New Orleans musicians march for better wages


NEW ORLEANS -- Musicians, instruments strapped to their backs and signs in hand, marched to the French Quarter on Sunday, demanding better wages and asking tourists, music lovers and political leaders not to take them for granted.

"It ain't easy to be in the Big Easy," Deacon John Moore, the president of the local musicians union, told onlookers after the low-key march through the rain from Louis Armstrong Park. "Our musicians are suffering. We hate to come out here and beg, but we have no alternative at this point."

Many musicians, like other New Orleanians, are struggling with life since Hurricane Katrina struck nearly two years ago. Many venues that offered live music have not reopened or offer the stage as often.

That's creating a "cutthroat mentality" among the working musicians in town, Moore said. While the union has a minimum scale wage, not all members are adhering to it, Moore said. Some are working on the streets for tips from tourists and other passers-by -- cheapening the value of what they're producing, he said.

"The local music economy has forced local musicians to live in survival mode, 'a little something is better than nothing,"' the guitarist-band leader-singer said. "That's how you live when your back's against the wall."

Before Katrina, he said, there were more than 3,000 professional musicians, including music teachers, in New Orleans; this spring, there were less than 1,800, he said. Moore estimated a quarter of those commute into the city, where music has long been part of the colorful culture.

Saxophone player Travis Blotsky said his situation as a musician hasn't changed much since the storm, which hit two years ago this week. But he said he's concerned about the future of the music scene in what was jazz legend Armstrong's hometown. Musicians shouldn't have to take gigs in Top 40 cover bands to make ends meet, if that's not their thing, he said.

"We need to nurture more original music," he said during the processional, which included a black hearse.