The Gig Economy

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I’ve been speaking and writing about gigs for years, so when I heard someone choose “gig” as his word of the year, my ears perked up. This thoughtful essay by linguist Geoff Nunberg on NPR’s Fresh Air  examines how the word “gig” has evolved since its origins in the 20th century. Nunberg describes the “Gig Economy” as “last chapter in the life of a little word that has tracked the rise and fall of the great American job.”

Nunberg writes that “Gig goes back more than a century as musicians’ slang for a date or engagement.” But it eventually took on the opposite meaning: “But the word didn’t have any particular glamour until the 1950s, when the hipsters and the Beats adapted it to mean any job you took to keep body and soul together while your real life was elsewhere.”

He goes on to say (referring to Jack Kerouac) “For the hipsters, calling a job a gig was a way of saying it didn’t define you. A gig was a commitment you felt free to walk away from as soon as you had 50 dollars in your pocket.” Here’s where Professor Nunberg and I part ways. He feels that calling gigs “gigs” is simply a way to make temporary work sound cool, a luxury for people who can afford to pretend they don’t need a job to survive.

Mr. Nunberg believes that the rise of the gig economy (also called the On Demand Economy and “Free Agent Nation”) signals the end of jobs as we know them.  He may be right. But I argue that the change has been long overdue.  We’re exchanging the security of employment for the uncertainty of work. It feels less secure (it is) and scary (yes) because it’s based in reality, instead of in a stubborn belief in fairy tales.

When I speak about the Gig Economy, I often talk about how musicians get it right. When the gig is over, they don’t spend time agonizing. If they’re good, they already have another gig lined up.  They are constantly focused on the present (doing a good job) and the future (lining up the next job.) In contrast, workers tend to think of their employment as a right, separate and somehow unrelated to issues the owners face, like profitability, changing markets and advancing technology. When stores close or jobs end, workers are often caught flat-footed; they don’t realize that they’re responsible for their next gig. They often get stuck in the past, grieving for what they had instead of looking forward to what’s coming next.

Here’s how musicians (and of course other artists) get it right – and how workers could re-imagine their careers.

  • Artists know they must be original to stand out. Yes, you can make a decent living covering other people’s songs. There are even people who make a living pretending to be a super star, but no one remembers their name after the show. In order to become a star, you’ll need to do your own writing, and create a style that’s remarkable. If your work isn’t recognizable as yours, an employer can hire anyone (usually at a lower price) to take your place.
  • Artists know they’re only as good as their last gig. Money invested in entertainment is a luxury; we usually give an artist just one chance to connect with us before we move on to another form of entertainment. There’s no phoning in a gig; you must perform –  and wow the crowd –  or the venue has no choice but to book someone else. Unlike workers, artists’
  • Artists are always working toward the next gig. They know that they must improve their skills, add new songs to their repertoire, and follow what’s hot and what people are listening to. They’re in charge of marketing themselves (unless they have an agent) and must always be selling themselves to the next venue. They know that they alone are responsible for their job security.

I have heard that the great seventies duo Loggins and Messina got their start because they were available to fill in for a band that didn’t show up for a gig. They the house and caught the attention of a promoter who happened to be in the audience. Proving once and for all that there are no small gigs, only small performances.

Make sure you rock your next gig in 2016.




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