The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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NOV 2021 Issue
Field Notes

COVID, Arts Funding, and the Gig Economy

In the dark COVID days of Spring 2020, entire sectors of the economy essentially came to a halt all at once. Millions of workers saw their income evaporate overnight, while other “essential workers” were compelled to continue working in frightening and hazardous conditions. One of the groups of workers most suddenly and severely affected by the economic fallout from the public health crisis were those working in the cultural sector, especially in the performing arts. As freelance musicians who have both worked in New York scenes for decades, this included us. Performances in our field are often scheduled a year or more in advance, and over the course of just a few days, as lockdown orders were announced, all the work on our calendars disappeared. Even in “normal” economic times, our employment is notoriously unstable, and while many parts of the economy suffered serious disruptions, our careers are premised on a situation that suddenly seemed terrifying: large numbers of people gathering together in tightly packed, enclosed spaces for hours at a time.

The official numbers were bleak—71 percent of musicians and DJs reported losing at least three quarters of their income, revenue for non-profit arts presenters fell by more than half, and fully 63 percent of cultural workers found themselves unemployed.​​ The emergence of COVID-19 was a sudden collective crisis for us bigger than any one lost tour, festival concert, or recording session. While the statistics were alarming, they don’t fully capture the existential dread many of us musicians (and other workers in the performing arts) felt: we faced not just an abrupt, often total loss of income, but the shocking realization that our entire profession had just gone up in smoke. We were forced to question the very basis of our lives. How could we continue to make music in the future? Would we ever be able to make a living as musicians again? And how were we going to survive in the meantime?

With calendars suddenly wiped clean of rehearsals and performances, many of us found our days filled with trying to answer these existential questions. Unemployment insurance benefits (UI) were initially out of reach, as most performing artists generally haven’t qualified for them. UI has long been restricted to those workers who are legally classified as employees, even as a larger and larger share of the workforce is officially categorized as something other than that. To qualify for benefits, one usually has to meet a variety of conditions that exclude a large portion of those who are out of work, such as working on a W-2 contract, working consistent hours for a single employer, earning a fixed and consistent wage, and earning income in a single jurisdiction. Needless to say, this has historically left out most performing artists, even though temporary stretches of unemployment between paying jobs are a fixture of the labor structure in which our careers exist. UI increasingly excludes millions of other workers whose loss of work is (absurdly) classified as something other than “unemployment.”

It took the shock of a global pandemic and near total economic collapse for this state of affairs to change. Faced with an economy in freefall, in March 2020, Congress enacted emergency legislation (the CARES Act) that for the first time extended unemployment benefits to non-W-2 workers. For millions of workers, and the majority of musicians, this was a desperately needed lifeline as well as an unprecedented recognition by the federal government that our work is actually employment. While expanded access to UI was unquestionably one of the most important economic measures included in the CARES Act, the delivery of those benefits was seriously hampered by their distribution via the outlandishly antiquated state Departments of Labor responsible for processing UI claims. In addition to presenting newly eligible workers with Herculean difficulties in applying for benefits due to understaffing, sclerotic administrative systems, and an institutional incapacity for conceptualizing labor that takes place outside a textbook nine-to-five job, the extreme dysfunction of the existing UI system was laid bare in a very public way. Suddenly tasked with delivering an expanded program that included workers previously shut out of the system, newly eligible applicants’ attempts to collect the benefits they were owed frequently resulted in unwarranted denials, specious accusations of fraud, and benefit amounts that were drastically too low. This resulted in serious hardship for many workers, who were sometimes left in limbo for weeks or months even when they knew they were eligible for benefits under the new emergency legislation.

By expanding UI benefits to millions of workers who had never previously been able to access them, the government thrusts us into an unprecedented experiment, the ramifications of which are not yet entirely clear. Is it possible to create effective benefit structures for workers who labor outside a conventional W-2 employer/employee contract? What impact do regularly paid benefits have on the lives of workers for whom wages and/or hours are usually highly unpredictable? And, specifically for those in the cultural sector, how does the impact of general social benefits vary from that of direct cultural funding in artists’ daily lives and in relation to our creative work?

Even before the COVID crisis, musicians were already living in a state of precarity. A 2018 study showed that the average musician made about 35,000 dollars annually, with about 21,300 dollars of that income earned from music. Musicians often have to take on secondary jobs in order to survive, patching together various sources of income in a fashion familiar to an increasing number of workers in the “gig economy.” According to a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report, the 2.5 million artists in the U.S. are 3.6 times more likely than the average worker to be categorized as self-employed, and this difference comes with real consequences. Without a consistent employer, obtaining health insurance is more costly and difficult. A 2013 survey of 3,402 artists in a variety of disciplines showed that 43 percent did not have health insurance; of those, the vast majority could not afford the premiums, despite the passage of the so-called Affordable Care Act. The NEA report also showed that 62.9 percent of artists had a Bachelor’s or other advanced degrees, as opposed to 35.5 percent of the U.S. labor force as a whole, indicating the likelihood that artists also carry a proportionally heavier burden of student loan debt.

Many musicians have watched, cringing, as the term “gig economy” has become a defining term of the national economic Zeitgeist. Not just because the word “gig” is our word—it originated with jazz musicians in the 1910s—but because, in a larger sense, we are the original gig workers. From time immemorial, musicians—from the troubadours of medieval Europe to the blues visionaries of the Mississippi Delta—have traveled from crowd to crowd, city to city, in search of the next audience with some money to pay us for the sounds and songs we have to offer. We understand the attractions of the gigging life—the sense of freedom and flexibility it often gives us—and know the costs: unpredictability, uncertainty, and an ever-present risk of economic ruin. As an increasing number of American workers are pushed into similarly precarious labor situations, we see our own reflection, darkly. We feel for and identify with these new “gig workers”—the Uber driver, the TaskRabbit laborer, all the miscategorized “independent contractors”—but at the same time, and perhaps for the first time, there is now a mass of American workers who increasingly are able to identify with us.

As the “gig economy” elbows its way into more and more industries, the romantic mythology entangled with this labor structure as a result of its historic affiliation with music becomes increasingly flimsy. In the popular imagination, musicians don’t work for a boss, they work for “the muse,” who can hardly be expected to chip in for pension or health benefits. Our ultra-capitalist country valorizes the hustle; in the popular imagination, talented artists struggle but will eventually, somehow (by magic!), get their “big break.” We are supposed to exult in these rags-to-riches stories, an artistic version of the “American Dream.” At the same time, the day-to-day labor of creative work is seen as “pursuing your passion,” something to be done outside your “real” job. Historically, this exalted image of the gigging musician has made it easier to exclude musicians and other arts workers from the social benefits programs and labor rights that formed the backbone of the 20th century welfare state. In the current climate, as an increasing portion of the workforce is restructured in the image of the “gig economy,” the holes in the existing system through which freelance musicians have long fallen will increasingly swallow up more workers across a greater swath of the population. This situation has been unfolding for some time; does the COVID crisis present an unexpected opportunity to change it?

In his 2011 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, economist Guy Standing argues that class can no longer be understood simply through a binary lens of labor and capital and highlights the emergence of “the precariat” as a new class modality.1 Delineating differences between the traditional “working class” and the 21st century “precariat,” Standing highlights the instability of short-term or part-time work contracts, frequent requirements for unpaid training or ancillary labor, barriers to union organizing, higher educational norms, and a lack of benefits (pension, health care, paid leave, etc.) as central to the experience of precariat workers. He also points to their lack of “rights-based state benefits, such as unemployment benefits,” arguing that the absence of the labor protections and safety net programs from which members of the traditional working class have benefited contributes to the precariat’s social position “on the edge of unsustainable debt and in chronic economic uncertainty.” In many respects, the precariat can be thought of as a new proletarian class outside the web of labor rights and benefits that have historically offered a degree of stability and dignity to the traditional working class. This exclusion lies at the heart of precariat workers’ profound sense of alienation and deprivation, which Standing describes as a potential social danger.

To be sure, Standing’s analysis captures important aspects of the changes that decades of neoliberal capitalism have wrought across society. At the same time, his description of the precariat as a “new class” passes over the fact that various segments of the working class have experienced for generations some or most of the conditions he uses to define the precariat. This includes a wide array of workers who were explicitly left out of labor protections for pernicious (frequently racist) political reasons. In the United States, the 1935 Social Security Act explicitly excluded domestic laborers and agriculture workers, barring a majority of African-Americans at the time from accessing the new law’s benefits. It also left out workers who fell through the cracks because the labor structure of their field was too divergent from the norms of industrial capitalism, such as freelance musicians. While for most of the 20th century those excluded from the protections of the welfare state represented a minority of the workforce, it was possible to conceive of a majoritarian working-class politics that could essentially pay them no mind, and the rapid growth of the precariat in the 21st century has now clearly put the deprivations of these workers at the center of our politics and at the heart of our crisis of spiraling inequality.

Artists have long been familiar with living in a state of perpetual crisis. We frequently read reports and op-eds about impending doomsdays in the arts: the lack of funding, the dwindling income streams, the vulnerability of arts organizations to recession, and the increasingly exclusionary forces at work that make it difficult for anyone but a child of privilege to pursue a career in the arts. The 2020 George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprising for racial justice added more urgency to this discussion. Arts funders and organizations put out passionate statements against racism and pledged to take steps to increase racially diverse representation within the arts. However, these statements, and resulting conversations, have fundamentally failed to reckon with the underlying economic factors at work.

Most of the political discourse around the arts concerns the cultural sector’s contribution to local economies: tourism generated, money spent, and ancillary businesses that benefit. The cultural sector is primarily thought of as a set of mostly non-profit institutions nebulously connected to the artists who actually create the art. What gets left out of these discussions is the arts workers themselves and the precarity of their position in the labor force. The failure to see artists as workers prevents us from actually addressing these fundamental questions: What does it mean to have a cultural sector that is not reflective of society’s diversity? What is the actual structure of artists’ lives in a stridently capitalist economy? How do artists actually earn a living? What would economic and racial justice in the arts really look like?

In the United States, arts funding largely comes from wealthy people, both through support of non-profit arts organizations and in the form of highly competitive (and therefore highly prestigious) project grants, generally given through philanthropic foundations. This system has its roots in the Gilded Age, when the ultra-wealthy, for example industrialist Andrew Carnegie, founded European-style institutions (museums, concert halls, orchestras) to cement their own status and that of their class on the national and world stage. While nowadays there are many more individuals and foundations funding the arts, the focus on institutions rather than artists remains. This system allows the wealthy to receive tax breaks while maintaining the illusion that they are meaningfully funding the arts, and allows non-profit foundations to appear as if they are improving artists’ lives.

However, grants are typically highly restrictive, funding single projects or portions thereof, with explicit exclusions of categories of non-fundable expenses (such as rent, bills, or equipment). It’s almost as if the artists themselves do not exist, but only the projects they create. In addition, grants come with their own types of barriers, whether they be narrow eligibility criteria or onerous application procedures, considerably restricting who is even able to apply for them. While individual grants can be extremely meaningful to those who receive them, it is impossible to envision this system—given the massive racial and class disparities that exist in this country—ever bringing about true diversity and equity in the arts. Biases rooted in this funding system remain in place. Arts institutions with larger budgets are disproportionately favored by both private and government arts funders. The two percent of arts organizations with budgets over 5 million dollars receive a whopping 55 percent of grants and gifts. Arts organizations focused primarily on Indigenous, Black, Brown, and/or non-Western artists and their traditions have less access to wealthy individual donors, survive on modest budgets, and are more likely to suffer from long-term financial deficits. Yet these are the organizations least likely to receive generous foundation or government funding.

A system rooted in the desire to maintain wealth and status leads to grant awards that often favor and perpetuate artists’ prestige over the content of their work. As a result, a relatively small, privileged class of artists receives the bulk of the available grants. This is not to say that these artists are undeserving, or don’t struggle financially in the project-based system of cultural funding, but it does mean that they have greater access to resources than most artists. The vast majority of artists never receive a grant at all.

This system is also volatile, depending as it does on the fortunes of the wealthy “trickling down” to individual working artists through well-staffed bureaucracies. The economic crashes of 2001 and 2007-08 sent shock waves through arts communities as funders pulled out. Meanwhile, donor interest in the arts overall plummeted during this period. While charitable donations by foundations increased overall by 59 percent from 2000-2014 (relative to inflation), support for the arts decreased by 3 percent, revealing that wealthy donors have turned their attention, and their still-deep pockets, to other causes.

Funding from governmental bodies, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, is even more difficult for artists to obtain. Since the early 1990s, the NEA has almost totally eliminated its funding of individual artists. This is partly a result of the fallout from the case of the “NEA Four,” four artists who were vilified by the bigoted Republican Senator Jesse Helms and his colleagues, cheered on by a deafening chorus of homophobic right-wing leaders like Pat Buchanan. As a result, the NEA has been in a defensive posture ever since, panicked that controversial work by any artist recipient of its funding could end federal cultural funding in the United States entirely. (Helms and his ilk were also successful in passing legislation that limited the independence of the agency. However, that hasn’t stopped successive Republican administrations from attempting to slash or entirely zero out NEA funding.)

In contrast to the viciousness of the “culture wars” of the 1980s, there was a time when the federal government embraced cultural funding as a natural part of government policy. In 1935, when FDR established the Works Progress Administration via Executive Order 7034, cultural workers were included through Federal Project Number One. Rather than exclude or segregate the arts from national economic policy, the Roosevelt administration included them on equal footing with other industries. Artists were treated as workers who were capable of contributing not only to the national economy, but also to the public good.

Full employment was achieved in 1942 and the WPA was ultimately disestablished in 1943. As direct federal funding of arts workers drew to a close, American society was profoundly changing. Government subsidies and racist policies like redlining incentivized masses of white workers to vacate the crowded urban districts that had housed the industrialized working class for generations, a process accelerated by the postwar housing crisis. Ironically, the extreme structural racism of “white flight,” which depleted cities’ tax bases and caused them increasingly grave fiscal crises, also facilitated an environment in which cultural scenes could thrive. In New York, neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and SoHo, which had been largely abandoned by government, industry, and landlords, were fertile ground for artists and cultural workers who were willing to put up with subpar or dangerous housing and defunded city services. Relatively cheap rents (sometimes dirt cheap) meant that artists could more easily afford to live in New York City, which remained a musical mecca due to its monied arts institutions, plentiful public and commercial music venues, and significantly, the concentration of innovative Black musicians excluded from the rush to the suburbs. These conditions also provided opportunities for some other groupings of people, such as queer people and certain immigrant groups, to establish relatively stable communities as a result of the low cost of living and cheap commercial rents in the depopulated, willfully abandoned cities.

Disused industrial spaces with few neighbors (and little policing of those spaces) gave musicians the ability to develop new types of work outside the commercial structure of the clubs or the tradition-bound concert hall scene. Musicians and artists who remained in the city or flocked there, such as Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, Meredith Monk, and Sam Rivers (to give just a few examples), birthed significant movements in these spaces: Fluxus, the SoHo and jazz loft scenes, Minimalism. They established venues like Roulette Intermedium, Studio Rivbea, and Studio We, and artist co-ops such as Tanager Gallery and Hansa Gallery. (Other important New York cultural institutions that survive today, such as La MaMa Etc., Anthology Film Archives, and the Wooster Group were also founded during this period.) All told, the cost of living was low relative to wages, which meant musicians and other artists were able to focus on their work. Philip Glass, to give one famous example, was able to support himself and pay his ensemble by running his own small moving company, and later, driving a cab.

While the racially motivated depopulation of American cities is an important part of this story, aspects of the pre-neoliberal welfare state also played a pivotal role. Housing at the time was a heavily regulated commodity in many American cities, nowhere more than in New York, where robust rent control and rent stabilization provided stable and relatively affordable housing on a broad and consistent basis. Prior to Clintonian welfare “reform,” accessing public relief benefits was a less byzantine affair and was not subject to the complicated systems of qualifications and conditions that contemporary programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) employ as a cruel tool of exclusion. And even once New York’s downtown loft scene reached a regulatory breaking point, with an ever-growing number of artists living illegally in non-residential spaces, the state responded not by clearing out the illegal tenants but by enacting the Loft Law, which forced landlords to bring buildings up to code and guaranteed the existing (previously illegal!) residents a right to remain and a rent-stabilized lease.

In the 21st century, cities like New York have repopulated and grown, in a steady process of hyper-gentrification led by real estate and finance capital. Artists no longer enjoy the backdoor “subsidy” of plentiful and affordable live/work spaces, and in most cities, protective systems like rent control are either in severe decline or have been eliminated entirely. This new wave of displacement has affected other communities as well, which can be seen in the gradual dissolution of many queer neighborhoods in urban centers as residential and commercial rents have increased dramatically. Perhaps most cruelly, the very communities of color that were previously prevented from leaving the cities when they were left to rot are now being displaced from them as gentrification leads to an explosion in the cost of living. Rather than the implementation of policies (like the Loft Law) to stabilize the housing stock for vulnerable tenants, today’s government incentivizes commercial developers to build new luxury housing, and landlords are squeezing out small businesses in favor of corporate tenants. While the reemergence of the political left in some regions has recently resulted in progress regarding affordable housing and other cost-of-living issues, many cities have already weathered decades of gentrification and displacement. Even as the COVID crisis led to staggering residential and commercial vacancies (particularly due to emptied-out office buildings and self-imposed exile of wealthy residents), nothing remotely on the scale of addressing the structural inequities of the 21st century cost of living crisis in U.S. cities has been seriously considered at local, state, or federal levels.

The pressures of gentrification and widening inequality on artists have been aggravated by the fact that safety net programs have been either difficult or forbidden for them to access. This is less true in many other countries. In Ireland, the dole is sometimes referred to as “the other arts council,” and the popular British ’80s band UB40 actually takes its name from the Unemployment Benefit Form 40 that was required to collect benefits at the time. In France, workers in the performing arts sector are able to access a special unemployment benefits system, the régime des salariés intermittents du spectacle, which keeps them financially afloat between gigs. None of these systems is perfect, but they do recognize the fundamental reality that workers in the cultural sector are workers, and that when they are out of work they need access to social benefits like workers in any other sector.

U.S. artists would surely welcome increases in cultural funding that would bring this country more in line with the standards of other industrialized nations. However, even when the government does provide direct cultural funding to individual artists, someone (or some agency) has to serve as the gatekeeper. The uprisings of the last year and a half have painfully highlighted the extent to which the US government cannot be trusted to treat all of its citizens with dignity and equity. If we look back at the history of music in the US, it’s clear that much of the innovative music of our nation—blues, gospel, jazz, rock, and much of the avant-garde—has come from the underclass, and, to a disproportionately large degree, from Black people. Cultural funding models premised on exclusionary concepts of prestige and a government that still cannot stop itself from regularly murdering Black and brown people seem unlikely to operate in inclusive and equitable ways. Art springs from all rungs of society, and there can be no “equity and diversity” in arts funding unless all people have access, at the most fundamental level, to the means of creating art.

Similarly, a cultural policy agenda that focuses exclusively on the funding of art rather than of artists is short-sighted and not grounded in reality. If we accept the premise that culture, in all its styles, genres, and forms, is of value to our society, then artists are workers who produce that culture, just as taxi drivers are workers who take us where we need to go, and restaurant cooks and waiters are workers who keep us fed. All of these workers, among the millions of others in the precariat, must have food, housing, clothing, health care, and education in order to do that work, and the current system is failing to provide for these fundamental human needs.

But if we also accept the premise that the emergence of the precariat, by definition, indicates the limits of earlier models of labor organizing and social policy to broadly benefit workers in contemporary society, what is the path forward? For Standing, the answer is straightforward: a universal basic income (UBI). He argues that for the precariat to overcome the burdens with which it is currently held down it must embrace a new, progressive “politics of paradise,” which he believes could broaden the concept of meaningful work beyond its current, hyper-capitalist boundaries (while also, in his estimation, dampening the siren song of right-wing populism among the economically disenfranchised — a still-urgent matter). Workers in the gig economy would clearly benefit from UBI, as would artists, who would no longer be predominantly beholden to cultural funding structures that are explicitly not interested in funding their daily lives.

Other academics have built on Standing’s work to argue that the struggles of the precariat are broader, raising more fundamental problems that extend beyond a single class of workers. Albena Azmanova argues that after several decades of neoliberal capitalism, we have emerged into the fourth modality of capitalism: Precarity Capitalism, defined by a “generalization of precarity across social class.”2 Peter Fleming and Alissa Quart have focused on how the pressures of a transformed economy increasingly eat away at the stability of traditionally middle-class jobs (or, in Quart’s terminology, the “middle precariat”). In short, these writers suggest that the instability and peril that used to be associated with small groups of workers such as freelance musicians and artists has expanded—first to low-wage service industry workers and others who were easy to strip of traditional labor protections through miscategorization and other neoliberal sleight-of-hand, then more broadly across the economy. In Azmanova’s words: “The destabilization of sources of livelihood and the increased competitive pressure on almost all preceded the financial crisis of 2008, and the situation has not improved with the post-crisis recovery. At this point the precariat has become the 99 percent. Our age is not that of a precarious class, but of a precarious multitude.”

While Standing’s “paradise” of a newly restructured society premised on a guaranteed, financially meaningful universal basic income might not be easily achieved, given our increasingly undemocratic, fundamentally broken U.S. political system, not to mention a stagnating economic system, there are plenty of things that can and should be fought for that would immediately benefit workers in the precariat and halt the accelerating “race to the bottom” across the U.S. economy. These include: reinstating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance structure of expanded unemployment benefits for gig economy workers and making it permanent; restructuring Departments of Labor so that they interface intelligibly with all workers and have the capacity to deliver services with consistency; expanding access to non-employment-based health insurance via Medicaid, a new public option, or a single-payer system; forgiving all student debt and making tertiary education free; extending eviction moratoriums, strengthening or re-implementing of rent control systems, developing new truly affordable housing measures, and re-instituting a federal commitment to social housing; levying vacancy taxes on commercial and residential landlords in gentrifying communities; instituting revisions to the tax code and social security system that don’t disadvantage non-W-2 employees; increasing the federal minimum wage, pegging it to inflation, and preventing wage theft in all industries; granting legal status to all undocumented workers; implementing changes to labor law that make it easier for workers to organize regardless of their employment categorization; and expanding social benefits programs and eliminating Clintonian eligibility and application criteria that are purposefully punitive and exclusionary.

It is easy to look at the dysfunction of our political system and conclude that it is incapable of implementing the kind of transformative change that we require. However, the robust policy response to the COVID crisis proves that the government is capable of enacting bold new policies and restructuring existing programs—even those that directly benefit the 99 percent!—when politicians feel compelled to do so. The decay of our political institutions (and the structural injustices that are built into them) are serious hurdles to overcome, but one of the lessons of the last 18 months is that even our deeply troubled system is capable of responding to crises. The political question, then, is not whether or not our political system has the capacity to deliver sweeping change, but whether we have the capacity to force it to treat our accelerating descent into Precarity Capitalism as the existential catastrophe it is.

As a result of frantic organizing in the spring of 2020, musicians convinced the powers that be that we were facing an unprecedented crisis that required immediate and specific policy remedies. In doing so, we achieved things that were previously unthinkable: inclusion of gig workers in unemployment benefits, a federal bailout program for performing arts venues and operators, Small Business Administration cash grants for the self-employed, a federal bailout of musician union pension funds, and large boosts in government cultural funding. An explosion of organizing achieved this government response. Ad hoc networks of musicians on social media acted as 24/7 information centers and orchestrated rapid response pressure campaigns, while labor unions incessantly lobbied elected officials while simultaneously providing assistance to increasingly desperate members. Independent music worker groups, such as the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), also sprang into action and worked in coalition with individual musicians, our unions, and an array of new organizations like New Music Organizing Caucus and Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). A famously fractured and sectarian community of artists coalesced around a broad set of demands and a collective strategy for attaining them—and it worked. While some of the policy achievements that musicians won through this period of intense organizing and mutual aid were inherently temporary, we should not forget how powerful we were when we were all working together in solidarity. 

As the shock of the initial COVID wave continues to recede, the window that the unprecedented crisis opened—allowing federal policy to benefit working people — is at risk of closing. We are already seeing signs of this deflation of political will: the government is allowing crucial relief programs funded by the CARES Act to lapse, even while the underlying need for them persists. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program ended, cruelly, on Labor Day, cutting off millions of workers, including many (like us) whose industries are still nowhere near their previous capacity. Workers who have now been kicked off of UI may newly face eviction as rent moratoriums expire, will see enhanced subsidies for health insurance, food support, and child care disappear, and will remain fundamentally unprotected and insecure as the economy “gets back to normal.” However, if we want to prevent a return to this inequitable status quo—both for ourselves and for gig workers across the board—we must not be dissuaded by the callous inaction and indifference of politicians in Washington. Musicians, other artists, and our allies need to continue raising our voices and ramp up our activism. But we also need to recognize the parallel organizing that is happening in other sectors of the “gig economy” and build new relationships across fields that can help leverage our collective power to effect change. Ride-share drivers, fast food and delivery workers, adjunct and substitute teachers, domestic workers, home health aides, sex workers, and other groupings of miscategorized “independent contractors” have also been organizing, fighting, and achieving tangible progress, which, in many cases, accelerated dramatically during the COVID crisis, as it has for musicians. 

To be certain, it is an uphill battle to achieve sustainable policy changes that benefit gig workers across the board. For musicians, we can move forward by building on the knowledge that we gained through this harrowing period: though challenging, effective organizing is truly possible within our field. We can also use this power to confront our system of inadequate and inequitable cultural funding. These intertwined tasks are already happening, as is evidenced by the emergence of the Music Electoral Group in the New York chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and a recent lobbying campaign by a coalition of music workers groups to establish a wage floor for city-funded cultural grants. However, it is of paramount importance to recognize the conjunction of our needs with those of the broader precariat class of workers, and work towards channeling our parallel movements into collective power. The power of our individual communities helped us to survive the COVID crisis, but our collective power could help us to more fundamentally transform the system—a system that is pushing more and more workers into precarity. An artist’s struggle to survive is now not so removed from the struggle faced by millions of U.S. workers, and what’s good for the average worker is not that different than what’s good for the average artist. In this we have not only the possibility of sympathy but the possibility of solidarity. Together we can, and must, build a new “politics of paradise.”

  1. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
  2. Albena Azmanova, Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. For further information see: Alissa Quart, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America. New York: Harper Collins, 2018; Peter Fleming, The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Death, and the Myth of Endless Accumulation. London: Pluto Press, 2017.


Gordon Beeferman

Gordon Beeferman is a composer, pianist, improviser, bandleader, writer, and activist who has been making music in New York City since 1998.

David Friend

David Friend is a pianist and activist based in Upper Manhattan who focuses primarily on new and experimental music.


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