For nearly 25 years, Thomas F. Lee entertained presidents and foreign dignitaries, heads of state and Hollywood celebrities as a pianist for “The President’s Own” Marine Band. But Lee feels he’s now performing his most important role ever – protecting the interests of tens of thousands of musicians throughout the United States and Canada in a digital age.
As President of the American Federation of Musicians of the U.S. and Canada since his election in June 2001 (Lee was re-elected at the AFM’s convention in June 2007 to serve another three years), Lee and his organization have been leading the charge for performers’ rights and copyright protection for performers in the digital world, as well as fighting against media consolidation and domination of local broadcast markets, negotiating industry-wide agreements that set the standard for payment of professional musicians, and providing financial relief for displaced musicians in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, among many other things.
“It’s the greatest challenge of my life,” Lee says. “I’ve performed for every American president since Johnson, but never have I had the sense of duty and accomplishment that comes with representing the interests of all types of musicians and protecting those interests in a world that often doesn’t recognize the artists’ contributions.
“I don’t think people are aware of a very huge inequity that exists for performers,” Lee continues. “Songwriters collect royalties when their work is played on terrestrial radio, as they should. But the musicians – the ones who bring the songs to life and that we all enjoy listening to so much – don’t receive any royalties at all. This doesn’t just affect singing superstars; think about all the studio musicians, the background singers, people whose names may not be known but who make these songs what they are. All creators need to be fully compensated for their work, and I won’t stop until that becomes a reality.”
A performance right is of even greater importance now with the advent of digital radio. Digital radio will be able to compete with other forms of music distribution such as webcasting, which by law must pay a royalty to musicians, thus giving it an unfair competitive advantage.
Lee is proud to say that AFM represents all types of professional musicians, including those who record music for sound recordings, film scores, radio, television and commercial announcements, as well as perform music of every genre in every sort of venue from small jazz clubs to symphony orchestra halls to major stadiums.
“AFM is looking out for all musicians around the country,” Lee said. “Whether they work in big cities or small towns, perform in traveling orchestras, local bands, or are a single piano player working in a bar or nightclub, we’re looking out for them and are working to ensure they’re paid a living wage and have access to some wonderful benefits.
“The AFM also ensures that musicians are entitled to earn a pension that will be there for them when they decide to hang up their instruments and retire,” Lee continued. “I’m very proud that musicians can retire with a sense of financial security and a feeling of dignity and pride in a career well spent.
“I spent the first half of my life performing three or more days a week at the White House, as well as performing at gigs throughout Washington, and I understand the very real challenges that come with earning a living as a musician. I’m so happy that my job now is to look out for my fellow musicians, and to ensure that they are fairly compensated for their talents. The musician’s life is a wonderful life, and I feel so privileged to spend this part of my life making sure it’s as wonderful as possible for all my musical brothers and sisters.”
Thomas F. Lee has been president of AFM since his election in June 2001. He served as a labor union official for many years previously, including service as AFM Secretary-Treasurer from 1999-2001. He served in the U.S. Marine Band from 1966-1990. He also performed freelance engagements in the D.C. area for many years. Lee is a member of the Governing Board of SoundExchange, a member of the Governing Board of the Alliance of Artists and Recording Companies, a Trustee of the American Federation of Musicians and Employers Pension Fund and a Trustee of the AFM and AFTRA Intellectual Property Rights Distribution Fund.
The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada is the largest organization in the world representing the interests of musicians, with more than 90,000 members in the United States and Canada. Whether negotiating fair agreements, protecting ownership of recorded music, securing benefits such as health care and pension, or lobbying legislators, the AFM is committed to raising industry standards and placing the professional musician in the foreground of the cultural landscape.