Justice for Jazz Artists shook up the owners of Jazz Standard this month by leafleting several key establishments owned and operated by the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG).
The group, which is headed by top New York based restaurateur Danny Meyer, has been running the NYC club
Jazz Standard since October 2001. Jazz Standard features some of the most prominent artists in the world but has refused even to meet with AFM, Local 802, the NYC Musicians’ Union, and address J4JA’s demands, which include USHG making contributions to the musicians’ pension fund, and a discussion of basic issues of fairness, such as recording rights for performers who play the club.
During several days over the month of July, J4JA activists distributed informational leaflets in front of USHG Manhattan locations including many of USHG’s restaurants. On June 27 and July 25, J4JA demonstrators and musicians performed for USHG patrons in front of the popular Danny Meyer-USHG owned fast food restaurant, Shake Shack, in Madison Square Park.
While demonstrators passed out leaflets alerting Shake Shack diners to the injustice jazz performers suffer at the hands of club owners like Meyer and the NYC based Blue Note’s Bensusan family, a crack New Orleans styled brass band played favorites like “Avalon” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” to the enthusiastic applause of USHG patrons and passersby.
On both occasions, demonstrators then moved on to set up in front of Jazz Standard, on East 27th Street, where they were met with either indignation (June 27, see earlier article) or silence (July 25). Hundreds of leaflets encouraging USHG patrons to email their concerns to Meyer and partners were distributed at both events. During the second demonstration on July 25, USHG wait staff attempted to mollify J4JA demonstrators by offering them lemonade. While some partook, others refused and one demonstrator even asked the question, “Any pension in that lemonade?” Jazz Standard employees were not amused.
The majority of NYC musicians who perform in the city’s major jazz clubs, unlike their musical colleagues on Broadway and in the symphonic field, have no access to basic state statutory benefits like unemployment insurance, social security, workers compensation and disability, or health insurance. Every year, dozens of jazz musicians retire from the music business with no safety net and are forced to rely on charitable donations to support them at the end of their lives. The musicians’ union and J4JA have isolated the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) as the most necessary, substantive and accessible benefit for artists that work in area clubs, and one that owners could easily afford by making minimal contributions for all performers who appear in their venues.
Most high end jazz venues in the NYC area record performances by artists using studio quality equipment. The result is a product that may be sold by the club’s management. Although clubs may offer musicians some limited compensation for the right to record their live performances, rarely are intellectual property rights provided for, and musicians generally have no recourse should those recordings be released or sold. “New use” or “re-use” payments, standard in union agreements, where musicians are guaranteed compensation should their recorded performances appear in other markets, such as on soundtracks for films or in commercial jingles, are not provided for by most NYC based clubs who often effectively exploit performers’ willingness to appear in their venues, and so gain permission to record for free or little compensation.
Many clubs get around compensating performers for recordings by striking agreements with radio stations or Internet based streaming media outlets, where they allow access to captured content based on the premise that it is good promotion for the artists and the club. While there is truth in the claim around promotion, side performers (or “non featured artists”) are particulalry vulnerable in these instances as their original contributions, in the form of improvised jazz solos, are disseminated on the Internet with no provisions for royalties of any kind, and no contract to protect them should someone decide to “borrow” that content by “peeling” it from an Internet stream. Although union contracts cannot prevent theft of captured content, signatories can be held liable for unauthorized sale or distribution of recordings.
Even after receiving multiple letters and phone calls from J4JA, and entertaining overtures of at least one prominent national politician, Jazz Standard and USHG leadership have so far refused even to discuss the J4JA’s most basic proposals.
Danny Meyer/USHG owned restaurants include Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke/Jazz Standard and The Modern, located at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art. Meyer and USHG also own Shake Shack/Blue Smoke at Citi Field, and Shake Shacks in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Istanbul, Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and London.
USHG does not share financial information, but in 2010 USHG annual revenue was estimated by CNBC to be at $70 million. It is most likely significantly higher today.
Prominent J4JA public supporters include bassist Christian McBride, pianist Jason Moran, and tenor saxophone star Joe Lovano. That list is growing daily. 6,000 musicians and fans have signed an anonymous petition. Since March 2012, more than 57,000 people have “liked” J4JA on Facebook.
More outdoor J4JA demonstrations are planned for the months ahead.