On June 6, NOLA.com writer Chelsea Brasted published a piece that interviewed musicians and others about how musicians are (or should be) paid when they play on Frenchmen Street. The musicians she spoke to, of course, complained (and rightfully so) that they were not being compensated fairly because they were obligated to work for tips, or a percentage of the bar ring, and not a guarantee. Club owners had varying views, depending on whether there was a cover charge or not.
However, many musicians can, will and do continue to play for an unknown wage. The fact of the matter is that if one set of musicians refuse to play the gigs on Frenchmen because they aren’t being guaranteed a certain fee, another band or musician who may be less needful of a guarantee will step up to play. These are the facts. There will always be musicians that will play for free or less than they are worth.
This is the crux of the problem. Musicians have a very difficult time standing up for themselves and the music that they make. They truly undervalue themselves and their artistry.
It’s a tough life to be a professional musician. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me if I could point them to a band that would play an event “for exposure” (boy, do I hate that phrase), I’d be a wealthy woman. Music and musicians are simply not appreciated and compensated for what they do. It’s scary to me—as someone who values music and artistic expression as necessary to my enjoyment of being alive—that so many people take music for granted.
Do these people think that musicians only perform for fun? Do they not understand that being a professional musician takes hard work, long-term dedication and constaqnt rehearsal and practice; ongoing discipline and life-long learning; shouldering a lifestyle that requires grueling travel, late nights, working on weekends and holidays, plus can include many hardships vis a vis personal and family relationships? Do they understand the occupational hazards of hard work and too-easy access to alcohol and drugs? Do they comprehend that most musicians cannot afford insurance, and many work until they literally just can’t work anymore—no pensions and little savings because they don’t make enough to save anything? Do they know that dedicating oneself to creating music is the way that many performers make their living, pay taxes, educate their children and put food on the table?
Making music professionally is perceived by most of the general public as an “non-serious” occupation, and as a free commodity. That is a real pity, and it’s getting worse, because there is at least one generation (maybe two) who believes that music should be free for everyone, and who don’t care if musicians are paid or not. They like the music, but don’t care that the artists who make it have to live like paupers.
At one point in time, say, maybe four to five years ago, the entertainment on Frenchmen Street was more appealing to locals and visitors who were interested primarily in experiencing good music. This means that they were typically not averse to paying a cover to hear a band because they were drawn to Frenchmen to actually listen to music (remember music you can hear for free isn’t considered valuable; you pay for something you perceive as valuable).
That’s changed. There are now several venues on Frenchmen that practice the no-cover, free music, open-door policy—the same sort of thing that happens on New Orleans’ oldest entertainment street, Bourbon.
Did you know that Bourbon Street used to be a place where people would pay to listen to music? Maison Bourbon, Al Hirt’s or Pete Fountain’s clubs, adult entertainment and more: you had to pay to get in the door. The dynamic changed when operators found that they could actually sell as much or more liquor and beer when the doors of their bars and clubs were left open and patrons were free to stop in and listen and have a drink. The musicians kept playing, but their wage was changed from a guarantee to a percent of the bar, or even just tips. Some places on Bourbon now pay bands a set fee, however; at least the reputable ones do, the ones who support the local geese that lay the golden musical eggs.
The same thing is happening on Frenchmen. More “no cover” venues, and bands play for whatever the venues are willing to part with (usually a percent of the bar ring); the patrons listen for free either in the bar or outside, but they pay for drinks.
Let me say here that I’m not blaming the bar and club owners. Their business model is to make money by selling alcohol. That’s what they do and they do it well. We live in a capitalistic society: profit is the motivation for virtually all businesses. Now, if musicians and bands would act like businesses, they wouldn’t be complaining about have to pay for a bar ring percent. But musicians typically are not good businesspeople. That’s a fact.
The current situation is that people would much rather float down the street—be it Bourbon or Frenchmen—and listen to free music from outside on the street. This wouldn’t happen if the bars were required to close their doors. Apparently this is impossible in some of the venues on Bourbon because of fire codes, but certainly possible on Frenchmen, where the cultural overlay zoning required that clubs and bars close their doors. Next time you’re on Frenchmen, see how many bars keep their doors open now.
But it’s just a fact that if the music is free, and you can hear it from the street, the music isn’t valued any more. It just becomes the backdrop to the party. People don’t listen to the music; they’re more involved with the party and fun. Can you blame them? This is why the crowds on Frenchmen now are more interested in the street scene and the party than in the music-making.
If musicians will settle for a percentage of the bar ring, or for tips, then it’s their problem to solve. The Musicians Union was once stronger and tried to make sure that members got an equitable wage no matter where they played. But the Union lost its power and most of its membership long ago. If musicians today want to insure that they are not taken for granted, then they need to act as a cohesive group—whether they are professional or part-time amateurs who play music as a side gig—and demand that they are compensated fairly. Then stick to their guns.
I’m saying this, and yet I know it’s a pipe dream. I perceive that musicians will never be able to work together to make sure this happens. Ever. They are, by nature, artists first. And artists are never people who can easily work with a group. That’s why they are artists! “It’s like herding cats,” is the usual statement I’ve heard when organizers try to put together a coalition.
So where do we go from here?
Are musicians’ livelihoods worth saving? Can their value as artists, and their obvious draw of patrons into bars be recognized by the city, and the club and bar owners who use them to lure people into their establishment to consume alcohol by requisite payment fees?
Does having free music by street performers and brass bands on Frenchmen Street devalue the music in the bars and clubs? (Note: street performances are prohibited on Bourbon Street after 8 p.m.).
Should city government get involved and require that bar and club operators pay a minimum wage? Is that even lawful? It’s a thorny question, fraught with all kinds of ramifications that have persisted for many decades. Will club owners give up part of their profit to pay musicians? Will musicians demand that they get paid? Will musicians who are making music for fun and not professionally join in with the fight with full-timers to help to create value for their artistic output? How?
I mentioned in one of my older blogs that perhaps New Orleans needs a “Night Mayor” to tackle these sorts of issues. It’s a real tragedy that a city with a musical heritage and reputation a deep as New Orleans still doesn’t value the artists who have helped to create its renown. We have a mayoral election coming up soon. Maybe we should ask those candidates what they will do to insure that everyone—not only the clubs and bars, but also the musicians—benefit from the music that’s heard around this city.