabling the children within their communities to receive the full benefit of an oustanding music eduction, both through the public school system and through access to each area's finest available private music teachers. The AGMMT also helps to provide teacher training and business education opportunities to dedicated music teachers who need assistance in honing their skills as both teachers and performers. (more to come)
I believe that our union's mission and public perception should be seen more as a way to ensure that children will be inspired by real professionals - musicians who will encourage them to strive for their greatest potential as artists, and as human beings. And this obviously goes way beyond any style or genre of music. Kids should feel that they can express themselves however they want - and learning to express themselves as performers with the very best tools will help shape their lives in ways that will impact all future generations.
What if every major symphony orchestra in the US were to employ a person whose sole responsibility is to be a SPOC (a single point of contact) for every public and private grade school in that orchestra's area? Their job could include providing every school (and I mean EVERY SCHOOL) with detailed questionaires for students, parents, and teachers to express their feelings about how the orchestra could better serve their kids. Then, what if every AFM local were to employ a person whose sole responsibility is to make sure the union is doing everything humanly possible to support the educational mission of the major orchestra in their area? Their job could include working to facilitate every local private music teacher in developing a professional relationship with the SPOC of the major orchestra in their area. In other words, imagine if there were a union-initiated system in place that expanded a major orchestra's educational reach to include every school - not just the schools who seem to value the orchestra's current educational offerings. Would this require orchestras to seriously rethink their educational offerings? The result could be huge. Imagine an AFM that the general public identifies as having a pivotal role in helping all kids to get more music in their lives. Would an identity like that be a good thing for every musician? Would developing an identity like this help to incentivize private music teachers to join the AFM?
1. Tell eveyone you know, musicians and non-musicians alike, about this idea, and how our AFM union is really trying to improve its image by focusing much more on music education.
2. Follow up with as many people as possible. See if they really understand the urgency of this proposal, and see if they’re willing to take decisive action by a) sharing the idea with others, and b) persuading the union to legally change the AFM-EPF's charter to allow pension contributions from unionized music educators.
3. Call your area's AFM Local yourself and tell them bluntly that in order for you to feel motivated to continue your union membership (or even to join), you really do need them to be willing to tackle this complex, but totally tackle-able, issue.
4. If you're a parent who feels that your child deserves excellent and affordable music education (or if you know such a parent), then please do get involved as much as you can. Your voice is crucial to making any of this happen!
A special thank you to everyone who actually made it to the end of this long spiel! I really appreciate it, and I believe we can succeed in allowing potentially millions of new dollars to flow into the AFM-EPF. And then, just imagine the AFM-EPF sending out a letter to us all saying “Guess what? Your pension fund is THRIVING!”
(Ok, maybe I’m a bit overzealous with my hopes for success, but you get the point!)
Please reach out to me directly if I can be of any assistance at all. But remember, an idea of this magnitude can only move forward if enough people (musicians and parents alike) are willing to sign on to it. Thanks again!
Thor S Sigurdson