I'm not sure whether the Portland branch of the Musicians' Union's biggest PR problem is that it is misunderstood by the young, independent musicians that many of us think of as the musical heart of this town, or that it is simply unknown to them. I myself spent years biking by the union's Northeast facility without realizing that it was, in fact, actually a musicians' union, and not a gilded-age themed McMenamins joint. Sure, there is a population of DIY purists for whom the concept of a union probably smacks too much of bureaucracy, business, and politics, but I suspect there are quite a few of you who would be interested to know what the union's all about, if only you knew it existed. Well, now you do, and your chance to learn about the union, share your opinions, ask questions, and have some face-to-face dialogue with fellow musicians is now, as the hard-working organizers of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 99 are holding a town hall and open house at 1 pm on Saturday, August 18 at the union hall, located at 325 NE 20th. The discussion will be open, but some issues already on the docket are health care for musicians and local radio airplay for local artists.
In contrast to its low profile in the indie-and-beyond communities, AFM Local 99 plays a significant role in the more pedigreed music subcultures, counting around 675 dues-paying members, including musicians from the Oregon Symphony and Portland Opera Orchestra, many jazz players, and music-makers in the film, television, and jingle industries. This may seem like a motley crew, but the diversity of the union can be a strength, as illustrated by the fact that it was the symphonic players who came to the aid of young rock musicians and led Local 99's successful campaign against a 2003 Oregon law that banned underage musicians from performing in alcohol-serving venues.
Local 99 President Bruce Fife explained, "Our key global goal is to empower musicians to take an active role in creating positive change in the places that they work. We have a lot of musicians (mostly indie, right now) coming to Portland because it has a positive vibe. In the '80s, it was the jazz players that were coming here. It's all very strangely cyclical. What that does, though, is create an environment where there is so much competition for slots and performances that it's primed for abuse. It's no surprise that pay to play started in LA where everyone was moving to 'make it.' We are experiencing that same type of phenomenon here. At some point, and maybe we're getting there, it is not healthy for the art."