Don't Go It Alone.

Become a Member

125 Years: Musicians Staying Stronger Together

The purpose of the American Federation of Musicians is the same today as it was at its founding: to elevate, protect, and advance the interests of all musicians who receive pay for their musical service.


The first convention, the one on which the American Federation of Musicians was founded, was held October 1896 at the Hotel English in Indianapolis, Indiana. A group of delegates had broken away from the National League of Musicians (NLM) in order to form a more egalitarian organization, inclusive to all musicians.

Seeking to give meaning to the phrase, “In unity there is strength,” the first standing resolution of the AFM was: “That any musician who receives pay for his musical services, shall be considered a professional musician.”

There were 3,000 members when Owen Miller became the first AFM president in 1896.


The following year, the union became “international” when the Montreal Musicians Protective Union and Toronto Orchestral Association joined. By 1899 the AFM had grown to 91 locals, representing 9,563 musicians. The AFM officially became the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada in 1900.

“At last the musicians of America and Canada have an organization which bodes well in the future to comprise in its fold all musicians of this continent,” declared AFM President Joseph Weber at the 1902 AFM Convention.

Early accomplishments of the union included setting the first scales for orchestras traveling with comic operas, musical comedies, and grand opera. Among the pressing issues was competition from both foreign musicians and off-duty military musicians.

A 1903 resolution was passed against foreign bands taking work from domestic bands. It was followed by a 1905 letter from the AFM petitioning President Theodore Roosevelt to protect American musicians by limiting the importation of musicians from outside Canada and the US.

A 1908 Appropriations Bill banned Army and Navy musicians (exempting Marines) from competing with civilians. Then in 1916, Congress passed a law prohibiting all armed service members from competing with civilians.

From its very beginning, the AFM established itself as a compassionate organization supporting musicians in need, as well as its labor brothers and sisters. In 1906 the 10-year-old organization, which by then had 45,000 members, made a donation of $1,000 to earthquake victims in San Francisco.

“It is a good omen to note that the sense of brotherhood has developed in our Federation to such a marked degree that practical results, and not only cheap sentiment, are offered to brothers in need,” said Weber.

From helping the widows and orphans of musicians killed on the Titanic to organizing musical benefits to aid tsunami and hurricane victims, the AFM has always been committed to helping its brother and sister workers worldwide.


In 1918, two important legislative measures—Prohibition and the 20% Cabaret tax to support the war effort—negatively impacted scores of musicians. Prohibition ended after 13 years, but the Cabaret Tax took its toll on the music industry for many years to come.

One of the AFM’s primary missions has always been to not just ensure musicians are paid for the work they perform, but that their creations are protected and not exploited for use by others. As technologies change, the AFM has had to adapt with new priorities and agreements.

The US Copyright Act of 1909 created the first compulsory mechanical license stipulating royalty payments be paid by the user of a composer’s work. Unfortunately, the law left out the professional musicians who bring a composer’s ideas to life.

In the 1920s, new technologies challenged live music for the first time. The advent of recording and radio forever changed the landscape of musician employment. At AFM Conventions the union decried the use of canned music and forbid orchestra leaders from “advertising” their orchestras free of charge on radio.

About 22,000 theater musicians lost their jobs when “talkies” entered the scene in 1927. Weber admitted there was no value in fighting it. “Nothing will destroy the usefulness of an organization surer than to set its face against progress, no matter how unfavorable we may at present [see the] same to our interests,” he said.

The AFM founded the Music Defense League in 1930 to gain public support against canned music in movie theaters.

The AFM set higher scales for the recording work than for live work, negotiating the first industry-wide agreements in the labor movement. While musicians flocked to Los Angeles hoping for high-paying recording work, fewer than 200 new jobs were created by the technology.

To help musicians find fair pay and union jobs, the AFM created a booking agent licensing policy in 1936, and in 1938, developed a similar program for licensing record companies.

While national scales were set for live musicians working on fledgling radio networks, some stations had already begun using recordings. The 1937 AFM Convention mandated Weber to fight against the use of recorded music on radio. He called a meeting with representatives of radio, transcription, and record companies, threatening to halt all recording work nationwide. After 14 weeks the stations agreed to spend an additional $2 million to employ staff musicians, but the Department of Justice later ruled the agreement illegal.


Legendary labor leader James Petrillo took the helm of the AFM in 1940. He took a stronger stance, challenging technological unemployment by calling two strikes on the record companies in 1942 and 1947. Residual media payments began in 1944 when Petrillo created a system where industry contributed royalties from record sales into a fund to employ musicians for admission-free, live, public performances. Today the fund is called the Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF).

When the MPTF began disbursal in 1947, it became the largest single employer of live musicians in the world. In 1948, a second recording ban secured its existence. Later, in the 1950s, the MPTF was reapportioned to form the AFM Pension Fund and the Sound Recording Special Payment Fund.


Not everyone agreed with Petrillo’s tactics. While his 1955 negotiations led to increased payments into the funds, the lack of a scale increase angered some full-time recording musicians.

Musicians were promised a voice at the next round of meetings in 1958, but talks broke down and a strike was called. When calls for Petrillo to reopen negotiations were rejected, a group of disgruntled Los Angeles musicians formed a dual union, the Musicians Guild of America.

In 1946, Congress passed the Lea Act, also known as “the anti-Petrillo Act,” which made it a criminal offense for a union to use coercion to win observance of its rules by radio stations. Collective bargaining with broadcasters over hiring standby musicians and paying for rebroadcasts of live performances became illegal. As a result, live broadcasts on radio were almost completely eliminated.

When Petrillo retired, Herman Kenin took over as AFM President. In 1958-1959, rank-and-file committees of recording musicians sat at the table while Kenin negotiated favorable agreements with the recording, television, and jingle industries. The Musicians Guild of America was defeated in a 1960 representation election and the AFM regained bargaining rights for motion picture studios.


During the 1960s the AFM organized its political lobbying efforts, creating the TEMPO political action committee. Among the hot issues of the day were government funding for music programs and repealing the 20% Cabaret Tax.

The AFM also sought to lend its voice to national labor issues such as the fight against “right to work” laws. In 1951, lobbying efforts against the Cabaret Tax paid off when nonprofit organizations, including symphony orchestras, were exempted. In 1957 Congress reduced the tax to 10%, resulting in a $9 million rise in nightclub bookings by 1960. In 1966 the tax was finally repealed.


In 1955 the AFM formally asked Congress to subsidize the arts industry. The Federation cited its concern for preserving America’s cultural heritage and protecting the country’s less commercially viable styles—jazz, folk, and symphonic music.

The effort paid off in 1965 when President Johnson signed the Arts and Humanities Foundations bill, creating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At the 1966 AFM Convention, the initial $2 million in NEA appropriation was announced. Much of the subsequent growth in professional symphony orchestras in the US was a direct result of the NEA. Keeping the NEA strong has continued to be a focus of the Federation. In 2015, the NEA budget was $146 million.

“Government arts funding is critical to the ongoing financial and artistic well-being of American professional musicians,” says AFM President Ray Hair. “For nearly 50 years NEA funding has enriched our communities, supported our jobs, and helped achieve cultural balance within virtually every congressional district.”

In Canada, the parliament used the death duties of two Canadian millionaire estates to establish the Canada Council for the Arts in 1957. According to one International Musician article, in just three years, it was responsible for “creating an aura of musical achievement such as the country has never witnessed.”

In 2014-2015 the Council allocated $155.1 million to the arts in Canada.

By 1960, tape recorders were making sound and video recordings easier and cheaper on a global scale. In 1961, the AFM participated in the Rome Convention to develop an international treaty extending copyright protection—a performance right. In the end, due to pressure from US broadcasters, the US government declined to sign the treaty.

Currently, only the US, China, and North Korea have not signed on. Therefore, US musicians and record companies receive no performance royalties from terrestrial AM/FM radio. Hope is on the horizon with the Fair Play Fair Pay Act of 2015.


With all of the major symphony orchestras unionized by 1945, musicians began a push for more direct input into their agreements. A group of musicians founded the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) in 1962 in order to motivate the AFM to change how locals represented symphony musicians.

Those changes came in the late 1960s when a Federation bylaw urged locals to establish musician-elected orchestra committee liaisons. The AFM symphony department (today’s Symphonic Services Division) was established. (But it wasn’t until 1983 that a bylaw required orchestra collective bargaining agreements be ratified by members.)

ICSOM was granted official conference status in 1969. Two other conferences were later established to give voice to specific sectors of orchestra musicians. In 1975, the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM) gave voice to Canadian professional orchestra musicians, while the Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA) players conference (1984) represents smaller regional orchestras.

Today, there are also two nonsymphonic player conferences: the Recording Musicians Association (RMA) and the Theater Musicians Association (TMA). A 1989 AFM bylaw gave voice to all players conferences at the AFM Convention.

In more recent years some orchestra managements have tried to challenge the validity of orchestra collective bargaining agreements by claiming orchestra players are independent contractors, rather than employees. Courts have continued to rule in the union’s favor, most recently with the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, which is now in negotiations for its first collective bargaining agreement.


The 1970s was a time for the AFM to re-examine its mission and sustainability. AFM President Hal C. Davis was determined to build on the AFM’s first 75 years of success, and his focus turned to funding. The 1970 Convention created a financial committee, and following the committee’s suggestion, annual per capita dues were increased from $6 to $8.

As the reality of different union laws in the US and Canada became clearer, a full-time Toronto Federation office opened in 1979. To serve Canadian members better, it had its own full-time vice president from Canada and an international contracts department.

As new AFM President Victor W. Fuentealba ushered in the 1980s, a wave of anti-union sentiment spread across the US. The decade began with a five-and-a-half-month strike against the motion picture and theatrical TV film producers and a seven-week lockout of the Metropolitan Orchestra. The AFM lost representation rights and union control in the club field and was forced to take concessions in allocations to the MPTF during recording industry negotiations.

For the first time, finances threatened the union’s ability to effectively represent musicians. At the 1980 AFM Convention, Fuentealba compared AFM finances to a critically ill patient. The convention adopted work dues based on scale wages from all types of employment, with half going to the Federation’s treasury.

As the AFM returned to its core focus—organizing, negotiating, and employment—new emphasis was placed on educating members and nonmembers about union membership benefits. Recruitment drives launched in 1985 included public service announcements from prominent members: Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Huey Lewis, and Wynton Marsalis.


As union employment dwindled, the AFM had to rethink its agreements to fit the changing music industry. Among initial targeted growth areas were small and medium-sized orchestras; touring musical theater productions; music-rich resort areas; nonunion recording; and Latin and jazz musicians.

In the 1990s, the progressive new Low Budget Film and Low Budget Phono agreements increased opportunities for musicians to work under union conditions. Brand new contracts covered growing multimedia technologies like CD-ROM, CD-I, and the Internet.

The 1991 Convention saw sweeping changes in finance and organization. The AFM launched a program to develop and maintain programs for casual and club-date musicians. In 1995, AFM president Steve Young established the AFM Organizing and Education Department to further union representation.

Throughout the 1990s technological advances continued to reduce the costs of music production and distribution. Once a tightly controlled industry monopolized by a few large companies, music production became affordable to the average musician.


The US Digital Performance Rights Act of 1995 granted performance rights to sound recording copyright owners, featured artists, and background session musicians when their recordings were transmitted digitally. Terrestrial analog radio broadcasters were exempt.

In Canada, the Copyright Act of Canada, implemented in 1997, created for performers the right to receive royalties from the broadcast, public performance, or private copying of sound recordings. Canadian musicians receive royalties from both terrestrial broadcasters and digital service providers. The collective rights organization, Musicians Neighbouring Rights Royalties (MNRR), distributes the 10% Canadian nonfeatured royalty to performers.

In the new millennium, Broadway musicians were threatened by new technology—virtual orchestras. In March 2003 musicians in major Broadway theaters walked out for four days in protest of the number of musicians required in the pits.

Not all new technologies posed a threat, however. The rapid growth in video games opened up a new stream of income for Federation musicians, and the AFM quickly drew up agreements to cover this work.


Radio continued to be a formidable foe. In June 2002 the AFM, along with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the Future of Music Coalition, and the Recording Academy, delivered a statement to the Federal Communications Commission and Congress decrying radio practices and calling for more noncommercial radio space.

“Deregulation has enabled stations to flood the airwaves with the same few ‘hit’ songs that are well-funded and heavily marketed,” AFM President Tom Lee reported to a 2003 Senate Committee hearing on ownership in the radio industry. “What gets left off is everything else—music that is varied, innovative, independent, less well-funded, or local.”

Following an investigation by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Sony BMG Music Entertainment admitted in 2005 that employees lavished bribes on radio stations and their employees to play its music on the air.


The AFM & SAG-AFTRA Fund was created to administer and distribute the 5% statutory noninteractive digital performance royalties. SoundExchange was established in 2000 as a division of the Recording Association of America (RIAA) to collect and distribute shares of noninteractive digital performance royalties to featured artists and copyright holders.

Since 2001, Sound-Exchange had distributed 45% of statutory license fees directly to artists, not the artists’ labels. SoundExchange is now controlled by a governing board composed equally of artists and record company executives. The agreement was a milestone in the AFM’s efforts to ensure that artists are rewarded when their work is used in new mediums.

New technologies, particularly in recording and reproduction, continued to present challenges along with opportunities to the livelihoods of musicians.

Though music piracy first became subject to criminal prosecution in 1972, the problem only worsened in subsequent decades as Internet-based music sharing technologies grew.

In September 2003 the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed its first lawsuits against those illegally distributing copyrighted music on peer-to-peer networks. The following year, another 1,063 lawsuits were filed.

As the Internet became commercialized, social media sites became a preferred platform for content. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed by Congress to protect copyright owners and performers from Internet piracy. The AFM joined the Music United for Strong Internet Copyright (MUSIC) Coalition in an aggressive anti-piracy education campaign.

Sales of legally downloaded songs shot up more than tenfold in 2004, with 200 million tracks purchased online in the US and Europe. Digital music downloads were included in the US singles chart for the first time in 2005.

“The future of the Federation depends in part on its ability to bargain progressive and meaningful media agreements against a burgeoning background of web-based, user-generated content that has blurred the lines between broadcasting and other media across all elements of consumption,” says Hair.

In a landmark 2005 case against the file sharing site Grokster, the US Supreme Court ruled that developers of software violate federal copyright law when they provide computer users with the means to share unauthorized movie and music files over the Internet.


In recent years, the AFM has gone to great lengths to build a more diverse membership and greater unity in terms of gender, race, and musical style.

In the late 1990s the AFM launched its Support Tejano Advancements in Recording (STAR) campaign, which brought to light inequities faced by Latin musicians in the recording industry. By September 2001, AFM activists convinced the top Latin recording companies to sign onto industry-wide recording contracts ensuring fair wages and benefits for their musicians.

To formalize its push for diversity, the AFM Diversity Council was established in 2002. A subcommittee on youth was formed in 2003.

The union took action against record companies that kept musicians tied to their contracts for extended periods of time. As the music industry evolved over the last century, more musicians work as freelance artists, rather than traditional employees. In order to serve this segment of musicians more efficiently, the AFM created the position of Freelance Musicians Services Coordinator in 2004.


Music helped the world to heal following the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks. On September 11, 2002, at 8:46 a.m. in their local time zones, more than 125 orchestras, choirs, and arts groups worldwide played Mozart’s Requiem Mass in remembrance of the terrorist attacks. The “rolling” Requiem continued for 24 hours.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks resulted in stricter travel policies. Not only were there greater delays in Canadian members seeking to enter the US for performance, but also difficulties for musicians traveling with their instruments.

Even before 9/11, musicians were plagued by disparate airline policies regarding the transport of instruments. After years of lobbying, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill (H.R. 658) was passed in 2013. It mandated uniform musical instrument policies and procedures for US airlines. Following three more years of negotiations and lobbying, details of the Department of Transportation rules for carriage of musical instruments were finally announced.

Canadian musicians wanting to accept gigs across the border face difficult visa challenges. When the US launched its $1,000 Premium Process visa service in 2001, the turnaround time for ordinary visas for members grew to more than 120 days, and Canadian musicians lost gigs. In 2004, the AFM announced an aggressive campaign to get the USCIS to revise its visa policies to make it easier for Canadian members to work in the US.

Complicating musician travel even further, new government actions to strengthen trade controls for species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) were instituted in 2012. The AFM immediately went to work lobbying for musicians who are innocent owners of instruments containing those materials and risk having their valuable work tools confiscated at the border.


Today, employers operate in the global marketplace, where they offshore work to avoid fair pay and residual payments. One concern has been film productions that receive US tax breaks, yet send their film scoring work overseas to avoid paying musicians fair wages. Legislation to close loopholes is in the works.

While technologies have evolved beyond what anyone thought was possible and working musicians must compete in a globalized music industry, the mission of the AFM—to make sure musicians are paid fair wages for the work they produce—has remained the same.

“The tensions that exist in today’s media negotiations are inherently the same as those at the dawn of the industry,” concludes AFM President Ray Hair.