A power shift within Nashville's musicians union signals changing times on Music Row 

If Harold Bradley was nervous about the ballots piling up in the conference room of the American Federation of Musicians Local 257 Hall, he didn't show it. But he would have had good reason.

It wasn't simply that Bradley—the 18-year incumbent as the union's president, and a member of Music Row's legendary First Family—was running a contested election for the first time in several terms. It wasn't just the sheer volume of returns, which indicated a mobilization of professional Nashville musicians that hadn't been seen in a decade.

But there was unusual national attention focused on the elections at Nashville's Local 257. It had him in the union hall until the late hours on Dec. 12, while the election committee quietly sifted through 1,205 ballots. That was more than 40 percent turnout—double the previous year.

To onlookers on the coasts, Local 257 had become a battleground far larger than Nashville's city limits, in a sort of proxy grudge match for control. At stake was leadership of the fourth largest local in the world's largest trade organization for professional musicians. That's in a town where music, according to a Belmont University study, is a $6.4 billion industry.

On one side was Bradley, the unflappable, well-groomed Southern gentleman. As a session player with no equal in the history of recorded music, Bradley left his fingerprints on many of the greatest singles ever cut. That's him on Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter," on Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely," on cuts by Hank, Patsy and Elvis. Historically, he represents the prolific session men of country music's past.

The session men of today, however, argue that Bradley doesn't represent them at all. At least not as vice president of the AFM's International Executive Board (IEB), the governing body that makes the union's policy decisions. It isn't too often that you have a local union president—like Bradley—who is also a major player within the IEB. And that's a boon, this member of countrypolitan royalty says.

To his detractors, though, that smelled more like a conflict of interest. When it came time to stand up for the recording musicians who pay half the AFM's dues, they say, Bradley sided instead with the governing board, and a stubbornly analog model of the music industry.

His most vocal critics are members of the Recording Musicians Association, a powerful subgroup within the AFM. They say the governing board keeps them at bay like a cur at the dinner table. Their complaints became howls of protest last September, when Bradley and the rest of the board voted to eliminate the RMA as a group altogether, after its members launched a flurry of complaints and lawsuits against the AFM.

If the IEB thought they'd silence the RMA, they were SOL. Instead, Bradley's critics backed a challenger for the stewardship of Nashville's local. He was Dave Pomeroy, 52, a bassist, artist and producer who embodies the new-model Nashville cat—the kind who's as likely to be found playing in a club or laying down Internet overdubs as fielding top-dollar session work.

Temperamentally, the two men could not be less alike. Pomeroy, who played with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Elton John and Willie Nelson, is brash where Bradley is quiet. Even his bold print shirts are a generation removed from Bradley's impeccable threads.

Yet the difference between them goes beyond style. Before the election, Pomeroy was president of the local chapter of the RMA. To say that a rift has formed between the AFM leadership and the RMA over the years is like saying that Bradley and Pomeroy know the number system.

Bradley says the AFM and Local 257 work together, hand in hand. What conflict of interest? If you want to talk conflict, Bradley says, look at the winner-take-all bid his opponent made for the presidency. Pomeroy, meanwhile, all but accuses Bradley and the AFM of taxation without representation. The recording musicians pay most of the money, and they get—what, a challenge to disband their organization?

From the get-go the election was bound to get a little hot. It got hotter when Craig Krampf, one of Nashville's few famous rock drummers, threw his hat in the ring against Bradley's loyal secretary-treasurer, Music Row veteran Billy Linneman. Accusations swirled in the music-biz blogosphere that Pomeroy and Krampf were RMA operatives, sent by Los Angeles cronies to seize Nashville and establish another recording-friendly fiefdom.

Meanwhile, Krampf and Pomeroy peppered the local membership with phone calls—a campaign tactic many hadn't seen here.

The election pitted old school against kinda new school, Nashville's past vs. its future, an AFM policy-hardliner against its policy anathema. In the end, it took two days of tallying and recounting to reach a decision. But at last the union spoke. At around 10 p.m. the night of the 12th, election committee chair Steven Sheehan handed the results to Bradley. He read them, handed over his public statement to Sheehan, and returned to his office.

It was a rare thing indeed for a sitting member of the IEB to suffer defeat in a local election. But the results went even beyond that. Dave Pomeroy won by a wide margin—231 votes—enough that in a recent conversation with the Scene, Bradley even referred to it himself as a "mandate." And yet, true to form, Bradley betrayed neither surprise nor dismay at the sea change the vote represented. That's just how he is: cool, collected and measured, from his clean-cut hair to his scrupulous duds.

That doesn't mean it didn't hurt. Now, with Pomeroy in the president's seat and the RMA with a powerful local ally—he still serves on the RMA's international board, which some deem a conflict of interest in itself—members wonder about the union's future. Will it adapt to an industry whose landscape is shifting like Arctic ice caps? Will session players assert their dominance? And will the election narrow or widen a split in the union's ranks that's been seething for more than 50 years?

It wasn't a good omen that the day after Dave Pomeroy assumed command of Local 257, in early January, his dog died.

The dog's death was bad enough. The cause was worse. In what should have been Pomeroy's moment of glory, a fire roared through his Cedar Lane home. The fire marshal later determined that aged wiring in the ceiling above his studio sparked and lit a support beam, which burned through the wooden floors and lit a couch on the floor above.

The couch became a fireball. It crashed through the floor into the studio, destroying recording equipment along with many of Pomeroy's valuable bass guitars. Most devastating of all, the smoke suffocated Pomeroy's beloved dog, Duke. Certainly the timing was curious.

"There was a lot of speculation from a lot of people," Pomeroy says. "I never went there because I just couldn't. I couldn't believe that was possible." And indeed, the fire marshal concluded that it was an electrical fire, plain and tragically simple.

But the speculation was something of a bellwether for the animus swirling around the election. Though rumors of foul play weren't true, according to fire department officials, many union members thought it within the realm of possibility. This was the brotherhood Dave Pomeroy inherited.

The makeup of the AFM is a little weird, by union standards anyway. It's really cheap, if you aren't an actual working musician. And the majority of the AFM's membership (not to mention the IEB) isn't working musicians. We're talking about lawyers who played a few gigs to pay the rent in college. Your random wedding trombonist. These hobby musicians pay union dues, the pittance required to belong. But they don't pay work dues, the more lucrative cut of a member's income that also goes back to the union. Most of the time, they aren't working.

Your working musician, on the other hand, pays the lion's share of work dues. Out of the 85,000 members of the AFM, roughly 10 percent are working musicians. And of those, only 2,500 to 3,000 are session players. Just this slender percentage alone pays 50 percent of the work dues collected by the AFM.

Bradley would point out that the local union spends $160,000 wading through the paperwork created by the $15 million in session contracts handled each year by their office. Still, ever since the golden days of recording, that 50-percent statistic was sure to set the union up for a division: the haves vs. the have-nots.

The beef can be traced back to the 1950s, when James Caesar Petrillo was president of the AFM. A short-time trumpeter in newsboy bands, Petrillo conceived of a fund that would create gigs for unemployed union musicians, most of whom were dentists and lawyers. He would do this by taxing the recording companies, which employ professional musicians. Only he went about it in a backwards way. Give the professionals more money, he decreed, but the union will keep the added wages.

Petrillo found still more ways to siphon money into this fund, but it didn't have the intended effect. Instead of creating more work, the existing work started to shrivel. In Los Angeles, employers turned more and more to canned music, just because it was cheaper. An insurrection bloomed at the 1956 AFM convention, but was crushed. Not long after, the RMA split from the union, but only briefly.

The animosity between recording musicians and the AFM never really went away. AFM leadership has historically thought of recording musicians as a vocal minority, a caste apart because of their well-known earning ability and control of the session work. IEB Secretary Treasurer Sam Folio was famously quoted as calling L.A.'s fabled studio musicians "those rich pricks."

A number of issues have kept resentment simmering between the two factions. One is the AFM's special payments fund—essentially a big pot that certain labels and record companies fill with percentages of sales revenue. AFM members receive a cut based on the amount of scale wages they earn. But the cash-strapped AFM decided to tax earnings from this fund as work dues, much to the chagrin of recording musicians who'd undoubtedly get a respectable payout.

Pomeroy says that at the international finance committee meeting, he presented a viable plan on behalf of the Nashville RMA that would provide for a more egalitarian across-the-board tax. But the AFM leadership believed the smaller local unions would buckle under this added burden, and that the L.A. and New York locals would balk as well. Pomeroy's proposal was shot down, stoking the recording musicians' ire.

Another point of conflict is the growing goldmine of music use in videogames. Games such as Guitar Hero have become billion-dollar franchises, and recording musicians want a piece of that action. The governing board's current president, Tom Lee, a former White House pianist who gave himself the power to adopt agreements as he sees fit, created a two-page contract addressing that very concern. Its intent, he has written, was to stop even more of that work from going overseas.

But RMA members charge that the contract is a giveaway. Under its vague terms, they say, they would actually lose back-end payments for new use of their music. In response, several RMA members splintered off, forming the Professional Musicians Guild in direct violation of union law.

Not everyone sympathizes. Some members give Lee, Bradley and the IEB props for attempting to accommodate the changing marketplace and the threat of losing work. One is Rick Blanc, a current Local 257 member who formerly belonged to the L.A. branch.

"When these RMA guys say, 'We demand all this money, all these checks six months later,' the producer will say, 'Hey look, we don't need to placate your demands,' " Blanc says. "What the RMA does in the free market...you can't get away with this kind of crap."

Regardless, when the AFM leadership began bouncing around the idea of red-lining the Recording Musicians' Association, Pomeroy and the rest of the recording folk in Nashville and Los Angeles got a little pissed. So pissed, in fact, that Pomeroy and some 188 others—that's the local RMA membership plus some—presented a resolution to Bradley and his second-in-command Billy Linneman.

The recording musicians proclaimed, among other things, that Bradley and Linneman no longer represented their interests in Nashville because the two men voted to consider revoking the RMA's status. Bradley says their resolution bothered him less than the way it was presented, as a kind of objective stance.

"The problem I had with the fact that it was submitted," Bradley says, "is that David wouldn't take any authorship even though he submitted it to the board. He said it wasn't his and it wasn't the RMA's." Within its coded language, the resolution seemed to threaten just what the colonists of yore did when protesting their tax grievances: secession.

"If executed, the potential negative consequences of this resolution...could very well include the demise of the AFM," the statement read. And Bradley admits that could be true: If this particular bloc seceded from the union, taking with them their disproportionate chunk of work dues, disaster could ensue. But Bradley responded with his own salvo, locking horns with Pomeroy and the irritated RMA behind him.

"The real issue is that the RMA would like to run this local, and I feel that the 188 people who signed this petition should not run the local just because they are recording musicians," Bradley said in a statement. "This resolution, submitted by RMA President Dave Pomeroy, is intended to influence my vote. I will continue to vote my conscience (based on the facts before me), and I resent this attempt to force me to vote otherwise."

Linneman and IEB President Tom Lee declined to discuss any contention with the RMA, citing union bylaws preventing members from discussing union business in public. Bradley, however, felt the very existence of the recording musicians' renegade faction threatened the union's survival.

That became clear, he says, after a series of lawsuits and National Labor Relations Board complaints against the AFM by RMA members. Each member, he asserts, ends up shouldering the cost when the union has to pay lawyers to answer the complaints. In fact, a website called Fareplay, established by recording musicians, exists solely to raise money for lawsuits against the AFM.

The RMA has never claimed responsibility for the lawsuits and complaints lobbed at the union. But Bradley doesn't buy it. Nor does he believe the IEB was wrong to challenge the splinter group.

"If you have a child hittin' you with a baseball bat," Bradley says, "maybe you would think about doing something."

In this tense climate, the IEB met last October with the recording musicians to try to reach a ceasefire. Pomeroy came forward as the RMA's representative. According to Bradley, Pomeroy asked for control of the RMA's recording contracts in exchange for peace.

To Bradley, Pomeroy's request was proof positive of the RMA's involvement and control over the lawsuits. Perhaps not unreasonably, the governing board declined to hand over control of its bread and butter to a subgroup that might split from the union.

"If we gave it to them," Bradley says, "we might as well fold."

To fellow business dealers, Harold Bradley is the consummate Music Row insider. Yet to those who played alongside him in the early days, he could often seem like an outsider. Bradley never was one of the "hillbillies"—that's how a lot of the old-school country-music boys refer to themselves. Don Davis played a touring stint with Bradley in the Pee Wee King Band, one of Bradley's few forays into live music. When Davis first rolled into Nashville and up to the Clarkson Hotel, right next to the legendary WSM radio station, he saw a group of country toughs in flannels and long sideburns. That wasn't Bradley's style.

"Harold wasn't one of us," said Davis, a legendary steel guitarist and producer who played on records with Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and produced recordings by Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash. "He didn't get down nitty-gritty with those guys.

"He went to college and this sort of thing. He wasn't the general run-of-the-mill hell-raisin' country musician. Not a drinker. We didn't go to whorehouses together. We didn't shack up with women together. We didn't drink together. We didn't honky-tonk together."

In the studio, Bradley was known to be particular, a perfectionist. In negotiations with music labels, he was known as the steely-eyed hard bargainer. Christian labels referred to him as "Mad Dog" Bradley, according to Laura Ross, a member of the local executive board and the Nashville Symphony violin section.

For some reason or another, she recalls, the Christian music labels weren't keen on dealing with the union. Across from them at the negotiating table, he'd sit in stony silence. When the time came to talk, Bradley would read from a prepared statement. As always, his words would be polite but pointed, and their recipients would sit in bewildered silence.

Ross, like many others, considered Bradley an effective president. But even before his unseating, there were those who thought nearly two decades at the helm was too long.

"Term limits are a good idea," said Bob Moore, a bassist and key member of the renowned "A Team," whose musical signature you'd recognize on Patsy Cline's "Crazy." Before the previous election, Moore says, he was called to a secret meeting at the Ernest Tubb Theater by a group of musicians who wanted him to run against Bradley. Moore demurred.

"I am 76 and I am too old to take on a job like that," Moore said. "And Harold is 80-something and he's way too old to have that.

"He's a good guy, mostly honest, but I think things got outta hand for him and he didn't want to give it up."

Whether that's true or not, the music business isn't just a vastly different place from the Music Row Bradley helped build 50 years ago with his brother Owen. It's no longer the same business it was 20 years ago, roughly around the time Bradley was elected. The way fans experience music continues to change. Boomboxes have given way to earbuds, and with them the iPod and entirely new ways of purchasing music. CD sales began to evaporate by as much as 50 percent, and digital downloading wasn't making up for the loss.

As a result, recording budgets have shrunk. Labels have consolidated under a few monolithic conglomerates, none headquartered in Nashville, while at the same time micro-indies and self-distribution have proliferated. CD Baby and Rhapsody have lowered the threshold, allowing smaller labels to get out their music. Major labels no longer have a stranglehold on distribution. Recording gear like Pro Tools has made cutting a record affordable for aspiring basement-dwelling studios.

This doesn't simply change the experience for listeners. It changes the way session players get work. Union members work "on the card"—meaning they work with a contract and at a rate established by the union, which provides for new use of the music down the road. Many indies may be unwilling or unable to do this.

"The reality is, if you get a truthful answer from most musicians, they'll probably tell you they work on the card when they can and off the card when it's appropriate," said Jim Zumwalt, a longtime Nashville music industry lawyer.

Either the union adapts to the changing times, or it faces becoming even more irrelevant than some say it has already become. Pomeroy, union members say, is in the trenches with them. The bassist with the grizzled beard and the narrowed eyes that can just as easily flash warmth as anger has produced young bands, written songs and played in these times.

And the times, they say, are a-changin.'

"In the past most of the companies we've done agreements with have been huge publishing companies and huge record labels," said Tim Lauer, a songwriter, producer and keyboardist on albums for Brad Paisley and LeAnn Rimes. "Now we have major labels, small indies, micro indies, individuals.

"How do we approach that with musicians? How do we allow him to make that recording and make it affordable, but make sure he's compensated fairly?"

Steve Sinatra is a young drummer from South Florida who joined Local 257 late last year. He's emblematic of a whole crop of talented, youthful Nashville musicians seeking a foothold in the business but doubtful of the use for a union. He's stood at a familiar crossroads: Turn down a good session because an up-and-coming singer-songwriter can't afford to pay on the card, or take the gig, pay the bills, and hope you don't get busted.

When he'd ask fellow musicians about the union, Sinatra says, he heard the same refrain: Unless you're a prolific session guy, the good ol' boy club's got nothing for you. Pensions, funeral fees—how many young musicians are fretting about retirement?

"I said, 'Hey, man, I got this card in the mail saying I owe them $275 for two funeral fees,' " said Sinatra, who is currently playing with Little Big Town. "It's not something I'm worried about right now."

Sinatra is the kind of up-and-comer Dave Pomeroy believes has been marginalized within the union.

"The perception of Nashville's music is that it's all about what fits in this tiny window of country radio," Pomeroy said. "Nashville is more than just that. It's not Country Music City, it's Music City, USA."

He's pushing for pensions for road musicians, a healthcare plan through the local, and most importantly, he's working on an Internet overdubbing scale. These days musicians don't even have to meet to lay down a track. Simply upload, point and click send. When the terms are finalized, Nashville will be the first local in the entire union to have a scale for that.

To Pomeroy, after all the contention of the election, his charge now is to make the union relevant, useful for the current unknowns riding the leading edge of a changing industry. It's kind of like playing in a band. Pomeroy says he's no virtuoso. He's a song guy, trying to keep all the instruments together in hope that the result will be greater than the sum of its parts.

"Right now, within a radius of 10 miles of this spot, I guarantee you there are 250 guys overdubbing tracks on a computer in an office or a home studio for someone they've never met in person," Pomeroy says. "If we don't enter this equation, we don't get a piece of that."

And what of Harold Bradley, the man whose name summons volumes of music history, not to mention the foundation of Nashville's music industry? It's easy to see his ouster still stings. He says he'll never again run for a local office within the union.

"First of all, I don't need to go back financially," Bradley says. "Second of all, I don't need to go back and always be in turmoil, representing people who don't realize what's really going on.

"I don't think they know all the stuff I'm telling you."

If the recent election changeover has any lesson to impart to the new president, it's this: God help you if any faction within the union's membership senses it's not being represented—or the other guy is being represented too well.

"To have...an international office with the RMA, and to be a [Local 257] officer, is a conflict and it will be a problem," Harold Bradley says. "He'll have to decide which side he's on. He can't straddle the fence."

Email bhargrove@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9403.

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