After a string of challenges, from inflation, vandalism, recent water damage and asbestos, The Rok Music Academy, a music school situated on Carson Street in Long Beach, is facing a tax audit, which could force the school to close its doors after nearly 10 years.

According to The Rok Music Academy owner Brad Cummings, the Employment Development Department claims that Cummings misclassified his employees as 1099 employees, or independent contractors, rather than as a W2 employee, or employees who earn a salary or hourly wage, he said.

From creating their own schedules, choosing how many students to take on and where to teach, “These are independent contractors to the letter of the law,” Cummings said.

California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) or the “gig worker bill,” legislation went into effect in January 2020, requiring companies that hire independent contractors to reclassify them as employees. However its definitions of a “gig worker,” are vague, said Cummings.

Assembly Bill 2257, passed in September 2020, exempts a long list of job categories including live performers, which Cummings argues that his teachers do during their classes.

A representative from Assemblyman Anthony Rendon’s office, who is one of the AB5’ sponsors and whose district includes The Rok Music Academy, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Being a musician is the most independent contracting work that you can possibly do,” said Anthony Castiglia, who has taught at The Rok Music Academy for the past nine years.

According to Castiglia, he dictates his own schedule, including how often he works, and how many and which students he takes on. He is given complete freedom, and is able to create his own curriculum without any interference from Brad Cummings or his wife, Stephanie, he said.

“It doesn’t really feel like they’re my boss, and I’m their employee,” Castiglia said.

Castiglia sends an invoice to each of his students, and at the end of each month, he sends an invoice to the Cummings’s.

“I have to let them know who I’ve taught, because it’s always changing,” said Castiglia.

While Castiglia primarily teaches piano and guitar, he has also taught recording and production, and occasionally works as a recording engineer for the school as well.

“I do different tasks for different prices,” Castiglia said. “I can’t expect to be paid the same for giving a music lesson as when offering my services as a recording engineer.”

Working in music is not a secure or traditional job, and it is sad to see a music school targeted for its employee classifications, Castiglia said.

“As a kid, music helped me. Music got me through life. And if we can do that for others who may need that same thing, then that’s really important,” Castiglia said.

While the amount of back taxes for payroll and unemployment insurance that Cummings could potentially owe is unclear, “it could be in the six figures,” Cummings said.

“The EDD is trying to impose huge assessments on us, because it’s a three-year audit period,” Cummings said. “It’s just a gray area, the law needs to be cleared up and is really bad for small business—I feel like if anything, the EDD should be subsidizing us, trying to help us stay afloat.”

Not only would the closure of the music school be a loss to the community, but because his business didn’t qualify for COVID-19 relief loans, Cummings has two idle loans for about $45,000 total. He worries he won’t be able to pay that back if he is forced to close, he said.

“We run our business to the letter of the law, and I feel like I’m just being completely attacked,” Cummings said. “I can’t sleep. This is the most stressful time in my lifetime. And I have two kids, and a mortgage and a wife. And this is stuff that wakes me up at 3 a.m., looking at the ceiling going, ‘how am I going to fix this?’”

Armand Melnbardis teaches a piano lesson to 8-year-old Evy Pellar on Feb. 15, 2023 at Calvary Cross Chapel. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.
Obstacle after obstacle

The tax audit isn’t the only challenge that Cummings and his wife, Stephanie, have had to face to keep their business afloat over the past couple of years.

While at one point, “it was a thriving little area,” The Rok Music Academy has experienced an increasing rate of vandalism, particularly since a nearby sports bar closed about five or six years ago.

The worst incident was in December 2021— after the store was broken into one night, the alarm system failed, prompting the burglars to return three times within 50 minutes, Cummings said.

After paying $575 for a technician to examine the security system, it was impossible to determine the cause, Cummings said.

Less than 45 days after the technician inspected the alarm system, the store was broken into once again, and the alarm system again failed.

“So, now we have litigation against ADT,” Cummings said. “They’re probably going to settle with us, but it’s going to be for chump change.”

Since the two break-ins, The Rok Music Academy’s liability insurance has jumped from $1,200 a year to over $3,000, and Cummings fears that if he files another claim, he’ll be left without insurance, he said.

“In effect, that’s the end of the business anyway,” he said.

Apart from security issues, the recent rains brought yet another obstacle for the Music Academy: water intrusion.

“We’re kind of fighting with the landlord to get all these mold and asbestos tests, because the ceiling’s falling down,” Cummings said.

Cummings took the testing upon himself, confirming his suspicions that the building’s popcorn ceilings contain asbestos.

Since then, The Rok Music Academy has operated out of a church in Cerritos, which is too far for many of the school’s students, Cummings said.

“I know we’re going to lose a lot of clientele,” Cummings said.

Over the last decade, the music school has typically had between 65 and 70 students at a time— at one point, it had 100 to 115 students, Cummings said.

While it has “been a long journey” to regain clients after the pandemic, in the past month alone, the school has lost 12 students, largely due to inflation, Cummings said. With the temporary move to Cerritos, Cummings worries even more students will be lost.

“Inflation is hurting our business as much as the pandemic,” Cummings said. “Music lessons are discretionary items for most families. When they’re paying $8 for a carton of eggs and $5 for a loaf of bread, guess what gets cut? Music lessons.”

Without any assistance from the building’s landlord, Cummings is currently working to break the lease and relocate the school, although he is not sure it even makes sense to continue at this point, Cummings said.

While Cummings is in the process of filing an appeal, numerous lawyers have warned Cummings that it will likely not go in his favor, he said.

“I feel like we have a good argument but  . . . if you saw the emails from the auditor, she’s short, she doesn’t want to hear our story,” Cummings said.

Afterward, one final appeal is possible, which will go to a district court judge, although Cummings suspects the judge will also side with the EDD, he said.

As for now, the business is “in limbo,” and he is running out of options, Cummings said.

He has written to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Councilmember Megan Kerr for help, but said he is not anticipating a response.

Kerr did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rok Music Academy, a music school located on Carson Street in Long Beach, has had to temporarily relocate its lessons to a church in Cerritos due to building damage. The school has faced numerous challenges over the past couple of years, including a tax audit that may force the school to close after nearly 10 years. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.
A loss to the community

“As a musician, as a teacher, as someone who loves music himself, and as a person who cares deeply about his students, and the idea of using music as a means of expression and healing in addition to entertainment— knowing that such a small studio, that’s trying to do so much good, is being kind of targeted is disheartening,” said Castiglia.

When budgets are cut in school districts, it’s usually art that takes the fall, Castiglia said.

“But the arts is a form of expression, the arts have saved the lives of more people than algebra,” Castiglia said.

For Cummings, he “almost gets teary-eyed” recalling some of his past and current students— including a 9-year-old bass player and a 77-year-old retired Long Beach Unified School District teacher who is learning to play the drums.

“The biggest kick I get is seeing these little girls and older performers that are scared to death to perform — to me, I’ve done so many thousands of gigs in my life, that it just jazzes me,” Cummings said. “We’re gonna face those fears . . .  we give them positive affirmation— even if they screw up, it doesn’t matter, I’ve made more mistakes than they ever will. We walk them through the process. Then to see them like, four shows later, the growth in them is just amazing. It’s bigger than music.”

Past students have gone on to prestigious music schools such as USC School of Music and Berklee College of Music, Cummings said.

“I never even thought about it when I was teaching at the time, that I might change or help the trajectory of someone go that route,” Cummings said. “What we do is pretty cool.”

Although the cards seem stacked against his small business, Cummings and his wife, Stephanie have hope that a door could open, making it feasible to continue.

“It’s been a journey, I’ve never made money, and I’m not bitter,” Cummings said. “I’ve had a great, fun, career. . . these times, it’s really crazy.”