LABORING TO COMPETE – Jesse Harlin (December 2006)

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How a new stance on music outsourcing could affect game audio 

GAMES HAVE BEEN CHASING AFTER FILM since the 1990s in terms of production values, budgets, and audience. For game composers, this has meant shaking off the shackles of chip-set MIDI and stepping onto the recording stage. However, the arrival of live recording to game music introduced a question that film composers have been wrestling with for years: Should they use unions?

The answer has almost exclusively been “no,” due to budgetary restraints and a union interactive media contract that doesn’t keep pace with the evolving technology of our industry. In practice, this has resulted in the choice between hiring non-union musicians, paying union musicians under the table, or turning to alternative musical enclaves for larger orchestral sessions. By far the most successful of these alternatives has been found in Seattle.
Most professional musicians in the United States belong to the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), and it’s the AFM’s contracts that have dictated the terms for film and television music usage for decades. Seattle musicians, however, are part of the separate International Guild of Symphony, Opera, & Ballet Musicians and work from a different standard of contracts. Their no- fuss “buy-out” payment policies (one- time payment with no royalties or reuse fees) have made Seattle the new go-to location for a vast portion of scoring sessions. In addition to Seattle, recent improvements in telephony and data transfer technologies have made outsourcing orchestral recording to European non-union orchestras a viable option for budget-conscious composers.


For years, AFM has watched unhappily as more and more professional recording dates slip from the union into the non- union column. Despite their displeasure, there was little movement from AFM in terms of a resolution. All that changed this past July.

After watching a century’s worth of protections for professional musicians slowly erode, AFM president Thomas F. Lee issued a press release that officially took a bold stand on Seattle’s alternative scene, so to speak. According to Lee’s statement, as of October 1, 2006 the union now holds all members involved in non-union Seattle recording sessions to be in violation of AFM bylaws, which state:

“No AFM member may perform services (whether as composer, arranger, copyist, proofreader, instrumentalist, leader, contractor, cutter, editor, or in any other capacity): (1) where the product of the services is intended to result in, or be embodied in, recorded music made outside of the United Sates and Canada and the possessions of either; or (2) for the purpose of producing, editing, or dubbing recorded music except where expressly authorized and covered by a contract with the AFM or when expressly authorized by the AFM.”


Additionally, Lee clarified that—as stated in the AFM bylaws—any member found to violate the code “shall be subject to a fine not exceeding $50,000 and/or expulsion.” The full the press release can be found at: These rules aren’t new and have been part of the union bylaws for some time. What is new is the aggressive drive AFM is making to enforce its existing policies. As for the means of enforcement, the AFM is counting on its smaller local chapters to report members that are in violation and file official charges against them.

While the new hard-line stance is clearly aimed at stemming the tide of film work headed toward Seattle, there’s nothing in Lee’s statement that exempts game or television work. As such, any members of the union who find themselves involved in game production should be aware of the potential for fines.

Although the AFM doesn’t cover the craft of composition, many composers join in ancillary roles, such as orchestrators, conductors, or instrumentalists to take advantage of union benefits. In addition,AFM members such as orchestrators or copyists often have little—if any—say over whether their work goes to Seattle. It remains to be seen if there will be any leniency when it comes to the filing of official charges. As it stands, there are no distinctions made in the AFM’s policy based upon role or level of involvement, and any union member involved in any capacity with a game project headed for Seattle should be cautious.


For composers looking to avoid the issue all together, it should be no surprise that in addition to non-AFM instrumentalists, Seattle also contains non-AFM conductors, copyists, and music preparation houses. As would be expected, the quality of their work is top- notch and pricing comparable to that of AFM contractors.

Furthermore, orchestras in the Eastern European cities of Prague and Bratislava are now servicing media projects. These non-union options cost roughly 50 percent less than recording in the U.S. However, the level of musicianship does not match that of their domestic counterparts.

It remains to be seen what the AFM’s new policy of directly targeting its members will do to the issue of orchestral outsourcing. What is clear is that the AFM is tired of sitting idly by while globalization spreads to the scoring stage.