February 07, 2006

Big Easy Is Tough For Musicians

This is by no means gun related. For 15 years (give or take) I was a professional guitar player. I saw a story about musicians in New Orleans & it got to me a bit. There won't be any sweeping personal admissions but it's not a Right to Arms post. Just so ya know...

& don't worry - the gun related posts will return soon.

I was in New Orleans in 1993. A little scouting told me a few things; one was that there were some damn good players down there. The most disturbing was learned by talking with several street musicians. You were required to get a license (then about $75 a year) to perform in the streets for tips. In the daytime you were confined to Jackson Square. At night you could hit Bourbon Street. Every single player I spoke with told me that the money wasn't bad ($60 to $100 a day, which wasn't bad for the early 90's in the music biz) as long as a cop didn't come along. The cops would walk by, bend down & pick up whatever cash they wanted to from the tip jar (in most cases an instrument case). Complain & you get your license revoked. I didn't stay in New Orleans long.

A lot of musicians did though & they've been hit hard (as have many other professions). There are a few charities trying to provide assistance to New Orleans musicians to keep them from relocating, or to bring them back from their evacuations. But the problem is a very simple one that many folks do not understand, or try to ignore - the market.

There simply isn't enough of an economy to support the local musicians. The charities are doing what they can to provide assistance (horn players have mortgages too ya know) but the local music scene thrived on tourism. There simply aren't enough tourist dollars to keep things rolling.

What I'm about to say may sound harsh - hell it is harsh - but reality often is. I think it's very kind for people to get together & scrape up money for musicians who are down on their luck. It's much better than the government doing it with stolen cash. But it may be enhancing the problem.

If there were no charities giving musicians incentive to move back or to stay then musicians would do what musicians always do when gigs are lost - they'd go someplace where they can find work. But by giving aid in absence of a market, or more to the point an imminently viable market they're adding to the number of under worked & out of work musicians.

Let's say 100 musicians out of 1,000 (& I'm using simplified & greatly reduced numbers here) chose to stick it out. Now let's say the market could support 50 of them. That means roughly 65 will be working for a 35% pay cut with 35% unemployed. It sucks yes; but not nearly as bad as 750 musicians trying to crowd into a market only capable of handling 50 to 75. That means damn near any gig will be less than what's needed for a particular musician to pay the bills. By giving such aid it could be that they're artificially distorting the labor market. That might be acceptable provided it was a short term distortion & the market would grow back to previously levels fairly quickly. But realistically it'll be 6 to 12 months before the market is able to support a quarter of the musicians it did. It may be years before it's close to 90% of what it was.

Which means that when the charity stops the situation will be actually worse, because the market was suppressed in its capacity for natural selection (for lack of a better term).

Still despite my Randian logic on the situation I feel for them. I know what it's like to be w/o a gig ; to not know how rent (or the mortgage) will be paid, how food will be bought, how smokes & alcohol & strings & reeds & gas to get to the next gig & all the things that make a musicians life tolerable will be in the budget.

There are many many songs that tell of the musician’s life, on the road or at home. The joy, the sorrow, the riches & the poverty sometimes happening in the same day. Not really that different from a lot of other professions (or lifestyles) except that ours is broadcast. We communicate it to a lot of people & lay our lives exposed for you to see & perhaps even feel. Oh please don’t misunderstand me - we're far from a noble lot. Drug dealers & users, thieves, home wreckers & generally the scum & villainy which would make Mos Eisley seem like a reputable family oriented spaceport abound in our circles. We're often egotistical, moody, fickle, selfish,& disappointing in general once you get to know us. & often we won't let you get to know much more than what's on the surface - if that.

But we do make music. Not just filling the air with vibrations dictated by mathematical principles, but music. We don't create emotions, but we help you focus on them, feel them, remember them in some cases. A love that was lost. Or found. Or lost then found only to be lost again. Loneliness, sadness, depression, rage, anger, heartache, but rivaled with joy, bliss, happiness, and peacefulness of the soul. We even help you remember how to smile every now & then.

& we're suckers. Ask any musician on the street how they feel about subsidizing the arts or any other variation on the socialization of music & they'll tell ya they are all for it & it should have happened two weeks ago.

This isn't the result of training or indoctrination as much as it is a byproduct of what makes us competent in our craft. An occupational hazard if you will. Ya see, Marxism appeals strongly to one's emotions. & musicians can be explained best (even if not as accurately as possible) as emotional.

Hence despite my logical conclusion that it'd be best if the musicians in New Orleans left till the market there could support them, I'd tip a $20 to hear a song already on their set list if I was at a Bourbon street bar right now.

Here are some songs about a musician’s life - mainly songs about the loneliness & heartbreak that can come from traveling, but such is our lot.

Highway Song by Blackfoot (the Blackfoot home page seesm to play Highway Song when you enter the site, so listen if you've never heard it before.)

Turn The Page by Bob Segar

Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way by Waylon Jennings

Faithfully by Journey

Working For MCA by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Night Life by Willie Nelson

Song And Emotion by Tesla.

Posted by Publicola at February 7, 2006 06:39 AM | TrackBack