Bite The Hand That Bleeds You: Justice for Jazz Artists? (Part II)

In my earlier post about the Justice for Jazz Artists (J4JA) movement, I noted that J4JA hadn’t been specific about its demands. What does J4JA want these clubs to do in terms of remuneration and benefits? Here’s one of J4JA’s demands–the organization is demanding that the Village Vanguard “contribute approximately $19,000 annually to the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and Employer’s Pension Fund.”

j4ja 19K

Let’s assume that J4JA expects a similar annual payment from the other five clubs listed on their website and in their literature. If that’s the case, then they’re asking for $114,000 dollars a year from six jazz clubs for the AFM’s pension fund. This isn’t really all that much money (per club). I’m sure that the clubs could afford it by raising the ticket price by $5, which likely wouldn’t depress the box office receipts once patrons became accustomed to the new prices.

It’s not a lot of money, but for that same reason, how could it possibly then improve the retirement prospects of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of jazz musicians who are seeking “justice” in the J4JA movement? 

Here is a list of “announced shows” for the first five months of 2013 at the Blue Note:


Of the approximately 60 artists listed, none are playing there more than once. (There are likely some individuals who are performing in multiple groups as sidemen, but this is not a large number, and even then, these musicians would not be performing more than a handful of times.) In other words, musicians who perform at these establishments are not “employees” in the normal sense of the term, they are “independent contractors.” Contrast this with Broadway musicians, for example, who work full-time, playing the same show at the same venue seven days a week (with matinees on the weekend), along with busy rehearsal schedules. Or contrast this with symphony or opera musicians who work under similar conditions, but with different repertoire and often different conductors. Both of these groups are indeed “employees” and their employers contribute to both health insurance and retirement. Jazz musicians, on the other hand, might play these venues several times a year as part of the hundreds of musicians who perform annually at these dedicated jazz clubs, or they might play once, or not at all.

This is important because the AFM’s pension fund will only pay out according to how much was paid in to the fund by the employers on behalf of each individual musician. Here’s the schedule for how much those payments will be:

Section 5.03 a) Basic Monthly Amount.

The Basic Monthly Amount payable to an eligible Participant age 55 or older shall be the sum of the amounts indicated in the following table for each $100 of Contributions payable to the Trust Fund on his or her behalf for Contributions earning during the applicable year(s)…

Monthly Payout Chart

Note that it says payments will be paid according to “total contributions credited to you under the Fund.” Contributions to the fund are thus credited to the individual musician, and will be paid out according to what was contributed by the employer (musicians are not allowed to contribute themselves). There are probably 300-400 musicians playing any one of these clubs in a given year, and J4JA is asking for $19,000 to be contributed to a general pension fund which means that, on average, each musician will have somewhere around $50 of pension fund contributions for each club. If we assume that the average player will play the other five clubs with the same frequency, then each will get a whopping $300 of pension fund contributions per year from their performances at these establishments. In 30 years, they will have $9,000 contributed on their behalf into the fund. The average benefit then (given the best case scenario from the chart above) amounts to this: For a 65-year-old musician retiring in the year 2043 who has been playing these clubs for 30 years, with each club contributing $19,000 to the pension fund per year, the monthly payment will be….drum roll…$418.50 per month. This scenario, however, describes what might happen for someone who is 35 today, and assumes that all of these clubs will contribute the amount requested, and that all of them will continue to do so for the next 30 years, which is highly unlikely. (It also doesn’t take into account the inflation that will debase those $418 dollars over the next 30 years. Using inflation during the last 30 years as a guide, our retiree would need $1,018 in order to have the same purchasing power. It doesn’t seem likely that any increases in payments will be able to keep up with inflation.)

The pension fund was clearly designed for those musicians who have jobs in which they are the employees of organizations that pay them a full-time yearly salary of $64,000-125,000 (with Broadway musicians at the low end and major symphony and opera orchestras at the top). Employer contributions of 8-10% would then amount to a reasonable monthly pension after 30 years. Jazz musicians playing gigs are transient independent contractors, and as such they do not have this kind of relationship with the clubs in which they work. Still, even if you think these clubs owe them a pension, $19,000 a year is not going to amount to much of anything for anyone in the jazz community.

But that’s not all. Pension payments are based on employer contributions, but pensions pay out according to the contract, regardless of fund viability. This means that the AFM’s pension fund will continue to pay out as long as it is solvent, so whatever funds come become part of the general operating funds are then paid out to current retirees. This is partially why guaranteed pension obligations are helping to bankrupt businessescities, and state governments across the country and partially why they are dying out. But the AFM pension fund is somehow expected to last longer than that of city and state governments? How long the AFM pension fund can continue to meet its obligations is anyone’s guess, but it cannot escape the harsh realities that pensions across the country are facing.

As if that weren’t bad enough, it gets worse. Not only do the hard working Broadway, Symphony, Ballet, Opera, and Jazz musicians have a claim to this pension fund, but there is another group that does as well. Who’s that?  You guessed it–our selfless Union brothers of course. Here’s the eligibility criteria from the Summary Description of the AFM’s pension fund:

Who is eligible to participate in the Fund?

You will be eligible to become a member — also called a “Participant” — of the Fund if both of the following conditions are met:

• You are an employee who is employed as a musician or by the Federation; and

• Your employer has entered into a collective bargaining agreement, participation agreement or other written agreement acceptable to the Board of Trustees to make contributions to the Fund on your behalf.

If you work for the Union, you are also covered by this pension, and you can bet that the Union is making regular and probably generous contributions to its own employee’s pension funds.

Jazz musicians playing the six clubs that are being targeted by J4JA will not have their retirements strengthened at all, nor will any of the older musicians receive anything significant at this late stage of their lives and careers. So, who will?  Follow the money. This will bolster the AFM’s general pension fund which will pay out to its own employees (numbering far less than any of the working musicians), to the broadway and symphony musicians (but the amount from these clubs is insignificant), and then, in 20-30 years if the pension even still exists, to the jazz players (who will get table scraps if they’re lucky). And all the while the useful idiots are playing Dixieland and handing out Situationist protest pamphlets in Greenwich Village. J4JA adds up to one thing, and one thing only–it is an attempt by the AFM to shake down some small businesses in order to bolster its general pension fund.

How should these clubs respond to J4JA’s demands? They should pay each person who plays there every year his or her share of $19,000. If 300 people play the Blue Note in a given year, then give each of them a Christmas bonus of $63, or better yet, round it up to $100 and make it a $30,000 bonus for the independent contractors. It’s not much money (which demonstrates the absurdity of J4JA’s demands), but at least it goes directly to the musicians.

Justice for Jazz Musicians?  Not likely, but it is a clever and perfectly legal scheme to bolster Union coffers to the tune of over $1 Million per decade.



[Full disclosure: I was a member of AFM Local #5 (Detroit) and Local #566 (Windsor) for many years, and Local #56 (Grand Rapids) for a short time.]

For Part I, click here.

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4 Responses to “Bite The Hand That Bleeds You: Justice for Jazz Artists? (Part II)”

  1. The math does not favor the musician and it seldom does.

    J4JA’s play for these funds is pitiful and appears to be barely above begging for handouts.

    A sad state of affairs.

  2. It’s been my historical experience that when a jazz club closes it doesn’t reopen.


  1. Bite the Band that Feeds You: Justice for Jazz Artists? (Part I) | Also Sprach FraKathustra - December 3, 2019

    […] For Part II, click here. […]

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