Musicians are Permanent and Precarious Gig Workers

Grenoble  We have spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there are effective ways to organize informal and precarious workers. This was a front line topic for our organizers from around the world when we gathered in Paris recently. A pilot is making progress with hotel housekeepers and cleaners in Lyon, France. In the UK, our ACORN tenants’ union is increasingly getting questions about whether we can be their union on the job as well. Certainly in the United States this is part of our daily work, and we are soon launching a project in New Orleans among itinerant and precarious hospitality workers. Certainly we have experience in this area in organizing home-based workers in childcare and home health, as well as street vendors and waste pickers in India and elsewhere.

The constant publicity and attention given to the gig economy and its economic challenges questions whether or not there is any consensus that such an economy can produce wage security. A unique plan under discussion by ACORN’s New Orleans affiliate revolves around whether or not people can save their homes and livelihoods by adding additional, affordable housing units on their existing home lots in a different kind of in-fill development. Others are even trying AirBnb, if they can master the confusing local regulations. Uber, under pressure, seems to be adding a way for drivers to collect tips and calculating refunds where it scammed drivers on taxes.

I’m skeptical both philosophically and practically. At home or on the road, email is still everywhere, and as the manager of both radio stations like KABF and WAMF and performance venues like Fair Grinds Coffeehouses, I am constantly, and creatively, being solicited by aspiring musicians to play their music or allow them space on the calendar, despite the fact that the stations are noncommercial and playing the coffeehouse means busking for tips. I’m sympathetic to both their dreams and ambitions, as well as their plight, which sometimes includes where they can get cheap housing or free food, even though, as nonprofits and social enterprises, we are too strapped to be helpful without robbing Peter to pay Paul ourselves,.

All of which pushed me to read How Music Works by former frontman of Talking Heads and longtime musician and artist, David Byrne. This is a love letter to music and a Cook’s tour of his career, but the book is also an invaluable primer on the business of music, and there’s no sugar in that coffee. Byrne makes a case for how important “event” spaces and venues are in creating and supporting a music scene. I wish we could provide that, but we fall short on his standards. It is hard for us to supply food and drink to traveling musicians when that means taking food and drink out of the hands of organizers and our members around the world, but I hope he would understand that.

Byrne is clear about his situation. He’s successful and makes a good living, but he certainly didn’t get crazy Rolling Stones rich from his music or other songwriting. When he goes through the various business models on record deals, the old ACORN chant of “predatory lender, criminal offender” was ringing through my ears. On my blog we try to feature a song sent to KABF from time to time to help out the artist. Recently, I got a note from one of the musicians about whether I could link to streaming or something too complicated for me to follow so that maybe he could pick up some iTunes purchases. In a similar way, a friend recently posted on Facebook how she pledges to radio stations to fight the notion that good music and entertainment can be provided for free.

If musicians are a good example of the gig economy, then the verdict is already in, and if music does NOT pay, even when musicians are doing the work, and their work is generally valued and respected more than other precarious workers like cab drivers, cleaners, and hospitality workers, then we’re simply watching the creation of a permanent underclass, not a tech-miracle. Spin that record differently the next time you hear it.

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