Photo: TripAdvosor

Making Music For A Living is Harder Than Ever

It’s not easy to make a living as a musician or a “creative.”

As anyone knows who pays their rent and buys their food from the fruit of their creativity, it’s a tough life. I hate it when people who don’t live by their creative output think that musicians, artists, writers and actors do what they do because they choose a “lifestyle.” Think about what your life would be like without music, art, film, theater, our overall culture. Pretty damn dismal, right?

Often, when you’re a creative person, you just don’t have the quality of life that you deserve, and that others (who don’t work nearly as hard) enjoy. Creatives have to create. It’s a pity that most of them can only afford to be creative as a hobby, and have to work another job to pay the rent. Who enjoys what creative people do? Everyone who lives in this community, that’s who. Everyone who comes to New Orleans or Louisiana because of its culture, that’s who.

Some creative folk have no choice but to live below the poverty level if they opt to make their creativity their life’s work. I don’t think I would be out of line to assert that most musicians make well under the average annual poverty level amount. That’s just awful.

This doesn’t make creatives ignorant of what they need to make a living. Most just can’t make a decent living, have a home to call their own, have health insurance, and be able to feed and clothe their families in the same ways as, say, a white collar worker, a bartender, a restaurant server.

Musicians do what they can to survive: they work two, three jobs. They teach. They hustle work. In a conversation with a local musician this afternoon, for example, we discussed how much money he made playing gigs on Frenchmen Street. “We make 20 percent of the bar and restaurant ring for a night,” he said, “which [last night] came to about $75 a man for quartet, including tips we got from the audience [consider that most musicians don’t necessarily have a nightly gig]. “What gets me,” he said, “is that we can play and when we politely pass the tip jar, many times we get nothing.” He told the story of playing on Frenchmen, going to a large table of over 12 people, making his tip pitch to the table “We appreciate your tipping the band, as this is the way we get paid at the end of the show.” He said he got an entire table of people who basically looked in the other direction so they wouldn’t have to tip the band.

Sad, and just sorry.

Everyone knows they are supposed to tip a server or a bartender; it’s become common knowledge. Why doesn’t your average shmo who hits Frenchmen (or Bourbon) understand that musicians are the underdogs (lower than wait-staff, apparently, in the payment department) and at least tip the damn band?

I guess you might say that these cheap twits may not care about live music, and don’t appreciate it. Whose fault is that? The musicians? Nope. I think it’s the fault of our culture and the disdain that many people have for musicians. But in some ways, I also fault the club owners; they should step up and make sure that the musicians are paid a decent wage and are receiving tips—if that’s the only way the musicians can be paid (I’ve ranted about this for a long time). If you won’t charge a cover, charge a two-drink minimum or something. Get the musicians paid. It’s the right thing to do.

New Orleans has made its bones on the backs of creative people and the hospitality industry workers. They all deserve to make enough money to allow them to rise above the poverty level.

There’s been a movement to help support the live music scene in this city by creating a fund to help support the creative element of our society from the taxes charged by hotels and restaurants. These businesses—as well as the others who capitalize on creative output as a great attraction for visitors—should come forward to create a sustainable means to help nurture our creative community. It’s only right. Musicians (especially) and other creatives have put money in the hospitality industry’s pockets for a long, long time. Now help put some duckies back in their pockets…and I don’t mean a few tips.

Let such a fund earmark it for housing, education, clothing, food, health needs of creatives. Every little bit helps. We need a strong, healthy working class of creative people, or else we are going to eventually lose them.

  • Matthew White

    I would suggest that part of the problem, sorry to say, is musicians who agree to play for nothing but tips, or agree to play six hours for $40. That’s just as much a cause of the problem as club owners who offer lousy pay — musicians go along with it.

    • Adam Arredondo

      That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Clubs in New Orleans can pretty much pay whatever they want for bands and get somebody to play because there’s always some musician or band desperate/eager enough to play any gig for very little money. Now, you generally get what you pay for so clubs do have an incentive to pay just enough to get bands that make them enough money to be complacent. Consequentially, there are very few club gigs where working musicians get paid a good wage by the club or through a cover charge (alleviating the tip bucket problems well addressed by this article).

      More problematic is the fact that musicians in New Orleans have almost no power to tip the scales in their favor. The union is of practically zero help because the overwhelming majority of local musicians are not union members, mostly because they can’t afford to waste money on dues for a union that does nothing for them (a catch 22, I know.)

      And for many clubs, like the majority on Frenchmen, it is easy to see bands as an expense rather than an investment because there is no direct revenue stream to pay for the music (cover charge). In fact, most of the clubs on Frenchmen cannot charge a cover because of out-dated zoning laws. In this arrangement there is no way to see how much revenue from beverage & food sales for the bar are related to the band’s ability to draw people into the club.

      Basically, it’s hard for musicians in this town to get paid a good wage for playing music because nobody is paying for the music.

      *I’m aware that there are many exceptions to this rule, but in my experience as a local working musician, I do believe they are just that—exceptions.

    • Joe Cullen

      Pay me $200 for a gig Matthew white and I won’t play for $40. Oh, and buy me a sandwich too.