RESEARCHING FRENCHMEN STREET’S CULTURAL ECONOMY
MaCCNO has recently been researching the cultural economy of Frenchmen Street, working to unpack how musicians make a living. “Frenchmen Street” is an entity, not just a geographical street name, and it is unique in the New Orleans cultural landscape. It’s a tiny, super-dense ecosystem with over a dozen music venues and street-performer spots which collectively form a major pillar of many musicians’ and bands’ livelihoods, as well as other elements like food, art, and commerce.
This column is an introduction to our ongoing project aiming to bring numbers, analysis, and stories to inform discussion and policy. The project will end with a final report next spring and include the following goals: helping guide the City’s decisions about policies that govern Frenchmen, fighting for musicians to make a living wage, and protecting and nurturing the things that make Frenchmen Street a distinctive part of New Orleans’ cultural infrastructure. Our research includes both number-based and narrative-based work. The numerical side involves elements like how many gigs, how many bands, what percentage of bands are fronted by women, how often do the same bands play the same venues, etc. The narrative side is talking to musicians to get answers to questions like, “How important are Frenchmen gigs to your overall living?” and “How would you describe Frenchmen Street; what words do you associate with it?” Aside from numbers or data, Frenchmen has a rich history as an “incubator,” a place where bands could play new and original music and hone their skills. How this has changed over time is something our research will explore in depth.
“Frenchmen Street” is a cluster of music-hosting bars and restaurants, spread over half a dozen block-faces of Esplanade, Decatur, and Frenchmen streets. The first venue, The Dream Palace, opened in 1976 (currently the Blue Nile). Over the next 20 years, more music venues sprang up organically, growing the area into a hot-spot for music. Starting in the 1990s, rising tensions with the City highlighted the fact that the neighborhood is not zoned for live music. In 2004, a “zoning overlay” was passed, giving legal recognition and validity to what already existed. However, issues persist around sound levels, shared space, allowable activity, etc. Frenchmen Street has been a work in progress across many fronts.
From June 2018 to the present, there have been 15 venues which have hosted roughly 1,000 gigs every month, played by 300+ bands. Musicians report playing from 4 to 18 gigs per month in Frenchmen venues, with up to a dozen different bands throughout the year. Many bands play weekly at a particular venue, providing a known and solid piece of those musicians’ monthly living. In fact, certain venues have nearly all the same bands week to week. At Cafe Negril, bands average 3.5 gigs a month, and the Apple Barrel average is closer to 4. In contrast, bands at 30°/-90° average just over 1.5 gigs per month, meaning that most bands only play there 1 or 2 times a month.
There are many successful models for how a music venue books bands, but there are some basic consistencies: bands on Frenchmen play for 3 or 4 hours at a time, and make a set percentage of the money from the bar, often around 20% of the total bar take, although some venues guarantee a minimum pay level. Musicians also encourage patrons to tip, with tips making the difference between a poor, average, or great night of pay for the band. In fact, soliciting tips is an entirely separate skill set, distinct from musical or band-leading skills. That topic is something which the research will explore in depth. There is rarely a cover charge at the door, both because of the street’s long-standing tradition, and because the legal designations of most of the businesses don’t allow for it as an option.
Gigs on Frenchmen provide a solid piece of the economic pie for many musicians—they refer to it as “a place where you clock in and out, like any other job,” or “the bread and butter gigs;” and for some people, almost 100% of their gigs are played on Frenchmen. However, they also note that average pay hasn’t gone up in the years since Hurricane Katrina, and that there’s a shockingly wide range of pay. Depending on many things, including time of year/week/day, which venue, band size, music genre etc., the money made on Frenchmen can occasionally be higher than almost any other gig, up to as much as $600/person. In contrast, every musician we spoke to has a story of financial disappointment: gigs where band members made only a single dollar in tip money or where someone made $52 but received a $40 parking ticket while loading their equipment into their car in a loading zone.
Making economic conditions better for musicians while nurturing the unique character of Frenchmen Street is a challenge. We are working to paint a solid economic picture, so that future discussions can be informed, nuanced, and based in the reality of the lives of working musicians, and we are excited to share our work with you! Please feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.