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A union for San Francisco's oldest gig workers: musicians

The Golden Gate Park Band, the first band shell, 1890

Instead of working just one job for a single employer, more and more people are becoming gig workers: folks who consult, freelance, contract, temp, and do jobs on-call—often through smartphone apps. But there’s one kind of gig worker that’s been around for centuries: musicians. Reporter Shereen Adel finds out how they make it work. 

Mark Nemoyten is a trumpet player in the band, and he's been playing with them for more than 20 years. He's also a music teacher, and a freelance musician. He plays with local symphonies, in an R&B band, takes church jobs and graduation gigs—basically, anyone who will hire him.

As a freelancer, sometimes he's hired as an independent contractor, and sometimes as an employee. With the Golden Gate Park Band, he's an employee. That's because everyone in the band has to join San Francisco's Musicians Union, Local 6. They have to pay yearly dues of $200, but Nemoyten says getting steady work is worth the cost of membership.

He can earn up to $2,500 a year with the Golden Gate Park Band, and the band pays into a pension fund, keeps track of rehearsal hours, and gives him job security. If he can’t make a gig, he doesn't lose his job. Nemoyten says when he gets union jobs, they tend to have better working conditions because they're spelled out in the contract.

The problem is, steady union gigs like this are hard to come by. They’re usually with bigger groups that have regular seasons, like the symphony, the opera or the ballet. Competition is steep, and when someone gets a position they keep it. So for some musicians, being in the union doesn't always pay off.

Anthony Blea Y Su Charanga

Anthony Blea is a violinist and music teacher. Unlike Nemoyten, he doesn’t think keeping up his membership in the union is really worth it. He only does it if the job requires it. Most of the time, he's booking non-union gigs for his Charanga band, Anthony Blea Y Su Charanga.

Blea says getting union contracts for his band would be too much trouble. He looks for jobs that pay musicians at least $100 for two hours of music, which is about the same as what the Golden Gate Park Band members make per gig. But he doesn’t necessarily keep track of rehearsal hours and breaks, and doesn't want to deal with having the terms and conditions of a union contract.

The thing is, union contracts vary significantly. The only universal requirements are for musicians to be hired as employees, and for their employers to write two checks: one for the band, and the other for the pension fund. A lot of musicians don’t know exactly how it all works, so some people in the union are trying to change that. 

Union rules

Jo Gray is on the Board of Directors of Local 6 (she's also  a volunteer here at KALW). As a musician, she plays the violin with a variety of orchestras. She explained that San Francisco's Musicians Union used to be one of the biggest in the country. Every hotel had an orchestra or a band that were union. And, it pretty much stayed that way for the first half of the 20th century. But things started to change in the 1940s. Large orchestras were being replaced by smaller groups, like rock and roll bands and jazz combos. The union was slow to adapt. Black musicians weren’t even allowed to join Local 6 until the 1960s. So, when it came down to it, the union wasn’t really representing its community.

Many musicians left the union, and the way it is now, most bars and clubs don't hire musicians who are in Local 6. The union can't go in and impose a contract unless both the musicians and their employer want one. Musicians who are union members can take both union and non-union gigs. But, if they’re hired as independent contractors and something goes wrong — like if a gig is canceled last minute, or they don’t get compensated for overtime — the union can’t do anything to help. 

Gray is particularly interested in addressing the working conditions for indie musicians who are not traditionally in the union. Right now, the union can be a useful reference point for a non-member — a way to find out how much other musicians get paid for their work — but not much else.

Gray wants to do more. She's been going to meetings with San Francisco's Entertainment Commission to see what they can do to help. She says there's an incredibly successful entertainment industry in San Francisco, but musicians are the only ones who are not really benefiting. So she's been talking to Entertainment Commission representatives about practical solutions that would make a working musician's life easier. Like getting special loading zones for equipment, or providing affordable rehearsal space. She says even just having a census would be a good place to start—it would help everyone get a sense of how just many musicians are working and where.

But just like other gig workers who take odd jobs, or get work with companies like Uber or TaskRabbit, a lot of musicians hold different kinds of jobs. Sometimes, getting a low-paying gig is just a way to make a little extra cash. Gray says that undercuts musicians who are trying to do it as a profession.

The thing is, that’s always a risk for freelancers and gig workers. If someone is willing to do the same job for less, there’s not much anyone can do to stop them. But if workers wanted a union to represent them collectively, it could make a difference. That's why musicians like Mark Nemoyten stay in the union. He says the main benefit is people banding together and asking for something that has some teeth. It gives you something to bargain with, he says. If you're just going in by yourself, you don't have that. It just depends on whether there are enough workers who want the same thing.

This story first aired on September 12, 2016.

Shereen provides the leadership necessary to ensure that KALW's newsroom and training programs have the right operations and people in place to reach our goals and objectives.