Do artists have a competitive edge in the gig economy?

By Joanna Woronkowicz

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Artists are all too familiar with the act of juggling multiple jobs in order to sustain their art work. While for many multiple jobholding is an economic necessity, as the original gig workers artists may have a competitive edge to sustaining work in the new gig economy.

In other words, since artists have been effectively managing gig work for ages, we can learn something from observing the employment behavior of artists in terms of strategies for all workers on how to succeed in the gig economy.

First, it’s important to define our terms and how artists can relate to current conceptions of gig economy workers. The term “gig” refers to work that’s characterized by the lack of an ongoing relationship with a single employer. The term partly originates from the word used to describe short-term musical engagements by jazz musicians. So, even though much of the current conversation about gig work tends to be in reference to the so-called “sharing economy” (think Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb), gig work includes a much larger universe of freelancers and independent contractors.

How are artists similar to gig economy workers?  In a recent post on this site, Steven Tepper notes, data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project shows that many artists are self-employed, have more than one job, and gain income from non-arts work. Similarly, gig workers are often self-employed and have more than one job. A recent study of Uber drivers shows that many gig workers place a high value on having flexible work schedules, either to have autonomy in their jobs or to balance work and family. Studies of artists have long emphasized the value these workers place on flexibility, especially in terms of how flexible jobs relate to overall job satisfaction.

So, there are natural alignments between artists and other gig workers. Therefore, we can look at a few ways artists manage work that may prove useful in identifying strategies for being successful in the gig economy.

Artists adapt existing skill sets to related lines of work.
While the stereotype is that every artist is a waiter or a bartender in addition to being an artist, this may not always be true. While national level data don’t have good information on multiple jobholding, by looking at how workers change occupations and/or industries over time, we can start to get a sense of what types of jobs artists toggle between. What we find is that, in general, artists are more likely to switch between jobs in similar industries than they are to enter entirely new domains of work. For artists that switched jobs between 2003 and 2013, the majority (59%) landed in one of five NAICS industries: independent artists, performing arts, spectator sports, and related industries; specialized design services; motion pictures and video industries; other professional, scientific and technical services; and architectural, engineering, and related services.

Even among people who formerly worked as artists that no longer identified themselves as such (national level surveys of employment require respondents to identify a “primary” occupation), only 2% landed in food service. About 10% worked in the education sector, and 11% moved into some type of managerial role. Moreover, the stats are similar when you exclude higher paying artist occupations like architects and designers. Therefore, artists are efficient by making lateral job moves, instead of moving into jobs that require entirely new skill sets.

Artists use self-employment as a strategy to buffer against the effects of financial crises.
The recent economic recession provided a fertile testing ground for observing how certain occupations manage work during times of economic hardship. In general, artists fared worse than other types of knowledge workers—such as those working in computers and math, science, engineering, and education occupations—in the last economic recession. Artists were more likely than these other workers to be unemployed and underemployed. Nevertheless, while U.S. workers in general were less likely to select into self-employment during and after the economic recession, the rates at which artists became self-employed actually increased from about 2008 to 2011. Either the artist labor market presented more opportunities for self-employment than other markets or artists were more apt at creating work for themselves compared to other workers. The entrepreneurial nature of artists and their work provided a buffer for some workers during the recession.

Artists use various personal support systems while pursuing independent work.
Since both artists and gig-economy workers value flexibility and autonomy in their work, observing characteristics of self-employed artists can provide insight for understanding the success factors related to maintaining independent work. For example, artists who live in cities and are married are more likely to be self-employed than work in wage/salary jobs. This suggests that either artists arrange their personal circumstances in order to pursue independent work, or that certain life factors are important in determining if an artist is able to work independently. For example, cities offer artists more opportunity for independent arts work; and spouses and partners can serve as safety nets for artists when work is hard to find. While the direction of causality may be unclear, the data suggest that artists who work independently often have various personal support systems in place.

Artists have a rich history of serving as trendsetters. As the original gig workers, artists are on the vanguard of honing the skills necessary for managing gig-style work and already possess many of the skills to succeed in this growing economy. Other gig economy workers can learn from artists on how to succeed in today’s changing workforce: adapt your existing skills to related realms of work, pursue self-employed work when in between jobs, and review how your personal support structures might help you sustain less predictable independent work. And advocates and policy makers who are interested in developing policies and structures to support this growing workforce could learn a lot from studying the work patterns of artists as well.

Joanna Woronkowicz (@cultureispolicy) is an assistant professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

Photo by Geert Schneide via Flickr / Creative Commons

Published May 12, 2016

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What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

Read more about the project.

Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons