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Career – Unions and You

February 15, 2013

The following excerpt is from The Big Gig: Big-Picture Thinking For Success, an insider’s guide for independent musicians, by legendary session drummer Zoro. For more information, visit

TWO PROFESSIONAL organizations advocate for musicians and vocalists to ensure fair compensation and appropriate working conditions. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA; was founded in 1937. It is the union that represents singers, actors, announcers, and news broadcasters in sound recordings, radio, television programs, and commercials.

For more than 100 years, the American Federation of Musicians, better known as the AFM (, has represented musicians in the recording industry and is dedicated to raising industry standards for musicians. The sole purpose of these unions is to advocate better work situations for their members by using collective bargaining power. It serves a number of functions that benefit the independent musician, such as negotiating contracts, securing health care and pension benefits, as well as lobbying legislatures for laws that protect the interests of independent musicians.

The AFM is made up of more than 250 branch offices (called “locals”) in various cities throughout the United States and Canada. It is the largest and oldest entertainment labor organization in the world representing the interests of professional musicians. The AFM governs basic wages and pay scales for all professional recording work.

Besides helping to make sure musicians get paid for their work, the AFM offers access to licensed signatory booking agents and discounted legal advice. The union’s legal department is there to help you recover unpaid fees from those who have tried to stiff you. It also offers a variety of insurance coverage, including medical, life, disability, accident, and even equipment insurance in the event that your equipment is damaged or stolen. Its newly developed GoPro program offers everything from buying and selling instruments and listing your band on the AFM live music referral site, to music lessons and even website hosting.

The three biggest locals are the Professional Musicians Union Local 47 of Los Angeles, the Associated Musicians Local 802 of Greater New York City, and the Nashville Musicians Association Local 257 in Nashville. The lion’s share of major-label recording sessions that are commercially released are filed by these locals.

Each local AFM is run autonomously, so fringe benefits will vary to some degree. Your eligibility for these benefits depends on many qualifying factors, particularly how much recording work you are doing. Check with your local union to see what its stipulations are. Being an active member in your local union is a great way to network and meet more experienced musicians in the business.

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