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Can You Spare a Quarter? 

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary on April 10-13 this year, The French Quarter Festival (FQF) has turned into a major player on the local and national festival circuit. Since its inception in 1983, FQF has grown exponentially, as the small-staffed nonprofit organization had gross revenues in 2001 of more than a million dollars and attracted approximately 300,000 Fest-goers in 2002, including many Europeans who routinely come for FQF's trad-jazz heavy musical lineup. To put that number in context, 300,000 attendees equals or bests a typical weekend's attendance at Jazz Fest. According to a 2002 University of New Orleans report, FQF's impact on the local economy last year totaled $64.9 million. When you've got a festival that's usually blessed with gorgeous springtime weather and offers great music and great food in the heart of the Vieux Carre, such heady figures aren't surprising.

However, after 20 years of hard-earned growth, it's time for FQF to start distributing some of those dollars to the people who deserve it most: the musicians who are the heart and soul of the festival. FQF has a long-standing policy of paying union musicians -- with the help of matching outside funds from the union-affiliated Recording Industries Music Performance Trust Funds -- but performers who don't belong to American Federation of Musicians' Local No. 174-496 don't receive any compensation from FQF.

"Unfortunately, our costs of doing the festival have skyrocketed every year," says FQF executive director Sandra Dartus. "Insurance goes up, sound fees go up, everything goes up. Because of our association with our musician's union, we've tried to maintain some loyalty there. ... Since the union is a sponsor, for us to pay non-union musicians is a little bit of an affront to our sponsor. For us, it's sort of like serving Budweiser at a Miller event. But we realize that there are many wonderful musicians who are not members of the union for whatever reason, and that's how we came up with the entertainment sponsor concept."

Here's the way FQF's "entertainment sponsor" procedure works: a non-union musician who wants to play the festival must solicit an outside party for payment for the gig, and in exchange, their sponsor gets recognized with stage placards and in FQF promotional materials. FQF does not get involved in this transaction in any manner, and the sponsorship agreement remains private between the musician and their sponsor.

It's a flawed and disingenuous system. It puts musicians in the uncomfortable position of looking for a benefactor, when most performers don't have record labels or corporate sponsors readily able to offer funds. In many cases, non-union musicians will use a Web site or a friend's business as their "sponsor," but no money changes hands, and the performer winds up playing for free. Worse still, musicians can lose money playing FQF, as bandleaders still have to pay their bandmembers. FQF doesn't even have parking dispensation for musicians, so artists have to pay $10 per car to catch a shuttle bus to bring them to their gig.

Dartus believes the benefits of playing FQF outweigh such concerns for non-union musicians. "So many musicians and vendors alike want to be associated with such a positive event. I know the musicians talk quite freely about how great their CD sales are at the festival. A lot of them, especially ones that have played for such a long time, will say that it's their way of giving back to the community, because they play a lot of clubs where maybe everybody in the community can't come see them. ... Some musicians might grumble, but they come back every year, and they sell a lot of CDs."

For non-union musicians, it's a Catch-22. Numerous non-union musicians contacted about the issue are upset about FQF's entertainment sponsor policy, but asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing the opportunity to play future French Quarter Festivals. In a business where public perception is often everything, the musicians still want to be associated with an event that has become such a beloved and respected music festival.

But after two decades, it's high time for FQF to change its booking and payment policy to non-union musicians. As a model, FQF should look to Lafayette's Festival International de Louisiane, another nonprofit organization that puts on a world-class free music festival. Festival International had gross revenues in 2001 that were less than half of French Quarter Festival's gross revenues, but Festival International pays all of its musicians a fair wage. (In fact, one local musician said that Festival International paid them almost twice the amount that Jazz Fest did.)

With the economy struggling and tourism down, times are tight for both festivals and musicians. For a nonprofit organization like FQF, securing funds for non-union performers won't be easy. But it's the right thing to do.

click to enlarge The idyllic setting of the French Quarter Festival isn't as rosy for non-union musicians who don't get paid.
  • The idyllic setting of the French Quarter Festival isn't as rosy for non-union musicians who don't get paid.
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