Would the new ‘gig worker’ bill stifle musical creativity?

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A grand piano at the John Sowden House in Los Angeles. Photo by Amy Ta.

Senate bill AB 5 has passed the California Senate and Assembly, and now goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom. If the governor signs the bill into law, it would require businesses that rely on independent contractors to reclassify them as employees and offer benefits such as health insurance and sick pay. Many freelancers have argued that they deserve the same protections around wages, hours, and discrimination that employees receive.

There’s been a lot of talk about how Uber and Lyft drivers are affected. But what about LA musicians who literally work “gigs?” 

Richard James Burgess, President and CEO at American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), points out that there's a big difference between driving for one large rideshare company and working as a musician for many different artists and labels. Burgess says he's worked as a producer and engineer for dozens, even up to hundreds, of different companies in a single year. 

He's concerned that AB 5 would change how today's musicians make records: "Many records are made by artists in their house, apartment, whatever, on a laptop. And sometimes they're even files that are emailed around. And you know creating that sort of employer-employee relationship could actually stifle creativity, and I think that would be a real shame if that happened."

He adds that most music producers and engineers are already making more than minimum wage, and the freelancers he knows enjoy being what’s called 1099 workers. "They like being able to make deductions… They don't necessarily want to be an employee, and certainly don't want to be an employee of 50 or 100 different employers over a period of a year," he says. 

Burgess says independent musicians have tried reaching deals that would exempt them from AB 5 -- like lawyers, architects, accountants, and hairstylists have done. "We've been in discussions in Sacramento about this since May…  It turned out that one of the unions decided to come up with their own language, and it was language that just simply didn't work for us. It would have complicated things even more. So currently we don't have a deal. We don't have a carve-out, and that's really what we're looking for at this point," he says. 

Burgess says he wants a flexible situation where everyone could keep making records the way they do now. 

Down the road, could AB5 drive a lot of music production out of California? 

Burgess points to international labels who are concerned about working in California: "It's not uncommon for internationally-based or nationally-based labels and artists to shoot a video in California, or a photo shoot. That would be a deterrent for them if they suddenly had to become an employer of that photographer or that videographer."

He adds that many recordings are done in California, so AB5 could hurt recording studios. "There's a distinct possibility that people will choose to record elsewhere… I live in New York at this point. New York has a very active music industry, as does Nashville, as does Atlanta, Austin is a pretty busy scene too. So there are plenty of places where people can record."

More: How AB 5 could change Hollywood