At its peak about 20 years ago, the San Diego musicians union counted nearly 2,400 members. Now, membership is half that, and some of the members are not content to be in the fold.
Local 325 represents more than 1,200 musicians, including 600 who play jazz all or part of the time, 250 classical players and 350 who specialize in dance and popular music for private parties or business functions. Rock and country musicians have virtually no interest in belonging.
Among its members, the union enjoys its primary support from the San Diego Symphony or San Diego Opera musicians, for whom the union acts as a bargaining agent.
But classical players aside, the union is having a tough time showing it does enough for its members.
“From a jazz musician’s point of view, in all the years I’ve been in the union, I’ve never had them call me and say they have a gig for me,” jazz guitarist and current member Peter Sprague said. “There are few enough gigs anyway; people are always hounding the clubs just to get an audition. Maybe they’ll call for a bar mitzvah or something, but a lot of jazz musicians don’t want to do those gigs.”
Joe Pallazola, president of Local 325 of the American Federation of Musicians, said San Diego’s club scene is very different now from what it was when the union was at its peak.
“Up until 1970, maybe even 1973 or 1974, there were many more clubs using jazz musicians, like what you see down at Croce’s,” he said. “Some of these places had trios or quartets playing jazz-style dance music. That was also an era when a lot of country players joined. I’d say at one time we probably had 300 to 400. Now, I don’t think we have more than 20.”
Since then, the club scene has shifted to favor rock, pop and Top 40 music, while jazz and country have faded, Pallazola said.
In classical music, at least, there is money to be bargained for. The same isn’t true in jazz, and many jazz players don’t believe the union offers them much.
Some have dropped out. Others continue to pay their $78 annual dues reluctantly, saying they must be in the union to play certain recording and club dates with union musicians.
But, Pallazola counters, there are other benefits.
True, Local 325’s credit union folded about 10 years ago, but union members can join another credit union through the union, he said. And union members get low rates on health insurance--less than $300 a month for a family policy.
“They say we don’t give medical insurance--if they pay $78 in dues a year and medical costs $3,600, how can the local give them insurance? They talk about a pension plan. When you have a pension plan in your local, musicians must charge above union scale, sometimes 5% or 6% (to pay for it). In some of the locals that have tried, musicians said, ‘Give me the $5, I want it in my pocket, not in a pension plan.’ ”
Pallazola, who has run the union for five years, attributes the organization’s decline to a variety of factors.
Musicians’ wages have not kept pace with inflation. Local jazz work is scarce and clubs sometimes pay below union wages, but some musicians would rather accept lower pay than join the union where they would face pressure not to play for less, Pallazola said.
Several jazz players concur with Sprague, saying that, with the limited amount of work available locally, one of the union’s primary jobs should be to beat the bushes to scare up more work, a task Pallazola concedes that the union hasn’t taken on. But that will change in January, he said, when Local 325 plans to open an in-house booking agency to help members get club dates and “casuals,” those weddings, parties and business functions.
Finally, Pallazola acknowledges that some musicians get annoyed when they are called in by the union to face charges of violating union bylaws. Penalties range from verbal warnings to fines.
Friction surfaced this spring when the union fined drummer Jim Plank and bassist Bob Magnusson $100 apiece after they played two weeklong jobs at Elario’s, the La Jolla jazz club, with saxophonist Daniel Jackson and pianist Harry Pickens, both non-union musicians. (The fines were suspended for a year, pending further conduct. Neither Plank nor Magnusson would comment for this article.)
Also this year, the union warned guitarist Sprague to report all of his jobs to the union. Members are supposed to file copies of contracts for all work; the union then collects “work dues” amounting to 3% of a union musician’s pay.
Many union members, including Sprague, often don’t file because they sometimes work for less than union wages, they work with non-union musicians (a violation of union by-laws) or they simply don’t want to give up any portion of their sometimes meager paychecks to a union they feel serves them poorly.
Pallazola, a saxophonist, works full time at the union but gets paid for only three days a week. He says he does this because he believes in the union.
“There is no one who doesn’t need the union,” he said, handing over a list of benefits.
These include low-cost medical, dental and instrument insurance; membership in the Central Credit Union; use of the union’s rehearsal hall; and a videotaping service, whereby members can get taped and have their tapes on file for anyone interested in hiring them.
But a primary purpose of unions has always been to improve a working man’s wages, and here, Local 325 can’t do much for jazz players.
The union classifies jazz clubs as “A,” “B” or “C.” Elario’s, which lures top national talent, is an “A.” Smaller clubs that book local players, such as Croce’s or the Horton Grand Hotel downtown, rate a “B.”
The minimum wage for a four-hour evening of work in a B club is $64, Pallazola said. Croce’s uses a mix of union and non-union musicians. They are paid $50 to $75 per night, according to owner Ingrid Croce.
Jazz saxophonist Joe Marillo said most local clubs pay at least $60 to $85 a night, but, according to Pallazola, many jazz players will work for as little as $30 or $40.
“They’d rather play for a low price than no price,” Pallazola said. “We try to guide them. As long as they persist in doing this, we’ll never get wages where they belong.”
Local 325 was started in 1903. Its current annual budget of about $240,000 comes from union dues and the work dues, the bulk of which are from symphony players.
Yearly expenses include a $40,000 cut to the national union, more than $85,000 for salaries to Pallazola and staffers, plus assorted monthly costs, including mortgage payments on the union’s drab, one-story headquarters on Morena Boulevard, across Interstate 5 from Mission Bay. The halls smell of cigarette smoke. On a table in the lobby, the only visible jazz publication is an issue of Downbeat magazine, from 1979.
Local 325 is not alone in its loss of membership, financial woes or the tensions that exist between musicians and the union.
The October edition of “Senza Sordino,” the official publication of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, noted the national AFM’s many problems and called for reform.
National AFM membership dropped from a peak of 308,830 in 1979 to 170,661 in 1990, the article said, adding that the organization teeters on financial insolvency, and fails to provide members with needed services.
Marillo was in the San Diego union for 12 years, but let his membership lapse three years ago. Why?
“It’s so many things. Keeping up with the rules and regulations--I just couldn’t keep up with them. A jazz musician sometimes has to play jobs that don’t pay union scale. There are certain rules, if you break them, you get fined.
“It’s not that they were overly taxing on me, but to stay within the confines of the union is very difficult. Many of the musicians I use are not in the union. Also, the union was going through a lot of changes financially, their credit union went under.
“They mean well, and they want to do good, but there should be more concern with booking the musicians. I would like to see the musicians union as an honest booking agency that books jobs for musicians. I don’t care about the dental plan or the medical plan.”
Marillo has no health insurance, and trusts his health to fate and to doctors and dentists who allow installment payments, he said.
At Elario’s, talent coordinator Rob Hagey hired non-union musicians Jackson and Pickens for two dates last spring, the dates got Plank and Magnusson fined $100 each.
But Hagey doesn’t rule out the possibility of hiring non-union musicians again.
“As a club talent buyer, I should be in the position of hiring musicians who make sense for the room,” Hagey said. “Harry (Pickens) makes sense for the room. I truly believe that, if I’m a fair player and a good businessman, I don’t need anyone to tell me who I can book. We pay good wages for the artists, whether they’re union or non-union. The only leverage the union has on me is that they’ll tell Magnusson or Plank not to work the club anymore if I use non-union musicians.”
“There are a lot of people in Southern California who like to union-bash,” said Rebecca Campbell, a violist with the San Diego Symphony who co-chairs the San Diego Symphony Orchestra Committee, which serves as the liaison between the musicians and Local 325.
Is the orchestra satisfied with its union representation?
“With regard to contract negotiations, I believe we are,” Campbell said. The orchestra is in the second year of a two-year contract that set the minimum orchestra wage at $700 a week.
As for rock musicians, only a handful belong to the union, primarily nationally known local bands such as the Beat Farmers and Ratt, now based in Los Angeles, who need to because of their recording work, Pallazola said.
“None of the rock bands are in the union,” said Doug Allen, leader of the Mar Dels, a popular nostalgia band. “I think mostly the union guys are the guys that grew up learning how to read music, the kind of guys you can call in for a gig. I don’t read a note of music, and the same is true for many rock bands.”
In terms of wages, the Mar Dels don’t need much help. They make $1,800 or more a night at clubs, including the Belly Up in Solana Beach, Allen said, and two or three times that much for performing at private parties.
“I don’t know exactly what the union has to offer,” Allen said, “but pretty much what anyone should hope to accomplish is to cut out as many middle men as possible.”