Latin Music's Dirty Little Secret

Latin grooves are making millions for record labels and artists, but Tejano session musicians say the entertainment industry is bilking them of their share of the profits by circumventing labor protections afforded Anglo musicians.

| Tue Feb. 6, 2001 1:00 AM PST

Percussionist Henry Brun, a veteran of the Tejano music scene, has played on records by some of the biggest names in field, from the Texas Tornados to Shelly Lares. He loves playing Tejano, a sophisticated, urban twist on the traditional conjunto music of the Tex/Mex region. But in the past year, the San Antonio-based musician has had to give up his long-time career Tejano recording career. His outspoken criticisms of what he calls sweatshop conditions in the Tejano recording industry, he says, have gotten him blacklisted by the big record labels.

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The current rage for Latin music may be making mega-stars like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez rich, but many of the Tejano musicians, like Brun, who record for such labels as Sony Discos and EMI Latin are having a tough time just paying the rent. The American Federation of Musicians has launched a campaign against the labels, alleging that they pay sweatshop wages to Tejano session musicians who record for them.

The Latin music sector is growing significantly faster than the rest of the music market. More than 20 million Latin CDs were sold in the first half of last year, bringing in almost $270 million dollars. But few of those greenbacks are trickling down to Tejano musicians.

Back in the 1930s, the AFM negotiated a collective bargaining agreement, the Phonograph Record Labor Agreement, with most recording companies. Under the industrywide agreement, a musician working a three-hour session is generally paid a minimum of $302, plus contributions for things such as pensions and health plans. In a right-to-work state such as Texas, a musician does not have to be a union member to reap the benefits of a union agreement.

So why are many Tejano recording musicians making as little as $50 per song, regardless of the length of the recording session, and receiving no benefits?

Because major labels often establish spin-off labels (also called subsidiaries or affiliates) to publish albums in subgenres such as country or Latin. Those subsidiaries are not necessarily bound, they claim, by the labor agreements made by their parent companies.

So while major labels such as Sony, EMI, and Warner Elektra Atlantic all honor the PRLA, their US-based Latin music affiliates -- such as Sony Discos (home to Ricky Martin) and EMI Latin (which has recorded Placido Domingo and José Feliciano), which combined account for 48 percent of the total Latin music market share -- do not.

Relationships between major labels and their subsidiaries differ widely -- from distribution-only partnerships to direct management of the sub-label by the parent company. Nearly all sub-labels adhere to the PRLA. But Latin subsidiaries don't, and insist they operate separately from their parent labels, and so are not beholden to the labor agreements the major labels have made.

It certainly serves a spin-off label's interests to take such a posture, since labor agreements like the PRLA drive up costs. But in many ways, the independent affiliates benefit from the close relationship they have with their parent companies in a way truly independent labels cannot. They have the advantage of the major labels' distribution networks, which offer access to the global market. This symbiotic relationship -- all the perks and none of the liabilities -- is known in the business as "double-breasting."

True, recording labels contract with main (or "royalty") artists, and not with session musicians. In practice, it is an album's producer or royalty artist, not the label, that selects the material, schedules studio time, and hires the session musicians.

But the money to do all of that ultimately comes from the label, regardless of who doles it out, say musicians and labor organizers. Dennis Dreith, former international president of the AFM's Recording Musicians Association notes that it's the labels who hire the artists and approve the budgets, marketing, and artwork for their projects.

"They've said that they are separate companies, that they are not part of Sony or part of the EMI family," says AFM organizer Mike Muñiz. "But we're saying, 'You are part of this organization. You've got to answer to somebody ultimately.' Sony is Sony, right?"

Dave Palacio, EMI Latin's executive vice president, and Jose Rosario, Sony Discos' former vice president and general manager, did not respond to requests for comment on the AFM's charges. Palacio did tell the San Antonio Current in 1999, "The Latin music business, and specifically Tejano music, is significantly different -- certainly in the way we do it -- from the way that traditional, for lack of a better term, Anglo business is done."

In the same article, Rosario maintained that, "It's a non-issue, at least from our standpoint. The record company does not pay the musicians. We have no employer relationship with the musicians; we have relationships with the artists. Mentioning Sony Discos or EMI Latin in the context of musicians is false and it's wrong."

Palacio also asserts that, because Tejano albums have lower budgets than pop or country albums, a different economic structure is called for. "That's a lie in this market," says guitarist Carl Joseph Leon. Since most of the gospel labels are PRLA signatories, he reasons, "if little gospel can pay it, medium-sized Tejano can pay it."

Part of the problem, according to both Leon and Brun, is the industry naiveté of many musicians. The record companies, says Brun, "are dealing with a totally naïve clientele. [This] is folk music played by folk people. You talk to the average musician and they don't even know what they're entitled to."

Says Leon, "We got a new drummer in the band, and when I told him about union payscale, and how much he was supposed to get, he couldn't believe it. It was like telling him a fairy tale."

Since 1992, Brun and Muñiz, among others, have been gathering data about what Brun calls "recording sweatshop operations." In 1997, the AFM established the STAR (Support Tejano Advancement in Recording) Campaign. Supporters of the campaign include musicians, religious and labor organizations, a roster of show-biz celebrities, such as Edward James Olmos, Robin Williams, Harry Belafonte, and Bonnie Raitt and, perhaps most importantly, members of the record-buying public. According to Brun, community and political organizations in San Antonio are entertaining the idea of a boycott, though no official one has been called yet.

While Brun sees this as a social-justice issue, musician and activist Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (grandson of Pete Seeger) sees it as a labor issue, too. "When you trim the fat away from the romanticism of music, then it becomes a job with all the requisite baggage of a job," he says, "Job security, health benefits, pension contributions, etc. All musicians, no matter what their cultural background or heritage or musical style, deserve equal treatment by their 'employers.' The issue is one of worker's rights, not of race or cultural heritage."

The campaign has been active in San Antonio, the hotbed of Tejano music, and has received support from Chicago Federation of Labor. (Chicago is the second largest Tejano music market.) Similar problems exist with salsa musicians in Miami and with other Latin session musicians in Los Angeles.

The issue has caught the attention of the US Congress. In May, the Hispanic Congressional Caucus sent a letter to Oscar Lord, president of Sony Discos and Jose Behar, president of EMI Latin, urging them to confront the issue. Behar suggested that EMI's legal counsel meet with the AFM's legal counsel. There has been no response from Lord. Neither executive returned our calls.

About 40 STAR organizers went into the San Antonio office of Sony Discos and handed a copy of the congressional caucus' letter to Rosario. Says Muñiz, "[We] went inside to speak to Mr. Rosario just to make sure that they knew this was there, that they couldn't say it got lost in the mail or something." Meanwhile, protestors outside waved a large banner with the words "Sony Discos = The Sweatshop of Tejano Music." Rosario's terse response to the STAR emissaries: "These things take time."

In September, the Hispanic Caucus recommended that Congress hold hearings on the issue.

"Our next step," says Paul Frank, former organizer with the AFM, "is to see if the companies are going to thumb their noses at the Caucus or if they're going to work with the Caucus and try to get to the bottom of this situation and treat these musicians like their [Anglo] counterparts."

Henry Brun continues to make a living in the music industry, recording jingles, playing what he calls "mainstream music." "I've put my life into [Tejano], but you can't think about the past. My family's got to eat," he says.

Educating younger musicians to be more industry wise is a priority for Brun. "It'll take massive amounts of time and effort, but it's well worth it," he says. "Maybe we can't do anything for our generation today, but I'll be damned if I can't do something for the generation of tomorrow. If we don't put a stop to it now, it's only going to get worse."

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