July 6, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
Top Studio’s Workers Seek Union Contract
New York, NY – Avatar Studios at 441 West 53rd St. is not as legendary as Motown in Detroit or Sun in Memphis, but it certainly deserves an exalted place in the annals of American recording
. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Madonna’s Like a Virgin albums were both cut there when it was called the Power Station, as was Chic’s “Good Times,” the 1979 dance record that provided the music for the first hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight.” Since 1996, when it was sold to new management and renamed, its clients have ranged from the late R&B singer Aaliyah to cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Its projects in the last year or so have included the original-cast recording of Hamilton, an album of duets between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, and more than a dozen of the nominees for the 2016 Grammy awards.
That, says assistant engineer Thom Beemer, is why he deserves to get paid more than $9.50 an hour after more than four years on the job, and why he and nine other assistant engineers, production assistants, and maintenance technicians there voted last September to be represented by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.
“Our studio staff is one of the top three, maybe the best in the world,” says Beemer. “We’re also the lowest-paid in New York City.”
Assistant engineers, he explains, are the ones “actually on the sessions,” showing the freelance lead engineer around the studio, running the audio tape or the ProTools recording software, keeping track of the settings on the mixing console, and sometimes placing microphones—a crucial part of getting the sound right. At other studios in the city, they can make more than $20 an hour, Beemer says; at Avatar, the most any make is $10.50—less than the $12 they were getting in 2005. Production assistants, the “assistants to the assistants,” make barely above the $9 minimum wage, at most $9.25. Maintenance technicians, who take care of the tape machines, mixers, amplifiers, and the racks of signal-processing gear like compressors and equalizers, make around $15.
Beemer, 30, moved to New York from western Massachusetts to get into the recording business. “We could all function as freelance engineers in our own right, but we’re here to get really good,” he says of the Avatar staff. “There’s a New York way of working, a pro studio atmosphere that you only learn in a place like this.” But like musicians pushed to take no-pay gigs for “exposure,” “our passion for the work is being taken advantage of.”
Scheduling and job security are also issues. Beemer says he rarely works less than 50 hours a week, once worked 135 hours, and can’t schedule any kind of outside life because “I find out at 7 o’clock at night what I’m doing the next day.” While he knows sessions can often be called at the last minute, having more open scheduling would be “a very easy thing to do” that wouldn’t hurt the studio’s bottom line.
Workers can also be fired without warning or due process. One such firing, early in the summer of 2015, sparked the union campaign. “We pretty much organized ourselves,” says Beemer.
Avatar management has been negotiating with the union, but they have not yet reached a contract. “I think we’re close, but there’s definitely a lot of stalling happening,” says Beemer. “We hear a lot of the phrase ‘we’re not inclined to do that.’”
The studio’s owners, Kirk and Chieko Imamura, have hired the Ogletree Deakins law firm, one of the country’s top specialists in “union avoidance.” When the International Association of Machinists was trying to organize the Boeing plant in South Carolina in 2010, Gov. Nikki Haley picked an Ogletree lawyer to run the state’s labor department, saying, “We’re going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it. She's the right person.” Eric C. Stuart, the Ogletree attorney representing Avatar, writes a column on the firm’s Web site offering advice for “employers wishing to remain union-free.”
In a move unrelated to the union talks, the Imamuras announced last September that they were planning to sell the Avatar building, though they told the New York Times that they wanted to sell it to another recording studio and not a real-estate developer. The workers want their contract to include a successor agreement that would cover future buyers, according to Beemer.
“It’s important to us that the place survives,” he says. With one of its six rooms capable of holding a 60-piece orchestra, it’s one of the last studios in the city that can handle large ensembles, he adds, and coupled with the recent closing of the Hit Factory and Sony studios, its demise would be “a great loss” for the city’s music scene.
“New York City is a global capital of the music industry thanks in part to our incredible studios and recording industry,” Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi said in a statement to LaborPress. “These highly skilled and incredibly talented individuals help make Avatar Studios one of the best recording spaces in the country, and they should be paid and treated fairly. By doing so, the Avatar Studio owners will be ensuring that they remain competitive and can continue to attract premier talent. That’s good for the music community and good for business.”