By: Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.
This article was previously published on Synchtank.com.
The music industry is comprised of very specific customs and practices as to how business is done. The music industry functions in its own world, and its customs and practices are foreign to and widely misunderstood by most people not working in the music business. Therefore, when those outside the music industry place restrictions on how music’s business can be carried out, the results can be disastrous.
Case in point, the new AB5 law in California. AB5 stands for Assembly Bill 5. It was introduced at the end of 2019 and went into effect on January 1, 2020. While this is a California law, it can affect the music business on a global scale.
Summary of the Law
AB5 was enacted with the aim of equalizing benefits and fair treatment for workers, especially those with part-time gigs, like Uber drivers. The intention of the bill was to make sure these types of workers also received the benefits of full-time employees, such as health care, and also to enforce businesses to pay employment taxes to the state instead of circumventing those taxes by classifying all of its workers as independent contractors.
AB5 takes the decision of a recent California Supreme Court case  and enacts it into law. AB5 dictates a new test for determining who is an employee versus who is an independent contractor. The determination of whether a worker is an independent contractor is now subject to what is called the “ABC Test”. In order for a person to be considered an independent contractor rather than an employee, the hiring entity must show all of the following:
- The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact. 
- The person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business. 
- The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature that is involved in the work performed. 
Here’s the translation in plain English:
Part A basically means that the worker is hired for a job and determines how he or she will do the work. This has to be shown in the written agreement between the hiring entity and the worker, and also has to be true in practice. For example, when one hires a bookkeeper, the bookkeeper will determine when and how he or she works, and how the work gets done. This will also be reflected in the agreement between the hiring entity and the bookkeeper. The hiring person is not going to tell the bookkeeper how to perform the work of a bookkeeper, nor is one business owner going to tell another business owner how and when to conduct business.
Part B means that the worker is performing work that is not the same business as the hiring entity. Again, using the bookkeeper example, if a musician hires a bookkeeper, the bookkeeper does very different work than the musician.
Part C means that the worker has his or her own separate business doing the type of work the hiring entity hired the worker to perform. Staying with the bookkeeper example, the bookkeeper would have his or her own bookkeeping business and perform bookkeeping work for other clients.
By default, workers are now considered employees unless the hiring entity can show the worker is an independent contractor. There are many exceptions to this rule, such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, graphic designers, repossession people, and more. However, there was no exception granted for those who work in the music business.
How Does This Affect the Music Industry?
Because there is no exception for the music industry, music professionals are subject to this law.
This means that a musician is now an employer when he/she hires:
- another musician to play in that musician’s band (even if it’s just for one show instead of an on-going arrangement);
- someone to perform on a record (even as a one-off, work for hire session);
- a producer (or beatmaker) for their record
- and more!
If that musician is an employer, then he or she would be required to take out withholding tax from the workers’ pay, pay payroll taxes to the state, potentially provide health care benefits, file all appropriate tax forms, etc. This could be crippling to independent musicians, both financially and administratively.
What About Companies?
Companies are not exempt from these requirements either. By contract and in practice, artists have always been considered independent contractors in relation to record labels, and this practice continues today. Songwriters have been considered independent contractors to music publishers, as composers have been to music libraries. This could all potentially change if AB5 is enforced based on a literal interpretation of the ABC Test. It could force companies to completely change the way they do business, which may be at the detriment of musicians. It is possible that companies like record labels will make sure their contracts are issued only from their offices outside of California.
It also may force many in the music industry to move their business outside of California where the “gig” way of doing business continues. This would be a blow to the California economy both from losing the revenue from the music industry, as well as the taxes from all the musicians and companies that would move out of California to continue their current ways of doing business. AB5 may also affect independent film companies and non-union film projects. As the California economy relies heavily on the entertainment industry, this surely would greatly reduce the benefits legislators hoped AB5 would bring to California by increased income from employment taxes.
What Do We Do Next?
No one knows. The law was drafted so broadly and is so new, that it is completely untested. No one really knows how to proceed and how this law will be applied in practice.
Some in the industry and online have tried to think of different ideas to continue doing business as usual without violating the law, but none seem to have a viable solution.There have also been lawsuits filed against AB5 and actions to move toward an appeal. One website (which is really part of one California Assembly candidate’s website for his election campaign)  allows the public to post their stories of how AB5 has or will affect their careers.
What most people are doing now is trying to proceed with caution and stay up to date with any changes. It’s a very uncertain time, but one can hope for a favorable resolution.
 Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County
, 4 Cal.5th
 Assemb. B. 5, 2019 Leg., Chapter 296, Statutes of 2019 (Ca. 2019).
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Note: This article does not constitute legal advice.