Dancers vs. corporate America: AFTRA organizing for fair deal

October 5, 2011

“We just want to get paid a decent wage for a decent number of hours, an 8- or 10- or 12-hour day. Anything above that would be overtime.”

 

Sharon Ferguson, based in LA, has danced in music videos for the last couple decades. She’s seen it all. And now more than ever, with the revenue produced by Vevo and other ad-supported streaming services, record labels can afford to pay dancers more than the $50 a day they sometimes rake in. Partnering with the national grass-roots Dancers’ Alliance, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is trying to hammer out a contract for music-video performers.

“Music videos are the Wild West,” says AFTRA organizer Steve Sidawi. Ferguson, a DA member and AFTRA board member, agrees.

“I started off in New York City doing music videos in the late 80s,” says Ferguson. “I worked in the world of being on set for 16, 20, 24 hours. There were no standards for working conditions; there was no food, no place to sit down, no heaters. But everyone was young, and people looked at music videos as being creative and helping out up-and-coming musical artists. I worked for Salt-n-Pepa, Kid ‘n Play, C+C Music Factory, George Michael, Raphael Saadiq, No Doubt…”

When Ferguson moved to LA in 1994, she found somewhat better conditions—perhaps in part because dancers “who’d gotten tired of being taken advantage of,” as she puts it, had founded DA there in the 80s.

“It’s not like we’re asking for a lot” at this point, Ferguson adds. “Eliminating the very long hours, a place to warm up, changing rooms, water. I’m also an actor, but some people are just dancers their entire careers and never have pensions or health coverage. Conditions can be bad, like dancing outside in the snow—you get bronchitis or pneumonia and you can’t even go to the doctor.”

“People don’t generally work more than 10 or 12 years as a dancer, and you should have something to show for it. We’re looking for a basic minimum for an eight-hour day, health, and retirement. And we’re getting pushback [from the record labels].”

“We started the initiative earlier this year and negotiated with the major record labels in June,” says AFTRA’s Sidawi. “We had productive negotiations [with Sony, UMG, Warner, EMI, Disney, and most of their subsidiary labels]. But the record labels have been dragging their feet since then—they’ve been very slow to schedule new negotiations.”

Vevo—a joint venture by Sony Music, UMG, and EMI that launched in late 2009—is a website providing free high-quality music videos to consumers. But it’s no philanthropic venture, or even a marketing tool. Advertisers pay big bucks to hawk their wares.

“Vevo charges advertisers on a per-view basis,” says Sidawi. “The viewing rates are roughly comparable to those for top-rated cable and TV shows, and the [advertising] rates are comparable to TV rates.” As of August, ComScore was reporting that Vevo had 63 million unique monthly viewers and that, as YouTube’s top partner channel, it was drawing nearly 60 million additional unique viewers every month.

Vevo CEO Rio Caraeff, talking in September to Mark Sweney of The Guardian, boasted that it was making “hundreds of millions of dollars” in revenue. The company is not yet profitable, but Caraeff expects that to change, and soon. “I believe the future is access, not ownership, not iTunes as it is today,” he told Sweney, adding that as of September, Vevo was 40 percent ahead of its business plan. More than half of gross revenue goes to content owners, including the artists—but you can bet the dancers aren’t getting a cut, especially given increased competition for jobs.

“Busloads of dancers are coming into town,” says Ferguson, thanks in part to shows like So You Think You Can Dance.

Music-video crews have been under a union contract (IATSE) for ten years, according to Sidawi. And though now AFTRA wants to organize all music-video performers (actors, models, stuntpersons), it’s focusing on dancers. They’re “the core group of professional performers in all the iconic music videos,” says Sidawi. “LA is the largest center of production, but we’re working with dancers all over the country.”

“This initiative is really about bringing the community together and building solidarity,” he says. DA and AFTRA have launched a social-media campaign, “It’s About Time,” to get dancers nationwide involved. You can check out dancer videos on DA’s YouTube account and/or follow the action on Twitter (@aftra or @dancersalliance).