Guest Opinion: Harrisburg Hates the Music Industry; How House Bill 561 Hurts Wages for Professional Musicians and DJs

By April 19, 2019 One Comment

By Bryan Tuk
Entertainment Attorney

Bryan Tuk

The working life of a professional musician is not a glamorous one.  The professional musician described here is not a superstar that has sold out arenas and stadiums, but instead is the performer that you see at your area clubs, hotels and bars.  The professional musician described here is the solo singer/guitarist that is playing a happy hour, or a providing a musical environment for a brunch, or playing at the local rock club on Friday night to 100 people.  These are the professional musicians that need those paying gigs to pay the rent, make the car payment or buy groceries.

While the audience or bar patrons see only the performance, there is much more that the audience doesn’t see that is required to make that performance happen.  Musicians put in hours and hours traveling to and from the gig, setting gear up and then breaking it down in addition to the performance itself. A three hour gig is, in reality, a 6- or 7-hour proposition.   

If the performance ends at 1 a.m., it’s a safe bet the performers aren’t getting home until 3 a.m. after taking care of their equipment and driving late at night back home.  The next day, that performer then teaches some private lessons during the day, and goes back out in the early evening to play another gig similar to the night before. Rinse, wash, repeat.

While performing for an audience can be a thrill, it is also a job that requires professional musicians to work very hard in order to make a living.  

The economics of the local music business aren’t pretty either.  The money that is offered most local musicians for your average gig at a bar or hotel would shock people if they knew.

With all of these pressures in mind, seemingly out of left field, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a Bill recently that will make the economic life of the professional musician much, much more difficult.

This odious piece of legislation is House Bill 561.   

HB561 allows liquor licensees (hotels, bars, restaurants) to hire minors to perform as musicians, but the same bill expressly prohibits any payment to those performers for their services.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The language of the Bill actually forbids payment to minors even though they are working at the establishment.  

Here is the critical provision: “…a hotel, restaurant or club licensee may permit a minor of any age to perform music if the minor is not compensated and the minor is under the supervision of a parent or guardian.”

To my knowledge, there is no other legislation on the books in Pennsylvania which expressly forbids payment for work performed.  This is a brand new type of foolishness from Harrisburg.

This Bill passed the House by an overwhelming majority vote of 185 -12 with 5 members absent.  

If this Bill becomes law, there are serious implications for working musicians, and none of them are good.   

First, the performance fees that establishments are willing to pay will decrease.  When free labor is introduced into the marketplace, wages will decrease for the paying gigs.  The bargaining power between establishment and performer will definitely shift in favor of the establishment even more than it already is.  

Second, this Bill institutionalizes the fiction that young/beginning performers should perform (read: work) for free and give away their labor.  One of the oldest saws in the music business is that some establishments tell young performers to accept unpaid gigs “for the exposure”. No thinking person would do this in any other service business.  

You would never advertise a landscaping job or restaurant server job with the compensation offered being “exposure to the industry”.  It’s a terribly condescending thing to offer to a potential worker. By making that offer, you are telling the other person that you don’t think they are smart enough to see the situation for what it is: a blatant attempt to take advantage of youth and inexperience.  Put another way, you can be certain that the restaurant expects to be paid by its patrons for those wings and sandwiches. The restaurant sure isn’t giving anything away.

Third, this Bill – if it becomes law – also negatively impacts DJs who work clubs and events.  The language of the Bill is not specific to musicians (i.e. people that play musical instruments).  All the language the Bill says is that it applies to “a minor” that can “perform music”. Arguably, that description applies to DJs as well, who now will have to compete against free labor in their particular marketplace.

Simply put, this Bill is a boon for establishments that can now book minors for zero dollars rather than hire professionals for value.

One of three things is possible.  One alternative is that the State Representatives who voted for this legislation are totally ignorant of the economic difficulties musical performers face.  Another alternative is that the State Representatives who voted for this legislation are in fact aware of the difficulties that musicians face and are indifferent at best or at worst, dismissive or hostile to the needs of musicians. The third possibility is that state legislators simply do not consider musical performance a business or a commercial endeavor.  

HB561 is yet another example of poor public policy and legislative buffoonery from Harrisburg.  The Pennsylvania Senate should vote to defeat this Bill, and/or the Governor should veto this. Otherwise, your Pennsylvania State Government just went out of their way to make the economic lives of musical creators and performers harder.  That is totally unconscionable.

Bryan Tuk is an attorney and musician based in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He also services thePittsburgh region.  For more information please visit http://tuklaw.com.

Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Bryan Tuk also serves as legal counsel for Pittsburgh Current, LLC.

One Comment

  • Jason Robinson says:

    Did you even read the Bill? Thats not what it says at all.
    “Notwithstanding any provisions of law to the contrary, a hotel,
    restaurant or club liquor licensee or any retail dispenser may
    allow students receiving instruction in a performing art to
    perform an exhibition if the students are not compensated and
    are under proper supervision. Written notice of the performance
    must be provided to the enforcement bureau prior to the
    performance.” Good Job with the Fake News

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