No doubt about it, French Quarter Fest has come a long way. It’s come into its own as one of the city’s premier events, like Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, and the Superbowl . There were many years when visitors who’d come to Jazz Fest had never heard of French Quarter Fest. No more. Now there are some who come in for only French Quarter Fest; some come in for both fests.
They’re both wonderful events, but they’re very different. Obviously location; the fact that Jazz Fest is ticketed and French Quarter Fest is not; great food at both events; the ambience of the Quarter versus the Fairgrounds (no contest, there); cultural aspects of the fests (I think Jazz Fest wins that one); and of course, the music.
The biggest difference in the two events is evident in that the Jazz Fest has bigger “name” acts, and of course all those national music names. The French Quarter Fest is all local, and always will be. But the Jazz Fest producers can afford to pay musicians because of ticket sales. French Quarter Fest does not have that revenue, but they have worked out a method of insuring that their festival has great music.
The festival originally started very small, with many trad jazz musicians, most of whom were members of the Musicians’ Union. French Quarter Fest negotiates a contract with the union for a certain payment to union players, typically less than what is required by union standards, as the event is a free community event. The union also was a sponsor of the event and donated funding to help cover their musicians’ fees from a special fund (now just about depleted, nationwide).
As the festival grew however, many more non-union musicians wanted to play, but the problem was how to pay them?
French Quarter Festival organizers came upon a solution years ago by asking bands to play, but the band has to find its own payer/sponsor, and has to negotiate a price for playing which the sponsor then pays the band. To soften that requirement, musicians and bands are also allowed to sell their CDs at retail cost to the audience (unlike Jazz Fest, which takes a cut of the sale through their on-site retail record tent). Over the years, many of the local “name” bands (Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, etc.) have been priced out of the French Quarter Fest, since they can’t find a “sponsor” to pay their fees (they make too much money).
Many bands I know play for a minimum fee, much less than they ordinarily command. Some will even play for nothing for exposure, or for the right to sell their CDs (at least that’s a little income). But they obviously would rather be paid for their performance.
I totally believe that musicians should be paid when they play, whether they are union members or not. The question is, how can French Quarter Festival manage to pay musicians who are not union members? Or even union members, now that the Assistance Fund have run out. There are no tickets sold to offset the musicians’ fees. The festival doesn’t have the sponsor clout and revenue that the Jazz Fest does.
Also, the money generated from the French Quarter Festival supports other events that French Quarter Festivals, Inc. (FQFI) produces throughout the year: Christmas New Orleans Style and the Satchmo Summerfest.
French Quarter Festival is growing (533,000 people are reported to have attended last weekend), and the quality and quantity of its music is the main reason why. So we have a problem: how does the French Quarter Fest continue to grow, provide quality music and entertainment, and manage to pay all musicians who make the festival such a success?
Comparing French Quarter Fest to another huge free city event like Mardi Gras is a useful analogy: without the support of the city, which spends millions on police support and sanitation, Mardi Gras would not happen. Tourism officials also use Mardi Gras as a prime selling tool to get visitors to the city. Moreover, the free “entertainment” –the parades—are subsidized by private clubs/krewes. But the city makes it easy and affordable for these parades to take place. Let’s face it, the economy of New Orleans would pretty much die without its annual influx of carnival cash.
So here’s an idea: why doesn’t the city find a way to help subsidize paying the musicians—the entertainment—for French Quarter Festival? UNO recently named French Quarter Fest in the top three events with a huge economic impact on the city: first is Mardi Gras, second is Superbowl, French Quarter Fest is third.
The city coffers and many local businesses profit handsomely from French Quarter Fest. Isn’t it time that they step up to the table and help pay for the musicians—the entertainment that has created one of the city’s greatest “free” shows? IF Mardi Gras is worthy, why not French Quarter Festival?
I’m certainly not an expert on how this can be done, but I should think that the hotels might help subsidize French Quarter Festival; ditto French Quarter and location-peripheral businesses.
It would be good for all of us. Musicians have carried the burden of finding their own pay (which is ludicrous) and the growth of French Quarter Festival long enough. Someone needs to step forward to keep this free event FREE, and value its musicians at the same time.