A Minimum Wage for Musicians

Most other workers are protected by minimum wage laws. Why aren't musicians?

Volume 114, No. 7July, 2014

John O'Connor
Gutarist, singer-songwriter and poet John O'Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802, and the supervisor of the union's organizing, jazz and single engagement departments.

Gutarist, singer-songwriter and poet John O’Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802, and the supervisor of the union’s organizing, jazz and single engagement departments.

One of the most effective tools for counterattacking the great disparity of wealth that has risen in this country is the movement for raising the minimum wage in many states and major cities. Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made news by cutting a deal with the Working Families Party to get its endorsement by promising to support a higher state minimum wage than he had previously supported and allowing cities to raise the minimum even higher.

In early June, Seattle’s city council passed the nation’s highest minimum wage – $15 per hour – in a state that already has the highest state minimum wage, at $9.32 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and though the Democrats have a modest proposal to gradually raise it, it is unlikely the Republicans will allow anything to happen anytime soon.

Around 70 percent of Americans polled believe the federal minimum wage should be raised. But with Republican obstructionism replacing politics as usual, any federal legislation that is going to make it easier on working class families is doomed to failure. We are still experiencing the pains that came with the 2008 economic disaster. Unemployment remains high, while wages remain depressed. It’s a vicious cycle. The economy is not going to improve without working class people who can afford to make purchases. The absurd idea that tax relief for the wealthy is going to create jobs has proven over and over to be a myth.

So if we can’t raise taxes on the rich, the thinking goes, let’s raise wages for working people. If we can’t do it at the federal level, let’s do it at the state and city level. Already more than 40 cities and municipalities have what are known as “living wage” campaigns. And in many places the efforts have been successful. Where other campaigns for economic justice have stalled, the living wage movement seems to be taking wing. Many in the labor movement believe these efforts may spark the beginnings of a new labor movement. Employers like Walmart and McDonald’s are on the defensive.

As a union, Local 802 should celebrate and support such efforts. But it begs the question as to what musicians can gain from such ordinances and laws. Under state law in New York, musicians are employees but when it comes to the nightclub and restaurant scene in New York City, dishwashers and waiters see minimum wages guaranteed where too often musicians don’t get a penny from the businesses that employ them.

Minimum Wage Rally

A rally to raise the federal minimum wage at Herald Square last October. (Photo: The All-Nite images via

It seems no one enforces the law when it comes to musicians. It is against the law not to pay your employees. And under the law, professional musicians are employees. But if you go down to your local hangout and ask the members of the trio playing there how much they’re being paid, they will likely point to the tip jar in front of the bandstand.

With the new left-leaning city council and mayor, it’s time for the city to look at creating a minimum wage law for musicians. We’re living in a city where politicians are talking about raising the minimum wage to over $10 an hour. And yet not only are there money-making clubs that pay nothing, some actually require bands to pay for the opportunity to play. It’s not only outrageous, but strictly speaking, it’s illegal and something should be done about it.

If a club or restaurant is going to provide music, much of the motivation comes from the proposition that music will draw customers. But all too often musicians are “hired” but not paid. There should be a minimum wage per musician and anyone providing music as part of their business model should be made to pay for it.

The old argument will always arise that the club itself does not employ musicians, because musicians are supposedly independent contractors. But that’s not what the laws of the state of New York say. Under the New York State labor law statute, employees include “… a professional musician or a person otherwise engaged in the performing arts, and performing services as such for a … restaurant, night club or similar establishment.”

So why are these laws not enforced? If you look at the history of musicians employed in nightclubs in this city, you will find that several decades ago, musicians were paid on a consistent basis. The union was a big part of why that was so. The union density among musicians in New York during the era before rock-and-roll was many times stronger than it is now. Why it diminished is a subject for another article. (See a new book by Michael James Roberts called “Tell Tchaikovsky the News” to explore this question.) But now, the opposite is true. Though no study we know of has grappled with the question, it’s probably safe to assume that well over half (I’m being generous) of the nightclubs and restaurants in this city do not guarantee a minimum wage for musicians.

Musicians in New York and elsewhere are exploited and treated with gross unfairness when it comes to the payment (or nonpayment) of wages by those who profit from their services. It’s time for the city and state government to do something about it. Musicians are workers. They need to make a living to feed and house themselves and their families. They provide us with some of life’s greatest pleasure and they are repaid with disrespect. We can begin to address the problem by pushing for a city ordinance that will make it a violation of the law for an establishment to exploit musicians without paying them.

Create an enforceable minimum wage for musicians and you will see a secondary benefit of such a law. A principle of economics says that all wages increase when you raise the minimum wage. This would also apply to musicians. The establishment of a fair minimum wage law for musicians will mean better wages for all musicians. That’s a cause we can all get behind.