CVIndependent

Thu07092020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Much has been written about Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), the legislation signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year that redefines how California companies can hire freelancers and contract workers—and much of that writing has focused on Lyft and Uber drivers, as well as freelance writers, who have been hit hard by the law.

But there's another, less-discussed group of people whose livelihoods are being threatened by AB 5: freelance musicians.

As the law is written, a musician hired for a one-off gig at a club or restaurant could be considered both an employee and an employer, if he or she put together a combo for the occasion. A musician hiring a producer once to help out on an album also would be considered an employer. And if musicians perform paid work at houses of worship on a regular basis, according to AB 5 as it stands now, a church or synagogue would have to make them employees.

While almost everyone agrees a “carve out” needs to be made in AB 5’s language to allow small and non-union musicians to make a living, that has not happened yet—and musicians and club owners are grappling not only with the bill’s prohibitions, but also its confusing language. Many professions are exempted, including “fine artists,” but the definition of “fine artist” isn’t clear legally.

In a recent interview with KQED-TV, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego lawmaker who authored AB 5, said, “Obviously, a muralist is a fine artist. A musician is a fine artist.”

But Gonzalez’s words don’t translate into law.

“I think it will be very hard to find anyone complying with this law as it stands,” says Barry Martin, aka DJ Baz, a music promoter who stages the weekly Jazzville Palm Springs series at Wang’s in the Desert in Palm Springs. “And should any enforcement begin, thousands of musicians will lose their gigs across the state and not be booked again until an exemption for musicians is in place.”

Ari Herstand, a Southern California musician and author (How to Make It In the New Music Business) who has covered AB 5’s effects on his blog Ari’s Take (www.aristake.com), is more blunt.

“It’s a shit show with all the powerful organizations and unions,” Herstand wrote in January. “And while they are throwing their proverbial dicks around breaking out their rulers, thousands of independent, working musicians are suffering. We do not have time to wait for them to agree on where the commas should be placed (in carve-out language).”

Herstand began a petition on change.org urging the Legislature to enact an exemption for musicians. As of this writing, it has nearly 168,000 signatures

“If (AB 5) stands,” he says, “I figure I’ll lose about $6,000 a year. I’d have to carry workers’ comp insurance (and) have to enlist a payroll company, and file payroll taxes per employee—I may contract 50 people during the year. And I would be considered both an employer and an employee at the exact same gig.”

Josiah Gonzalez is one of the members of popular Coachella Valley band Avenida Music, which plays at parties, weddings and other events. He plays keyboards and does most of the band’s booking and management. The band has been speaking out about the dangers of AB 5 on its social-media accounts.

Gonzalez said that right now, a lot of people don’t know about the language in AB 5. For example, Avenida plays regularly at casinos, which, Gonzalez says, “don’t have dedicated music people. You get hired by a food-and-bev person or assistant manager.”

The more word spreads about AB 5, the worse things will get—until the Legislature fixes the mess it created.

“Beyond the financial, legal and administrative mess created by AB 5, communities face even more profound threats from the new law,” wrote Brendan Rawson, the executive director of San Jose Jazz, in a commentary for the CalMatters. “Segments of our cultural and civic life are at risk of going out of existence.”

Rawson wrote: “AB 5 unnecessarily complicates other work arrangements found in community cultural programming such as small festivals, neighborhood street fairs, parades and summer music series in our local parks.”

Indeed, non-Equity theaters and dance companies are grappling with the implications of AB 5. Island City Opera in Alameda has canceled its planned March performance of the opera The Wreckers over concerns with paying temporary musicians, and Herstand says he knows of a production of West Side Story where the singers now will perform to recordings rather than the live music that was planned, putting more than a dozen musicians out of a gig.

For what it’s worth, Tamara Stevens, executive administrator of the Palm Springs Hospitality Association (PSHA), wrote in an email: “PSHA has not taken a position on AB 5.”

Herstand was part of a coalition that met with Assemblywoman Gonzalez to explain the musicians’ dilemma. While he initially wrote on his blog that he was encouraged by the December meeting, when the Independent spoke to him for this story in February, he expressed concern.

“I think Assemblywoman Gonzalez is pretty much dogmatic about her position; she doesn’t seem willing to budge on this,” he says.

Several members of the Legislature have crafted new carve-out bills for a variety of professions, including for freelance writers, sign-language interpreters, and newspaper-delivery drivers. SB 881, authored by state Sen. Brian Jones, for instance, would exempt musicians and make many other tweaks to the law.

But Herstand says that the makeup of that particular bill’s sponsors—Jones and nine other signatories all are Republicans—may doom its prospects.

“A bill in a Democratic state like California needs Democratic backers,” Herstand says, “and Democrats will not buck the unions behind this.”

Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Gonzalez is touting upcoming carve-outs for freelance writers, but said in a Feb. 6 tweet that musicians still will have to wait a bit. “We are still pushing hard on industry and worker representatives to reach agreement on language regarding musicians,” she tweeted. “We plan to address the unique situation regarding musicians in the next round of amendments by March. We are working hard on musicians issues!”

While politicians tussle and posture over AB 5, it’s independent musicians like Josiah Gonzalez and the members of Avenida Music who suffer.

“Most of the bands are just oblivious to (AB 5),” he says, “but if they really crack down on this, it could really affect our gigs.”

Kevin Allman is a California-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinallman.

Published in Local Issues

Vacation rentals are one of the most contentious issues in Palm Springs—and on June 5, voters in the city will decide on a measure that opponents say would effectively ban vacation rentals, if approved.

Measure C is the culmination of a battle that’s been brewing for more than a decade over short-term rentals, or STRs. The housing-market crash during the Great Recession created an STR boom in Palm Springs, as buyers both local and from out of town snapped up foreclosed-property bargains, and later turned them into vacation rentals.

The problem is that these homes—available for weekend getaways and short retreats through Airbnb and other services, and at times the sites of rather raucous parties—are intermingled with homes occupied by full- and part-time residents.

According to Rob Grimm, the campaign manager for Palm Springs Neighbors for Neighborhoods—the group that got Measure C placed on the June ballot—there are 1,986 units registered as vacation rentals and home shares, which hosted an estimated 467,000 visitors in 2017.

“This is an alarming number of strangers to be rotating in and out of unsupervised mini-hotels located in residential neighborhoods,” said Grimm.

However, city officials claim that the STR issue is under control, thanks to strict enforcement of the city’s newish vacation rental compliance ordinance.

“We are one of the only cities in California that has a dedicated Vacation Rental Compliance Department,” said Boris Stark, a vacation-rental code-compliance officer. “Our latest ordinance … was a collaboration among community stakeholders and city leadership. It addresses neighborhood concerns head-on.”

Stark said the department includes eight officers and two vehicles. I personally have seen VRC officers working, often late at night and on weekends, to enforce the city’s ordinance. (I wanted to go on a ride-along with Stark, but City Manager David Ready did not respond to my request.)

The city makes hefty revenues from the STRs.

“For fiscal year 2016-17, total (transient occupancy tax) dollars from vacation rentals was $7.58 million, and for 2017-18, we anticipate the same,” Stark said. “Vacation Rental Compliance issued over 430 citations for various violations in 2017.”

Grimm said no neighborhood in Palm Springs has been unaffected by STRs.

“The city has refused to entertain density limits on the number of STRs allowed in the city,” he said.

Measure C has attracted fierce opposition in the form of a coalition called We Love Palm Springs. According to Jeremy Ogul, the coalition’s media relations coordinator, opposition to the STR ban comes from groups including Vacation Rental Owners and Neighbors of Palm Springs, representing nearly 400 homeowners; the Palm Springs Hospitality Association, with about 200 hotels, restaurants and attraction venues in the city; the Palm Springs Regional Association of Realtors; and the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, among other groups.

“We oppose Measure C because of the devastating impact it would have on the Palm Springs economy,” said Nona Watson, CEO of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, in a news release.

While a majority of vacation rentals are owned by people who are not residents of Palm Springs, local entrepreneurs have also invested in STRs. Athalie LaPamuk owns and manages two vacation rentals in the city. She also owns and operates Ice Cream and Shop(pe) at the Arrive Hotel.

“I often meet visitors at my vacation rental who are excited to plan a return trip to stay at the hotel, or guests at the hotel who want to come back and stay in a vacation rental,” LaPamuk said in a news release. “Those are some of the same people who end up moving here and starting businesses here. The point is that our city benefits from all this tourism activity.”

Both sides fervently believe they are acting in the city’s best interests.

“It is time for the residents of Palm Springs to decide what their neighborhoods should look like,” Grimm said.

Published in Local Issues