Black Men of Labor Parade. Can the social aid and pleasure clubs survive without mainstream support? Photo: Kim Welsh

Can musicians make a living wage in New Orleans?

It’s no secret that most musicians in New Orleans (well, most musicians anywhere) have a hard time making a living wage. Musicians gigs don’t make much, for the most part. It’s becoming even more difficult in New Orleans as the usual cheap living accommodations in the city—a fact that’s made New Orleans a great place for creative people to live and work—are now being gentrified and musicians and artists are scrambling for places to live.

I recently read a brilliant article about what’s really happening in the city (you should too). Things look pretty rosy in New Orleans–unless you’re a culture creator, or someone who works in a low-paying job in the hospitality industry.

But it’s not just the traditionally perceived “musicians and artists”—these are also the people who have created and maintain our street culture, from which the rest of our musical culture flows: the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, second-line crews.

If they can’t find a way live in the city, the culture cannot be maintained.

I wrote about last week’s C5 panel wherein representatives of the culture organizations complained bitterly about feeling exploited by the visitor industry and the lack of support from city government, harassment by police, and inability to understand why there’s no real support system for their efforts. Tourism promoters use second lines, SAPCs and Mardi Gras Indians to promote our culture, but where’s the “payback”?

This isn’t to say that they demand money for these cultural manifestations. It’s just that they know that tourists are coming to New Orleans because of the traditions they preserve and maintain without making a dime.

There is an injustice here. There’s a pervasive ignorance about why our culture and music is so important, not only about the people who create it, but also a clueless attitude about people outside the city–visitors and tourists–cherish it.

But how do you help support music and culture? Is there anything else you can do?

Can musicians continue make a living by playing gigs? Their wages haven’t increased, but the cost of housing may have quadrupled. Can the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs continue their tradition if they can’t afford to live in the city?  Who are the main patrons of music clubs? How many are local people? How many are tourists? How do the cultural groups make enough money to keep their traditions alive (do you know that a single Mardi Gras Indian “suit” can cost up to $10,000 to make)? Do you go to second line parades? To see Mardi Gras Indians?

This is a serious problem that has to be addressed. Last week I suggested that a portion of the hotel/motel tax be set aside to support cultural groups, and to create a Cultural Academy where traditions could be taught to young people in a well-supported institutionalized setting (ditto, needless to say, music).

I met a gentlemen at the panel last week who’s working on an idea that could help create a stash of cultural funding. But to do this, he needs to find out whether people are actually committed to the culture of our city. Sam Bowler has put together a survey that literally asks all the people (locals and visitors) whether they would step up to support local culture:

What happens to New Orleans when musicians and artists can’t afford to eat?

What is it about New Orleans that makes it so special? Is it the perfectly-paved streets, the transparent politics, or the teetotaling efficiency? No. It’s the people and its the stuff they create and preserve – the music, the art, the food, and the historic traditions. If you’re a New Orleans local or a fan from afar and you appreciate the artists, musicians, and culture bearers that help create the beautiful culture here, please lend your voice to the conversation about how to keep culture thriving in New Orleans.

 What is it? A quick surveyApproximate time: 3.5 minutes

Yes, we’ve “celebrated” the fact that we’re 10 years out from Katrina, but really, how far have we come in making sure that our culture and culture-creators survive?

  • DrBOP

    Here’s a wacky idea……have a one-day “Culture Strike”.
    Leave the city deathly quiet, no food/drink for you, and all costuming hidden away.
    I know it would never happen, but it sure would have an impact. Simply the fact that there is STILL STILL STILL no Jazz Museum leaves a bit of an impression (at least) of NOLA being a joke……and I fuckin’ LOVE New Orleans.
    WAKE UP PEOPLE or it will be gone in a nano-second.
    Greed waits for NO ONE!

    • janramsey

      Strike ain’t never gonna happen.
      Too damn bad, too.