Guest commentary

I’ve Got Your Gig Economy Right Here!

 by David Schoenbrun, President, Musicians Union Local 6, San Francisco

A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40% of American workers would be independent contractors.  Curiously, but maybe not so surprising considering the closeness of recent presidential polls, a recent study by Pew Research found that almost 90% of us don’t even know what a “gig economy,” which refers to such a phenomenon, is. Here is a good-enough definition: “A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.”  (, May 2016)

Theories abound as to what is driving this shift away from a traditional employer-employee work environment. Digitalization — the ability to essentially “phone it in” is a contributing factor in the IT world. The workers have a lot to do with the trend — looking for a way to blur the lines between their professional and personal lives in order to improve the quality of both. But what about the growing number of gig-folk in other work worlds — the temp workers, internet merchants and especially our beloved Uber drivers? Is it a decline in the traditional job market, or insufficient training and education to enter it, or both, or just a desire for from freedom from the usual workplace hassles and constrictions?  And where is it leading our culture — is it a good thing or not? Most casual observers look upon it favorably as an innovative approach to making a living. My kids like it because Uber is cheaper, cleaner and easier than driving or calling a cab. But the more savvy are cautious. Hillary Clinton, recently remarked, “…it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”

No one knows who first coined the term “gig economy,” but it seems certain that it’s derived from an old musician’ term for an “engagement,” and before that probably had to do with maritime employment or carriage-making or something… The economist who came up with it as a descriptor must have been aware of the fact that musicians have been doing this for some time, and so cleverly and aptly coined it. So it would stand to reason that if anyone is wondering whether the gig economy will be an ultimate benefit to workers down the road, or whether the quasi-employers who take a nice cut of the proceeds of their work will be the big winners, maybe they ought to ask a musician how it’s been working out for us.

As a student of employment in the performing arts, I can tell you that not a day goes by without some would-be employer of musicians clamoring to be allowed to hire musicians as independent contractors.  It’s the regional symphony Executive Director complaining about how he or she has to actually raise money “just to pay the unemployment tax,” or the producer of a celebrity show balking at paying payroll for the 15 musicians who he needs to back his singer in a 15,000 audience capacity arena, or maybe just the person who used to be called in the industry “the father of the bride” — a vestige of our collective sexist pasts. I have come to the conclusion that, at least in our industry, the road to the gig economy and our musicians being regarded as independent contractors has been fueled by one thing and one thing only: profits — and not worker profits.

This trend has not hit our major CBA groups and employers…yet. Every other aspect of the music industry is in deeply ensconced in the gig economy — from chamber music to the clubs, restaurants, hotels and cruise ships to the dark date recording sessions. Ask the participating musicians why, many will say that it’s just the way the world works, and/or that the musicians’ union abandoned them. Ask me why, and especially with regard to the “casual” side of our industry, and I will tell you a sad story, lifted from a previous 2007 article:

Something very important and horrible happened to casual musicians in 1978. The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) issued a ruling essentially saying that bandleaders, not hotels, or restaurants, or clubs, or cruise ships, were the rightful employers of the musicians who worked in their groups. This ruling meant that the Musicians Union could no longer compel those hotels, restaurants, etc. to engage in collective bargaining – we could not force them to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions, even if the majority of the group was in favor of doing so, as had been the case. It also meant that we were no longer able to enforce union security clauses with those entities with which we had previously bargained, like the SF Hotel Association, so they were no longer contractually bound to hire union musicians. The union not only lost its legal recourse to organize this huge body of music work, but we also lost our right to influence the decisions of these employers as to whether or not to hire union musicians by staging boycotts, strikes and picketing.

The ruling has been devastating for everyone concerned, except of course the (real) employers. With all of those hard-fought negotiated scales and room minimums out the window, hotels and other such employers could offer work at whatever rates they wanted. If a leader insisted on citing the Area Wide Casual Wage Scale, there were 10 other leaders waiting in the wings who did not. Musicians became accustomed to working without union contracts in place. They saw their annual pension contributions slow to a dribble. They questioned the need to belong to a union, and many left. In 1979 we had over 4000 members, now we less than half that number.

Younger musicians entering the casual music field likewise did not, and do not, see a reason to join the union.  It’s an anachronism to them – union membership is seldom a requirement of the employer or the bandleader, and only the occasional contract is filed, meaning that pension contributions (one of the most meaningful benefits we have to offer) is largely marginalized as a reason to belong.

So there you have it — if you want to know how the gig economy is going to work out for the many being drawn to it now, lulled by the promise of making their own schedules, unfettered by union rules and dues, ask a jazz musician. Our members didn’t have a choice in the matter, but now many other workers do, and the choices they are making may be short-sighted.

Since I mentioned Hillary Clinton, I feel compelled to give equal time to Donald Trump.  There…

May the force be with us on November 8th.