The recent Oscar win for the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom turned the spotlight on musicians whose work typically keeps them out of it: background singers.
This Background Vocalist performs regularly on network TV and in widely-released films. She also performs live on tour, and as a singer on many recordings. Based on accounting data from 2009-2010 provided by the artist, this case study –– like other financial case studies we have conducted –– examines her music-based sources of income and expenses.
- Mailbox money, or residual income, is important but unpredictable. A background vocalist doesn’t have to do any additional work to earn these residuals, but additional usages, and the subequent royalty payments, are entirely dependent on circumstances and decisions over which the musician has no control.
- Unions play a critical role in negotiating rates and managing residuals. This Background Vocalist, like many other professional session musicians, relies on the unions – AFM and SAG-AFTRA – to negotiate the scale wages for both TV/film work and major label recording sessions, and ensure they adhere to union scale. She also relies on the unions to manage and track a complicated residuals process. In 2009-2010, she received 144 checks for TV/Film residuals, some in amounts as small as $0.01. The unions track these reuses and collect the income that would otherwise be too tedious for an individual to chase and collect. In short, her livelihood as a Background Vocalist is possible because of the collective bargaining power and administrative support of AFM and SAG-AFTRA.
Finally, learn more about the life of background singers in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
(photo: promotional still from 20 Feet from Stardom courtesy Radius TWC)