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The state of working musicians in New Orleans: 'Half the gigs ... and the work pays less'

August 26, 2010 |  5:00 am

It's not hurricanes challenging New Orleans' musicians anymore; it's the economy. Five years ago this weekend, Hurricane Katrina decimated the city and its music community, but the recession has set a slow pace for its recovery.

According to the third annual State of the New Orleans Music Community Report, there are 50% fewer gigs in the Crescent City than there were before the storm, and it has been that way for the last two years.

"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.

Tourism remains New Orleans' leading industry, and even though the number of tourists and conventions has doubled since 2006, last year's 7.6 million visitors was down more than 2 million people from 2004's 10.1 million. Last year's 661 conventions and meetings were roughly half of the 1,299 booked before Katrina. Convention gigs were once a staple of musicians' incomes because they often paid better than club dates. Now there are fewer of them and because convention budgets are smaller, they pay less when they happen. "When I played with Preservation Hall or a big band, the least I made was $550," Callier says. "It's nowhere near that right now, trust me. It's anywhere from $150 to $200."

New Orleans’ older musicians and jazz musicians aren’t the only ones facing hard times. The limited number of gigs in the city has prompted many musicians, including Trombone Shorty, Theresa Andersson and the trombone-led funk-rock band Bonerama to develop more active touring careers.

Folk-rock singer Susan Cowsill tours to promote her new album, "Lighthouse," because she has to. "I can't make a living playing one gig a month at Carrollton Station," Cowsill says. "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."

With two school-age children, Cowsill and her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, have had to take outside work to make ends meet, and they recorded "Lighthouse" with the assistance of the fan-funded Threadhead Records. He plays drums with other bands in town, she paints houses, and they'll occasionally do a Bourbon Street date with friends. She's also a part of the famous Cowsills, who recorded "Hair" and "The Rain, the Park and Other Things," and she and Broussard join her brothers for Cowsills shows. Still, when they got behind on their rent, they had to turn to Sweet Home New Orleans for help.

The agency's study says this situation may be the new norm. "The (music) community has reached a plateau of 80% of its pre-Katrina size," it says. "Meanwhile, the number of gigs per month for New Orleans musicians has stayed consistent at around 50% of the pre-Katrina level. These figures suggest new baselines for the population size and amount of work available to the music community."

The study is based on data largely collected before the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, so that's not factored in. "Obviously, it is having a major effect on tourism, and reduced spending there finds its way back to our clients," Hernandez says. "Anecdotally, we've already seen a few clients lose their day jobs as a direct result of the spill."

For a copy of the report, go to SweetHomeNewOrleans.com starting Friday.

-- Alex Rawls, reporting from New Orleans

Photo: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andres plays the trumpet at the 2010 Playboy Jazz Fest in Los Angeles. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press