Before Rep. George Groesbeck Jr. died in December, the Butte legislator had made a point of standing up for Montana’s artists. Now a bill he inspired is set to carry on that part of his legacy.
Currently, musicians are required to obtain a Workers’ Compensation Act exemption by paying $125 and applying at the Montana Department of Labor. If they don’t sign up for the exemption, they—as well as the venue that books them—could be fined $1,000.
Groesbeck wanted to eliminate the requirement by enacting a permanent exemption for entertainers who garner less than 50 percent of their income from performances. He never had a chance to introduce the bill, but his friend, Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, sponsored HB 598 with Groesbeck in mind.
On March 11, the House Business and Labor Committee heard testimony about Noonan’s bill. Not surprisingly, the hearing drew support from artists and venue owners, but the business and labor community fought back.
“The DJs that work for me are extremely poor,” says Whitney Fisher, owner of Missoula’s L.I.V Entertainment, noting that most of her DJ’s are college students. “And for them, coming up with the $125 exemption certificate, they’re like, ‘Well, I don’t have the money so I just won’t do it.’”
The committee also heard from labor lobbyists who argued that if artists receive an exemption, it’s unclear who’s liable if they get injured during a performance. The lobbyists also wondered how the state would verify a performer’s income, an easily exploited loophole.
But Gary Kelly, a club owner in Florence, told the committee that if the exemption doesn’t pass, many of the live musicians who play in Florence—and currently slip under the Department of Labor’s radar—will simply stop playing.
“Most of the [performers at my venue] are working guys,” he said. “They work during the day and they play music for the love of it. I’ve talked to them and most of them have said that if they have to do something like that, they’ll just quit playing music. That might be something you want to think about.”