Broken guitar song hits high note with musicians

The song United Breaks Guitars, by Halifax band Sons of Maxwell, is focussing attention on an issue musicians have faced for years; whether their instruments will have to be checked when they fly and whether they will arrive in one piece.

Airline protest song makes Halifax songwriter 'a hero' to travelling bands

Dave Carroll, whose song about United Airlines damaging his guitar has become an internet sensation, is a hero to Canadian musicians' association AFM Canada.

His humorous video, United Breaks Guitars, which shows airline baggage employees playing catch with his guitar, is highlighting an issue the Canadian branch of the American Federation of Musicians has been battling for years.

"He accomplished with his one song more than all the lawyers and lobbyists and union officials in North America for the past eight years," Bill Skolnik, vice-president of the organization representing 17,000 Canadian musicians, said Friday.

Carroll, the songwriter for Halifax band Sons of Maxwell, wrote a song about seeing the band's guitars deliberately damaged by baggage handlers outside the plane window, an incident that led to his $3,500 Taylor guitar being broken.

After trying for nine months to get compensation from United Airlines and being turned down flat, he vowed to write three songs about the experience.

The video of the first song went online Monday, and has had more than 1.3 million hits as of Friday.

That got the attention of United Airlines and every airline in North America, Skolnik told CBC News.

"To us, Dave is a hero. The working life of every musician is going to be better because of his music," Skolnik said.

"It's not money, it's care. That's really what his video's about. I mean, treat our instruments the way you treat your planes," he added.

Whether airlines will transport musical instruments, and how they handle them, has been an issue for AFM Canada since 2001, Skolnik said.

He estimates AFM Canada handles two cases a year of serious damage to musical instruments — including the National Ballet orchestra cellist who had his instrument smashed on a major tour.

"Every instrument is unique in how it sounds or how it feels," he said. "Musicians need the security of having their precious things with them."

The problem for musicians is that they never know whether they will be able to take their instruments into the cabin until they actually get on the plane.

Rules for instruments vary

The rules seem to vary, not only by airline, but by who happens to be working that day. There is potential to be stopped at the check-in counter, when going through security, at the gate and even when stepping onto the plane, Skolnik said.

Some airlines allow musicians to buy a seat for their cello or guitar, some say only smaller instruments are allowed on board.

Some airlines have lists of what is allowed — a story making the rounds a few years ago told of a mandolin player who swore to airline staff that his instrument was a clarinet so he could take it into the cabin.

Air Canada has a special area to check equipment such as golf clubs, skis and other sports equipment that requires special handling. That service has been extended to include instruments, he said, adding that musicians are willing to pay extra if it means their equipment is handled carefully.

But that's no solution as baggage handlers still mistreat the instrument, Skolnik said.

Restrictions have been loosened since 9/11, he acknowledged. The U.S. Transportation Safety Association issued a letter in 2005 which said that "it is not such a big terrible thing to put an instrument on board an airplane," Skolnik said.

Every AFM Canada member is issued a copy of this letter, but it bears no weight with airlines, who follow their own policies when it comes to instruments.

Skolnik says AFM Canada has been lobbying the airlines regularly about the difficulties musicians face, but nothing has had the impact of United Breaks Guitars.

"It's a great song and great musicianship. We have a tradition of satire in this country," he said.

Carroll has been fielding interview requests from media around the world over the song. He's written a second song about the incident and is planning a video performance. The third song is also on the way.