David and Art - “A Gig’s a Gig…Sometimes”

Mar 2, 2020

A word that musicians have long used to refer to performances is today being heard far from the arts world.

Sometimes during my senior year in high school, I would slip out of one of my elective classes and go hang out in the band hall.  Very often only the assistant band director and I would be in there talking or listening to jazz or whatever, and any time he had to leave the room for something, before he walked out he would say “If my manager calls, take the gig.”  I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but thought it was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard anyone say. (read more)

Back then I didn’t know anyone who used the word “gig” and it felt like a little glimpse into a world much hipper than Irving High School.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized it had slipped into my own vocabulary as the way to describe one-time musical engagements. 

Today this little word is creating a great deal of confusion as the business and political worlds grapple with a concept from the world of the arts.

On January 1, a bill known as the “gig-economy law” went into effect in California.  The purpose of it is to make it harder for big corporations to treat their regular workers like independent, transient contractors – like a club would treat a quartet of musicians playing on its front stage tonight.  Of course flowing from this are questions about things like minimum wage, paid sick days, benefits of various kinds, and basic fairness for workers.

But the problem just now seems to be defining what really constitutes a gig.  While the law provides exemptions for “fine artists,” that term really isn’t defined anywhere in the legislation and it’s up to the party hiring the person to make the distinction between who should be considered an employee and who an independent contractor.  A couple of weeks ago the Los Angeles Times reported that one opera company in the state has already postponed a production, and that other arts organizations are considering cutting programs entirely because of uncertainty in the law regarding the status of artists. If some smaller arts organizations cancel performances out of fear of running afoul of the law it could bring down their whole year, economically speaking, or even force them to close.  Not too many groups have big financial cushions under them.

Hoping to head off such damaging decisions, the advocacy group Californians for the Arts has said that any arts organization with questions about the law can contact it for help. 

The general manager of a small theater group in LA told the Los Angeles Times that he understands that some corporations mistreat their workers via loopholes in labor laws but that the performing arts world isn’t a gig economy because businesses are trying to take advantage of workers, “it’s a gig economy because we are truly gigging.”

People on the inside sometimes understand the way the art world works a little better than do people on the outside, especially when the worlds intersect.  A way to fix this would be for more people to become more familiar with how the art world works.