What the Hollywood Actors and Writers Strike Means for Music

There’s no artful needle drop to accompany the devastating moment described by Maggie Phillips. As a music supervisor with high-profile credits including Oscar winner Moonlight and Hulu’s The Dropout, Phillips typically has no shortage of work cooking, via her shop Deep Cut Music. But with roughly eight projects on hold since the spring, she’s lost as much as half of her income, and was recently forced to furlough her two employees. The decision came after months of compensating them out of her own savings; a planned 20 percent down payment on a house Phillips was about to buy in her Austin, Texas hometown has dwindled to 5 percent. “It’s fucking brutal,” Phillips says.

Phillips’ projects were all postponed due to the two work stoppages that have brought Hollywood productions to a standstill over the course of the past few months. The Writers Guild of America, which represents 11,500 screenwriters, went on strike on May 2, followed by SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 actors, on July 14. The two labor groups recently met with representatives of Hollywood studios to restart contract negotiations over demands that include higher streaming pay and restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence to generate content. On August 10, the writers’ strike hit the 100-day mark with no clear end in sight.

Like nearly all of the music supervisors, composers, recording artists, and music industry professionals who spoke to Pitchfork for this article, Phillips volunteers without prompting that she supports the WGA’s and SAG-AFTRA’s collective actions. But in the near term, the economic impact on the music business from the film and TV shutdowns may be more than listeners realize.

As musicians have been forced to trade the dollars they used to get from album sales for streaming’s fractions of a cent, licensing music for film and TV has become an increasingly important source of income. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, royalties from music synchronization—or the placement of songs in visual media—generated 2.4 percent of all U.S. recorded music revenues last year: $382.5 million, up from $306.5 million in 2021. Complicating matters further, late-night TV shows, where artists typically perform live to promote their new albums, were among the first to go dark when the writers’ strike began.

Commercials, reality shows, animated series, and video games are generally exempt from the strike, and certain independent projects, including films from the indie heavyweight A24, have received waivers to go ahead despite the strikes, so opportunities for syncs and composing haven’t completely disappeared. But in an echo of COVID’s early days, many in the music community are facing a hit to their revenue that could last for an indeterminate period. Unlike the pandemic, however, this fallow period comes with the cruel irony that Hollywood writers and actors are fighting for rights that musicians have no recourse to seek for themselves.

A slowdown could persist well after the strikes, if, as some observers have argued, the boom in high-quality streaming TV shows over the past decade has proved to be unsustainable. “The industry’s about to be completely redefined,” Phillips says. “Peak TV is over.”

Music supervisors like Phillips have a unique vantage point on the fallout from the strikes. While sometimes still thought of as “film DJs,” they actually work from script to marketing, not only choosing and licensing pre-recorded songs for the soundtrack but also hiring composers, overseeing recording sessions, and handling music budgets, says Joel C. High, president of the Guild of Music Supervisors, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We’re sometimes on the project longer than anybody,” he contends.

But music supervisors get paid irregularly, often not until the film hits certain milestones. Much of what they do is in post-production, so they can keep working during the strikes, but typically will run into roadblocks. If an actor needs to redo a bit of muffled dialogue, for example, that can’t happen, so they might not be able to wrap up their final mix. “If we can’t deliver those things,” High says, “we don’t get paid.” He recalls one recent recording session in Atlanta where top Sony Music songwriters convened to write songs specifically for use in Tyler Perry movies, except without any of the actors to sing them. “They’ll remain as demos,” High laments. “We can’t do anything with them.”

The Guild of Music Supervisors has issued public statements standing with the actors and writers in their strikes, but the organization can’t call a similar strike for music supervisors, who are largely freelancers and don’t qualify for employee benefits like health insurance. Last October, a group of Netflix music supervisors filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB reached a decision on June 22, and although its contents haven’t been publicly released, High says (and a Netflix spokesperson confirmed to Pitchfork) that the music supervisors’ request was turned down. They’ve asked the board to reconsider, online records show, and Netflix has opposed the request.

Rob Lowry, a music supervisor whose credits span from Hulu’s Ramy and the Gossip Girl reboot to big-budget films like The Lost City, is usually working on 10 to 14 projects at the same time with his shop Sweater Weather Music. That’s now down to four or five. “There are projects we’ve been on for at least a year that are delayed again, but we might still be working on it with a producer,” he says. “But there’s not really a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Lowry points out that most actors are in a likewise financially precarious situation. An oft-quoted statistic is that 86 percent of SAG-AFTRA’s dues-paying members earn less than the $26,500 annual threshold to receive union-paid healthcare coverage. Lowry says that given workers’ widespread anxiety over AI algorithms, “it doesn’t feel like a normal strike, it feels like a fork in the road.”

As the strikes extend into the dog days of summer, the absence of film and TV production is being felt more and more in the music industry. “It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks where we’re starting to feel like, OK, they’re running out of things to license music for,” says Jen Pearce, founder and CEO of Low Profile, a music licensing and consulting agency that represents artists from American Football to Solange to yeule. The 2023 air dates for TV licensing deals that have come across Pearce’s desk of late are largely pushed back to next year. “You’re gonna get this money, just not for a while,” she cautions artists. Considering that a single film or TV sync deal can yield anywhere from $500 to $75,000 or more, the hiatus will surely hurt.

Kathleen Cook, vice president of publishing and licensing at Secretly Group, the indie label house whose rosters boast Bon Iver and Phoebe Bridgers, predicts a drop in licensing revenues that will worsen as the work stoppages continue. The strikes also affect the timing on everything from movie trailers to advertisements—typical moments where music would be prominent, and a check imminent. “Advertisers might not be sure if they’ll be able to get actors to film a new commercial in a few months,” Cook adds.

As for artists releasing albums this fall, their new music might still do well from sync over the long-term, but the timing is clearly far from ideal. “It’s really hard for artists who have an album coming out in the next couple months,” Cook says. “Same thing during the pandemic. There were certain campaign and album cycles that were really affected by it.” She explains that licensing songs close to an album’s release date is the “best-case scenario” for artists and labels.

One artist whose plans were immediately upturned by the strikes is Nanna, lead vocalist and guitarist for the Icelandic folk-rock group Of Monsters and Men, who released her debut solo album, How to Start a Garden, on May 5. Two days earlier, on Wednesday, May 3, she was scheduled to perform on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. A day before that, just after midnight on May 2, the WGA strike officially began. Nanna was already in New York; the band she had put together for her solo project and rehearsed with for weeks was in Iceland, on the way to the airport. “I woke up to a text that was like, ‘The show isn’t happening,’” Nanna recalls.

The band crossed the Atlantic anyway, gear in tow, and squeezed in a free live performance at WXPN’s World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Nanna describes a mix of emotions about losing such a high-profile gig due to the strike. “I had this feeling of, first, full-on support—it’s important to do what they’re doing,” she says of the strikers. “And I also had this feeling of, well, why can’t we do this?” She has watched the shift from album sales to streaming, decimating artists’ income from recordings, and lately she says that touring has also ceased to be profitable. “I’ve been having this conversation with so many artists,” she tells me. “How do you survive as an indie band right now?”

Bethany Cosentino, a late-night TV veteran with her band Best Coast, whose solo debut, Natural Disaster, arrived last month, points out that such gigs are about more than simply exposure. “I don’t know if this is something most people know, but you get paid to do that—you get [residuals] checks in the mail from your likeness and your song being on television,” she says. “During the pandemic there were multiple people in my band who were able to qualify for unemployment based off of money they made performing on TV.”

Though Cosentino is concerned about the sync landscape post-strike, she applauds the writers and actors taking a stand. “People are really sick and tired of not being compensated as they deserve to be,” she says. “And obviously as a musician, I’m not compensated the way that I deserve to be. There’s a side of me that’s like, cool, when do we go on strike?

With late-night TV performances no longer an option, artists are gravitating toward other platforms like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts or CBS Saturday Sessions, says Chloë Walsh, co-founder of public relations firm The Oriel Company. “They’re the most popular guys in the music business at the moment,” she says. But with bigger acts crowding in, there’s a risk of less space for smaller artists. “As with COVID, the established artists that are already doing OK are the ones who can survive it, whereas it’s the newer and underground artists that fall by the wayside,” Walsh says.

A similar dynamic, where the more established players are better positioned to wait out the strikes, exists among film and TV composers. Joe Wong, a 20-year industry veteran who has written music for Netflix’s Russian Doll, Master of None, and The Midnight Gospel, says the Hollywood shutdown has given him the time to finish his second solo album and write a book based on his decade-old podcast, The Trap Set. “This is just allowing me to swing the balance a bit more toward making records,” he says.

For years, Wong held up streaming TV as an example of how creative people could make a decent living from digital media, in contrast to the upheaval in the music industry. “We’ve seen that it is possible in the production of these shows and films—which are so much more expensive than making an album—for everyone involved to get paid,” he says. “But it seems like it’s starting to drift in the way of Spotify, where the folks that are creating the art are not being valued.”

The night the WGA strike began, the writers for Yellowjackets had just wrapped their first day working on the Showtime thriller’s third season. The show’s composers, Craig Wedren of post-hardcore group Shudder to Think and Anna Waronker of alt-pop band that dog., were busy finishing the final mixes for season two’s finale and had been planning to take some time off afterwards. “Anna and I were busy,” Wedren says. “So at first I didn’t think much of it, even with so many friends who are actors and writers really sweating it.” He acknowledges that his social group, largely comprised of those in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, are lucky enough to have at least a small financial cushion. “I can only imagine how it’s been for up-and-comers in their 20s and 30s who are just trying to piece it together for the first time.”

For the first time in their seven years working together, Wedren is focusing on finishing a solo album without the pull of film and TV music in his orbit. As for Waronker, she prefers the spinning of many plates at once. She’s composing for an animated project right now, and also regrouping. “Coming from a music background, just to have a solid job that I love is so valuable to me,” she says. “I’ve worked really hard to get to the place of consistent work in this field. And now it’s like no one has any idea.”

Nainita Desai, the Emmy-winning composer for the Netflix documentary The Reason I Jump, has recently been working on more scripted shows, including an upcoming Disney+ drama. While she supports the strikes, they’re a clear stumbling block for her career. “I’m very busy up until the end of the year, but I am very concerned about next year,” she says. Like music supervisors, composers don’t have a union to protect them, the London-based Desai notes. “What the writers and actors are fighting for, a fairer share of streaming revenue and protection from AI, are two of the biggest issues that we face as composers,” she says. “If the writers and actors win, it will set a fantastic precedent that the music industry can use to our advantage over here.”

As she’s worked more with U.S. companies, however, Desai has found herself “coerced” into signing work-for-hire contracts, which means giving up her copyright and royalties. This is typically where the bulk of composers’ livelihoods come from. With contracts such as these, and generative AI nipping at the heels of young composers, Desai worries for the future of her profession and those just making their way through it. She wonders, “How do we sustain and nurture the composers of tomorrow if there’s no ground level?”

The battle between the unions and the studios bumps up against the tensions of the music industry, where organizers have been taking their own small steps toward collective action. It’s a wake-up call for musicians who’ve eked out a spot scoring television and movies as a way to avoid a broken record industry. The economic pain for many is raw and real. There’s no knowing what the long-term consequences of the strikes will be, but what’s happening right now feels like a point of no return for creative workers everywhere.

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