In this piece George Howard explores how the music industry, the original gig business, should serve as a cautionary example to the other industries as they begin to shift towards a gig based economy.
Guest post by consultant, teacher and author George Howard from Forbes
Long before the word “gig” became a euphemism for any type of side-hustle — Uber driver, Task Rabbit-er, Airbnb host, etc.— it was typically thought of as a term for a musician performing in public or contributing to a music recording in a studio. Perhaps actors used the term as well.
"a life devoid of any type of social safety net"
For the vast majority of musicians, the gigging life is not an easy one. It’s a life devoid of any type of social safety net, decent (if any) health insurance, retirement planning ... really, any type of stability at all. When the gigs dry up, so, too, does income.
For musicians, the trade-off has always been the “musical reward.” Any true musician understands this bargain well. As a musician myself, I am deeply familiar with the power of that transcendent musical moment. These moments do occur when performing music, and for many, they are enough to justify suffering through virtually any form of challenge or indignity. For some, it’s not even a choice: You make music and you live the gigging life because you can’t not live the gigging life. If you have the disease, you must go to the sanatorium.
Those outside the musicians’ world of the vagaries of gigs tend to romanticize this type of life: “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be able to travel around the country and make music and avail myself of all the other accoutrements of the touring life.” (Such imagined debauchery occurs with neither the regularity nor a fraction of the exoticism that everyone seems to imagine.) As with many things, the fantasy is far better than the reality for virtually everyone. Thus, the never-ending stream of musicians continue to attempt to make a life predicated on “sustainability” via gigs, and most fans continue to view it as something approximating a charmed life.
As is so often the case, what was once the domain of the music industry has oozed its way into society at large. Once again music acts as a predictor — the canary in a coal mine.
The word “gig” has of course broadened to be inclusive of pretty much any type of “job” that leverages a surplus of time or resources against the aspirational impulse of either pure survival or some degree of “getting ahead.” As the media likes to remind us, we now live in the “gig economy.”
Uber leverages the surplus vehicle that can be repurposed as a potential means to some financial end in the same way that Airbnb does for surplus rooms in a home and that Task Rabbit does for surplus time. It’s Econ 101: Those who value potential income more than they do time will utilize what is at their disposal to achieve their desire in the same way that those who value time more than money (because they have a surplus of cash) will avail themselves of the services that provide this time.
The problem, of course, is that there’s an uneven distribution. There are far more who need the money and are willing to sacrifice — and "sacrifice" is the correct term — their time and resources in order to attempt to be the first to satisfy the demand of someone who needs a ride, a vacation rental or a fence painted.
In the exact way gigs for musicians almost never become a sufficient source of income to survive, let alone arrive at a quality of life that allows something above a constant state of hustle and fear, members of this broader “gig economy” are experiencing this same reality. A “gig” as an Uber driver comes with precisely the same amount of social safety net/economic stability as that of the average gigging musician: none. Nor does it include any transcendent moments to make it potentially worthwhile.
The aspiration of economic freedom/survival that leads someone to give up their nights and weekends in order to be a “gigging” Uber driver tends not only to not come to fruition, but is almost axiomatically impossible. Any additional money that is attained via this “gig” cannot be deployed for a higher quality of life precisely because the time in which that life would be enjoyed is spent... driving the Uber. There is simply no truer economic phrase than, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” The money made in theory to realize the aspiration is offset by the opportunity cost (time to enjoy it) of making it.
Of course, for many, it’s not about making extra money for themselves to enjoy, but rather to support their family, etc.; it’s not a zero sum equation of trading time for money. That’s what virtually everyone does. Even the CEO who makes millions of dollars to provide a lovely home for her family is never there to enjoy it with them. The difference being that unlike these “non-gig” jobs, there are other “perks” associated with this opportunity cost; the above-mentioned health insurance, retirement, occasional vacation, nice restaurants, and, perhaps most importantly: social standing. The CEO who works tirelessly is seen as the embodiment of success. The Uber driver who does so --typically while also doing another job while not driving the Uber and without any of the “perks”-- is simply not viewed in the same light.
So, what does this portend for society? For the answer, take a look at the music industry.
Sure, there will always be a surplus of aspirational musicians willing to risk everything for the “gig.” Most fail. They give up music as a youthful pursuit, and relegate it to a hobby in order to get a “real job.” Those who don’t fail, but also don’t make it to a level in which they can ever truly find security, have no choice but to stay on the road hoping that somehow the crowds will keep coming/get bigger or that some externality (a song gets placed in a movie, for example) catapults them to the level where they could turn their “gigging” life into one that more resembles an actual job; one with some degree of security and less struggle. The endless gig.
Contrast the above with that of someone who is attempting to make ends meet via the “gig” economy. This is their real job. There’s no chalking it up to a failed artistic endeavor and joining the corporate masses...this is it. Similarly to the possibilities of crowds growing or some external event changing their fortune that artists cling to, those in the gig economy, absent a lottery win (another form of tax, of course), are searching for whatever will proper them from (maybe) just making ends meet to some form of breathing room. The endless gig.
But, here’s where things go from grey to dark. Record labels and streaming services are deeply unconcerned about the artists who throw in the towel and stop making music. These companies know that every second there is another aspirant who will quickly fill any void created by those who put down their guitar/turntable. In this manner, as I wrote in a previous piece entitled, "Record Labels Know Exactly What Artists Want ... And It's Why They'll Never Change," these labels and streaming services will continue to make the same egregious types of deals that they always have. Why would they not?
Frightenly, I envision precisely the same scenario playing out in this broader “gig economy.” Does anyone really think that Uber is any more concerned about a lack of new drivers signing up in order to offset those who have quit in frustration than Universal Records or Spotify is that there won’t be new artists to sign to fill the streaming services’ playlists? Of course not. It’s the same thing.
To the companies who utilize them, those in gig economy --whether musicians or drivers-- are simply dispensable and easily replaceable inputs; just tools of a larger machine, and when one breaks there’s another ready to be plugged in. And, of course, soon, human inputs may not be necessary at all. Self-driving cars will render those pesky drivers obsolete; the customers being delighted not to have to interact with a human. Similarly, machine generated music will displace composers; the listeners, having been trained to care only for commoditized playlists rather than artists themselves, unaware of the difference.
Perhaps I’m wrong. But, ask yourself how much money you are spending on music versus how much you are consuming it. If I had to guess, the answer is, that you’re consuming more while spending less. How can this possibly be a sustainable equation for artists in the gig economy? Now, ask yourself a similar set of questions: Are you using these “gig economy” services more or less than you used to? For nearly everyone, the answer will be “More.” Final question: Do you think, given the increased number of members in this gig economy, that the amount of money per “gig” most of those in the gig economy are making is going up or down? You figure out where that math leads. Canary in a coal mine. Careful.