The State of Frenchmen Street

Organizing the discussion surrounding musician pay

Words by George Wilde. Photographs by Katie Sikora.

After saxophonist and band leader Khris Royal reignited the discussion of a cover charge on New Orleans’ Frenchmen Street via a Facebook status update, there has been heated discussion in the musician community about low pay and unfavorable work conditions on the live music strip. Many voices have entered the fray. This piece serves to consolidate some of the discussion into a manageable form and to direct further discussion toward action. Much of this information will seem like old news to musicians but the reality of musician life on Frenchmen Street is not widely known or acknowledged by the public, tourists, policy-makers, and leaders in New Orleans.


Music is a way of life in New Orleans. It structures community events, provides thousands of jobs, and supports a thriving hospitality industry. It is embedded in the culture here. Musicians of days past are venerated as legends, their work canonized and their spirits honored and revered. Yet while these stories often ignore players’ painful histories — struggles with brutal racism, lack of business training, mental illness, violence, gender-based discrimination — the cultural story told in pamphlets, guided tours, bike taxis, and even casual conversation with locals ignores the present-day local musician’s reality: a livelihood threatened by stagnant pay and rising costs, endangering the next chapter of New Orleans musical heritage.

Frenchmen Street

Tourism is the biggest engine of economic activity in the city. In 2015 9.8 million visitors spent $7.1 billion, exceeding pre-Katrina spending. The Louisiana Department of Recreation, Culture, and Tourism expects these numbers to climb in the coming years. The iconography in local marketing materials sells live music as one of, if not the main attraction.

Frenchmen Street is known as a local live music destination, both by word of mouth and in guidebooks. Tourist traffic on Frenchmen has increased drastically over the last 5–7 years, drawn by the contrast with Bourbon Street: where Bourbon offers unabashed hedonism, Frenchmen lays claim to cultural significance linked (perhaps tenuously) to thriving musical creativity. While you can still get drunk and party on Frenchmen, musical offerings are more varied, original music is available, and the patrons need not navigate aggressive barkers, dancers in windows and doorways, or plastic beads raining from above.

Musicians are responsible for the crowds and the drink sales on Frenchmen Street. In an environment where each club has live music from 4 PM until closing time (which may be 4 AM), bands encourage the traffic. The musicians who keep the city’s culture and tourism operating year-round deserve to be paid fairly. Yet the standard pay for bands at Frenchmen Street venues with no cover is 20% of the bar plus tips during a three- to four-hour time slot. This amounts to a starvation wage, as bars pay out as little as $200 total for four- to eight-piece bands. It is common for musicians to walk away from a three-hour, no-cover gig with less than $50, including tips. Musicians must be compensated not only for the time they are performing but also for the countless hours of training and preparation that are required to play well. Music is skilled labor, and demands a high wage. With rising housing and living costs, musicians are left struggling to make a living while spending has rapidly increased at Frenchmen Street venues over the last decade.

Pay guarantees are rarely offered at these no-cover venues: only on certain high-profile nights or special gigs. Through the lobbying efforts of musician advocates working for Frenchmen venues, select bands do occasionally receive reasonable guarantees from no-cover venues. This is commendable. Those individuals’ efforts comprise tireless advocacy for musicians within the existing structure. However, the current system is inarguably unfair.

Art and Craft

To understand the economy of Frenchmen Street music (and the musical profession generally) one must acknowledge that the practice of music is both an art and a craft. It can be an original act that sells millions of records or commands huge live audiences nationwide. It can be entertainment for tourists or a nightly gig playing traditional repertoire or backing up a singer. Or playing the same parts night after night in a pit orchestra. Or a hired hand in a recording session. All of these applications require extensive skill-building, maintenance, and taste. They require years of training, practice, and energy. And they are all very different jobs.

A “show” is an event where a band performs original music or creative arrangements of existing music for a paying audience. The focus of the event is the music itself. And while the bar is the main vehicle for the venue to make a profit, drinks are merely a feature of the event, not the focus. Think Tipitina’s, Maple Leaf Bar, One Eyed Jacks. Some Frenchmen clubs, like d.b.a., Blue Nile, Snug Harbor, do present such shows.

A “gig” is an agreement between a venue and a band to provide entertainment for a period of time. On Frenchmen Street the standard is three to four hours. In this environment, the music is meant to draw people into the bar to buy drinks. The audience is mainly invested in the drinks and the event is not organized around attentively digesting the music. From the perspective of the club and the audience, drink sales and consumption are the primary goals. Clubs that offer regular gigs include The Maison, 30/90, Vaso, Cafe Negril, Marigny Brasserie and The Spotted Cat.

The three- to four-hour Frenchmen Street gig is craftsmanship. It takes skill, training, and experience to be able to perform entertaining, engaging music for several hours. There are many other craft gigs in the city: the Market Café, Crazy Lobster, Steamboat Natchez. All of these walk the line between art and craft. It is widely understood that the Frenchmen Street gig can constitute artistry and many argue that if the street is to maintain its brand as a destination for live local music, artistry and creativity must be preserved. Some fear that we are watching its transition from art to shoddy craft.

Solutions For Better Working Conditions

The simplest argument for increased pay is the “bootstrapping” thesis. The argument states if you value your craft and respect yourself as a musician and an artist, you should not be playing gigs that do not pay well. You should not accept the conditions offered by these bars, and refuse to play there.

Proponents say seek your pay elsewhere and find another way to make a living. It’s up to us, the people, to decide what we are worth and demand it. Every time a band agrees to play for less than a fair wage, the whole system suffers since clubs are then empowered to make that wage the standard. We can only demand fair pay if no one agrees to play below a fair rate.

This argument typically returns to the idea of a strike. This is not unique to the current discussion; it has been deliberated in the community for years. Since music brings the audience (in other words, the people buying drinks), if musicians were to successfully organize a work stoppage, clubs would feel a revenue loss very quickly and capitulate to demands for reasonable pay guarantees. This is a complicated task that requires a lot of organizational capacity that is not currently in place.

There is also a high likelihood that strike breakers or “scabs” would foil this plan. Club owners in New Orleans have tremendous power because there is a large a supply of musicians. If a band refuses to play for an unfair wage, there are many bands and musicians who are willing to play for the low wage and without a guarantee. As it stands, if musicians want a better deal than 20% of the bar, they do not have leverage to make that happen. There are simply too many musicians who are willing to take the primetime slots, whether they are college kids looking for any opportunity to play, weekend warriors from nearby Gulf states, or worldwide out-of-towners and transplant “hacks” who claim to be New Orleans musicians only to perform a bastardized, sub-standard version of it. This constitutes a drastic disrespect for the musical traditions of the city and serves only to undermine the creativity and integrity of local musicians who respect and value the culture.

And while there is a union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) union is widely disdained by members of the Frenchmen Street musician community. There seems to be evidence that the AFM has not made an effort to effectively organize musicians in the city. Since Katrina, their actions have allegedly been almost non-existent. The union has been criticized for having a very low pay scale that has not kept pace with cost-of-living, spending too much time fining members for playing with non-members on gigs, and only being useful for film and TV gigs.

Even if there was a robust union effort and organized, effective work stoppages, Louisiana is also a so-called “right-to-work” state, making it illegal to pass any legislation that would require clubs to hire union musicians or penalize them for hiring scabs. There is a fear that those musicians without integrity and who do not highly regard quality may break the strike, causing further decline on Frenchmen. Quality does not necessarily correlate with a packed house. Bar sales do not hear your integrity.

The Cover Charge Debate

Since “boostrapping” seems untenable, many musicians have raised their voices for a simple solution: a small cover charge at all the bars on Frenchmen. With a charge as low as $5, musicians expect their earnings would increase. On a busy night at Maison, BMC, or 30/90, musicians estimate that 200+ patrons enter the bar throughout a three-hour period (this figure is unverified and based on observation). While a typically busy night bar-payout may be $500–600, the cover charge payout would be $1000.

As it stands now, the audience is not paying for their musical experience. The cost of paying musicians fairly is not internalized in tourists’ spending on Frenchmen. They get the same price on drinks and food that they would in places with no live entertainment. Cover charges would provide the revenue needed to compensate artists.

Furthermore, charging a cover at all clubs may necessitate greater quality and integrity on the Street — these values are very important to New Orleans musicians and culture-bearers. Can one justify a cover for music that isn’t any good or is not interesting or engaging beyond its ability to aid in the sale of drinks?

There is dissent from musicians who fear that a cover charge runs contrary to the ethos of the Street and has the potential to hurt revenues by turning away patrons. A cover may mean that only true music lovers will enter the clubs on Frenchmen street, not just people who are looking for a party. They hold that this could reduce the number of people in the clubs which would hurt clubs and musicians. Separately, there is a conception among some musicians that club owners don’t care about what musicians get paid. They want the most value for the least possible cost, and have found that musicians will play for a starvation wage. Many believe that even if clubs could charge a cover, they would not, preferring to stay with a low-pay bar deal.

Still, barring a large-scale, broad-based work stoppage (which could only be organized among musicians after extensive time and effort), a cover charge seems to present the most viable immediate solution to alleviate the problem of low pay.

Cultural and human demoralization in the current state

Some who argue that the musical integrity has declined on Frenchmen Street blame newcomers to the city who have no understanding of the cultural context. Others suggest that this decline may have occurred as a byproduct of the market incentive that prioritizes maximum drink sales. Musicians have identified other causes: a glut of new clubs saturating the market, increased tourist foot traffic, greater number of daily slots at the clubs, the relative desirability of familiar songs performed verbatim from recordings versus well-rehearsed, engaging, original music.

Out-of-town acts present a particular thorn in the side of working musicians. During high-profile events like Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest the typically no-cover venues do charge covers. Many of these events are put together by outside promoters, employing acts that only come to town once or twice a year. They generate a lot of money, charge high covers, and then cash out, taking the earnings out of the city. If there were regular covers on Frenchmen Street, the money from the door could stay with the musicians and be reinvested into the community. Many feel that this out-of-town activity is especially offensive since many of those musicians who demand the highest covers are not contributing to the musical enrichment of New Orleans during the rest of the year. Musicians are resentful that traveling acts and big names leave it up to the local artists to play to often empty rooms for paltry wages to keep clubs open and tourists entertained all year, only to be brushed aside for major touring bands during the highest-grossing seasons.

Health and wellness concerns also weigh on the discussion. Since compensation is pegged directly to bar sales, bands have a financial incentive to hustle the drinks and well as their music. They may implore the audience to drink more (“raise your glass”) or, use techniques for encouraging sales and the party environment (“buy the band a round of drinks” and “don’t forget to tip the band”).

Since compensation is so low, many clubs offer free or discount alcohol and bar food to musicians and many musicians use those discounts to compensate for the paycheck they aren’t making. This presents the danger for overuse and abuse, especially when consumption effectively supplements musicians’ pay.

Acknowledging all these realities, some have come to the conclusion that responsibility to the culture of musical excellence in New Orleans can only be maintained by a partnership between venues and musicians. Club owners and artists must maintain mutual respect as well as a commitment to a way of life that prioritizes the music of New Orleans by the people of New Orleans. These are human projects that are hard to execute with hastily organized strong-arm tactics or simple market incentives. This will take a long-term civil discussion accompanied by clear plans of action that are inclusive of the large body of musicians.

Zoning

Missing from this discussion is the input of club-owners. This may be a result of the zoning ordinances currently in effect on Frenchmen Street. Some venues on the Street are licensed as live music clubs and bars. Others are licensed as restaurants.

The establishments that pay the best, and have covers regularly, are licensed as “live-entertainment — secondary use” or “bar”. Those that never charge a cover are licensed as restaurants. Restaurants are not legally allowed to charge a cover unless they are hosting special events, for which they need a specific event permit. The number of such events they are legally allowed to host is limited to 10 times each year for a total of 30 days.

The Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association (est. 1972) lobbied for the creation of the Frenchmen Arts and Cultural Diversity Overlay District, which went into effect in 2004. The area covered by the ordinance is Frenchmen Street between Royal and Esplanade, Decatur Street between Esplanade and Frenchmen, and Esplanade between N. Peters and Decatur. It is abbreviated in the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) as zoning district AC-1. According to nola.com, the number of bars must not exceed 20% of the establishments in the three-block stretch. AC-1 stipulates that there shall be only two “bars” per blockface. Therefore, the only permits available to new establishments on Frenchmen Street since 2004 have been the “restaurant” permits.

Restaurants must generate at least 50% of their revenue from food. If they fall short of that, their alcohol license could be revoked under the CZO. In 2014, Bamboula’s was warned by the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control that their alcohol license could be revoked if they did not generate half of their revenue from food. In 2015, they requested a change to their license from a restaurant to a cocktail lounge, because proprietor Guy Olano III did not believe this food-alcohol proportion was possible. The City Planning Commission couldn’t come to a conclusion on the issue, so they sent it to the City Council where the request was denied.

Many of the other establishments licensed as restaurants are almost certainly in violation of their revenue requirements. Bamboula’s contends that it attempted to come into compliance, while other businesses have been operating illegally with impunity for years. Bamboula’s sued the city, stating that these unclear regulations were being selectively enforced. This could constitute a violation of property rights under the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “no person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The status of this lawsuit is unclear and is a matter for further investigation.

The only way to settle the allegations that these “restaurants” are in violation of the zoning regulations would be to audit those establishments. This risks their alcohol license being revoked, requiring them to shut down. If they were to remain open, operating as they are right now, they would have to change their license to a “bar.” But this is prohibited under AC-1. That leaves those in favor of cover charges with essentially one option: lobby for the amendment or abolishment of AC-1. The only alternatives to changing the zoning ordinances would be to pressure “restaurants” to illegally charge covers (further exposing them to audit and retribution by ATC) or simply shut them down for non-compliance.

Frenchmen Street provides a paycheck for hundreds of New Orleans musicians. Thousands of people rely on it for their livelihood. While it draws ire from many corners, no one wants to see it disappear. No one wants to see it shut down. And even though pay practices are frustrating and unfair, Frenchmen embodies a musical lifestyle unparalleled in any scene nationwide: constant opportunity for work and to present original or inspiring music. Despite the challenges, it is a gem that needs regulation and careful attention if it is to maintain value and cultural currency. It is hoped that gainful change will arise from an informed public discussion with an organized partnership between business-owners and musicians.