On any given night in New Orleans, music pours from the many new venues to emerge along Frenchmen Street, St. Claude Avenue and other areas, and the ranks of local musicians have been bolstered by many newcomers eager to perform in them. It’s part of a booming music scene, apparently another sign of the city’s vibrancy 10 years after Hurricane Katrina.
As in any boom, however, some musicians are doing better than others. There are those in the local music community who worry about the impact that’s having on the long-term strength of the New Orleans music scene.
“We can go out on the street and play with a tip box,” said sousaphonist Bennie Pete, of the Grammy-nominated Hot 8 Brass Band. “We can get a gig in a club. But that’s not really going to sustain us and help us raise our families.”
“I get that,” said six-time Grammy-winner Dr. John. “I gotta go all over the place just to make a dollar.”
Playing music in New Orleans has never been all that lucrative, Dr. John added. “I know they’re going to be struggling right out of here, because this was never the best-paying gig you could find.”
Pete, who has returned to performing with the Hot 8 following a spell of illness in 2014, said his band is fortunate to work in Europe. The Hot 8, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and releasing a new album in November, is signed to a British record label.
“People around the world know who the Hot 8 is,” he said. “That keeps us going.”
The tip jars that appear in many clubs help keep plenty of New Orleans performers afloat. They’re also a sign of the financial challenges musicians can face. According to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the average annual income for its 2,500 patients is $15,000 to $18,000. More than 75 percent of the clinic’s patients have been professional musicians for more than 10 years.
Too much of a good thing?
Many of the city’s musicians say wages haven’t increased for decades, while the cost of living in the city has risen.
Trombonist Katja Toivola and her husband, trumpeter-singer Leroy Jones, returned to New Orleans early following Katrina and the flood. They located whatever musicians they could find and filled in for Kermit Ruffins’ regular Thursday night gig at Vaughan’s Lounge. Because so few people were in the city, musicians and the music venues that managed to reopen were struggling.
“We did gigs for less money than usual then, and that was fine, because nobody was making money,” Toivola said. “But now, the city is in an incredible boom. There’s so much money being spent here.”
In August 2007, two years after Katrina, musicians and other members of the cultural community staged the “Musicians Solidarity Second Line.” The march from Armstrong Park to Jackson Square sought to shine a light on musicians’ financial struggles in post-Katrina New Orleans.
“We called it a ‘silent’ second line,” said Deacon John Moore, a professional musician for nearly 60 years and president of the New Orleans musicians’ union since Katrina. “We got our instruments and marched, but we didn’t play a note. We were trying to send a message that the music is going to die if people didn’t pay us fair wages.”
Ten years after Katrina, Moore said, “there are some bright spots, but from the people I talk to, struggling musicians and artists, they think it’s just gotten worse.
“There’s a huge music scene down here, but it boils down to two main maxims. ‘A little of something is better than nothing’ and ‘If I don’t do it, somebody else will.’ The implications of that are unfair competition and backstabbing. It creates a dog-eat-dog mentality.”
Supply and demand
Some longtime local musicians fault a post-Katrina invasion of aspiring musicians.
“The music business got bigger in terms of numbers of people playing,” veteran drummer Johnny Vidacovich said. “As far as dollars and cents, it’s worse, because so many mediocre musicians flooded the city and jumped on what I call ‘tourist music.’ ”
Sasha Masakowski, singer and daughter of guitarist Steve Masakowski, expressed similar sentiments.
“People are coming in droves,” she said. “But a lot of them aren’t taking the time to observe the culture and learn from the masters who have been here for years and years. It’s almost like New Orleans has become a Disneyland version of itself.”
Masakowski’s father, who’s occupies the Coca-Cola Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies at UNO, has a brighter take.
“It’s the simple law of supply and demand,” he said. “That being said, New Orleans is one of the best places for young people to find an opportunity to make some money and learn their craft.”
On Frenchmen Street on a recent Saturday night at the long-running Snug Harbor music club, Vidacovich tossed thoughts of tourist music aside when he took the stage with his fellow members of jazz quartet Astral Project — Steve Masakowski, bassist James Singleton and saxophonist Tony Dagradi.
“I’m going to have a great time tonight,” Vidacovich said before the evening’s first show. “I’m going to play with my partners, some good cats. Not many people have the luxury of playing with the same guys for 40 years.”