From The Side of the Road… perils of the gig economy

If you’ve ridden an Uber or Lyft lately, or stayed in an AirBnB, you know that the “gig economy” is the big trend in employment, especially in the service industry, and it’s likely here to stay. People everywhere are becoming their own bosses, or are at least contracting their services out on mutually agreed terms, depending on the gig. With it comes schedule flexibility, a sense of control over your work life, and often more free time, even when you don’t want it.

I mentioned the service industry because it’s there that this new way of working is flourishing, but not every sector of the service industry can work with the gig economy. You wouldn’t want a hospital calling up a surgeon to do an emergency brain procedure, only to hear him or her say, “Uh sure. When were you needing that? Oh, sorry. I’m already booked. How’s next Tuesday?” Come to think of it, this might actually happen sometimes. Or let’s say the Defense Secretary calls up the top general and says, “The Russians have invaded Poland. We need an immediate response,” and the general replies, “Uh, sure man. Let me check my calendar. What does it pay, if you don’t mind my asking?”

The term “gig” has a number of meanings, but turning to the sixth definition in the Dictionary of American Slang: “. . . an engagement or job for a jazz musician or musicians, esp. a one-night engagement. 1950: ‘If I ask you to go out on a gig, it’s thirty-five or forty dollars for that night.’”

The first definition, incidentally, is: “A child’s pacifier or any object, (such) as a cloth square, spoon, or the like used as a toy . . .” (slave or southern origin). So bear in mind that when you refer to your “gig,” you could either mean the club you’re playing on Saturday night, or you could be referring to a cloth square.

There are certainly pros and cons to working in the gig economy, but bluegrass musicians and musicians in general already know all about this. The rest of the world is now just trying to be like us. They probably should have asked for a little advice first.

The typical bluegrass musician at almost every level of the business contracts out to band leaders or to individual buyers, who most often pay by the day or by the event. The band leaders in turn contract to event organizers of various kinds. Dates and money are agreed on, and one gig will seldom be like another, financially or otherwise. It’s all open for negotiation, including the date. Benefits for both side musician and bandleader alike are virtually non-existent, unless you count any free food or lodging included in the terms. Having worked in this economy for most of my life, I honestly can’t even tell you what a 401k is.

It’s true that some bluegrass musicians are actually paid a salary, with tax withheld, and health insurance provided. That’s just weird, though.

The advantages are many to this self-employed life, most notably the option to sleep until 11:00, avoid rush hour driving, and to be able to turn work down for whatever reason you choose (“You know we’d love to do the gig, but you’re kind of a self-important windbag, so I think we’ll just skip it”).

Disadvantages are many too, though: while avoiding the rush hour commute, you may sometimes find yourself driving 16 hours straight, and, instead of sleeping until 11:00, not sleeping at all. And there’s the lack of benefits mentioned above. In the United States, where health insurance is a very big factor in people’s professional and employment decisions, there’s none of that in the gig economy, so that’s another disadvantage.

COVID has been hard on so many economic sectors, but harder than most on self-employed musicians and entertainers, who had no fallback at all when the work just vanished. Mind you, many salaried people were temporarily or permanently out of work, and they couldn’t do livestream concerts like some of us could to bring in a few dollars (mind you I’d tune into an accounts receivable clerk’s livestream show just to see what it was like).

Here’s a comparison between the life of a salaried employee (someone with a real job) and a self-employed musician or other contractor in the gig economy:

  • Salaried: Predictable weekly pay check
  • Gig economy: Unpredictable swings in income. You could refer to the income stream as “manic depressive.”
  • Salaried: 40 hour week, predictable 9 to 5 hours
  • Gig economy: Anything from the zero-hour to the 168-hour work week (including travel, with some sleep worked in here and there).
  • Salaried: Health insurance, with the good plans having doctor choice and premiums paid by employer.
  • Gig Economy: Zero or bare bones insurance a friend recommended. Doctor choice is limited but you avoid them all anyway. Friends organize benefit concert if something goes wrong. You sit in.
  • Salaried: Commute to work in traffic
  • Gig economy: Find yourself driving to Idaho for one gig, hoping for some traffic just to help stay awake.
  • Salaried: Taxes are withheld. You’ll probably get a refund at the end of the year.
  • Gig economy: “Oh no! The deadline is WHEN?” You may owe between $35 and $10,000 depending on what kind of year it was and if you made quarterly payments to the IRS or not.
  • Salaried: No control over your professional life, and you could be randomly fired whenever it suits your employer.
  • Gig economy: You feel like you’re in control, then a pandemic hits. Also, your bandleader could fire you at any time and leave you at a truckstop in the middle of the night.
  • Salaried: Two weeks paid vacation. You take a Caribbean cruise
  • Gig Economy: The line between work and vacation is blurred. You learn to treat the down time, like waiting for the start of a sound check, as a mini-vacation. You might get hired to play on a Caribbean cruise, and they let you eat the food, so that’s nice.