It may surprise some readers to know that the Society of Composers & Lyricists is not the first group of musicians and wordsmiths to organize for the collective good of its membership. In fact, the SCL has two major predecessors one of which was actually a union that, for more than a decade, set minimum financial terms and governed working conditions for composers and lyricists.
The first such group of “cleffers” (as Variety put it in those days) was the Screen Composers Association. Formed in 1945 as an offshoot of the American Society of Music Arrangers, the SCA boasted among its membership virtually every great composer of the Golden Age of motion pictures, including Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind), Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Alfred Newman (Wuthering Heights), Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane), Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard), David Raksin (Laura), Hugo Friedhofer (The Best Years of Our Lives), Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire), Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon) and Victor Young (Shane).
“Our goal was to be able to bargain for comp osers and arrangers, ” says composer Herschel Burke Gilbert (The Rifleman), who helped found SCA and later served as its president. Concerned that ASCAP paid little or no attention to music written for films, SCA eventually forced the performing rights society to accept composers of “background” music, a key decision that has affected the lives and fortunes of thousands of composers since.
As composer / archivist Warren Sherk points out in his introduction to the SCA Collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Library: “SCA not only convinced ASCAP of the importance of dramatic underscore in film and television but also lobbied for, and received, larger royalty payments from ASCAP.”
David Raksin, chairman of SCA’s agenda committee, championed the cause of a guild among conservative and initially reluctant SCA officials; the dream wouldn’t become a reality until a few years later. At a landmark meeting held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on December 4, 1953, more than 150 composers voted unanimously to create a Composers Guild of America and pledged nearly $3,000 towards its startup costs.
The opening paragraph of a five-page paper declaring the need for a composers’ guild—drafted in November 1953 and read at the meeting—could just as easily have been written today: “Composers are the only creative group in the radio, television, motion picture, recording and other entertainment fields without the protection and guidance of a guild. All other creative groups in these fields, without exception, enjoy the right of collective bargaining in their relations with employers. This standing separately, rather than together as a guild, is one of the primary reasons why fees for composition (as separate from orchestration or arranging) have practically disappeared in radio. Further, the practice of no fee for composition is being carried into television in a frightening percentage of cases. This is only one of many abuses common in these fields, and the composer without an organization to back him up can only accept the situation.”
Leith Stevens, composer of such films as The Wild One and Destination Moon, was elected first president of the Composers Guild of America, with Walter Schumann (Dragnet) as vice president. A New York contingent was also organized with the famed orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, composer and writer Deems Taylor and songwriter Arthur Schwartz chairing the group.
The first general membership meeting occurred May 21,1954. The following year, the organization added lyricists and became the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, and in August 1955 the National Labor Relations Board certified the group as the recognized bargaining agent in negotiating with the studios.
The CLGA acted quickly to open negotiations with the major studios. By January 1956, with more than 360 members—nearly every working composer and lyricist in Hollywood and New York—CLGA proposed payment for film scoring on a per-minute basis and payments for songs on a per-tune basis. Although the Association of Motion Picture Producers (representing the major studios) recognized the guild, it would take four years and a strike threat before both sides could ratify a “minimum basic agreement” for composers and lyricists.
Members approved that first agreement in October 1960. Two more would be ratified, in 1965 and 1967. The CLGA was added to the industry’s health-and-welfare and pension plans, and in late 1962, Raksin succeeded Stevens as president of the group.
The minimum basic agreement, like those of the Writers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America contracts, specified minimum wages and outlined essential working conditions. In addition to rates of compensation (for films, hour TV shows, half-hour TV shows, 90-minute movies of the week, etc.), the document covered issues including screen credit, preparation of cue sheets, “speculative composition” (writing music “on spec” was forbidden), performing rights matters, soundtrack releases and more.
The CLGA became, like the Writers Guild, Directors Guild and other industry unions, a recognized and powerful entity. Orchestration and conducting had been covered by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) contracts for Years, but now the composers had a governmentally sanctioned voice as well. Collective bargaining was just one part of the overall CLGA agenda. Public recognition of their work (as hardwon then as now) was also deemed significant.
The CLGA sponsored one of the most glorious nights in the history of film music—the “Music from Hollywood” program at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25, 1963 which celebrated the 10th anniversary of the guild and was attended by an estimated 10,000 fans. Conducting their own music that night was an amazing group of composers: David Raksin, Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Alex North, Miklos Rozsa, Dimitri Tiomkin, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini, John Green and Nelson Riddle. Andy Williams and Mahalia Jackson sang classic film songs, and Jack Benny (with his violin) provided comic musical relief.
As the Herald-Examiner critic reported the next day: “Hollywood film composers asserted themselves in the Hollywood Bowl last night, and they made a persuasive and sometimes impressive case for themselves. No composers have ever been so widely heard as these cinema men, and no composers have been, by and large, so narrowly recognized.” (Most of that concert has been released on a Columbia/Legacy CD: “Music from Hollywood,” CK 66691.)
Respect from the public is one thing, but respect at the bargaining table is often something else. Bernstein succeeded Raksin as CLGA president in 1970, and during the summer of 1971 a negotiating committee consisting of some of the finest composers and lyricists in the business (among them Alan Bergman, Jerry Fielding, Norman Gimbel, Jerry Goldsmith, Dave Grusin, Arthur Hamilton, Quincy Jones, Leonard Rosenman, Lalo Schifrin, Henry Mancini, David Raksin and Elmer Bernstein) drew up a series of proposals for consideration by the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), representing the studios.
First on the list was a proposal that composers and lyricists retain publishing rights to their music and lyrics. Producers refused even to discuss the issue.For decades, producers and/or studios had owned all publishing rights—that is, ownership and control of the music. The rare exceptions were legendary songwriters like Irving Berlin or composers with strong songwriting track records such as Mancini or Tiomkin (and then only occasionally, as in Mancini’s co-ownership of The Pink Panther music and Tiomkin’s full ownership of the Rawhide theme). CLGA members went on strike Nov. 30,1971. In full-page trade ads taken out in December, the guild explained its position: Producers’ ownership of the copyrights bars composers and lyricists from taking advantage of the full commercial possibilities. “We feel there is value in the broader exploitation of music,” the CLGA declared. “We ask the right to avail ourselves of this potential which we can do without infringing on the producers’ rights to the music in his picture and its promotion.
“Between total copyright ownership and no ownership there are 100 negotiable percentage points. We have repeatedly stated that we are 100 percent negotiable on all aspects except total withdrawal of the issue. In light of the present state of the industry, we strongly feel that we are being both fair and realistic.”
By mid-January 1972, members were fed up with the stone-walling and authorized famed New York labor lawyer Theodore W. Kheel to proceed with an antitrust action against the status On February 7,1972, 71 composers and lyriccists filed a $300-million class-action lawsuit against Universal, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros., Columbia, Walt Disney, United Artists, CBS, ABC, NBC, the AMPTP and other film-related conglomerates. The guild itself was not a party to the suit, although Bernstein’s name was first on the otherwise alphabetical list of plaintiffs.
The suit charged the studios with conspiracy in restraint of trade” by refusing to hire any composer or lyricist who fails to agree to their terms: complete ownership of the music and lyrics, granting publishing rights to the producer and/or his publisher (thereby relinquishing 50 percent of performance fees from overseas exhibition) and surrendering all rights to exploit the music outside of the film or TV show.
“Thousands of musical compositions remain idle, unused and unexploited in the files of the defendants,” the 27-page brief pointed out. With an estimated loss to the composers of $100 million, the triple-damages rule in federal district courts enabled them to ask for $300 million in damages.
This was an act that would forever alter the course of composers and lyricists working in the film and television industry. The lead story in the next day’s issues of Variety and Hollywood Reporter, it also made news across America. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the AP wire ensured that John Q. Public would read about (if not fully understand) the case. At the very least, it appeared that six dozen note-scribbling Davids were standing up to a handful of powerful, monolithic Goliaths.
Bernstein, at the time, said the suit “has stirred our conscience as artists who believe in the on-going value of our work and further that its life outside the film media rightfully and morally belongs to the composer and to the public.”
In September 1972, CBS settled with the composers and lyricists, agreeing to give Bernstein the copyright on a “Gunsmoke” score and use that contract as a model for future composer deals. NBC settled on a similar basis in 1976. The number of writers joining in the suit ballooned to more than 130. A federal district court judge dismissed the suit in 1974, but the New York Court of Appeals overturned that decision in 1975, directing that the case go to trial.
It never happened. As Bernstein wrote in 1976: “The reaction of the studios to the filing of the suit appears to be one of delay, hoping that the composers will not be able to support their complaint either spiritually or economically over a long period of time.” While there was little wavering on the spiritual front, it did cost the composers and lyricists a fortune. About half of the plaintiffs paid the mounting legal bills out of their own pockets, often $5,000 at a time, and signed notes guaranteeing another $100,000 in loans. By one estimate, the composers spent more than $250,000 battling the producers as the case dragged on.
Wrote Bernstein: “It has been a long, sometimes discouraging, sometimes rewarding but always expensive struggle. Creative people do not primarily live in a world of capital gains, oil depletion allowances and the many tax dodges, shelters and shenanigans of big business.An artist has only the talent andthe product that the talent produces.. We feel that it is not much to ask that the creative artist have a reasonable voice in the destiny of the work.”
Composer James DiPasquale (who would later serve as CLGA vice president) explains what happened: “There would be a little victory for the studios, and then some interrogatories or a big hearing somewhere, and then a little victory for the composers and lyricists.” Adds Raksin: “They outlasted us. It cost [the studios], maybe, a million and a half bucks. But we realized that in order to continue, we would have to raise another $300,000 and we couldn’t. So we had to give up.”
On April 9, 1979, the federal district court approved a settlement between the two sides that ended the case. The agreement conferred some rights—limited, at best—to composers and lyricists who had worked for the studios prior to October 1973. Lyricist Arthur Hamilton, later SCL president, recalls: “Cosmetically, it looked good, because in it was the potential of recapture of some of the copyrights.” But the 38-page settlement was legally complex, the windows of opportunity were limited, and those few composers and lyricists who took advantage of these rights found that a substantial portion of their potential earnings still belonged to the original producers of the film or TV project.
With the settlement, the CLGA attempted to once again negotiate a contract. “The studios laughed at us for about six months,” says DiPasquale. They had fought this group for seven years and, taking full advantage of the situation, simply ignored the CLGA. “It just whimpered and died,” says Hamilton. “We were no longer the beneficiaries of health and welfare benefits; we had no working relationship with them as employer and employee; it placed us completely out on the street. They had no responsibility to us other than to hire us when they chose to.”
A new group, including DiPasquale and later SCL president Bruce Broughton, took the reins and attempted to revitalize the CLGA. They published a newsletter (“Quarter Notes”), sponsored fundraising events (notably a I OK run in October 1981 that raised $2,000 for the National Endowmentfor the Arts) and staged a grand dinner honoring Steven Spielberg (“for fostering a continuing standard of excellence in the use of music for film”). But, says DiPasquale, “the finances started catching up to us.” By June 1982, the CLGA was dead.
Reflects Raksin: “The CLGA was important because for the first time, all of the composers banded together to present a united front to the producers. We showed them that we had power. We spoke with a single voice, and these people [the studios] actually bargained with us. We got some very good things. It was the most important organization that we have ever had, and it’s a shame it’s gone.”
Yet, as the new decade progressed, composers and lyricists began to express concern about the growth of cable, the increasing popularity of videocassettes and the potentially large new revenue streams that would soon be flowing to the producers. Because a handful of lyricists were also Writers Guild members, discussions began about a possible affiliation.
Well-known music attorney David Braun joined the cause pro bono, and in April 1983, he and a group of composers and lyricists (including Elmer Bernstein, David Raksin, James DiPasquale, Arthur Hamilton, ex-CLGA president John Cacavas and others) appeared before the WGA board of directors to petition for membership. WGA—recognizing the Reagan administration’s hostility toward unions, and wary of jeopardizing its own certification—chose instead to help the remnants of the CLGA reorganize into a new group which in turn would petition the federal National Labor Relations Board for certification as an independent union.
That group was the Society of Composers and Lyricists, born during the summer of 1983.
On February 14, 1984, the SCL formally met for the first time, with 310 composers and lyricists—including such luminaries as Henry Mancini, John Williams, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Jerry Goldsmith and Quincy Jones—at the Writers Guild theater. James DiPasquale was the “organizing chairman,” effectively the first president of the group.
The NLRB held hearings in October 1984. Nineteen individuals from both sides (composers / lyricists and studios) testified over seven days, and, “by any cursory reading” of the 1,400 pages of testimony, DiPasquale says, “the studios proved our case.” But the decision of the NLRB, handed down in December 1984, was that composers and lyricists were independent contractors, not employees, and therefore not entitled to union status. The SCL appealed, but that too was lost in early 1985.
Such is the bias of the National Labor Relations Board,” says Raksin, “that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, they refused to certify us as an employee organization. Studios are able to, and choose to, talk out of both sides of their mouths. When they want to control our rights, then we’re employees; when they want to make sure we can’t band together, they call us independent contractors. The NLRB accepted this false reasoning.
The NLRB decision was later criticized as simplistic and an inappropriate application of the law (“Labor Law: Are Creative Artists Independent Contractors or Employees?”, Loyola Entertainment Law journal, 1986). Speaking before the SCL in July 1985, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) denounced the decision, reported that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) joined him in supporting the composers’ and lyricists’ cause, and urged the SCL to try again under a different administration.
What is patently unfair even to the most casual observer is the fact that the AMPTP negotiates regularly with every other group of creative artists in the community: the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, even the AFM (which, fortunately, still bargains on behalf of musicians, orchestrators, conductors and copyists).
Twenty years after the lawsuit, Elmer Bernstein found conditions no better: “Composers are being abused in the workplace in terms of work procedures, and are certainly being abused economically. There’s no question that, in terms of the budgets of the pictures, and what [artists and craftspeople] are making in other professions, the composers are very disadvantaged.”
In November 1993, the SCL again began to explore unionization. Thenpresident Richard Bellis found that refiling with the NLRB would be expensive ($150,000 or more) and discussed the possibility of affiliating with existing unions, such as the musicians’ union or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), and “hope for voluntary recognition by the producers at the table,” in Bellis’ words. In a 1995 vote, SCL members split three ways on the issue: Some favored the AFM, some IATSE, some no union at all.
The climate may be changing. Says current SCL president Mark Watters: “The function of the SCL now is a bit different than when it was first formed in 1983. After the union issue was decided at least for the time being—the organization became one of a central meeting point, a place for disseminating information about various aspects of our craft and our business. There is a need for this, simply because of the way we work; we are pretty solitary, we work alone and don’t really have an occasion to interact with each other. The SCL provides that meeting point, whether it be social occasions, seminars, workshops or various other activities.
Is the issue of unionization a closed book? It definitely is not. We are in the process of reopening that subject and deciding what the future holds.”
In the meantime, the SCL forges ahead in its non-union role of education, support and mutual benefit. Its status today is the outgrowth of more than half a century of efforts by composer and songwriter activists to build a community united not only by talent but by a genuine concern for each other.