Ruminations on French Quarter Fest

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: the greatest free music show in New Orleans.

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.

  • I totally agree! I also think the city should establish a French Quarter Fest Musician Pay fund to help subsidize the event which brings the city additional annual revenue.

  • I totally agree! I also think the city should establish a French Quarter Fest Musician Pay fund to help subsidize the event which brings the city additional annual revenue.

  • Slrosenz

    Working people should get paid, no argument here

    The parking situation was atrocious. Why not shuttles from the NOCCA Parking lot and other outlying lots. It was a hardship, especially for French Quarter residents.

  • Slrosenz

    Working people should get paid, no argument here

    The parking situation was atrocious. Why not shuttles from the NOCCA Parking lot and other outlying lots. It was a hardship, especially for French Quarter residents.

  • It would be great for the city to step up and show a little goodwill towards its musicians who make their cash cows even possible in the first place. I’m not holding my breath, though, not with the multi-headed hydra of bureaucracy to wade through. Maybe some personal supplications to our mayor would move him to make good on his promise of nourishing the cultural economy here. Unfortunately, our city attacks the cultural economy rather than nourishes it (as the recent closing of Donna’s, the shutting down of brass bands, and the shutdown of the Frenchman art market will all tell you).

    However, there are things that FQFI can do to gesture goodwill towards musicians. Their sponsorships are growing, they’re getting more vendors, etc, and I think it’s high tide to pay a debt of gratitude to the people who made it possible that I don’t think would break the bank.

    As a musician in the city, I can tell you the number one gripe about FQF is the PARKING. If there was a shuttle service, say, from the open lot across from the convention center by Twiropa mills that ran all the way down Decatur St. (close Decatur, as it seems they were doing a bit more of this year) it would greatly help and would show goodwill on the part of the festival organizers. As it stands now, you have musicians walking up to 20 blocks with instruments in the heat (!) oftentimes coming back to parking tickets or exorbitant parking rates.

    Oh, and something something besides a 12 pack of warm Dasani backstage wouldn’t hurt too (put that Abita sponsorship to good use… 😉 ).

  • It would be great for the city to step up and show a little goodwill towards its musicians who make their cash cows even possible in the first place. I’m not holding my breath, though, not with the multi-headed hydra of bureaucracy to wade through. Maybe some personal supplications to our mayor would move him to make good on his promise of nourishing the cultural economy here. Unfortunately, our city attacks the cultural economy rather than nourishes it (as the recent closing of Donna’s, the shutting down of brass bands, and the shutdown of the Frenchman art market will all tell you).

    However, there are things that FQFI can do to gesture goodwill towards musicians. Their sponsorships are growing, they’re getting more vendors, etc, and I think it’s high tide to pay a debt of gratitude to the people who made it possible that I don’t think would break the bank.

    As a musician in the city, I can tell you the number one gripe about FQF is the PARKING. If there was a shuttle service, say, from the open lot across from the convention center by Twiropa mills that ran all the way down Decatur St. (close Decatur, as it seems they were doing a bit more of this year) it would greatly help and would show goodwill on the part of the festival organizers. As it stands now, you have musicians walking up to 20 blocks with instruments in the heat (!) oftentimes coming back to parking tickets or exorbitant parking rates.

    Oh, and something something besides a 12 pack of warm Dasani backstage wouldn’t hurt too (put that Abita sponsorship to good use… 😉 ).

  • Jais7

    Since these musicians are basically working for free, why not ask for donations after their shows? I certainly wouldn’t mind throwing a little cash into a hat, especially since the festival IS free.

  • Jais7

    Since these musicians are basically working for free, why not ask for donations after their shows? I certainly wouldn’t mind throwing a little cash into a hat, especially since the festival IS free.

  • Sleepy

    I’ve always wondered if setting up some smart way of doing a “tip jar” wouldn’t bring a nice payoff, esp for acts with big crowds.

  • Sleepy

    I’ve always wondered if setting up some smart way of doing a “tip jar” wouldn’t bring a nice payoff, esp for acts with big crowds.

  • Dusk

    Jan–how could you leave out the Mississippi River in comparing the festivals?! It’s so wonderful to have its breezes and boats. That aside, you raise some interesting points. Tough times to squeeze money out of the city, of course. I’ll leave that issue to others, but would like to comment on the traffic in the FQ during the festival. The people who dared to drive there sure did suffer. While they either were not informed to stay away from driving there or had to drive there, watching them inch their way was painful to watch much less endure. All I could think of was that this was the perfect time to have rickshaws or something like that to bring those that needed to be in the FQ to their destination. Then I heard from a friend how a guy with a bicycle and carriage in back rode her and her parents Uptown. Brilliant.

  • Dusk

    Jan–how could you leave out the Mississippi River in comparing the festivals?! It’s so wonderful to have its breezes and boats. That aside, you raise some interesting points. Tough times to squeeze money out of the city, of course. I’ll leave that issue to others, but would like to comment on the traffic in the FQ during the festival. The people who dared to drive there sure did suffer. While they either were not informed to stay away from driving there or had to drive there, watching them inch their way was painful to watch much less endure. All I could think of was that this was the perfect time to have rickshaws or something like that to bring those that needed to be in the FQ to their destination. Then I heard from a friend how a guy with a bicycle and carriage in back rode her and her parents Uptown. Brilliant.

  • Peter Simoneaux

    FQF has been getting a free ride from the musicians on this for too long! FQF businesses should be paying for the entertainment for this festival.

  • Peter Simoneaux

    FQF has been getting a free ride from the musicians on this for too long! FQF businesses should be paying for the entertainment for this festival.

  • what about “virtual tip jars” via smart phones.. “♪ text to 504504 to tip this band ♬ ”

  • what about “virtual tip jars” via smart phones.. “♪ text to 504504 to tip this band ♬ ”

  • Guest

    Musician parking is disgraceful.
    I’ve worked for many bands thru the years that play the big stage at the event and once you actually get past a half dozen part time “security” people and other weekend warrior pseudo officials who can only say “No, you can’t come through here”..(even when you have the right credentials)… to the floodwall to unload gear, you have to make several trips carrying gear through the crowd to the stage.
    Then the vehicle has to be moved away..they don’t care WHERE..you just have to get it out of there…Ever try to park in the Quarter during FQF?..Ever tried doing it when you had to park, get back to the stage, and set up the gear for a show?
    I wonder how the more elderly musicians are able to do it while carrying their own gear…and I’m an “elderly” guitar tech.

    Bring less gear, you might say?..Well, when your boss is a Grammy winner and a seminal N.O. guitar player on many records you grew up listening to, he deserves to use the gear that he NEEDS to do a proper show. We aren’t going to show up and “half step” our way through a set. We BRING it.

    They should pay for space in a nearby lot for musician parking and have a shuttle to help get band members and gear to the stage.

    After our set, a group of three “Gators” or “Mules”..those 4 wheel gasoline carts? showed up and I loaded the band gear gear into them and they drove me all the way to to Canal Place where the truck was.
    It took as long to organize THAT as it did to play the set.

    Thanks Libra and Barb for always giving 110%. I knew you’d be the ones I could count on…as usual.

    Thanks to Rickey for the excellent help during set changes through the years. A friend and a pro.

  • Guest

    Musician parking is disgraceful.
    I’ve worked for many bands thru the years that play the big stage at the event and once you actually get past a half dozen part time “security” people and other weekend warrior pseudo officials who can only say “No, you can’t come through here”..(even when you have the right credentials)… to the floodwall to unload gear, you have to make several trips carrying gear through the crowd to the stage.
    Then the vehicle has to be moved away..they don’t care WHERE..you just have to get it out of there…Ever try to park in the Quarter during FQF?..Ever tried doing it when you had to park, get back to the stage, and set up the gear for a show?
    I wonder how the more elderly musicians are able to do it while carrying their own gear…and I’m an “elderly” guitar tech.

    Bring less gear, you might say?..Well, when your boss is a Grammy winner and a seminal N.O. guitar player on many records you grew up listening to, he deserves to use the gear that he NEEDS to do a proper show. We aren’t going to show up and “half step” our way through a set. We BRING it.

    They should pay for space in a nearby lot for musician parking and have a shuttle to help get band members and gear to the stage.

    After our set, a group of three “Gators” or “Mules”..those 4 wheel gasoline carts? showed up and I loaded the band gear gear into them and they drove me all the way to to Canal Place where the truck was.
    It took as long to organize THAT as it did to play the set.

    Thanks Libra and Barb for always giving 110%. I knew you’d be the ones I could count on…as usual.

    Thanks to Rickey for the excellent help during set changes through the years. A friend and a pro.