From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, you’re listening to Re:Work.
I’m Saba Waheed
And I’m Stefanie Ritoper
SW: What comes to your mind when you think of a musician? Is it a lead singer or the orchestra conductor? But what about the ensemble, the people whose names may not be in the headlines; yet, they are ones putting together the many components of the music. The people who dedicate their lives to a craft that may not even recognize them as individuals.
SR: For many of these musicians, their work is no different from any other profession.They dedicate hours and hours of their lives to practicing out of love for their craft. But is the love of music enough to justify the immense commitment of being a musician? Musicians are just like anyone else and they need to make a living, which can be difficult when the music industry has become more precarious. On this episode of ReWork radio, Neil Samples shares his story of being a professional violinist which leads him into the world of Hollywood and television.
SW: When Neil first saw the violin, he knew he wanted one. But then again, he was three years old.
N: My father brought home a violin one day for my, for a sister of mine, she’s exactly three years older than me. Well, being three years old and seeing this really cool toy being given to someone else, I was jealous, I wanted the cool toy. I wanna do that. Little did I know what I was getting into. But that’s how I started.
SW: Neil grew up in a household of musicians. His father was a dedicated trombone player, though he never achieved the level of recognition he desired. Neil’s mother was a professional pianist. Neil was the youngest of six children and each of them picked up an instrument.
Music was a serious practice in their household.
SR: Neil grew up in Amish Country, Pennsylvania, where his nearest neighbor was a quarter mile down the road.
N: saw very little of the world. You know, I think as children our lives are generally speaking very much controlled by our parents, but I grew up in a very rural environment, as I said I didn’t see a lot. After the fifth grade I was home schooled, which for that area and in that time was kind of like living on mars. That was extremely unusual. So really from, up until the time I went off to school I really didn’t have a lot of exposure, so, the view of the world that i got to see was, you know, a pretty controlled one.
SR: The older he got, the more Neil had to practice. Morning and night, before and after school, Neil practiced. No TV, no playing outside. And soon what had been three hours a day became five or six or even more. Neil began to question his father’s practices.
N: I started practicing more, with the mindset oh I’m gonna practice 5-6 hours a day, except then that I realized my attention was on the clock, not what I was actually doing and the experience was less fruitful than it could be and more frustrating than it should be, and I actually where I just took the damn clock off the wall so I couldn’t see it and my father would say, oh how much did you practice, and I’d say I don’t know, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter. An d I told him why, and, his response was well get to the point where you’re practicing five or six hours a day without paying any attention to, you know, I just, point clearly sailed over his head he’s not unusual in this regard, I went to school with hundreds of people like this, the focus was so intently on hours instead of achievement
SR: It wasn’t just that Neil felt pressured by his parents to be a violinist. Neil was raised in the family business of music, and music was his world. But it was difficult for Neil to determine what he actually wanted to do with his life. His father’s dream for him was so big that it hardly made room for Neil to form his own.
N: Well sometimes my dream was to break the damn thing across the bedpost. His dream was very clear, that I was going to be a great soloist of world renown with dozens of LPs to my name, traveling the world playing Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert and wherever else. That was unmistakably his dream. If I had a dream it was just to be good at the thing. Just wanted to be good at it, you know I didn’t, I don’t think I ever really wanted fame, fortune. I wanted to excel at it. And enjoy it.
SW: When he turned 18, Neil moved from Amish country to New York to study music. As a kid, he’d regularly commuted there for lessons, so he was no stranger to the big city. But this was the first time that he really took in the world around him.
N: //There were people everywhere. I had grown up in an environment where I never saw anybody, except once a week. Virtually no social contact of any kind, so getting out and seeing people and interacting with people and seeing what people were doing and just all the activity going down the street, more vehicles going down the street one block in five minutes in my entire lifetime up to that point.
SW: New York had more people, a bustling music scene, and was nothing like where he’d come from. But the demands of the violin never stopped.
N: It’s kind of like a typical day of a musician. You get up and you practice. You practice, you go to your music classes, you know your music history, music theory, whatever you for the most part as a student, I don’t think I was unusual in this regard I think we endured those. We did what we needed to do. // You spend most of your time practicing or rehearsing, or going up listening in the library.
SR: Once Neil graduated and got married, it was time to start looking for work. But trying to get work a musician in New York was not an easy task.
N: We were living in New York, not doing particularly well, I was a terrible freelancer, in as far as the networking, getting to know people, making contacts, I was god awful at it. So we were struggling, I actually had to learn how to type and go into temping, and as my wife did as well, she already knew how to type but she learned, we learned the word processing programs and we learned and went, we did that a lot, spent, I spent many days and nights working at one of the big accounting houses in their word processing department. And it wasn’t what I wanted to do, you know, it was different, it was interesting in its way, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
SR: At this point, he had neither his parents nor school forcing him to practice the violin. He could’ve left the field altogether if he wanted. But, after struggling through trying to find work in other areas, something shifted.
N: I came to appreciate what I could do. I came to appreciate being able to go to an orchestra rehearsal, play the concerts and play great symphonies and get paid for it, that certainly played a part of if, for the first time I think I was really able to appreciate for myself what I was doing, and it was for me and not for someone else.
SW: Neil and his wife Janelle moved out of New York to Kansas City where Neil hoped he could get work as a member of an orchestra. There, he tried out for several orchestras but couldn’t get past the final round of auditions.
He was forced to take a desk job for nearly two years before he found work in the Kansas City Symphony.
N: Making a living in music, boy that can be difficult. It’s a precarious, it’s a precarious occupation. A tenuous existence at times. It Instead of looking to what you want to accomplish, it’s how much time did you spend, and did you accomplish anything during that time is seemingly a secondary concern. until I got a job in Kansas City symphony and even then the pay there was, dreadful. When we first joined it was, it didn’t pay well at all. It was about, 6-7 years in that the pay got better. My wife was also in the orchestra so we had the dual income from that, even that being said it was still difficult. It was necessary to teach, in order to help pay the mortgage, put the food on the table, teach, play occasional weddings, that kind of thing.
SW: Neil wasn’t alone in his difficulties. It was hard for anyone in the orchestra to stay afloat purely with their symphony income. This was when Neil first started to get involved in his workplace to try and make a difference.
N: It was, my first taste of any organizing was back in Kansas City. I wasn’t, an, active participant, I mean, certainly not more than anyone else, no more no less than anyone else. But I came to realize that, it has to be done, the days of just showing up and playing and not being concerned, if they ever really existed, they’re gone now. You have to take an active role. This is your work, this is your livelihood. If you wanna see things improve you have to step forward, you can’t wait for the other guy, if we all sit around waiting for the other guy to step forward the funny thing is no one does. So, that’s how I started to get involved and of course I came here and well the work situation just isn’t what I want it to be, not for myself, not for my colleagues. I know lots of fine players who just are struggling, they’re just not working as much as they want or should be, and I wanna change that. We need to change that.
SW: After a year, Neil moved up to assistant concertmaster which means he was the third chair. He got to sit up front and play lots of solos. But meantime, Neil’s wife Janelle was starting to find that life as a musician wasn’t exactly what she wanted.
N: It was less fulfilling for Janelle, she was, she grew, it’s fair to say she grew tired of it and wanted something else. She got her MBA at the university of Michigan, quite an accomplishment to move from music into that area but she did it and she got a job out here, so out I came, next stop. It was a very difficult thing for me to do, I mean I loved my job and I loved Kansas City. I’m really proud of what we achieved there as an orchestra, as an organization and I’m very proud of that and I want LA to know that.
SR: Once they arrived in LA, Neil found that getting work in Kansas City was nothing compared to Los Angeles.
N: It was very difficult. I would spend hours, combing the web trying to find who I could contact where I could play, who would I contact with that group. And I knew no one in this business. It was a lot of out and out rejection, sending out resumes and letters and making calls and getting no response, not even sorry, I can’t use you. No response and it was immensely frustrating, really hard to deal with. It really did take a heavy psychological toll. You know, we do have a tendency to see ourselves in terms of what we do. We value, put of a value of our selves in relation to our work and when you can’t get any, well, that’s, that’s hard to deal with, hard to accept, and it’s hard not to let that take a substantial bite out of your own feelings of self worth.
N: And I was at the point where I was pretty much ready to return to Kansas City because I just had nothing. I didn’t seem to have any prospects for getting anything. And, I met someone in Pasadena who pointed me to and said call this person and I did, and they were actually nice enough to return my call, I nearly fell on the ground when they, when I answered on the phone and it was someone apologizing for not getting back to me sooner, and I just stared, and I literally stared at the phone wondering what planet this person was calling from. Julie Gigante I am in your debt. I don’t forget that. She pointed me to someone to play for, I did. Two, three days later the phone started ringing and I was working in the recording business.
SR: So that’s how Neil finally broke into the recording music industry in LA. But soon he realized that working as a musician for film and television was much different than working in the orchestra.
N: Things are done in pieces and put together. You’re part of a, you’re part of the movie making process. Whereas in the orchestra world you’re just playing the music, that’s it, the music is everything. This is part of the process, it’s a critical part of the process, trying to imagine some movies you’ve seen that didn’t have music. // And I will confess it took me a long time to grasp, understand, and appreciate that it’s a process and that I play a role in the process. I wanted to play, wanted to play like I had big lush symphonies where I would sit down and just let it out.
There are a lot of differences. The symphony is a more secure position. You have, once you have your tenure, you’re tenured. There is no tenure in the recording business. As a member of the symphony you receive your schedule a couple months before the beginning of the season. It’s there, it’s laid out for you, you know what you’re doing week to week.
You can be in one place, you can be in Sony one day, and Warners the next, and Fox the following and over the bridge in Glendale at night. You’re here, there, and everywhere. If you’re in the orchestra, you’re going down to the hall and you have your place and I was assistant concertmaster, I sat in the same place all the time. I knew where I was gonna be.
SR: At first moving around the city from studio to studio was exciting. But then, the work started to taper out, and it became difficult for Neil to make ends meet. Recording jobs seemed to be getting more and more scarce. And evidently he was not alone.
SW: According to many colleagues, Neil came to LA at a bad time. Work was starting to disappear quickly. It was becoming hard to find consistent work recording, especially jobs that paid well. So Neil started do his own research, and ask questions. Why were the jobs disappearing? And where were they going?
SW: He found out that many production comp anies were starting to cut corners. To production executives, the most important thing was the bottom line, and they were looking for ways to cut their costs. Cutting union musicians was one way to do this. For one thing, if you’re a musician that’s part of a union, you receive benefits that you wouldn’t if you weren’t in a union. You have health care benefits, a pension, and you also receive residuals. Residuals are a percentage of the income made from sales after the box office release, money made from DVDs and streaming. And these things all cost money.
N: As one of the guys, one of the VFX guys put it very well in an article I saw, everybody has a boss that wants them to save money. So within every studio, you have some guy who’s in charge of the music budget who answers to someone else who answers to someone else, it goes up the food chain.
But we as workers should, we deserve, good jobs and good wages, jobs that enable us to lead, pleasant, fulfilling lives that enable us to send our kids to good schools to plan for, stable, and secure retirements. People should have that. People is what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about numbers on pages. It seems to me anyway, that in our day and age, people have been removed from the equation, workers aren’t people anymore, they’re liabilities, they’re just numbers, they’re red numbers on that page. And it seems almost that some of these companies, it’s not that they resent having to pay us so much, it’s that they resent having to pay us at all.
SR: The other big trend in music production is to move work to where it’s the cheapest– overseas. Rather than pay musicians union wages, with health care and other benefits, production companies have started outsourcing work to other places where they can pay less. This used to be something that just small independent projects would do, a way to save money on a smaller budget. But recently large production companies with multi-million dollar budgets have been following suit, moving their music production to other countries to cut costs. Some of these companies have even moved parts of their production to states where they can receive subsidies– tax benefits created to keep film jobs local– only to later move their music production overseas.
But what’s the real cost of these companies cutting corners? And how can we quantify how important it is to have skilled musicians like Neil in the film industry?
N: It’s been said that no one goes to the movies just to hear the music, and that may well be true but I don’t know if people would go to the movies if there were no music in it
SW: So Neil started to get more involved in local organizations to see how he could reverse this trend. He got involved in the local chapter of the Recording Musicians Association (RMA) and eventually joined the board. Neil understood the importance of a union job.
One day, Neil received a call from Mark Sazer, president of the Recording Musicians Association , asking if he’d like to be involved in a new campaign. The American Federation of Musicians was developing the Listen Up! Campaign to stop the offshoring of film and television music scoring. To him it sounded exciting.
N: I’d rather do something, I’m not gonna sit here and play the victim, well okay there’s no work I’m gonna cry about it, I don’t like it, but we have to act in a meaningful way. We as musicians have to act, it’s incumbent upon us to do it. We have to get out there, not just as musicians but as workers, I mean we have to get out there and stand up for ourselves. They’re gonna steamroll us if we don’t. They’re all too willing to do that.
SR: Lionsgate, which produced recent big-name movies like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” is a particularly visible example of outsourcing. The independent company is the fifth highest grossing studio at the box office, outperforming long-time major studios like 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. Between 2011 and 2013, Lionsgate received $249 million in tax credits. Despite this [the fact that they are flush with cash], they often hire music production in other countries. Most recently, Lionsgate shipped its music production for Draft Day to Macedonia.
The Listen Up Campaign decided to take on Lionsgate for its first campaign.
The AFM president first requested a meeting to talk with Lionsgate at the beginning of 2014, but received no response. So the campaign went public in July at the premiere of the film Draft Day.
SW: One action that Neil participated in with the Listen Up campaign was a delivery of a petition with over 10,000 signatures to Lionsgate’s headquarters. The petition asked Lionsgate to act as an industry leader and stop the practice of offshoring musician jobs.
A group of a dozen people– musicians, activists, and even Santa Monica city councilman Kevin McKeown– walked into the building to deliver the petition. They came with a dolly loaded up with boxes of letters to the Lionsgate CEO John Feldheimer. As the group got into in the elevator, lots of thoughts started to run through Neil’s head.
N: So yeah, I was nervous, I was anxious, I, were the police gonna be called, were we actually gonna meet with someone, I didn’t really expect that that would happen, but, you know, anything’s possible. And so, yeah, it makes you nervous but it’s exciting.
SW: The elevator doors opened on the floor of the CEO’s offices.
N: We were met by a gentleman who was very sure to let us know his title was Executive Vice President of Legal Affairs. I suppose that means he’s a lawyer, but I sure do know he’s an executive. Pretty soon every company’s gonna have 10,000 Vice Presidents and nobody else. I don’t really. But, the executive Vice President took our petitions and at which point he was approached by a city councilman from the city of Santa Monica.
He pressed upon him really, that he’d really like to speak to the CEO. He quickly informed that he was not available and when the Councilman asked, and pressed a little, I’d like to speak to him, I’ve tried and I’ve waited, who can I speak to, we were informed that we were now trespassing. Our business had been concluded. He actually said this to a member of the city council of Santa Monica. At about this point, someone arrived in the elevator, a much nicer guy, I don’t know if this was a good cop bad cop or a bad cop good cop routine that they had planned, and I don’t know, this fellow, I guess, if memory serves me right he was basically the building manager for Lionsgate, the [unintelligible] manager, something to that effect, he was actually seemed interested in speaking to us, the executive Vice President yelled at him from the elevator, used his full name, told him to get back on the elevator, it’s not his job to be talking to them. They disappeared, we stood around, we were just going to wait until someone with a uniform came to tell us to take a hike, when the nice fellow appeared again and we went into a conference room and when we spoke with him, for a while, some of our members said their piece.
SR: Ultimately, the group didn’t get a chance to speak with CEO John Feldheimer. But in the elevator ride down, they were already planning their next move.
N: It was, I guess I would describe it as, well, you can’t say that it’s I can’t say that it’s a fulfilling feeling. Because, now we’d done that and, again, as I said, riding up the elevator didn’t know what was gonna happen, but now that we’ve delivered the petitions and we’re riding down the elevator, we don’t know what’s gonna result from us. They went upstairs to the offices, how they received it or perceived it, it was out of our sight. So now, how do they respond, do they respond, well they haven’t responded so what do we do next?
The Listen Up campaign is still active and planning to escalate their efforts. // It’s a campaign that’s still in progress, but despite its uncertainty, Neil feels like it’s worth it.
N: Being a part of the effort, even if not, even if at the moment you’re doing something it’s not particularly enjoyable, or it’s something that you’ve been looking for, looking towards with a small amount of anxiety or even dread, when it’s done and you step back and you say I was a part of this, and I did this, that’s rewarding, it’s gratifying.
N: The issues that we face are no different than the issues that and and the attitudes that say a member of the Minnesota orchestra faced in their horrifically long lockout that they just endured. It’s no, what we’re up against is the same thing, the same issues that we have, are in common with those people in the Minnesota orchestra or the guy that’s stalking the shelves at Walmart or someone who’s assembling heavy machinery at Caterpillar. Getting the message out there that we can come together, that we can stand up for ourselves, we deserve these things, and we better damn well stand up for ourselves. Getting out the message of what we believe is just and right, it’s not just a musician issue, it’s a labor issue, this is, this is a movement of social justice.
SW: This show covered the story of Neil Samples and the Listen Up! campaign. To find out more go to listen up now dot org. You’re listening to ReWork a program of UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Tyler Milles, Jessica Garcia, Stefanie Ritoper and Saba Waheed. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava.
SR: To find out more about the show, and to catch up on previous shows, visit our website at rework radio dot org. There you can find more information about how to get involved and also subscribe to our podcast. Tweet your reactions to at rework underscore radio or send us an email at reworkat
SW: Until next time re-think, re-work!