Here for the music...or for the party? Photo courtesy Snug Harbor

Why Are Frenchmen Street Musicians Undervalued?

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?

Obviously not.

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.

 

  • Ronnie Dobbs

    They arent anymore undervalued than any musician anywhere. In fact they are way more valued. On what planet can a band with no real drawing power make $300-1000 a gig? Nowhere! I work on Frenchmen. So tired of this conversation. I see the same musicians complaining because they cant make a living playing two 3 hour gigs a week, meanwhile regular people struggle working 60 hours a week. The naivete surrounding this issue is astounding.

    • kmsoap

      It’s interesting that you think the only work involved in being a musician is the time spent playing gigs.

      There is so much misinformation in this discussion that it would be a full time job to untangle it. The lack of cover charges at venues on Frenchmen is nothing new. Many of them are operating under restaurant permits and CANNOT charge a cover.

      Additionally, at the core of this debate is the supposition that venue owners need to charge a cover to pay musicians better. This is also false. Revenues on Frenchmen Street have increased dramatically, in part due to its reputation as a music strip. Wages and expenses have not kept pace with those increased revenues. Just pay the musicians, already. At the rate this is going, everyone is going to come to the defense of the musicians, much like they did with the firemen. In a time when people vote with their dollar, it’s foolish for the venues to put themselves on the losing side of the discussion.

      • R

        No, I don’t think that the only work musicians do is their time playing gigs. That has nothing to do with the work they do for the venues though. Musicians are hired by the venues for a designated time block. They are paid for that. How are the venues responsible for the work musicians do outside of their gig?
        When a person opts for a career in a field that requires a certain skill level…whether that be music, sports, writing, acting etc…it is their responsibility to hone that skill on their time. How great that skill is determines their place and for the most part their pay. That is no different on Frenchmen Street then anywhere else.

        • kmsoap

          Venues are responsible for that in the same way that other employers award higher incomes to other skilled labor, Compared to unskilled labor, higher wages are afforded to people who participate in continuing education or provide their own tools. There is world class talent on Frenchmen Street. The musicians are suggesting is that the conclusion of your post be reality….that skill level, not the willingness to be the lowest common denominator, determine who gets the is and that compensation be set accordingly.

          • r

            Again, for the 3rd time, there is no place on this earth where musicians are rewarded for skill level. Why would this be the case on Frenchmen Street? Some of the greatest musicians ever have never found any success, while at the same time a million shitty bands have been successful. You do know how the music business works right? Some bands succeed. Some dont. Frenchmen is no different. The popular bands with draw that warrant cover charges play at the venues that charge covers. They make the most money. Everyone else plays the no cover venues. Some of these vocal guys have been playing the street for almost a decade and the cover charge clubs dont book them. Why is that? Why dont those clubs recognize them for the bad ass cats they are? If those clubs arent booking them because they dont draw then why would the no cover clubs change their format to accommodate them and expect different results?

          • kmsoap

            And we are back to square one. The determining factor between cover clubs and no-cover clubs is the status of their licensing, not their business plan. Frenchmen Street permitting is a complicated mess, and there have been several attempts to fix the problem. The club owners are incapable of taking decisive action. It’s going to take another crackdown from City Hall to put some fire under their asses, and someone’s probably going to lose their license in the process. This will likely happen very early in the next administration.

            You insist that since musicians have not traditionally been fairly compensated, they should not be now. Kind of like saying that since some people have traditionally been enslaved, they should remain that way. We have the opportunity to right a wrong in our little corner of the world. Why hesitate?

  • Nightmare…I mean “Night Mayor”…sorry Jan had to do it. LOL!! I do like the idea of an “entertainment mayor” though. Of course this is not a laughing matter. I have done posts on FB about this situation off and on for a while now. I play 6 nights a month in Frenchmen. 6 nights a month. Everything you say here is dead on. I played Bourbon Street the weekend before most recent FQ fest. When it was all over I felt like a piece of sh*t. I felt as if I had been cleaning the toilets for two weeks. Used and disrespected. I cut my teeth on Bourbon. I made more money back in the day playing matinee’s 4 days a week at the old raggedy-ass “A Bar” than I make now. Those days are gone. The mantra on Bourbon now is “Play 2-hour+sets with very short breaks so we don’t lose the crowd”. Bands are “used” for 2 things at these clubs and only two things–(1)sell beer and (2)get blamed for when business is bad. Sell beer and take the blame–period. Jan, the main problem I’m seeing is the fact that musicians out here now don’t seem to think that they should be paid well. They are so tied up in getting gigs at any price/wage and trying to make it… that they have devalued themselves.

  • Chris Dejohn

    Hey OffBeat Magazine,
    This is a bit off-topic, but you guys (y’all) seriously need a copy editor. I’m in SF, but love what you guys (y’all) do and I work remotely … Hit me up!
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/chris-dejohn-99b12076/

  • Marjorie Ford Johnson

    My current solution: my budget for a night on Frenchman includes $10 to $20 per act listened to, even if I already paid a cover. So I may only see one or two acts on my fixed income. Compare to concert tickets – no comparison.