Steely Dan in the studio, 1973. From left, Jim Hodder, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Donald Fagen.

Steely Dan Meets Shawn Fain

Although Donald Fagen evidently thinks otherwise, since the demise of Walter Becker who died of esophageal cancer in 2017, Steely Dan has ceased to exist. On the Steely Dan official website (which is remarkably hacky for a vaunted band) on the home page, two of the four images are large photos of Fagen and Becker.* There is no red X through Becker’s visage.

And it goes on to detail how the two started out as session musicians, including being members of the backup band for Jay and the Americans.

Then in 1972 Steely Dan was formed with Fagen and Becker joined by Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter on guitars and Jim Hodder on drums. On the Can’t Buy A Thrill album, the group’s first, the lead guitar on “Reelin’ in the Years” was played by Elliot Randall. The vocal on “Dirty Work” was by David Palmer.

And that was just the start. A quintessential characteristic of the band has been its amorphousness as regards membership. There has been a vast array of session and independent musicians as part of the crew over the years, including, but not limited to, Jeff Porcaro, Michael McDonald, Royce Jones, Peter Erskine, Tom Barney, Drew Zingg, Warren Bernhart, Bill Ware. . . .

The thing that stayed consistent was the duo.

And for some seven years the duo has been done but somehow it still presented, perhaps because of the IP associated with the brand, as “Steely Dan.”

But this isn’t one in series of my existential/economic screeds on bands that seem to exist only to continue to rake in the take. Rather, it was caused by two events from last week, which got me to consider session musicians. Without question Steely Dan is one of the preeminent employers of those players.

The first thing was a story on about unionized workers at MASS MoCA, a contemporary art museum, going out on strike. A picture accompanying the story shows three women with strike placards, and two of the three identify the union the museum workers are members of: the UAW.

Second was the appearance of UAW Shawn Fain at the State of the Union address. He was the guest of Joe Biden. Fain led the 46-day strike last fall against GM, Ford and Stellantis, which resulted in hourly workers, among other things, receiving a 25% wage increase over the life of the contract; while it is an incremental rise during that time, they received 11% right off the bat.

What is interesting about Fain is that during the strike he communicated to the union membership (and the world at large) using Facebook Live. During one of his presentations the head of the labor organization didn’t wear an obligatory golf shirt with logo on the left breast but a T-shirt with the slogan: “Eat the Rich.” Not the sort of thing you’d associate with the head of a group consisting of 400,000 people. However, after the negotiations were completed it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising if Fain wore a “Frankie Says Relax” T-shirt.

The story about the museum employees quotes a statement from the striking workers that says, in part, “We unionized because our members love MASS MoCA and we believe in the ability for the Museum to be an equitable place where workers can survive. We are striking for the same reason—we believe the museum can do better and we want our members to feel secure in their ability to work and live.”

It is reported that of the 120 employees at MASS MoCA 58% of them earn $16.25 per hour. The full-time employees bring home an average $43,600.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the average hourly wage for an auto worker in February was $29.98.

Fain obviously has his work cut out for him as regards the members of Local 2110—though it wants a $2 per hour increase to the minimum wage and an overall salary bump of 4.5% for the year.

While working in a museum and an automotive assembly plant are certainly disparate things, presumably those who work in art museums do so because of an affinity for, well, art. Odds are the person who works the register in the shop at an art museum isn’t there because there wasn’t an opening to do the same at the local Walmart.

In the art world, there are those like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst who seem to be more about the cash than the creation.

And in the music world a key metric is that based on earnings, be it from streaming or concerts or whatever. In those cases it is the marquee name that is associated with the money.

But what of the session musicians, those who are passionate about their art? How well do they do?

Let’s face it: with rare exceptions, without their abilities many of the musicians who are making more than $43,600 per annum would be more likely to be making something closer to that rather than six or even seven figures.

Although in the background, these musicians create works that allow the others to be in the foreground.

I wonder if the AFL-CIO affiliated American Federation of Musicians does as well for its members as Shawn Fain does for his.


*One of the other images is an ad for Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live!, which was recorded in 2019, two years post-Becker, and Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly Live, which is a live recording of what one could argue is the band that “Steely Dan” currently is. There is also an image of the poster that reads: “Eagles: The Long Goodbye, Final Tour, with special guest Steely Dan.” The Eagles formed in 1971. The members of the original band were Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner. By the time Hotel California was released in February 1977 the band consisted of Henley, Frey, Meisner, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh. Walsh had replaced Leadon in 1975. In September 1977 Meisner quit the band and was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit. Felder joined in 1974. Due to acrimony among the members of the band, it broke up in 1980. The band reformed in 1994 with Henley, Frey, Felder, Schmit, and Walsh. In 2001 Felder was out. (He was replaced by session musician Steuart Smith, though he is not officially a member of the band.) The members of the band who are on the current tour are Henley, Walsh, Schmit, Vince Gill, and Deacon Frey, son of the late Glenn Frey (d. 2016). If my 50% rule about a band holds, then The Eagles no longer exist because there is only one member, or 25%, of the original band. However, given that Walsh has been in the band for 49 years and Schmit for 48—if the band had continued straight through since 1971.  However, there was that 14-year hiatus, and those two were in the band before it commenced, so the band has really existed for 39 years and Walsh and Schmit have been part of it for the greatest part of it being a band. All of which is to say that while Steely Dan doesn’t exist, The Eagles does.

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