When people think about someone deeply involved with “musician’s unions,” or when they envision the “principal bassist for the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera,” they may picture an old, seasoned musician who smells of stuffy old money. In reality, Taylor Brown is a young, vibrant 30–something with ambition, talent, and easy demeanor with deep knowledge of both his instrument, the double bass, and the ins–and–outs of the American Federation of Musicians. In this interview Brown elaborates on his work with the AFM and how he feels the union facilitates tangible positive change in musician’s lives.

Tell me more about the American Federation of Musicians.

Taylor: The AFM is the largest union organization for musicians. It boasts at least 80,000 members. The thing to explain is that it’s a union; we organize and bond together to make life better. I don’t want to give you a whole history lesson about this stuff, but one of the common things that people ask me about a musician’s union is “Why would I join it?” The reason why they ask that is because they want to know the benefits they receive as a member. And of course they’re gonna get stuff like access to pensions, higher wages, etc. Many people treat unions like a vending machine; they’re not looking for something substantive, but seek a product or, in many cases, a band–aid solution to a problem. But, really the pitch of a union goes much deeper than the products that it offers its members: the only way we’re going to make a difference for each other is by working together.

What do you do as a member of the AFM and why is it relevant?

Taylor: I’m the orchestra committee chair of my orchestra, so I work as the middle man between the performers and management. I make sure that contracts are enforced, conflicts are managed, etc. There’s that at a basic level. I’ve also been the Negotiating Chair for the orchestra so I actually sit down with a team and work out contracts and bargains. Because we are a federation, what we do at a small level can be observed at a national level and our work can become an industry standard, including wages and the working conditions. We study each other, network, and see what’s happening in different parts of the country.

One of the biggest parts of representation is making sure people are being treated fairly. It’s a workplace; it’s a job. Things can happen and people can get fired, for instance. When that happens, we investigate. In my recent knowledge we haven’t had anyone fired on the local level, but if that were to happen, then we make sure that the member is being treated fairly through the process.

The AFM is not like other unions; we have more of a focus on boots–on–the–ground, and I think that’s a major strength. We are right there in the trenches with our members.

How do you feel like your work with the AFM has helped build the music industry in Chattanooga?

Taylor: I’ve been part of a team that has gotten better pay and better working conditions for musicians in Chattanooga. That is the number one thing. Because we have that established, other people see that around the country and use that to better their scenario. I don’t feel like I’ve done a very good job connecting people outside of the orchestra, but part of that is because I haven’t been in office for very long. That’s my next goal: to get out of my music style and talk to other people.

With that, I’ve recently proposed increasing the minimum scale for gigs when people use union musicians. I started a conversation about getting it out of what it was in 2009 and increasing it to match today’s economy. I’ve also been proactive about creating a contractor list on our local website so potential music buyers can contract a union musician and get good work. I’ve been working with musicians to get good contracts into their hands to help if they ever need to go to legal action. My focus has broadened from the orchestra musicians to freelancers, because everyone deserves to be paid well for their services.

Taylor is not just a devoted member of the AFM; he is also the principal double bass player for the CSO. He has played four seasons with them after an education in classical music powerhouses such as the Peabody Conservatory of John Hopkins University andDuquesne University. Brown has an interesting list of accolades following his education including performances with Earth, Wind, and Fire and Barry Manilow, faculty member at the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts, and active freelance commercial studio performer.

How do you feel like you can make classical music relevant now?

Taylor: I think that it’s never been more relevant. I know that there’s been this doom and gloom approach to classical music for about 500 years, with claims that it’s been dying. It’s just wrong. A strength I see is that we have a huge industry supported by 4% of the population. We have so many more people we can tap into. I think that many years of musicians and managers alike huddling into themselves and not getting out to make relationships with people is part of the problem.

The education system has also failed arts a lot. How many elementary schools in this system provide a free arts education to their students? Not many. I had it. Here’s a basic statement: if I didn’t have orchestra classes in the 5th grade, I wouldn’t have pursued it professionally. And that has harmed the music industry. It’s easy to blame someone else, but we have to figure out how to combat that problem and provide these opportunities to kids. It’s not impossible; it requires a hustle, but I can make a living out of just performing. I want future generations to have that opportunity as well.