Although I have never had to rely on a freelance career as my entire source of income, as a musician I have performed many gigs paid on a per-service rate. The freelance or gigging life has always been an option for artists, musicians, and other creatives who seek to utilize their talents as self-employed, independent contractors. These people, like the current crop of workers entering the gig economy, have faced the challenges of budgeting with fluctuating income levels, no paid time off, paying self-employment taxes, and working with no or inadequate health insurance. Anyone who has gotten a 1099 instead of a W-2 at tax time is most likely familiar with these issues.

American Federation of Musicians (AFM)

Since 1896, professional musicians have had the support of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), a union chartered by the American Federation of Labor. As in many industries, technological advances have caused major changes in the labor market for musicians. Prior to the advent of motion pictures with sound, “talkies” thousands of musicians found work as performers in theatre pit orchestras for silent films. In the two years following the release of the first “talkie”, 20,000 musicians lost their jobs. In more recent times, the advent of sound sampling, synthesizers, and sequencing has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the size of traveling pit orchestras for touring Broadway shows. Most sections of the pit orchestra have been reduced in size with missing parts performed by programmed synthesizers. One has to travel to a major city to see a theatre production with a full pit orchestra. A 2010 blog post by Michael Kaiser explores the reasons behind the smaller orchestras and the negative effect on the quality of the production. Read the full article: Why We Use the Full Orchestra. What Kaiser does not address is the economic impact on the lives of musicians who had relied on income from pit orchestra jobs. A 2002 article in the Chicago Tribune, The Incredible Shrinking Pit Band, by theatre critic Michael Phillips further discusses the increasing use of keyboard synthesizers (virtual orchestra) in place of live performers. According to Phillips:

“For decades and for economic reasons, more and more shows have played Broadway or gone a-touring with increasingly thin pit orchestras. Some producers love the v.o.(virtual orchestra) prospect. It’s cheaper than hiring a human being. (Union musicians on the road make $962 minimum a week plus per diem and insurance; local union musicians, hired to join a show during its Chicago engagement, make a minimum of $1,410 a week.) The v.o. technology has improved to the point that with the “Sinfonia,” one of the v.o.’s on the market, a well-trained orchestra contractor I know had a hard time telling what was a real oboe and what wasn’t.”

Impact of Technology

The invention of recording technology, radio broadcasts, jukeboxes and, in the present, the use of DJ’s all impacted the ability of the performing musician to earn a living wage. The AFM fought hard to win agreements from radio stations and record companies to pay royalties to the musicians whose work was the foundation of these businesses. In an effort to support the thousands of musicians who lost work as the new technologies changed the way people listened to music, The AFM organized a recording ban. From 1942-1944, recording studios went silent as musicians refused to record until record companies agreed to pay into a fund to support unemployed musicians. The union’s success led to the creation of the Music Performance Trust Fund.

Benefits for Independent Contractors

uber driver

The freelance or gigging life may sound attractive at first glance, but it presents challenges to those who choose this path. Freelancers often struggle to earn a living wage, save for retirement, and obtain affordable health insurance. Some sociologists and economists have predicted that the freelance life will be the new normal as companies choose to engage independent contractors for specific projects and short periods of time. In just the past few years, millions of people have started working as drivers for Uber or Lyft. These companies disrupted the business model of the taxi industry and transferred the expense of owning and operating the vehicle to the driver, now classified as independent contractors. An article featured on the Brookings Institution blog details the challenges of providing benefits to independent workers as well as some possible solutions including the establishment of portable benefits that are not connected to a specific employer and can move with the worker.

Tough to Get a Mortgage

Another challenge gig economy workers will face is qualifying for a mortgage. The current system demands proof of consistent income, something that can be difficult to show when you are working a gig economy job. The website has prepared a useful guide for gig economy workers applying for a mortgage.

graphic showing the median pay for taxi, uber, and lyft driversWorker Protections Lacking

A recent article posted on The Hill by David Weil points to a disturbing trend in state legislators in which laws are passed that permit companies like Uber, Lyft, and Handy to “… require their workers to bear the downside risks of wage theft, unemployment, injuries, and even sexual harassment at the workplace. ” Weil explains that the bill passed by Colorado Senate would make workers defined as independent contractors ineligible for unemployment insurance or workers compensation. 

For more on the gig economy, check out a guest blog post by Holly, Sounds Like a Pretty Good Gig, Right?

How will we as a country respond to this new reality in which working people will no longer have employer-provided benefits, health insurance, and long-term employment opportunities?

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