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Union Roundup: Union Organizer for Music Supes Says Step Licensing Deals Are Growing Harder to Come By


Redevelopment in Austin
Image via Mark London Williams

So, nearly two weeks later, the election is almost wrapped up, and while it seems little substantive legislation will get done on the split-house Federal level over the next two years, American cultural shifts will keep moving around like tectonic plates in the hills near Hollister (look at the leadership changes on at least one side of the aisle, for example).

Why, we’ve even had mail from at least one film commission contrasting their state’s newly tolerant and welcoming culture to those of other, more reactionary places that also, as fate and tax rebates would have it, are thriving film hubs.

It’s an interesting angle to take now that rage, reaction, and punitive politics are not quite as du jour as they once were.

More on that in an upcoming column, I’m pretty sure. Unlike Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, every once in a while you actually can “make plans that far ahead.”

Well. Sometimes.

But where were we before the whole election megillah cropped up and demanded column space?

Ah, right. In Austin! Texas’ capital city is the legislative home to its insistently regressive and newly re-elected governor, Greg Abbott, but also home to a lot of lively local culture, Shiner Bock on tap, the early roots of sci-fi’s own cyberpunk school, and — as in many locales that were once attractively distinct — an alarming trend toward gentrification, and thus the same kind of unaffordable homogeneity plaguing so many cities and towns.

It’s also home to the Austin Film Festival, where I actually met a lot of people from Los Angeles when I switched over to scriptwriter mode (a similar inexorability in the writing trade, as is gentrification in real estate?) for a few days. That was our column two weeks back, anyway (Bogart again: “That was so long ago, I don’t remember”).

Lilah Obregon-Wilson
Lilah Obregon-Wilson image via Mark London Williams

However, we didn’t entirely swap out our writerly personas, or hats. Still in columnist mode, we caught up with Music Supervisor Lilah Obregon-Wilson, who we previously interviewed along with IATSE’s Jonas Loeb this past summer. If you’ll recall, she is “one of the ‘core Unionizers for Music Supervisors,’ and a self-described ‘overall Production Ninja.'”

This time, however, instead of chatting on yonder sides of a Zoom screen, we got together for margaritas and chow at Tamales House East along Austin’s legendary 6th Street, and being there, one suddenly understands why some people more sensibly opt to write about food and travel rather than the vagaries of showbiz.

We also ambled around, and you could see the archaeological layers playing out in front of us — the old, now-empty punk music haunts, corner-lot flea markets, and local bodegas inexorably yielding to the aforementioned gentrifiers.

There were also a lot of electric scooters around.

All this was ahead of the recent LA Times article about music supervisors taking on Netflix, which quotes Lindsay Wolfington, another freelance music supe, as saying, “we are currently a group of gig workers who have to get our own insurance and have to figure out our own pension. Almost everybody on set in Hollywood is paid through a union and supported through a union and has their rates and payment schedules standardized through a union. So we’re just looking to be on par with our colleagues who we work with.”

The article recounted the efforts of the supes to get IA recognition at the streamer because “it is the largest employer of music supervisors in the industry.”

The NLRB will decide soon if there will be an election at Netflix. If the supes are indeed granted a vote it will likely set a precedent for unionization industry-wide. And will help dissipate a sense that Obregon-Wilson has picked up among some peers that organizing a craft that had never been organized at all might start rocking boats a little too much, in a time of potentially tightening work. Some of them fear that if they unionize, they may never work again.

Obregon-Wilson also talked about some of the increasing difficulties supes face beyond just lower or delayed pay in a media landscape that is quickly becoming as homogenized — at least in terms of ownership — as the condo developments along 6th Street. Indie film licensing is harder now, she observed, since “labels are less willing to give beyond festival rights,” meaning everything would have to be renegotiated if something gets picked up for theatrical or streaming.

These “reluctant” license deals are one of the reasons “you’re seeing a lot of covers,” especially of more iconic songs. (Netflix’s recent Stranger Things splash with Kate Bush‘s “Running Up That Hill” and Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” notwithstanding — though that episode kind of “re-iconified,” to coin a phrase, those tunes as well.)

Austin after dark
Austin after dark image via Austin Film Festival

From the observation about festival rights also came another about how step licensing deals, which pay the artist more money should the film become a hit, were growing harder to come by. This is usually excused because “everything’s digital” now.

But something else has happened as a result of the organizing efforts — the supervisors, she said, have a sense of community now, after having “always felt we were working separately.”

There’s kind of a “hive mind” buzzing along, though what it does next will depend on how the Netflix vote goes.

Still, most in that hive still have to fly along separately to do their work. Obregon-Wilson was off that night to another concert, to scout potential bands. And given that no one is driving down 6th Street — or anywhere else — listening to songs break over their AM (or FM) radios anymore, what with satellite stations and Spotify playlists, sometimes being in a commercial, in a video game, or on the soundtrack of a hot streaming series or theatrical release is the way a song starts to become iconic.

And eventually, perhaps, much more expensive to license.

Like real estate in areas formerly affordable to punk rockers. Is it any wonder people need union wages to keep up?

Meanwhile, see you on the flip side of Thanksgiving. May you be well-nourished, in all aspects, ’til then.

MLWIncrediHeadMark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”

Mark London Williams’ Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk.

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