Category Archives: Non-standard forms of employment

The limits of the “platform economy”: why haven’t platforms taken over live music?

by Charles Umney (University of Leeds), Dario Azzellini (Cornell University) and Ian Greer (Cornell University)

NB: This blog summarises our research project “Limits of the platform economy: digitalization and makretization in live music”, funded by the Hans Boeckler Foundation

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It is often assumed that the “platform economy” is in the ascendancy, and is taking over more and more economic sectors. Because of this, much research on the matter has focused on characterising and evaluating this change: what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of this kind of work compared to more “traditional” jobs? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about it? Hence, most current research has looked at the experience of workers in industries which are already highly “platformised” (such as ride sharing, food delivery, or clickwork).

But given that the platform economy still involves only a small percentage of workers worldwide, it seems that some sectors must be more susceptible to platform takeover than others. Indeed, put this way, this sounds like a statement of the obvious. So it is surprising that so little research has examined which characteristics make a given labour market more or less hostile terrain for platform capitalists. Our study of live music in the UK and Germany suggests some answers to these questions.

Superficially, live music seems like the kind of sector that might be ripe for platformisation. High-profile early platforms intervened directly in the music industry, reshaping the relationship between musicians and their audiences (for example Napster or Myspace). Moreover, live music fits closely with the idea of the “experience economy” which features heavily in many platforms’ self-promotion. See, for instance, Sofar Sounds, which considers itself a dedicated live music platform and has collaborated with AirBnB and Uber to provide live music “experiences” in private individuals’ homes.

However, our research shows that live music is proving resistant to the platform model. We conducted a systematic review of live music intermediaries in our two countries, developing a comprehensive database of any enterprise which a) has a significant online presence, and b) aims to link up buyers and sellers in the live music labour market.

The sites we found included those helping musicians connect with other musicians; helping musicians connect with potential venues; or helping customers (such as individuals organising a private party or corporate event) to find musicians. We supplemented this with a number of interviews with key informants in both countries.

In the over 160 sites in our database, very few adopted a model consistent with the typical “platform”, and those that came closest to this tended to have a marginal presence, with little reason to believe they could become a major source of work for live musicians.

Why is this? First, we will summarise the kinds of enterprises we did find, and consider how and why they fell short of “platformisation”.

Types of (partial) digitalisation in live music

We divided our sample into clusters, identifying differing levels of digitalisation. In general, we found that, the more digitalised sites were, the more their function moved from that of a representative acting on the musician’s behalf (as with a “traditional” live music agent) towards providing a venue for amassing data and matching buyers and sellers.

The largest group, comprising almost half of our sample, were the websites of traditional music agents. Here, the online activity is merely one means of contacting an agency which likely does much of its business offline. Traditional agents typically represent a comparatively small number of acts, and are relatively selective about who is featured on their books. They may have a monopoly over specific acts, and being represented by an agent may constitute a significant career break for artists.

Traditional agents’ websites usually served as a means of advertising their bands and providing a means of contact. They do not tend to offer any kind of comparison-facilitating function (for instance, they rarely enable users to sort by price or “quality”, however defined). If a client wants to hire an act, they must then make off-site contact and the agent likely acts as the musician’s representative in negotiations. They may also actively prospect for work for their artists, and provide them with career development support.

Next, we identified a category which hybridises elements of the traditional agent model with characteristics of a digital platform. We called these the “digitalized agencies”. There were fewer of them, but they typically featured much larger numbers of acts. They normally catered to “function” work- i.e. where artists act as service providers, performing as hired entertainment or background music at private parties or corporate events.

These were different from the traditional agents in two main ways. First, they normally had much more open and accessible sign-up procedures (typically, acts had to fill in an online enquiry form including video or other media clips). Selectivity is generally lower. This explains the much larger lists of acts they tend to feature.

Second, the sites were more “customer-focused”, in that they marketed themselves primarily as a venue for customers to browse through and compare their acts: a price comparison site rather than an artist representative. Thus, they tended to provide more data: prices were often displayed up-front and could be used to order search results. And in some cases, acts could also be sorted according to rankings such as user-generated star ratings or other measures of “popularity”. These, however, tended to be rudimentary and sparsely-used, with few acts have more than a handful of user-submitted ratings.

Despite this greater digitalization, these sites still differed sharply from a genuine platform (even if some described themselves as one). The comparative data they amassed was highly limited. And most importantly, they retained significant human interlocution in organising transactions. Transactions were never fully automated: instead, the customer’s choice of an act was only a starting point, after which came further interpersonal negotiation, facilitated by a manager at the agency, to agree final arrangements with the band (which could be complex, given the unique circumstances of each gig which can affect the final price).

Finally, we identified a small group of sites which came closest to the platform model. Sites in this category usually marketed themselves towards musicians looking to build a profile as creative performers under their own name. Musicians and clients (such as clubs and concert halls, or even individuals looking to use their house as a music venue) could create profiles and post requests, to which others could attach their own profiles, leading to direct contact between account holders.

These sites were the most readily accessible, enabling instant signup with no managerial vetting. As such they tended to be by far the largest group in terms of numbers of acts featured.

They were also usually more sophisticated in the data they amassed for providing comparisons. They often sought to sync with other social media platforms, in some cases giving users “scores” by amalgamating activity across their other accounts- Twitter, Youtube, Soundcloud, and the like.

They also sometimes provided automated forms of labour discipline: for instance, one site featured automatic disconnection from the platform if a musician withdrew from an agreed engagement on three occasions.

However, we judged these “live music platforms” to have very limited reach. Often, the vast majority of act profiles appeared dormant, and evidently only functioned very sporadically as sources of work for their users. Many of the gigs advertised were poor quality ones, in which artists were expected to play for free or for very low pay. At this stage they appear patently unable to seriously support a professional musician’s career.

Indeed, through our interviews, we found that more established platforms were seeking to make changes to their business models, notably trying to partner with traditional agents as a means of accessing new market segments. This suggests severe limits to the mileage of the platform business model in live music.

Why haven’t platforms taken over in live music?

We believe there are three main reasons why the platform model has weak traction in live music.

First, because of the subjective and qualitative way in which value is assessed. Looking through the sites we identified, it was striking how little-used and rudimentary the comparative metrics for establishing “quality” were. Many act profiles only had a handful of star ratings, nearly all of which were five star, rendering them largely useless as a basis for comparison. Instead, users were more often encouraged to view a wide range of video or audio clips provided, which did enable comparisons but hardly the of automated, rapidfire kind enabled by platforms.

Secondly, because the field of live music is so fragmented. Different kinds of work (“function” versus “creative”, and then the varied different “scenes” and segments within these broad groupings) have different ways of working. Buyers in them look for fundamentally different things. Norms around pricing and standards are completely different. Thus, while musicians themselves may happily work in many different contexts, they would normally use different avenues to obtain different kinds of work, rather than a “one stop” platform serving all market segments.

Third, because the transaction itself contains so many contingencies that have to be renegotiated. For instance, travel, accommodation if necessary, repertoire, food provision, equipment: all of these may involve specific requirements on each gig, to the extent that qualitative personal oversight of transactions is seen as essential by all parties involved.

Does this matter for music work?

While platforms had not taken over, the kinds of digitalization we did observe has some important consequences for live musicians’ working conditions.

First, digitalization makes intermediaries less likely to function as a musician’s representative, and more likely to provide a customer-centric venue for comparison. This creates new risks for music workers. Agencies are less likely to invest time and resources into promoting their acts, and more likely to require that artists produce these things themselves (for instance by assembling Electronic Press Kits which are uploaded to a band’s profile). There are up-front costs for artists to gain market access, with often a relatively weak chance of significant new work opportunities as a result.

Another dilemma this poses for musicians is those occasions where they are required to state their starting fee upfront, to be sifted through by potential customers. This means musicians have to commit to a rough fee before hearing the details of a particular engagement (though there is limited scope for negotiation before finalising the gig).

A more representative intermediary such as a traditional agent, would instead take responsibility for negotiating potentially higher fees depending on the perceived means of the buyer. Musicians are thus “frozen” into specific prices which have to be set with the lower end of the market in mind.

Second, the model magnifies price competition by creating a new forum where potentially thousands of acts can be rapidly compared. The vast “reserve army” of musicians is marshalled into a new and expanded “shop window”, and at the click of a mouse they can be sorted from least to most expensive or vice versa. Unsurprisingly, we found cases of extreme low fees on certain sites, including one where a four-piece band was offering a starting price of £100 for work in London (the average per-member fee of £25 compares to a Musicians’ Union-recommended going rate of over £150).

Finally, however, it was striking to note that many of these sites combined the wider reach of digitalization, with a continuation of highly opaque and “offline” methods of profit-extraction. For instance, some sites may take a suggested budget from a customer enquiry, and search through acts on their roster to find one who will work for the lowest fee. They may not reveal the customer’s actual budget to the band, and in this way they can accumulate huge commissions that might be as much as, or more, than artists themselves receive. Expanded digital reach does not necessarily mean greater transparency.

Limits to the platform economy?

These websties, in the vast majority of cases, are not platforms. Indeed, a detailed look at live music shows how some of the inherent characteristics of the sector militate against platformisation.

This means we need to reconsider the assumption that platform-type organisational forms are on an inexorable upward trend. While this may be true in some industries, we suggest there are other sectors- where the nature of services is complex and contingent, where markets are fragmented, and where judgements of value are highly subjective- which are likely to prove inhospitable for this kind of organisational form.

Nonetheless, the organisations we examined were increasingly creatures of partial digitalization, a sort of “missing link” between an offline service market and a platform. In many cases, this presented consequences for workers that resemble those already identified with genuine platforms.

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“Revolting Prostitutes” Book Launch

Book coverOn the 8th of November, CERIC hosted a panel discussion as a book launch event for the highly anticipated book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Mac and Smith are sex worker rights activists with SWARM and SCOT-PEP, and their book is a deeply researched yet highly accessible analysis of current sex work debates. Juno Mac is also known for her TED talk ‘The laws that sex workers really want’.

Revolting Prostitutes discusses current debates on sex work, national and international sex worker self-organisation, and how sex worker rights fit within an intersectional critique of inequality in society. Challenging both sides of the sex work debates in the UK (those who see sex work as a vocation and those who believe sex work is inherently violence against women), Mac and Smith argue that sex work is inherently violent not because of the sex involved, but because it is work.

CERIC is one of the leading research institutes in the UK when it comes to expertise on sex work as a topic of labour and work. The organiser and panel chair Lilith Brouwers is a CERIC postgraduate researcher into employment relations in sex work in England. Joining Juno Mac and Molly Smith on the panel was Nadine Gloss, CERIC postgraduate researcher into sex worker self-organisation and representation in Germany.

After an introduction of all panel members, Mac and Smith explained about the importance of seeing sex work as an issue of labour, and the influence this has had on their book. With an analysis of sex work as a form of labour, academics and activists can use a rights framework for their work, strengthening the demands sex worker organisations make of institutions like governments, police, NGOs and employers.

Nadine Gloss discussed the main obstacles she found in researching sex worker organisation: gaining access to and trust from sex workers and sex worker-led organisations. With any labour ethnographic research comes the challenge of finding participants willing to be observed within their organisation, but understandably sex workers are more wary than most of researchers misrepresenting their work.

Another point of discussion was the differences panel members had noticed between sex worker organising in the UK and in Germany. While sex worker led organisations in Germany aim to present sex work as a free choice – in response to discourses which present sex workers as victims – UK sex worker rights organisations identify closer to working class movements which do not present work as inherently positive. This identification specifically as workers also builds solidarity between other social movements such as the migrant rights, prison abolitionist, and LGBT+ rights movements.

After questions from attendants of the event, Mac and Smith were kind enough to sign copies of their book during the wine reception following the panel.

 

CERIC Doctoral Conference 2018

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Emma Partlow

By Emma Partlow, Postgraduate Researcher, Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology (University of Birmingham)

I was honoured to have been invited to present my research at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) Doctoral Conference on the 20th June at Leeds University Business School. As a doctoral student from the University of Birmingham, it was a pleasure to network within a room full of people who articulated original and innovative research in such an engaging manner.

The conference encompassed a wide-range of disciplines, including: Social Policy, Languages and Cultural Studies, Psychology, Performance and Cultural Industries and of course, Business and Management in its many forms. It was exciting to see how a diverse range of talks could marry together under the banner of Inequalities in the Workplace. These talks encompassed everything from: sexual harassment in the workplace, strategic human resource management, apprenticeships, inequalities in skills developments during recessions, collective labour conflicts in China, case study on the Nigerian Electricity Distribution Sector, sex work, organisational stress management, pay gaps and inequality, labour insecurity, marginalisation of theatre lighting designers, power in modern management, and the employment experiences of people with Multiple Sclerosis. Not forgetting the key note talk from Professor Chris Forde who kicked off the day so eloquently with the ‘Inequalities of Work in the 21st Century – The Rise of the Gig Economy’.

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Participants of the Doctoral Conference

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to present my research project looking at the impact of equalities legislation on disabled people in the workplace, which critically analyses the concept of ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the policy context of the Government’s White Paper Improving Lives. The audience were receptive to my theoretical framing, which sees me draw upon the concept of bio-power and subtle coercion in the form of Libertarian Paternalism.

Doctoral students eloquently presented their work and the day flew by with methodological discussions, engaging debate and suggestions within an entirely supportive and ‘safe’ space. It has to be said that this was one of the most supportive academic spaces I have had the pleasure to participate in. The development of spaces where doctoral students can engage in supportive discussion about their work is important and something we must actively continue to arrange.  I am sure I am not alone when I say that questions, comments and suggestions received in this manner are invaluable and can go a long way in supporting a thought-process or the development of ideas.

I would like to thank CERIC and Leeds University Business School for their generosity and hospitality. Not only did they host this doctoral conference and provided refreshments and lunch but prizes were provided for the prize winners and I am honoured to have been chosen as one of these prize winners. The prizes were put forward to help with the cost of attending conferences of choice; I think this is an excellent incentive to encourage people to share their work, regardless of the stage they are at within their doctoral journey.

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From left to right: joint 1st prize winner for best paper presentation Maisie Roberts (CERIC), Dr Jo Ingold, joint 1st prize winner  Marina Boulos (CERIC), joint winner for the best poster presentation Sophie Morrell (Bradford) and 2nd prize winner for best paper presentation Emma Partlow (Birmingham)

The success of this doctoral conference has inspired me to adopt the theme of ‘Inequalities and Work’ to host a conference at the University of Birmingham so please do watch this space! It would be my pleasure to welcome some familiar and friendly faces to Birmingham and to hear how your work has developed since this event.

CERIC members publish Work, Employment and Society Special Issue

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Early career researchers, Gabriella Alberti, Ioulia Bessa, Kate Hardy, Vera Trappmann and Charles Umney have published a Special Issue of the high-ranking journal Work, Employment and Society.

The issue “In, Against and Beyond Precarity: The Struggles of Insecure Workers” contains pieces spanning geographic contexts from China to Chile and Britain to Brussels. The issue follows the 2016 Work, Employment and Society conference which was organised and hosted by Centre of Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the University of Leeds. Authors from Finland, Hong Kong, Germany, Denmark, Peru and the UK have contributed excellent pieces on workers including taxi-drivers, couriers, managers, mine and public-sector workers. In the round, they offer a close interrogation of the notion of precarity and the insecurity it produces, bringing in issues relating to worker struggle, the standard employment relationship and supply chain.

In their introduction, the CERIC editors take to task the concept of ‘precarity’, arguing instead that a focus on ‘processes of precarisation’ may be more analytically helpful for understanding the range of contexts in which the term is applied. They also point to the need to think about work and labour in the broadest terms, emphasizing a ‘need to address precariousness in the realm of social reproduction and post-wage politics’ as well as more formal studies of employment.

The Special Issue is on Open Access until 2nd July.

BBC interview with Dr Liz Oliver on Uber driver row

Dr Liz Oliver was invited to BBC Breakfast to talk about Uber’s appeal to the Employment Tribunal decision that a group of current and former Uber drivers should have been classed as workers rather than self-employed contractors.

Liz took part in an interview alongside Mr Farrar who was one of the claimants to the employment tribunal claim. She explained that the key issue was the identification and classification of a contract between Uber and the drivers. She pointed out that three contract forms are important to employment law: a contract DSC_4741of employment where the individual is an employee and has access to the full body of employment protection, a ‘worker’ contract which places the individual within the scope of some but not all employment protection (a kind of “employee-lite”) or self-employment where the service provider is in business on their own and falls outside of the scope of employment protection. At Employment Tribunal the claimants successfully showed that they were workers and that placed them within the scope of The National Minimum Wage provisions and the Working Time Regulations 1998 (which includes limits to working time and access to paid holiday). The key question was whether the way that the working relationship has been characterised by Uber companies within the written terms of their agreements with drivers and with passengers matched up to the ‘true relationship between the parties’. Uber describes the relationships in terms of agency. Rather than contracting with drivers to provide services to passengers, Uber describe their role is as an agent or broker; they simply bring drivers and passengers together. Ultimately the contract to take and provide a ride is between the driver and the passenger. The structure of these contractual relationships is at the heart of the Uber business model and the company has shown keen to defend its position. They were given leave to appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the hearing begins today.

A number of similar claims have been made by people who provide services through platforms so this decision will be watched closely by those who ‘participate in the platform economy’.  In Liz’s view the argument that Uber drivers are workers is a valid and strong one. However a favourable outcome for drivers would by no means end they story. An important question for examples is when drivers be considered to be workers, throughout the whole time that they are logged onto the App and ready to receive rides or only for the duration of the ride itself. Bottoming out questions such as these will test the how the architecture of existing regimes such as the framework of the national minimum wage accommodates the opportunities that platforms provide for flexible ways of working. Another question is how platforms would respond to further pressure to contract with service providers as workers. Would they seek to place more risk onto service providers to emulate self-employment more closely or would they assert more control over service providers in a manner more akin to employment? The growing body of litigation in the area of contract form is clearly playing a catalytic role in finding an appropriate way to combine flexibility and fairness. Here it seems that service providers themselves are pursuing a more ambitious set of outcomes than those proposed in the recent Taylor review of modern working practices.  Nevertheless litigation is a blunt tool when it comes to finding imaginative solutions. Could the key actors in the world of platform service provision find a space outside of this high stakes context to grapple with these issues? Innovation is, after all, at the heart of the development of the platform economy.

You can watch the interview through BBC iplayer although the programme is only available for 24 hours. BBC One (from 1h11m) 27th September – Broadcast

Understanding the implications of the global growth of non-standard work

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Calum Carson reflects on his input into a major new research report by the International Labour Organisation on the growth of non-standard forms of employment around the world.

During the past few decades, a key debate has emerged in the work and employment research field as to whether the traditional laws and conventions that regulate employment and the employer-employee relationship have been irrevocably transformed by the rise of a number of new, “non-standard” forms of employment (NSFE). While this has long been a major issue of contention these developments are now being taken seriously by major global actors such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The continued growth of NSFE and its implications for those employed in such roles are the key focus of a major new report launched this month by the ILO, which highlights the policies needed to improve the quality of non-standard jobs. The report finds that there has been a rise in non-standard forms of employment globally, to the extent of which that they are now, in the words of ILO Deputy Director-General for Policy, Deborah Greenfield, “a widespread feature of contemporary labour markets.”

Such non-standard forms of employment include temporary roles; part-time work; temporary agency work; “micro jobs”; the misclassification of individuals in certain roles as “independent contractors” (otherwise known as disguised employment relationships); and dependent self-employment. In Britain in particular, the growth in the number of workers employed on zero-hour contracts reflects the rise of these new forms of employment, with over 903,000 individuals (2.9% of the entire workforce) employed under such contracts. Additionally, a comprehensive analysis published in November revealed that more than one in five workers in the UK (over 7.1 million people) are employed under precarious working conditions, up from 5.3 million in just 2006.

With the continued growth in NSFE an ever-greater number of workers are unable to access certain benefits associated with a ‘traditional’ employment relationship, such as pension contributions from employers, paternity leave, and sickness and annual leave pay. Such workers also struggle to collectively organise and represent themselves in disputes with their employers via effective trade unions, as seen most recently in the UK with strikes by Deliveroo and Uber workers. The rise of these new forms of employment call for new forms of regulation in turn, both in order to address both the issues discussed above, and to ensure that the future evolution of NSFE develops in a sustainable manner for both workers and their employers.

While the ILO report does highlight the positive implications that NSFE can have in certain instances, including providing access to the labour market for disadvantaged groups and granting some flexibility to both workers and employers, it also cautions that NSFE is often associated with greater insecurity for workers. In some cases, particularly where contractual arrangements have blurred the employment relationship, there is evidence that workers have difficulty exercising their fundamental rights at work, or gaining access to social security benefits and on-the-job training. These issues also affect employers, too, by creating productivity losses and resulting in high rates of turnover in staff.

Finally, the report suggests four key policy recommendations to improve the quality of non-standard jobs: to plug regulatory gaps in the oversight of NSFE roles, in order to protect workers in a more direct manner; to strengthen collective bargaining for NSFE workers, to enable them to challenge their employers where necessary; to strengthen social protection of workers, to ensure that workers have access to the same level of benefits that workers working under a traditional employer-employee relationship do; and by instituting employment and social policies that support job creation and that accommodate workers’ needs not only for training, but also for family responsibilities such as childcare and elder care.

In the context of the growth of NSFE and its seemingly permanent embedding in labour markets across the world, this report makes an important contribution in helping to highlight the key issues surrounding this phenomena, and in how best to protect those workers operating within such roles both now and in the future. Such research is critical in helping us to fully understand and inform the continued development of these issues, as well as other changing dynamics within the world of work, employment and labour markets. The ILO, CERIC, and our colleagues across the world have a key role to play in the undertaking and dissemination of this crucial research.

Here at CERIC research into this area continues with a new study commissioned by the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament, which will examine the development of the collaborative economy in Europe and the potential need for greater social protections for workers operating within it. Involving a wide number of colleagues across CERIC and under the leadership of Professor Chris Forde, this research will report back its findings to the European Parliament and the wider public in May.