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Frenchmen Musicians Discuss Stagnant Pay, Difficult Economy

Frenchmen Street today represents a destination worth millions in tourism revenue, while many of its musicians face stagnant wages and mounting costs.

Frenchmen musicians are solely responsible for attracting tourists into venues. Not to mention generating bar sales and providing the free-wheeling atmosphere that tourism bureaus market heavily.

The unspoken standard for a three-hour gig on the street, however, is an unsavory twenty percent of bar sales with tips. This often amounts to a few hundred dollars a night, often split between large ensembles.

George Wilde, the guitarist of Sexual Thunder, said that the street’s current power dynamic sways far in favor of the venues.

“It would make sense that if you’re an artist that understands your value, and you can generate that value at the door, then you have a negotiating position with the venue towards an equitable deal. Frenchmen doesn’t work like that,” Wilde said.

The main issue musicians cite playing on Frenchmen is the absence of a cover charge at venues, including Maison, 30/90, and The Spotted Cat.

The door charge is often the main unfettered source of the musicians’ income outside of tips, and when it’s not in place, the bands aren’t guaranteed fair compensation.

Joey van Leeuwen, a session drummer who frequents Frenchmen, says apathy is what keeps the current model in place.

“Too many venues are willing to say that they can’t afford to pay musicians, and too many musicians are willing to accept that narrative,” van Leeuwen said.

Efforts to unionize musicians, or organize them to go on worker’s strike, are discouraged by Louisiana’s right-to-work policies, which make it illegal for venues to be forced to hire union musicians to play their daily slots.

James Singleton, the bassist for Astral Project, said that the model isn’t new, and musicians have to understand their value in order to succeed.

“Louisiana is a right-to-work state, which everyone knows means the right to work for less, and you can’t criticize them for doing that,” Singleton said.

To the almighty tourist dollar, there’s little distinction between established bands seen as “authentic” and transplant “scab” cover bands willing to play the same slot for less. Musicians argue that tourists are paying for the bar environment, not musicianship.

Wilde said that venues stick with what works in their best interest, and bands that make the most money are the ones that can pander to sell the most drinks.

“There’s no incentive to change the model on the venue side: bars aren’t going to pay more out of altruism, that’s not how capitalism works,” Wilde said.

Complicating calls for a street-wide cover charge are zoning law loopholes. The bars that do charge covers, like Blue Nile or Snug Harbor, are licensed as “live entertainment,” whereas the newer bars that don’t charge covers are licensed as “restaurants,” so as not to exceed a limit of twenty percent of bars in Frenchmen’s three-block stretch.

It is illegal for these “restaurants” to charge covers, but changing their status to “bar” would be in violation of laws under the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance of New Orleans.

This leaves a divide where established musicians play exclusively at premiere venues with a guarantee, while working-class musicians play for bar percentages and tips anywhere they can.

“It’s global, it’s just about the gutting of the middle class,” Singleton said.

The solution has been proposed to abolish the current zoning laws and demand a universal cover charge, but these efforts could mean upsetting Frenchmen’s already delicate balance.

“If you raised hell to say we want these venues audited, then their liquor licenses are revoked, the venues are shut down, and there goes the musicians’ Tuesday night gig,” Wilde said.

Maison, BMC, and Vaso declined to comment in a series of phone calls to each venue.

Organization and a lack of specific grievances are what van Leeuwen said musicians are struggling to achieve in the current Frenchmen St. milieu.

“Musicians, as well as everybody else, are being worked to the bone so much that they don’t even have the time to organize,” van Leeuwen said.

  1. Andy Kaknes

    I really hope something can be worked out for the best interests of New Orleans musicians. The character and charm of New Orleans comes first and foremost from its music. We need more Traditional Jazz music on Frenchmen Street too. People can’t like something if they don’t hear it.

  2. This is a descent write up and I can honesty say I appreciate it. My band works Frenchmen often but I believe this is one sided. We benefit from our work and our club pays 25% not 20%. We’ve also played at many UPT clubs that are very popular and they pay guaranteed $800-$1000 or door percentages. The cover is sometimes a low as $5. To be perfectly honest, the pay on Frenchmen for us is sometimes more than the Guarantees that were offered to local bands. Some bands make money and some don’t! It’s about what you do with what you got and the time slot. Our band travels and we book outside gigs. Most of our bookings came from people seeing us on Frenchmen.

    Our band plays Vaso and only Vaso! We’ve played the other clubs 30/90, Blue Nile and honestly we’ve made more at Vaso. It’s sad to say but it’s true. After reading this article, I spoke with the club owner at Vaso and he said nobody attempted to reach out to him but I am Blessed to speak from the heart because I’ve been playing there over 2 years. The Vaso Club has flaws like every other club but the bar percentage is greater than any other club on Frenchmen! You won’t get rich at any of them but if The band has a fan following you can easily make the standard pay scale that musicians are able to make. It gets super slow and the owners should pay guaranteed money to the bands on those days. I’d agree with that!

    The real money comes when you put your music out and hit the road!
    Many bands benefit but some don’t.

    Last point:

    The clubs have major expenses: staff, security and product but a club owners payout is about 50% of profits, Bands Get 20/25% depending where you work. What’s left? On an average they can only keep about 25% of what they earn.
    It’s crazy to think the club owners don’t suffer too. I have been a business owner and it’s a 2 sided coin for me. Everyone looses when it’s slow, everybody can gain when it’s busy.

    Some musicians shot themselves in the foot!
    If you have 150 band instead of 50 it’s easy to get caught in the shuffle. If musicians stick with one band it would turn into a demand for bands. Too many bands and only the best Get the great slots. SMH I pray for us all! Sometimes you got walk out on faith and get your $ elsewhere if you can’t get it on Frenchmen!

    • dick shepherd

      Jason Neville strikes again lmao

      look anyone who has played at VASO knows that place is trash and they undercut the musicians who perform there. I have played there many times with many bands and never made above $40. Not only that but the venue itself is dirty and has horrible sound.

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