The staff of Jim Brunberg's Mississippi Studios in North Portland grew from six to several hundred overnight—with a few flicks of an outside Rogue -acrat's magic Bic.
No, the ink-wielding wizard wasn't a millionaire investor intent on boosting business at the 4-year-old music venue and recording studio in North Portland.
It was the Oregon Employment Department. In a random audit of Mississippi Studios, the agency determined that all of the studio's performers—including national touring acts like Brandi Carlisle and Rickie Lee Jones—must by default be employees, not independent contractors, because their contracts don't spell that out.
The ruling, based on an Oregon statute that appears to cover house musicians who appear nightly in one location, not touring artists who play for 50 minutes then move on, means Brunberg now faces a $6,000 bill in unpaid employment taxes.
The Employment Bureau gets the scarlet "R" for suddenly whoring to the letter of the 20-year law and ignoring evidence that Mississippi Studios and its estimated200 artists a year are following its spirit. The bureau's demand that Brunberg provide written proof of his artists' status as independent contractors is excessive, Brunberg says.
In fact, as Brunberg points out, musicians who appear at Mississippi Studios or other Oregon venues typically are responsible for paying their own taxes. That's what independent contractors do.
Steve Reischman, the longtime concert presenter at the Oregon Zoo, is one of many on Brunberg's side. "This has never come up anywhere in 30 years of producing concerts," Reischman says. "This would stop the music industry in its tracks."
Department spokesman Tom Fuller says the law requires that artists' contracts with their venues state explicitly that the artist will pay all applicable taxes, but he can't comment on specific audits.
"Our charge is to fairly apply the law as it's written," Fuller says.