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Home » Officer Columns » Disruptive Technologies — Our Time of Transformation

Disruptive Technologies — Our Time of Transformation


Bruce Fife headshotby Bruce Fife, AFM International Vice President and President of Local 99 (Portland, OR)

The old phrase, “may you live in interesting times” is often purported to be a blessing, when in fact, it is a curse, mistakenly attributed to be of ancient Chinese origins, though its origins are Western, 20th century. Whether it’s a blessing or a curse is of little consequence.

What is of consequence is the “times” we live in are moving forward at breakneck speed, with little consideration to the effect of disruptive technologies. I don’t know whether it’s possible to slow things down enough to consider the impact of implementation, but I believe it’s important to try.

The music biz was the canary in the coal mine. We were the first to really be impacted by the disruption caused by the technological revolution. Starting with Napster, it’s pretty much been one disruption after another. As you look at other industries, journalism was right on our tails, then retail, film, and TV, etc. All impacted to varying degrees by new technology.

Now the newest twist is the “sharing economy” of Uber, Airbnb, and Lyft. This is disruptive, because once again, the technology allows companies to play by a different set of rules.  Everyone is placed at the intersection of worker rights, consumer rights, consumer preferences, and big business. On one hand, for example, there is no obligation to have liability insurance nor to pay license fees or other types of taxes that cab companies and/or hotels are historically required to pay. In other words, they’re profiting by not playing the “game” the way years of experience have brought it together through knowledge that protects consumers and workers and with infrastructure that allows businesses to flourish.

I do get it—the convenience of tapping your phone and having a car show up quickly, or the adventure of staying in someone’s home with a view. But, if you were the cab driver who has had to follow a strict set of rules (laws or mandated regulations), which can now be ignored by Uber, or you live on a street where your neighbor rents out his home and now there are late night parties and strangers “moving in” who have little or no respect for your neighborhood, you might not think it’s such a good idea.

There is one other key consequence. The revenue generated is not going to the worker on the ground, but once again, appears to be flowing to the top. Uber has reportedly become a $50 billion company in just six years and the drivers are not getting an equitable share of that revenue. In fact, depending on which report you read, after adjusting for the overhead of their vehicles, they are making no more than current cabbies. That could change. Uber drivers have now won their first round in Federal Court in San Francisco relating to their misclassification as independent contractors. They are fighting to be classified as employees so that they are be able to receive gratuities (Uber informs customers that gratuities are included in the price) and recover maintenance costs. They are taking a stand.

The thing that bothers me most about all of this is that no one seems to be looking at the long-term consequences. Are we again, by not considering the long term, going to destroy more industries, at the cost of many more jobs for hard-working people? Are we going to destroy, as well, the infrastructure that has made this short-term growth possible, but that may not survive the disruption? I’m not against progress, but I believe we’re better served if we don’t blow up an industry, but rather, keep the best of it, while shedding the anachronistic parts of it.

The place I’m headed with this is wages. All of this disruption hits wages of workers harder than any other part of the industry. The response to these challenges seems to always be to lower our wages. That is certainly the easiest answer, but once you go down that road, it’s difficult to come back from it. Yes, it’s hard to see, and to stand up for the long game, but if we don’t, we just hand everything over to whomever is the current “man.” (Remember that little company, Google, and its slogan, “do no evil”? Now, it’s clearly “the man.”)

How did we get to the place where club owners are doing musicians a favor by letting them play in their clubs? How is it ok to give US tax credits to companies that then take the work overseas? How does it make sense that one musician is supposed to cover the clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, oboe, and English horn parts in the pit, just so they don’t have to hire more musicians? How bad does it have to be before people decide, okay, that’s enough, now it’s time to stand up and fight for what’s right.

Yes, I’m ranting, but I get tired of watching the “power” of the employer not challenged by the power of our numbers. It can’t be just your local or national officers who are ready to stand up for what’s right. You have to be part of that team. We do live in interesting times and I’d like to see us come through them better than we came into them. So far, it’s not looking so good.

We must focus our creative attention and power on those external forces around us that take advantage of our lack of engagement. We need to have the common sense to value our skills and talent, our work, and the music we create and offer. Yes, it’s scary, it’s challenging, but when we don’t stand up to power, they can take it all away from us. It’s human nature to do what they’re doing, but it should also be our nature to fight this “curse” of interesting times, and make sure we own and benefit from what we create.

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