Between November 23 and November 27, 1936, blues icon Robert Johnson recorded the bulk of his sum total of work at an impromptu session in a rented room in San Antonio's Gunter Hotel. Last month, the hotel, now part of the Sheraton chain, unveiled a plaque of Johnson in the lobby to memorialize the recordings that fairly define the cliched word seminal.
What isn't remembered as fondly as the music is the raw deal that the musicians got in those pre-unionized days. Major labels, in Johnson's case ARC, were free to pay as much -- or, more accurately, as little -- as they saw fit for studio time. Most artists, and Johnson was almost certainly no exception, were simply grateful that a big record company had taken notice of them, and that their songs could be exposed to a wider audience through the miracle of sound recording. Whatever pittance the label coughed up was more than enough to unlettered folk like Johnson, who was paid at most $15 per song and given no royalties. "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" indeed.
Slowly but surely the major labels, in the face of flak from the American Federation of Musicians, mended their ways. While some smaller, non-unionized labels continue these practices right up to the present day, the big boys in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, as signatories to the Phonograph Record Labor Agreement (PRLA), pay what is known as scale. Musicians in the studio can now expect roughly $100 an hour in wages, with another $10 or so hourly going toward emergency health care, Social Security, pension benefits, and, should the song become a hit, "special payments" for five years. Musicians Union research shows that an in-demand session player in a union town like Nashville can retire in his 50s with a tidy pension of some $35,000 a year.
Not so in the Tejano music world. According to both the AFM and the major label brass, a Tejano session usually runs like this: The record company advances a star, say, $50,000 and tells him to make an album. That's where their responsibility ends, the record companies claim. From that money, the star pays the producer roughly half to arrange the studio time and pay the musicians. What's left of that $25,000 the producer pockets. Musicians being in greater supply than quality studios, it's always the players who came up with a pocketful of lint. Most are paid $50 per song no matter how long it takes to wax a tune.
What irks the AFM in the Tejano recording capital of San Antonio is that the majors, through the creative use of subsidiaries, are side-stepping the union agreement that they honor everywhere else in the country. "I can tell you my own horror story," said Ruben Ramos, the legendary "El Gato Negro" of, most recently, Los Super Seven fame. "We started recording for CBS/Sony (Latin), and we never got paid any kind of rate. Of course, maybe we were just too dumb to know or request it. I put that blame on our own, you know. The labels aren't gonna tell you that stuff. We should always find out how we're gonna get paid. At the time, we were just in awe of being on a big label."
Ramos hopes that the STAR (Support Tejano Advancement in Recording) campaign, launched by San Antonio musician's union member Mike Muñiz with full support of the national AFM, several prominent Catholic clergymen and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, will help younger musicians avoid many of the reptilian practices he endured. According to Muñiz, Sony Discos and EMI/Latin, (which together produce the majority of Tejano and Latin music in America) are the worst offenders, with BMG US Latin and Universal Latina cited for their fair dealing. Muñiz helped spearhead the campaign back in 1992, when Tejano was riding high.
"What triggered STAR was back in 1992 when EMI was very hot here in San Antonio. A lot of Tejano musicians were doing commercials for beer companies, companies that traditionally would honor our contracts. What would happen was that these companies would send checks to our office, and we would call the musicians in and say, 'Well look, you did this commercial. Here's your payment for it. This is your pension. This is what you need to do for your reuse (in the so-called new media of TV and movies) money.'
"And then we would hear about their record problems (with Sony Discos and EMI/Latin). That was what triggered it." Muñiz cites Selena and Emilio as particularly grievous examples of disparity in pay. Musicians would be paid scale for English versions of the same songs they were paid frijoles for in their Spanish versions.
Yes, Texas is a right-to-work state, but so is Tennessee, and no one has ever called Nashville's union weak. Some Tejano musicians didn't even know there was such a thing as union scale until they began flying into Nashville to back country musicians. Why didn't they get the same treatment recording for a subsidiary of the same labels back home in San Antonio?
Representatives of EMI/Latin and Sony Discos failed to return the Press's phone calls, though they did set out their side of the story to the San Antonio Current in 1999. Sony Discos Vice President and General Manager Jose Rosario told regular Press contributor Rob Patterson that it was a "non-issue, at least from our standpoint." Rosario went on to say that since Sony Discos dealt with artists, and not the musicians backing them, their hands were clean. EMI/Latin Vice President and CFO Dave Palacio told the Current that he thought the STAR campaign was merely a dressed-up union membership drive, and added that "the Latin music business, and specifically Tejano music, is significantly different -- certainly in the way we do it -- from the way that traditional, for lack of a better term, Anglo business is done."
By which he perhaps meant, "We get to keep more of the money."
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And maybe it is just a union drive, but so what? Tejano music raked in an estimated $70 million in 1995. Surely there's enough to pay the people who made that music a living wage.
In the absence of legal recourse, the union plays a vital role smoothing out the rougher edges of the laissez-faire Tejano world. First, it can educate musicians. Like Ramos says, most of the big boys aren't going to say, "Okay, take your pick between $110 an hour and $50 a song." They're just going to pass off their way of doing business as "standard practice."
As Nashville AFM head Harold Bradley said, musicians will flock to where scale is paid. In a recent speech, Bradley recalled that Nashville's success as a recording center was fostered in large part by the local studios' adherence to union practices. Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Memphis, weak union towns both, were eclipsed by Nashville in the 1950s and have never fulfilled their once-burgeoning promise. San Antonio has a golden opportunity to become a Hispanic Nashville, but only if it plays fair will this come to pass.
Robert Johnson probably thought he had no need for a union when he recorded those classics back in the Gunter Hotel. But you're not young forever, nor sometimes for very long, as in Johnson's case. No one, least of all a musician, has possession of his or her judgment day, and those union pensions might one day come in handy.Racket