Making a Living as a New Orleans Musician: Then and Now, By the Numbers

An out-of-focus black and white photo of a brass band with the MaCCNO logo overlaid it in white. Below the logo reads “The Music & Culture Coalition of New Orleans” in white.

In our column last month, we began unpacking the idea of “going back to normal” and how various post-pandemic reopenings could perpetuate the “long-standing legacy of inequity” for musicians, cultural practitioners, service-industry workers, and other folks who have borne a disproportionate amount of the weight, struggle, and loss of the last 14 months. We also have a moment, in this forced pause, to assess how we can come back better than before. Let’s talk about “normal” for musicians in 2019 by comparing pay from gigs to costs of living in New Orleans, and then see how 2019 compares to the last few decades. “I made my rent in a single gig back then, or maybe two” is something that older local musicians sometimes say when talking about making a living over the years, and unfortunately the reality today is far from that for most musicians.

MaCCNO surveyed and interviewed over 400 musicians in the last three years, and the average pre-pandemic income for musicians is calculated to be between $24,000 and $28,000 annually. According to Census data, in 2019 median rent (including utilities) was $998 per month ($11,976 annual). Housing advocates cite the HUD standard that rent plus utilities should AT MOST be 30% of income. So multiply that annual rent by 3.3 to find Cost Of Living, which means that about $40,000 is considered the minimum income for living comfortably in New Orleans. This is quite a bit higher than $24,000 to $28,000! (see sidebar 1).


SIDEBAR 1

  • HUD says that rent + utilities should be 30% or less of income (or income should be 3.3 times rent + utilities).
  • If rent is higher than 30% of income, folks are considered “rent-burdened,” which is a source of stress and can lead to high rates of eviction and housing instability.
  • In 2019, if rent was $998, and yearly income was $24,000 to $28,000, then musicians were sometimes paying fully 40% to 50% of their income towards rent.
  • In 2019 over 50% of New Orleanians were rent-burdened, highlighting how costs have outpaced wages for everyone, not just creative-economy folks.

Census data is only easily available back to 2000, but anecdotally musicians talk about rent in the 1980s and 1990s being $90, $100, maybe $250. In 2000, the median rent in Orleans Parish was $488 a month. If we use an inflation calculator, which tells us how prices “should” rise in a natural way, then monthly rent in 2010 “should” have been $629, and monthly rent in 2019 “should” have been $734. However, monthly rent in New Orleans was $897 in 2010; and as the population grew after Katrina, it increased to $998 by 2019 (see sidebar 2). So rent has risen at a rate that makes it hard for income to keep up with. Unfortunately that’s only half the problem.


SIDEBAR 2

Year
Projected rent costs including  utilities
Actual rent costs including utilities
2000
$488/mo.
2010
$629/mo.
$897/mo.
2019
$734/mo.
$998/mo.

Now let’s talk about musicians’ pay. MaCCNO’s research and oral histories make clear that musicians’ rates of pay have not changed substantially since the 1980s. Making $50, $75, or $100 on a single gig was common in the 1980s; in 2019 the median take-home gig pay was $100 to $125, with a quarter of gigs having a take-home pay of $75 or less. So over time, compensation from a single gig has become a smaller and smaller portion of both rent and total Cost of Living (see sidebar 3).


SIDEBAR 3

Gig-pay consists of some combination of:

  • Money from the venue:
    • Percentage of money made from alcohol (and possibly food) sales
    • Guaranteed amount from the venue or event manager
  • Money from listeners:
    • Tips, given without an expected baseline level
    • Cover or ticket charge
    • In some cases, sales of CDs or other merchandise

Pay from a gig can vary because of:

  • Pay guarantee
  • Willingness or ability of band to “hustle” for tips, which many musicians feel is compromising or demeaning, and choose not to do
  • Willingness of listeners to pay a cover or ticket price, as well as the legal ability of a venue to charge said cover
  • Time of day/week/year

Using $300 for rent and utilities in 1990, then 3.3 times that is $990 a month (or $11,880 annual) cost of living. Musicians would have needed to play 10 gigs in a month that paid $100 each, or 12 gigs at $75 each, to earn that. That’s a reasonable schedule, which leaves room for the nuances of musician-life, like gigs that pay less because they’re passion projects, brand new, or bring other benefits besides money, such as exceptional musical fulfillment.

In 2019, to earn the median $24,000 to $28,000 annually, musicians making $75 or $100 a gig would have to play 20 to 31 gigs a month—or 33 to 44 gigs each month to earn $40,000 (the Cost of Living, i.e. $998 rent and utilities times 3.3). That gets into the range of an unsustainable, stressful workload. And while many musicians do have at least some gigs that pay more than the $100 to $125 median, it’s clear that gig pay hasn’t kept up with Costs of Living. How many 2019 gigs paid $1,000 per person, which would cover rent in a single gig, like elder musicians remember? And how many gigs weekly or in a month should be the average amount musicians need to cover costs of living?

As the pandemic slowly begins to fade away, there is a wild variety of gigs and needs emerging: new outdoor music spaces have opened during the pandemic; some venues struggling to continue existing are saying they cannot guarantee bandleaders pre-pandemic pay levels; new private-property concert series; and musicians facing the impacts of a year of financial hardship, loss, stress, and tough choices. Musicians needing to meet immediate needs may feel pressure to take any gig at any pay level, even if it’s lower than pre-pandemic agreements, and knowing how poorly the pay compares to living costs in New Orleans. This is the frequent reality of making a living in music, and musicians won’t be able to escape this trap without some systemic changes. One of the first steps is to acknowledge that we risk returning to a level of gig pay that has remained stagnant for the past 40 years and a level of housing costs that outstrip all predictions, and folks’ ability to make a living. Our challenge as a community in this moment is to reimagine “normal” entirely, and to make it more sustainable and equitable.


Thanks to Maxwell Ciardullo at Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center for help with Census housing data. Statistics come from data.census.gov and MaCCNO’s own research.


The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.


This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.