Residuals can make up 75% of a musician's movie score paycheque — but not on streaming

For the past several months, studio musicians and their union have been campaigning for residual income on projects made specifically for streaming services.

New tentative agreement with U.S. studios doesn't budge on streaming payouts

Members of the American Federation of Musicians staged a rally in New York this past fall, calling for improved compensation for musicians working on film and TV productions. (Joanna Maurer/AFM)

Professional violinist Joanna Maurer recently played on the film scores of both the comic book-inspired drama Joker and the holiday comedy Noelle. She did the same work, for equally prominent companies.

But the New York-based musician says she'll earn 75 per cent less for Noelle simply because it was released on Disney Plus, the new video-streaming service that launched on Nov. 14 and has already garnered more than 10 million subscribers.

For the past several months, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) has held rallies — including outside of the home of a Disney executive — and posted on social media under the hashtag #BandTogether as part of its campaign to fight for residual income on films made for streaming services. The campaign was launched ahead of the union's negotiations for a new agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

"We deserve to be paid fairly for this, because the quality of what we're providing is worth having wages plus residuals," said Maurer.

Last week, the two parties came to a tentative agreement, which has yet to be ratified. But the agreement does not include streaming residuals

Residual income is paid out to performers on a film or TV show once it moves beyond initial release; when a TV show enters reruns, for example, or a movie is released to cable or DVD. The amount fluctuates, depending on a work's popularity.

While film score musicians have historically received residuals on traditional projects, that isn't translating to scores created for straight-to-streaming work.

The AMPTP negotiates agreements with unions on behalf of more than 350 movie and television producers, including Paramount, Sony, Universal, Disney and Warner Bros. — all of which receive tax breaks, said Alex Tindal Wiesendanger, a lead organizer with AFM.

"If we provide tax incentives for companies to support good American jobs … shouldn't they make sure that those good jobs also extend to musicians?" he asked.

Residual income is paid out to performers on a film or TV show once it moves beyond initial release. While score musicians have historically received residuals on traditional projects, that isn't translating over to scores created for straight-to-streaming work. (American Federation of Musicians)

A key revenue stream

Musicians receive a base wage, but residuals generally account for 50 to 75 per cent of a musician's overall compensation for performing on a score.

Actors, writers and directors, even singers, all currently receive residuals on streaming projects.

Maurer notes score musicians and the AFM aren't upset with their creative partners; they'd just like to be considered on a similar level, as fellow creatives.

"They're incredibly supportive of musicians," she said. "We have really high-profile directors in the room sometimes, who are just, like, coming up to us and shaking our hands and they feel so privileged to be in the room watching us perform."

That recording room can also be on either side of the border. Both U.S. and Canadian musicians fall under the same agreement when performing on film scores for companies represented by the AMPTP.

Take Juno-winning Canadian musician Ed Henderson, who performed on the score of the Disney animated comedy Ratatouille. Though the session he recorded took place in Vancouver, it fell under the agreement between the AFM and AMPTP. And since the 2007 film was initially released to theatres, he still receives some residuals each year.

Had the movie been released straight to streaming, through Disney's new service, he would receive none.

"If you work really hard, and you're lucky and successful, and you're good at what you do, then you can make a decent living," said Henderson, a guitarist and composer.

"But when you start chipping away at those other revenue streams, it becomes more likely that you're gonna have to be a barista in your spare time."

Currently, Henderson says there is also no residuals agreement for streaming in place between the Canadian Federation of Musicians and the Canadian Media Producers Association.

Some movement on streaming

The AFM did make some gains during its recent bargaining. Minimum rates were set for musicians' work on direct-to-streaming films — a step toward earning streaming residuals. Additionally, members of orchestras will now receive on-screen credits for motion pictures and long-form or feature-length streaming programs.

Following news of the tentative two-year agreement, Lara Wickes, a Los Angeles-based oboist who earns most of her income from playing on movie scores, said "I think we're all just recovering." 

But given the growing popularity of streaming services, musicians aren't likely to end their campaign. 

"The plan is to keep going," said Wickes. "We'll have more time, and try to get more people involved, and maybe have some better opportunities come along ... [find] ways that we can get our needs noticed."

Beyond the rallies, the AFM is also using the hashtag #BandTogether in its campaign for residual income. (American Federation of Musicians)

Wickes's career relies on her working relationships with composers, many of who are now writing scores for theatre films, as well as to streaming services. She said she feels she can't say no to all streaming projects, because it might strain her relationships with those composers and affect future opportunities.

And when her compensation is reduced due to lack of residuals, Wickes said she supplements her income with other work, such as teaching. But more work on the side means she's less available to play on film scores, especially on short notice.

"I have two small children. This is partly how I pay my mortgage," said Wickes. "I really built my life around this, but I'm way too young to retire."


Marina Eckersley is a journalist and music administrator. She is currently a fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto.


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