Business

What More Can (Or Should) Congress Do to Support the Music Community Amid Coronavirus?

The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Brian Kelly/EyeEm/Getty Images

The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

"Their work is not traditional employment.... They are at risk of falling through the cracks," says Rep. Adam Schiff.

On Wednesday, The White House signed into law a coronavirus aid package expanding unemployment benefits and ensuring paid emergency leave for workers. The legislation protects the more than 2 million Americans predicted to file for unemployment claims this week, according to Goldman Sachs -- but not the countless independent contractors and freelancers who make up much of the music business, which has been ravaged by virus-related concert cancellations and business closures.

Now, as Congress readies a $1 trillion economic stimulus package aimed at keeping U.S. businesses like the hospitality and airline industries afloat, music business leaders have a message for policymakers: Don’t forget about us. And given the unique nature of the industry, where work is sporadic and many workers don’t have a single employer, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t cut it.

“When members [of Congress] think of the entertainment industry, they shouldn’t just think of the big stars, [but also] the electricians and truck drivers and caterers,” says longtime music industry advocate Rep. Adam Schiff of California. “We have a predicament because their work is not traditional employment, they don’t have the same employer the whole year, and their contracts aren’t regular. They are at risk of falling through the cracks.”

Direct financial assistance is the most urgent priority, industry leaders agree, as dozens of artists and gig workers who were depending on the summer touring circuit or recording sessions, for instance, are now out of a job indefinitely. The examples are piling up: Austin’s South by Southwest was forced to lay off a third of its staff after the conference and festival was canceled due to coronavirus precautions; Zac Brown of Zac Brown Band tearfully announced this week that he has let go about 90% of his road crew; and indie venues are bracing themselves for inevitable debt, if they can stay open at all.

“We’re focusing on the actual musicians who don’t get any money because they can’t show up to the gig, or there’s a production shutdown and there’s no set to go to,” says RIAA chairman/CEO Mitch Glazier. “They need direct relief from the government.”

Most music industry leaders agree that Congress should start by expanding the paid sick leave and paid family leave provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act so nontraditional workers are covered. That’s the main suggestion in a letter that more than 40 industry organizations including the Recording Academy, RIAA and Music Artists Coalition sent to Congress Friday (March 20).

“The relief that Congress has passed so far is not really applicable in our world,” says Susan Genco, Music Artists Coalition board member and Azoff MSG Entertainment co-president. “To extend the Family and Medical Leave Act so that [I] have to get paid sick leave for two weeks doesn’t help if you’re a guy between tours.”

The current legislation provides full-time American workers who are sick or quarantined due to coronavirus 100% of their normal salary, up to $511 per day (or roughly $130,000 per year). But calculating benefits for gig workers presents another set of challenges, since their salaries are less clear-cut.

To help solve the problem, Schiff and other Congress members representing entertainment hot-spots recommended Thursday that instead of looking at what a music industry worker has been making as the baseline for their paid leave payment, Congress should consider what the worker’s anticipated payment was for gigs that have been canceled or postponed. “There are means of calculating benefits that would be fair and equitable to people in nontraditional employment situations,” he says.

Some general provisions that are being floated in Congress would help music workers, too, such as handing every adult American a $1,000 check as an economic stimulus.

There are other ways for Congress to support the music industry in the current crisis. For example, Recording Academy chief industry, government and member relations officer Daryl Friedman is also pushing for emergency funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which could be used to give grants to individual arts organizations. In turn, those organizations could employ musicians who are out of work.

And temporary changes to the Internal Revenue Code could also lift some of the financial burden. Friedman says the academy has employed experts to comb through the tax code for things that affect musicians, looking for additional deductions or policies to submit for changes.

The main obstacle, Friedman points out, is getting Congress to pay attention in the first place: “There are so many industries right now that are vying for support,” he says. And of course, these are all short-term remedies, since it’s difficult for anyone in the music industry right now to plan for the future. “I saw a quote from an airline CEO saying that the airlines only have enough money to last six months,” Friedman adds. “That’s bad, but I have my membership calling me and saying, ‘we only have enough money to last six days.’”

Music Artists Coalition board member and entertainment attorney Jordan Bromley echoes that point: “We don’t know when live performances are going to resume and how they’ll be received, initially,” he says. “People are trying to stay optimistic and keep their heads above the chaos, but it’s hard when we don’t have clear answers. Music is a binding force and we’re going to make it through, but we do need help from our government.”

For now, industry leaders agree that there’s strength in numbers. In addition to the joint letter that music organizations sent Friday, the Recording Academy, Music Artists Coalition and other organizations have sent letters of their own, and Friedman says that more than 17,000 academy members have contacted their individual members of Congress to rally support (you can do the same here). And songwriter organizations including ASCAP, BMI and NMPA joined forces to send their own letter to Congress, outlining the need for provisions that would support independent creators.

“We just need to have our industry pop up through the clutter,” Glazier says. Thankfully, he adds, “This is what record companies do. They break through the clutter and find an audience.”

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