Delays in Supporting Independent Musicians Highlight Systemic Inequalities
“These relief funds have been applied unevenly and there has been very little leadership from our states that freelancers fall through the cracks,” said Rafael Espinal, president of the Freelancers Union, which estimates that approximately 57 million Americans currently work as independent contractors.
For independent musicians – many of whom saw their incomes wiped out by the closure – the situation is particularly dire. Daryl friedman, Head of Industry, Government and Membership Relations for the Recording Academy, recently set up a membership hotline and hosted daily webinars and Twitter Q&A to explain the ins and outs of outs of the $ 2 trillion legislation, which provides unemployment benefits to the self-employed for the first time in US history.
“This is a very important lifeline for many of these people,” says Friedman. “The music industry was one of the first to suffer and will likely be one of the last to recover.”
Slow and unstable pace of freelance assistance
But despite the best efforts of the Recording Academy and other artists’ rights organizations, relief has been slow in coming for the vast majority of freelance music workers. According to a snap poll Friedman conducted on April 30 with a subset of the academy’s boards of directors, more than 70% of the organization’s membership – the majority of whom derive most of their income from self-employment – had not yet received their unique stimulus. Payments.
A big part of the reason for the widespread problems around unemployment in particular, according to several people Billboard spoken for this story, comes down to a disconnect between the federal CARES Act and the needs of self-employed workers in individual states, who have been forced to create separate PUA portals at an unprecedented clip to accommodate millions of new claims by workers in the gig economy. Perhaps the most troubling issue that stems from this disconnection is one that has seen musicians from several states, including major music centers like California and New York, receive unemployment benefit based on their income. W2 often tiny, as opposed to the much larger portion of their income from self-employment.
According to Manatt, lawyer for Phelps & Phillips Jordan bromley, who worked on amending the next set of CARES Act laws to address some of the issues currently affecting freelance music writers, this disconnect stems from the legislation itself. Namely, the CARES Act specifies that if a worker exceeds the W2 minimum income requirement that qualifies them for the state’s traditional unemployment system (these minimum requirements vary from state to state), they don’t. is not eligible for the PUA, which is based on 1099 earnings.
As a result, many freelancers are being considered for UI under the traditional system (supplemented by weekly federal assistance payments of $ 600, which currently expire July 31), UI benefits of the state being based on W2 income which reflects only a small fraction of their actual income. Adding insult to injury, traditional unemployment insurance systems in many states, including Tennessee, currently do not allow applicants to backdate their claims to the date of loss – meaning that freelancers who waited weeks to process their applications could lose a month or more. valuable income.
“[The CARES Act legislation] says you must either not qualify for state UI or have exhausted your state UI, so state hands are tied there, ”Bromley explains. “They can’t do anything until we fix it through legislation. “
“We were told to wait … and then I only got $ 85”
Meanwhile, many music independents fall victim to loopholes in the current law. Among them is Danica Pinner, a Los Angeles-based freelance cellist who received just $ 85 a week from the California Department of Employment Development (EDD) after hitting the minimum income threshold – even though she earns about a sixth of her income of his work at W2.
“Eighty-five dollars a week, that’s a joke, it’s nothing,” says Pinner, who is doing it in part thanks to financial help from nonprofits, including a grant $ 1,000 from the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Coronavirus Relief Fund and health insurance premium assistance through the Music Health Alliance, as well as her federal stimulus check, which she received by direct deposit late last month . But his experience with the unemployment system still stings, in part because California’s PUA portal was only up and running on April 28 – well over a month after it closed.
“We kind of feel cheated because we’ve been told to wait while everyone else files for unemployment… until they improve things for the freelancers,” she says. “Then [I only got $85]. And [I’m] like, well, what was the point? “
Get the runaround
To the disappointment of the self-employed who do not manage to benefit from a level of assistance corresponding to their income is added the virtual challenge which they are forced to face along the way.
Eric Schmalenberger, a freelance artist who performs at the House of Yes nightclub and creative venue in New York City, describes the state’s unemployment portal in nightmarish terms.
“The online forms initially seemed very clear,” says Schmalenberger, who first asked for help in late March after returning from a tour of Australia. But after completing her online application, she was told to call the state unemployment office for a follow-up.
“It took me two weeks to get to talk to a person,” he continues. “When I finally spoke to someone, they said they would send me something in the mail, like a regular mail, with the final information as to the decision and what my follow-up steps should be.”
The letter never arrived. Now, when Schmalenberger tries to access the website, he is greeted with a message that his request is pending. “And now I can’t reach anyone on the phone,” he says, “because they’ve changed the system so that only people who fill out applications can go through, but my application is supposed to be complete.”
In desperation, Schmalenberger began writing to his representatives in the hope that one of them would respond.
Even more obstacles for artists crossing state borders
For independent musicians, especially those at the lower end of the income scale, the unemployment landscape is rife with many other pitfalls. On the one hand, many of them often earn income in several different states through trips around the country, and they often do not receive adequate documents that meet the state’s requirements for government assistance. . According to Kevin erickson, director of the nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, this is because most state governments have yet to properly address the complexities inherent in touring revenue.
“Not all states have succeeded in updating their systems to reflect the reality that [an individual’s] The 1099 job takes place in a whole bunch of different states, and so some of them always report it on state revenue, ”he says. Plus, venues aren’t required to provide a Form 1099 unless they pay a musician more than $ 600 each year – a threshold that many on the lower levels of the touring circuit never exceed.
Although people who make a living in the arts, and especially musicians, are well used to receiving payments weeks and even months after services have been rendered, their distress has increased exponentially as they go. envision a future without work.
“When you’re freelance, even if it looks like you’re not going to work by the end of the year, the phone rings or your email comes on and all of a sudden you’ve got a gig tomorrow night. Or other. “, declares the Chairman and CEO of A2IM Richard james burgess, who worked as a freelance musician for many years and is now active in the fight to correct the loopholes in the CARES law for freelancers. “But obviously we have no chance of that happening at the moment. It’s a very, very different situation and I think it’s pretty catastrophic.”
With a large number of freelance music workers currently waiting behind the scenes for help from overwhelmed state and federal aid programs – a list that also includes the forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (P3) loans from the Small Business Administration, to which self-employed workers are technically eligible. because but rarely receive – states simply don’t have the manpower to provide the kind of advice creatives need. This left defenders like Bromley, Burgess, Friedman, Erickson and others to serve as guides.
“A lot of creative people don’t have brains for the business side of anything,” says the founding member of Songwriters of North America (SONA). Jack Kugell, who helped establish the MusicCovidRelief.com resource center to help musicians navigate the web for government assistance. “That’s why they’re so good at being creative, and that’s why a lot of [them] end up getting ripped off by business people. “
It’s time for Congress to catch up on the gig economy
Well-intentioned as it may have been, the CARES Act had the unintended effect of highlighting fundamental inequalities in a system that has long supported an increasingly small segment of the population: W2 workers. And for some, its messy deployment was a galvanizing episode, paving a potential path to a more egalitarian system.
“We are now mobilized”, says Ari Herstand, co-founder of the nonprofit Independent Music Professionals United (IMPU), which was formed during the successful battle to create an exception for musicians in California’s controversial independent law AB5. “And I think Congress will be much more willing at the federal and state levels to amend unemployment laws permanently to seek independent contractors. We’re in a gig economy right now, and Congress is doing a lot too. long way to catch up with this reality. “
Until they do, artists like Schmalenberger will continue to wait on the other end of a phone or keypad, hoping and praying for a lifeline.
“I am so stressed [that] when i’m not working on it i’m sleeping or i’m complaining about [it]”, he says. While he waits, he asks himself,” When my bank account reaches zero, what should I do? “