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.