Five Years On, New Orleans Musicians Still Struggling

New Orleans Second Line

A 2007 Second Line in New Orleans. Skip Bolen/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Skip Bolen/Getty Images

Music and culture in New Orleans are faring better then they were in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina five years ago. But how much better?

"All it takes," says Jordan Hirsch, outgoing Executive Director of Sweet Home New Orleans (SHNO), "is one trip to the emergency room or one restaurant job to be cut in the recession for a household to slip into a situation that is really untenable."

Yesterday Hirsch's non-profit released its annual report on the New Orleans music community and the impact the 2005 storm and subsequent levee failures have had on that community over the past five years.

Among the report's findings:

Overall earnings from music are down 43%.

Most New Orleans musicians make only 5% of their total income from record sales, royalties or studio work. The bulk of their income comes from live performance.

Per gig earnings dropped 63% since 2005.

After the floods, paying gigs dropped 50% - from about twelve gigs a month to six, where they've remained five years later.

The median income of musicians in New Orleans is around $15,000 a year.

SHNO's report points out that most musicians work second jobs, often in New Orleans' hospitality industry.

"More than 40 percent of our clients have had hours reduced or been laid off of day jobs," Hirsch says. "So it's not only that the music income is way down, though that's a huge issue and a focus for us, but what's really created an urgent situation for our clients is that they're not able to find day jobs to supplement their income. This is a community that's used to doing whatever it takes to make it work. This was not an affluent group of people before the flood. So keeping spending down and working multiple jobs is part of life for a number of our clients and always has been."

The biggest single issue is the size of audiences that can pay for live music, says Hirsch. "Gigging puts food on the table for New Orleans musicians and the gigs aren't there because there aren't as many visitors to town. Convention business is down," according to Hirsch, "and those tend to be the bread and butter gigs."

Out-of-towners aside, there are fewer people living in New Orleans to support music (about 20% fewer, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center) even if those who ARE there are going out as much as they did before the hurricane, as Hirsch maintains they are.

As a result, Hirsch says many clubs have changed the way they do business.

"What we've seen happening is changes in the ways venues compensate artists. Fewer venues are offering a guarantee. And more and more shows are being presented without cover charges. And wages are going down. From a venue's perspective, they've got a much greater risk that they're not going to break even if they want to pay the band a hundred dollars a man — they've got a greater risk now than ever before of being on the hook for a couple of hundred bucks at the end of the night 'cause there's not enough people comin' through the door. So what's happened in some cases is that clubs are not offering that guarantee. They're saying, 'You can get a cut of the bar or pass the hat.' The risk is being passed on to our clients. And also some venues are just hiring smaller bands. Where maybe you used to hire a five-piece band, now you bring in a trio.

As SHNO's data shows, this means fewer musicians get paid and the ones who do make less.

"Our clients are on the short end of it more often than not," says Hirsch.

Hirsh says about 20% more venues now don't offer guaranteed compensation for a gig.

SHNO collected its data primarily through its interactions between its musician-clients and its seven staffers. Whenever a musician comes in, SHNO documents what it can about them (housing, family, number of dependents, health, income, expenses, etc.) and this has helped the organization build a web data base.

SHNO has also collected data on how its client base compares to musicians who have not sought its assistance, by distributing surveys at various community events. It's also surveyed music venues and attendees of live music performances.

For musicians and others in New Orleans, the nuts and bolts of daily life have also gotten tougher. For one, the cost of living is simply higher than before the storm because a lot of affordable housing was lost to the flood waters. As a result, the cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment is 40% higher, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Around two thirds of the music community were renting when Katrina hit. But because most of the compensation money was directed to homeowners, most musicians were not eligible for public assistance.

The report states that about 80% of the musicians who fled after the storm have returned, though one of the surprising findings is that they have not necessarily resettled in their old neighborhoods.

"So much of the cultural identity was tied to certain parts of town," Hirsch says. "But what we've seen is that the drive to get back was so strong that a lot of our clients simply landed where they could or where they had to." Around half of SHNO members are living in a different neighborhood than they were pre-Katrina.

Hirsch also points out that neighborhood organizations have been crucial to the city's revitalization — and this is one of the bright spots. The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs that grew out of the benevolent associations of the late 1800's have provided material assistance to their members — school clothes at the start of the year; toy giveaways around the holidays; resource and job fairs — even if they aren't in their original neighborhoods.

The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are also the groups that put on New Orleans' famous second line parades. Hirsch says these are central to the city's culture because they provide "really powerful connections to the cultural identity of the city's past and really strengthen relationships across generations now. When a second line goes through a neighborhood, it brings neighbors together; it spurs spending along the (parade) route. And these happen every Sunday, August through June in New Orleans. So it's a huge part of life in the city," Hirsch says, "... the reason why you live here and not somewhere else."

No matter how hard it might be right now.

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