On Wednesday night, a worker-run Twitter account broke the silence on a roughly two and a half year-long organizing effort to unionize music supervisors nationwide.
Declaring that music supervisors — the creatives who select the music and/or facilitate the creation of music that appears in films and TV shows and negotiate for its use — were attempting to form a union, the account @MusicNeedsSupes said, “We’re one of the few in Film and TV that don’t get workers rights under our craft.” The account exhorted users to “stand with our community” after the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which bargains on behalf of major streamers and studios with labor groups, had “refused our ask to grant equal rights.”
The tweet referred to a communication from the AMPTP earlier on Wednesday, declining to voluntarily recognize the group, according to major entertainment crew union IATSE, which is backing the music supervisors. That move may result in an upcoming union representation election at the National Labor Relations Board. (The worker group is hoping that the AMPTP will change course and bargain with them, but will file for an election if not; The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to the AMPTP for comment.)
Now, IATSE is claiming that 75 percent of an estimated 500 music supervisors actively working across the U.S. have signed union authorization cards. The same week that they revealed their union effort, music supervisors who support the effort spoke to THR about how they got to this point, and why they feel unionizing is a necessary step. “We’re just asking for fairness and that we want to be treated the same as everyone else we work with in production,” says music supervisor Michelle Silverman, who has worked on titles like Aquaman and Mayans M.C.
While music supervisors have been discussing the union option for years, the pandemic kicked the IATSE organizing campaign into gear. In the spring of 2020, many in the field realized they were ineligible for unemployment payments, as the majority of those in the craft are independent contractors and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which sought to provide unemployment to independent contractors and self-employed workers, began accepting applications in California in late April 2020. (Mixed-income earners, who receive both W-2 and 1099 income, were initially disqualified from PUA and received low unemployment assistance until Congress passed a relief package in Dec. 2020.) Moreover, the lack of union-provided healthcare benefits for music supervisors set off alarm bells as COVID began spreading stateside. “Panic set in,” says music supervisor Madonna Wade-Reed (Batwoman, Reign). “The biggest catalyst was like, oh my gosh, people are going to lose their homes, people are going to get sick and they have no insurance. Enough is enough.”
A group of music supervisors approached IATSE, which they believed would be a good fit in part because the union represents music editors, who work closely with music supervisors, through its Local 700 Motion Picture Editors Guild. In the interest of unionizing music supervisors nationwide, the organizers then set about attempting to identify as many people actively working in the role as they could find. “It was a massive months[-long] effort, between research, reaching out to our fellow community, having these conversations, asking what was important to them, and then once we identified that list, of course, getting all the [union authorization] cards signed,” says music supervisor Jennifer Smith (Why Women Kill, Behind the Music).
The organizers say that they’re hoping a union could address multiple concerns. Wade-Reed says she wants more regulation of work hours and the establishment of set pay rates that reflect how much time a music supervisor is actually working, while Smith adds that final payments — generally delivered after a project is finished and airs — can, under the current system, come many months after consumers see the title and at unexpected times. The group wants a union pension and healthcare, contractually-provided overtime, union holidays, protections for rest periods and a union to contact if they have workplace concerns.
Music supervisor Manish Raval (Willow, This Is Us), who additionally works as a union music editor, says he’s baffled by the difference in oversight between his two roles. “As a music editor, I submit my time card on a Friday and I have a check in my hand the next Thursday. It’s automatic,” he says. “When you’re a music supervisor and you’ve finished a project and your money is due, you have to wait sometimes a month, two months. I just recently received a check for something that was six months after I had completed the project… Which is just further infuriating when you realize that it’s simply because it’s not enforced and we’re not protected.”
Supporters of the union say that their craft is growing, in part because of the explosion of film and TV content arising from the streaming wars, and a union could lower the barrier to entry for those hoping to break into the field. “Who can afford to do this craft?” asks Smith. Raval adds that recent press coverage of music supervisors’ work — stories reporting on the massive surge in streams for Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” thanks to a cameo in Stranger Things season four, or the glowing coverage of Euphoria‘s soundtrack during its second season and how it dovetails with the creative vision for the show — is a testament to “how important what we do is.”
“People think we’re song pickers — no,” says Wade-Reed. “We get original music written, we get it recorded, we oversee it when we’re on set.” She adds, “And the more we do and involved we are really spurs on the importance that we should have equity with everybody else that we’re working shoulder to shoulder with.”
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.