An S.O.S for MPTF, Part I

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The Music Performance Fund – an innocent bystander in the AFM/RMA conflict?

Judging by the volume (and source locations) of recent traffic on the “Clash of the Titans” post, there is much interest in the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and Recording Musicians Association (RMA) conflict.

Ed Shamgochian has blogged that the “nuclear option” (the AFM powers de-certifying the RMA) has been put aside for the time being, but in the meantime other long-standing issues remain.

One of these is an area that I am very familiar with.

bruce hembd hornWhile listening to National Public Radio recently, a sponsor of one of the segments caught my attention – the Music Performance Fund (MPF). That name brought back nostalgic memories of the hundreds of school and public outreach programs I had done in years past.

The programs ranged from standard brass and woodwind quintet fare to more elaborate and collaborative presentations with other groups: a puppeteer, an African drummer, a Native American dance troupe and a traditional Mexican folk ensemble, among others.

Many of these gigs were funded through a combination of MPF funds and matching grants. We called them “green sheet gigs” after the green colored forms that needed our signatures after each performance.

When I heard the National Public Radio sponsor credit, I was confused … wasn’t the name of the organization the Music Performance Trust Fund?

What happened to the trust?

In the journey to find an answer I discovered more than I bargained for. According to some sources, the MPF is in danger of collapse.

Beyond its basic funding problems there may be another, more fundamental issue affecting the MPF. Because it is the by-product of the colorful and controversial AFM President James Petrillo and his so-called “war” against the recording industry, it may be yet another element in the current conflict between the AFM and the RMA.

Background

The Music Performance Fund (MPF) came about over 50 years ago from confrontations between the AFM and the recording industry (known as “Petrillo’s War“) over concerns that recorded music was replacing live music. In 1948 the recording companies compromised and agreed to contribute a small percentage from the sale of sound recordings to a newly created non-profit fund. This royalty fund was dedicated to supporting live music, free of admission to the public.

According to a June 2008 L.A. Times article, the Fund…

…gets 0.2% of what consumers spend on records, tapes and compact discs – up to a maximum payment of about 2.2 cents per disc. The labels can exclude about 30,000 copies of each release before having to pay the charitable tariff…

It is administered by a Trustee, who is independent of both the recording industry and the AFM.

  • In its heyday, the MPF was the largest supporter of free public concerts and was the single largest employer of musicians in the country.
  • At its peak in the 1980’s, it received more than $20 million dollars from the recording industry.

I was fortunate to have been one of the many musicians who benefited from the Fund. In fact, for about 10 years of my music career a substantial portion of my income came from MPF-funded jobs. For this I am very thankful.

In the process thousands of school children, senior citizens, and public concert attendees were exposed to a hybrid genre of music and education (we called it “info-tainment”) that they might not have otherwise experienced.

Some days I truly felt like a musical ambassador, giving children and adults their first taste of live, classical music. With several of the chamber groups I played in, some of these people even became regular attendees and supporters of our non-MPF concerts and events.

The Digital Age

A major shortfall of the Fund agreement is that does not account for digital downloads, which now comprise the vast majority of music purchased by today’s consumers. Back in 2004, the Fund recognized this shift and took on a new direction.

From a 2004 press release:

…the Fund has been hit hard by rampant music piracy and by the huge popularity of legitimate digital downloading, which is not yet covered by the industry-union agreement that created and finances it.

…revenues from recording-industry sources fell from $7.9 million to $5.4 million between 2002 and 2003. Funds available for this year’s programs [2004] are down by nearly 40 percent.


…in Part II:

In this digital age it appears that many working musicians are desperate to hang onto whatever they can, even at the expense of long term investments beneficial to larger causes. In the process I am afraid that we may be shooting ourselves in the foot.

University of Horn Matters