State of the Musicians

August 26, 2010

Susan Cowsill at Carrollton Station. Photo by Barry Yeoman.

Sweet Home New Orleans—a relief organization that serves as a lifeline to many of the city’s musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, and Social & Pleasure Club members—has just released its annual State of the New Orleans Music Community Report. You can download and read it here.

You will not be surprised the news is mostly discouraging. Alex Rawls of the Los Angeles Times summed up the report today in the newspaper’s music blog. Here’s an excerpt from Rawls’ post:

“Musicians currently have half the gigs they did before the flood, and this work pays less than pre-Katrina,” says Gabriela Hernandez, executive director of the non-profit relief agency Sweet Home New Orleans (SHNO), which released the report. “At the same time, the recession has eliminated a lot of the service industry day jobs they’ve previously relied on. So while the cost of living has skyrocketed in the city, musicians are seeing their opportunities to earn money dry up.”

SHNO published the report this morning, using its 4,500 clients to provide insights into the well-being of the city’s famed music community. There’s good news: Despite fears about the storm’s impact on neighborhood-based institutions such as Mardi Gras Indians and the second-line community, those groups are back to pre-Katrina levels of activity. Musicians, on the other hand, have experienced a drop in the average number of gigs from 12 to six in a month, and earnings are down 43% to a ballpark income of $15,000 per year.

Hardest hit have been older musicians and those reliant on tourists for their livelihood, whether on Bourbon Street, riverboats or convention-related gigs. Saxophone player Elliot “Stackman” Callier played with Ray Charles and Fats Domino, and he appears on many classic R&B recordings, including Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine.” His resume hasn’t insulated him from the economic downturn, though. “I have to take anything that almost makes good sense to play,” he says.

Callier’s doubly affected by the economy. For years, he made his living as a touring musician in a horn section, but the business doesn’t sustain many bands that size, so he does what he can in New Orleans, playing once or twice a month. Some of those gigs include Children’s Hospital and retirement homes—dates arranged by the Jazz Foundation of America to help employ musicians.

Rawls points out that younger musicians have struggled, too. One example is roots rocker Susan Cowsill, who was once the youngest member of the family band The Cowsills. (I wrote about Cowsill here.) She told Rawls, “I can’t make a living playing one gig a month at Carrollton Station. Playing over and over and over again in town is like having baby showers on your seventh kid, but that’s not really an option because the gigs just aren’t there.”

In the light of this economy, non-profits like Sweet Home play a critical role. Since Katrina, Sweet Home has prevented 124 evictions and 200 utility disconnections; funded 550 gigs; and provided $3 million worth of services to 4,000 artists, according to its report. They provide everything from legal assistance to horn repair. Their conclusion about the current need:

Five years after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, New Orleans music and culture has proven to be a powerful agent of the city’s renewal. Supporting these traditions and the men and women who perpetuate them can continue to improve the quality of life in New Orleans. However, the confluence of the flood, the Great Recession, and now the oil spill has created an economic crisis for these communities, especially for professional musicians. Investing in the cultural economy of New Orleans is vital to the city’s future.

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