Hard times for studio musicians in LA

August 15, 2007

I went to a party for our good friend Steve, just back from 6 months away, doing special effects for an upcoming movie about John Adams (the president, not the composer). During the party, he kept a looping slide show in the living room of candid snapshots of various places they worked around the world. Beautiful scenery, costumes, buildings surrounded in green screen. A number of the crew was there at the party, so it was a largely a special effects group and other friends of Steve and Manuel. I was introduced to David who is married to a graphic designer, and earns his living writing music for TV. We hit it off and had an interesting chat about the LA scene for musicians.

“There are probably 200 musicians in LA that get all the work in film and television. Everyone else doesn’t work much. I have friends who are leaving LA, even some who are giving up music entirely. I know this violist who is a genius, just a brilliant performer and musician. Now he sells real estate in Oregon and doesn’t play. […] It’s so much cheaper to record outside of LA. That breaks my heart. I like to hire local musicians, but damn it is so expensive. Sometimes I’ll just hire a group of 5 to 7 musicians and record them over and over so it sounds big.”

I’ve heard from a lot of musicians in their 50s and 60s who are tired. Being a musician is a hard job. And you have to keep doing it your whole life. As a freelance musician, you’ve got to keep yourself out there, always getting more work. If you’re lucky, you get a lot of calls just because you are known to be good and dependable. Having a steady job in an orchestra or teaching privately or in a school, offers more security.

For someone who has never taught, and at age 60 decides they want to teach, getting work is tricky because they have no experience teaching. That apparent deficiency can disappear when a school or part of the country values that particular skill. For instance, a flute player who has played on many scoring sessions for films AND is a good teacher, could get a job in in another city over a traditional flutist because of the Hollywood experience. Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston University PhDs are a dime a dozen in Boston. That’s why it’s best to get out of town so your degree means something. LA musicians need to consider the same thing.

Big orchestral scores are expensive and somewhat rare in Hollywood these days, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Most of us combine acoustic instruments with electro-acoustic sounds. That means less musicians are needed in this big town. San Francisco has the same glut of too many musicians and not enough work to support them all.

Does this mean schools should cut back on the number of music majors we graduate? And there should be less departments and schools of music? I don’t think so. Nature overproduces itself, we might as well follow suit.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

ComposerBastard August 15, 2007 at 5:55 pm

nice post, roger. You are right on with Boston and I think moving out of LA for a lot of these folks is good advice. Plus, hopefully more affordable living and breathing space. The recording scene is sure dead in LA. Local union rates are just incredible. San Francisco recording? You got to be kidding…there is nothing here. London, Prague, maybe seattle and LV in state? I’m pushing for London – everything is easily packaged and the musicians are outstanding and professional, but exchange rates are horrible right now. So, I am shopping around

PK August 15, 2007 at 6:35 pm

This opens a terrible can of worms that has musicians of Los Angeles at each other’s throats. Film producers are laughing all the way to the bank. But I am a member of the “evil” RMA (Recording Musicians Association) who is being vilified in all this. As one who has supervised film score recordings in Vilnius and Prague as well as Los Angeles, I know that the reason the producers go elsewhere is because they can. I suppose these musicians are hoping to undercut the $10 per three-hour session we paid the orchestra in Lithuania? James Petrillo (cover of Time magazine famous head of the AFM) and the careers and lives of many musicians of the past sacrificed to get what scale is today, and it isn’t even what a first year MBA can make, and has gone up less then many other talents. Orchestral music was shrinking anyway, which mean the age old aspect of having to wait until the first call moved away, retired or died takes longer. The music schools have been poppin’ ’em out like muffins, so hey, supply and demand. The union is the musicians only friend in all this, and the musician who thinks otherwise is naive. The point is to join in and work from the inside if you don’t like what is going on. When was the last time one has been to a union meeting? Boston is just as expensive and mofo cold. Sheesh… sheesh…. (musicians) sheesh.
(but I am not opinionated 😉 )

Daniel Wolf August 16, 2007 at 1:35 am

“Does this mean schools should cut back on the number of music majors we graduate?”

No, this means that we have to stop thinking of the music major in a liberal arts environment as training for a narrowly defined professional music career.

The real degree inflation problem is at the graduate level, as far as I’m concerned. Despite the academic market situation, institutions continue to create advanced degree programs (and when is the last time that you heard of a PhD composition program shutting down?) Instead of meeting a real need for the students themselves in terms of academic or professional qualification, these programs appeared designed chiefly to provide tenured faculty with prestige, protegés (as well as partisans), and cheap labor for TAing and RAing.

It would be both very interesting and valuable if some administrator, somewhere, would really sit down and consider what the optimal combination of market realities, institutional needs, local scholarly/artistic resources and potential, AND an ethical treatment of grad students might look like.

ComposerBastard August 16, 2007 at 4:33 am

1) “First year MBA can make” You can’t make that comparison and it mean anything. A first year MBA has a better chance at finding work because tHere are simply more diverse markets that need their skills, those markets and jobs have a better chance at making profits, and simply there is more opportunity, more jobs for that skillset. How many feature films are made in LA each year? The old number I remember was something like 200? How many of those are going to be profitable? How many of those are willing to throw a large budget into post production music at the end of a long journey toward release? How many musicians are scrambling to get that one-off gig? Now ask the question…how many businesses are in the US? How many need MBA skills or at least want someone with that reassurance on a resume (usually they do for a manager position)? How many of those have risk factors a lot less than a high budget feature film?

Moreover, surprisingly MBA degrees are not as valuable as they used to be. But, business when they evaluate recruits use it as a filter when reviewing resumes.

2) “No, this means that we have to stop thinking of the music major in a liberal arts environment as training for a narrowly defined professional music career.” I really love that. However, I don’t think that market realities are as important as finding value in the education experience. I am sick tired of this world viewpoint that the university system is some giant trade school whose only value is getting a job after you leave. Education is a life experience that should be useful in a number of personal ways outside of this chea lowbar of get a job. I myself treasure my liberal arts education in music, and at the same time treasure that I don’t make my $$$ in music or music education. And I consider myself a composer. The artistic freedom turns into a major advantage plus I make much more $$$ than I would if I was gigging around LA…well, I guess I wouldn’t make much in LA heh…HA

PK August 16, 2007 at 9:56 am

“that I don’t make my $$$ in music or music education.”

I think Charley Ives (who hasn’t been seen in these parts for a while, except he seemed a bit of a blowhard while he was borrowing Roger’s… typing fingers) showed the sense of that model. But a lot of parents who save to send their offspring to higher education, do so in hopes of a brighter economic future for jr., so they put pressure on the schools.

And there seems to be a discrepency between the thought that the musical labor market of Los Angeles should be a full on, dog eat dog, Miltie Freedman market model, while the Ivory Towers should go on studying how many camels can dance on the head of a pin (intentional mix).

By the way, London, where I lived for several years and produced some hit records (and I was a member of the British MU for sixteen years) is more expensive to produce scores in (if you include travel costs for mucketymucks from Hollywood), but their contract does not include new use (soundtrack albums)or reuse(television, foreign markets, DVD) clauses. It often gives the high-ups on the film the chance to take significant others to Harrod’s on tax write offable shopping spree on whats left in the budget, all first class, while popping in every once in a while to Abbey Road or Air “yeaaaah, I like it…. do it again, but make it more yellow this time, okay sugar, the taxis waiting, now lets go to Portobello Rd.”

But.. I am NOT opinionated (I swear)

ComposerBastard August 16, 2007 at 4:22 pm

Harrods! Excellant idea! Eat your heart out you loser LA Musicians. I’m goin’ shopping!

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