A Solution for Musicians Suffering from 'Exposure'? Labor Organizing

Pianist Tammy Hall isn't looking for exposure, but she performs Saturday with her trio at Bird & Beckett as part of a inaugural fundraiser for the Independent Musicians Alliance.  (Irene Young)

For Bay Area musicians, these are the worst of times. An environment already darkened by sky-high rents, closing venues and long-stagnant wages has been further roiled by AB5, the new California law that radically upends the employment status of independent musicians. The law’s author, San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, has said she’s working on an amendment that will carve out exceptions for some artists. But as of now, confusion reigns as to whether, say, a vocalist hiring a rhythm section for a one-off gig takes on the responsibilities and paperwork of an employer.

Veteran trumpeter Mario Guarneri, a cautious optimist, sees a potential silver lining amidst this perfect storm. The founder and director of Jazz In the Neighborhood, an organization that advocates for fair musician wages while producing and sponsoring concert series around the region, Guarneri is seeking to marshal the power of collective action.

“The fallout from AB5 is really a case of unintended consequences,” he says. “They should have contacted us. We’ll lose work, but some good things might come out of it. Musicians are all talking about this situation. After seven years of doing Jazz In the Neighborhood, we’ve cut checks for more than 500 musicians. We’re well placed to gather musicians together into some kind of organization. Until that happens, nothing is going to change.”

Dubbed the Independent Musicians Alliance (IMA), the new solidarity organization holds an initial fundraiser and celebration from 1pm–10:30pm on Saturday, Feb. 29, at Bird & Beckett Books and Records in San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood. The impressive program features performances by pianist Tammy Hall’s trio with bassist Ruth Davies and drummer Daria Johnson, Guarneri’s tbd Quartet with trumpeter Erik Jekabson, bassist John Wiitala and drummer Akira Tana, and Grammy Award-winning violinist Mads Tolling’s trio with bassist Dan Feiszli and guitarist Dave MacNab.

Unlike a union, which provides members with a myriad of protections, Guarneri envisions the IMA as a vehicle for building solidarity in a scene where most musicians scramble to make a living as independent contractors. Conceived to force gig-economy behemoths like Uber and Lyft into turning independent drivers into employees, AB5 upends the freelance status of a vast swath of the workforce, particularly in the arts.

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Earlier this month, Jazz in the Neighborhood and Bird & Beckett hosted a packed town hall meeting on AB5 at Oakland's Flight Deck with panelists including Julie Baker, executive director of Californians for the Arts, and Sacramento employment attorney Bryan Hawkins. Dismay over AB5 was widespread.

In response to questions from KQED Arts about the possibility of amending the law, Assemblywoman Gonzalez said, “My office has continued to meet with music industry stakeholders and remains committed to finding a consensus in this industry this year in order to bring clarity to musicians throughout California. We anticipate language within the next month.”

Expanding Organizing Efforts

In the meantime, the musicians of IMA sense an opportunity to start shifting the playing field.

It’s hard to overstate the dire situation for musicians. Many of the restaurant, bar and nightclub gigs that fill a professional player’s schedule pay the same as they did four decades ago. It’s telling that veteran artists who perform regularly in the region’s most prestigious venues are still approached by people seeking their services for free or nominal fees. It's a bitter, longstanding joke among musicians that these requests are often couched as being in their interest, "for the exposure.” Creating an organization to support musicians seeking reasonable remuneration is one path forward.

“I want to be optimistic about where we can go, but we really need to support each other,” says Tammy Hall, one of the Bay Area's most sought-after accompanists. “We have to stop devaluing what we do. I received a text yesterday evening for a gig that offered $50. My minimum is $250. Sometimes that’s negotiable, but our wages haven’t increased in at least three decades. They’ve gotten lower in some cases. Exposure only goes so far before you start suffering from it.”

Readers might wonder about the role of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the musicians' union with nationwide chapters, including in San Francisco. The relationship between jazz artists and their locals was fraught for many decades, with stories about union agents showing up at non-union gigs to fine members for playing unsanctioned engagements.

Kale Cumings, president of the Bay Area’s Musicians Union Local 6, insists that’s ancient history. “Hard-nosed attempts to control things are not our focus or where we’re headed,” he says.

The AFM offers a lot to members who are working jobs under union contract, for example with the San Francisco Symphony, BroadwaySF (which includes the Hamilton pit band) and the Green Street Mortuary Band. But with so few venues or organizations that present jazz under union contract, Local 6 has never played much of a role in the lives of the vast majority of players on the jazz scene. That said, Cumings wholeheartedly supports the idea of the Independent Musicians Alliance or any other effort that brings musicians together.

“I’m a little bit of a student of history and the only thing that I’ve seen work is collective activity,” he says. “Jazz musicians, particularly in the Bay Area, have won the race to the bottom. It’s a tragedy that needs to be addressed and turned around.”

Breaking the 'Starving Artist' Mindset

A bright spot in this bleak landscape is the music itself, a creative torrent constantly fed by young musicians coming out of institutions like the California Jazz Conservatory, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Roots, Jazz and American Music program, Mills College, Cal State East Bay, Sonoma State University and Los Medanos College, among many other jazz programs.

Yet here’s the rub: in the short term, young musicians seeking to establish themselves have every incentive to accept lowball fees as they prioritize the gaining of experience and name recognition. In a climate of scarcity, divergent generational interests make collective action difficult.

“I think building a coalition is hard because it’s a starving-artist city and we get used to that mentality,” says percussionist Ami Molinelli. She started her career in Los Angeles circa 2005, teaching in programs run by the Music Center and Los Angeles Philharmonic, just as many Los Angeles County arts organizations began to make contractors part-time employees.

“As a young artist in L.A. at the time, those two agencies did a really good job with providing benefits,” Molinelli continues. “When I was pregnant I used disability. But entertainment in L.A. is like tech up here. When I moved back here [to the Bay Area] in 2010 I was really surprised at how much less teaching artists got paid.”

One thing that the Independent Musicians Alliance can quickly accomplish is facilitating transparency. Sharing information about what gigs pay can empower musicians in negotiations. Guarneri, who joined the musicians' union as a young teenager in the 1950s and continues to pay his membership dues, sees the alliance as a vehicle for pushing wages up and perhaps even providing access to health insurance.

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“Maybe there’s a collaboration with the union down the road,” he says. “We’re not going to charge people to join. We’re asking for donations and gathering information about what we can do to make things better. Maybe we can forge some consensus about not playing a gig for anything less than a certain amount. You have to be able to say no. I have no idea where it will go, but this is a chance to have a collective voice.”