Guest Post by Jack Malmstrom
I’m very grateful to Brian Shim for inviting me to share information about a new law that prohibits many workers from being independent contractors and may threaten our live music scene.
Musicians invented the “gig”
In an effort to address abuses of worker rights by huge new “gig economy” corporations like Lyft and Uber, our state passed a well-intentioned bill last year known as AB-5. With some exceptions, it forces all employers in the state to treat their workers — formerly classified as independent contractors — as employees.
Musicians have always worked and thrived as independent artists — we’re the true originators of the “gig.” As a bandleader, clubs hire me to provide a night’s entertainment then write a check for our agreed-upon fee. I hire my favorite players to fill out the band and divide the proceeds amongst us all. We all report our earnings and pay our taxes via 1099s at the end of the year. With hundreds of one-night, “casual” appearances and a constantly changing line-up of players, it’s a simple system we know and love. But….
Good intentions gone awry
Under AB-5, which became law on January 1, any club hiring a band — even for one night — must classify the leader as an employee, put them on payroll, compute, deduct, withhold, and report taxes, provide workers comp insurance, pay into unemployment insurance… in effect do the countless bookkeeping chores any company does for a full-time employee. Who will be willing to do that for the hundreds of musicians that cross a stage during a year? As a result, some are already canceling engagements with live performers. But wait, it gets worse….
With AB-5 each musician in the band is now an employee of the bandleader. In a group like mine, that’s six employees for each performance (and our line up changes from night to night). No more checks and a hearty “Thank you, job well done!” at the end of each show. The bandleader must now put everyone on payroll, deduct and withhold state and federal taxes, deduct for and provide various forms of insurance, and adhere to hundreds of workplace regulations and financial reporting designed to protect full-time employees — for everyone, even those playing only one show with the band. Leaders who have recently attempted to hire payroll services to administer this complexity are reporting that no one in the state is willing or able to provide such a service.
So compliance isn’t just inconvenient and costly, it’s impossible. Some have decided the only way to continue offering live music is to continue as before — violating the new prohibition of independent contractors — and hope for lax enforcement, a retroactive amendment exempting our industry, or outright repeal.
But if that doesn’t come….
Everyone I know dearly hopes to continue entertaining our fans. You can help by sending a quick on-line note to your California representative. (You can find out who they are here.) If signing petitions is your thing, this one already has nearly 50,000 signatures — but it could use yours! Want more info? A quick google search of “California”+”AB5”+”Musicians” will give you plenty. Finally, if an amendment comes up on a ballot later this year, vote!
Sorry for the interruption, we now return you to SwingDance.LA’s regular programming. Keep swingin’!