Keep the Beat

Coronavirus disrupts the music economy of New Orleans

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com.


 

LIVE MUSIC IS INTRINSIC TO LOUISIANA culture, and as such, a major draw for tourists. Our festivals and venues attract millions of people each year and the impact of COVID-19 has been felt deeply in the music community. For world-famous events like French Quarter Festival, how do you reschedule a logistical behemoth?

For musicians dependent on income from playing such gigs, how do you pay your rent in the meantime?

I recently spoke with Emily Madero, president and CEO of French Quarter Festivals Inc. (FQFI) about rescheduling the festival from April to October, and singer Robin Barnes “Songbird of New Orleans,” about how the rescheduling and cancellation of performances are impacting her and her colleagues.

Madero said she and her team watched other organizers around the country respond to the pandemic with their own event in mind.

“The situation evolved so rapidly,” she said. “By the time other events began to cancel, our hearts were already broken. But seeing the impact on our industry colleagues in other parts of the country moved us from a state of grief to action. It was the moment we knew it was time to shift focus from ‘how do we host a safe event in April’ to ‘how do we reschedule?’

“Rescheduling a 25-stage, four-day event in a public space is a herculean task! Our team, and all of our partners, moved mountains to lock in our October dates. We work with dozens of stakeholders — sponsors, artists, vendors, volunteers and community partners. We communicated with each to ensure they supported the decision. We vetted possible dates with all our sites and worked with our industry colleagues to ensure the new dates were the best for the community.”

Even with the rescheduling of the event to October, there is still the risk of cancellation and the certainty of cash flow challenges. Madero said they are exploring all options regarding fundraising and possible loans.

“Right now, our focus remains on thehealth and safety of our team and our community,” she said. “We’re doing what we can to address the immediate needs of our community and to support each other, our partners and our city through this tragedy. When the time is right, we will need the support of our community and the city to rebound.”

In the meantime, FQFI has partnered with New Orleans Business Alliance on the Gig Economy Relief Fund to support and provide financial relief for those impacted not only by the rescheduling of French Quarter Fest, but by all of the closed businesses and lack of tourism.

On April 4, FQFI raised money for the fund by co-hosting a virtual concert, “Live from the Porch.” Madero said it was a small way they could provide paid performance opportunities to a few artists and bring together a community of music lovers. The event raised over $10,000 for the fund and more than 32,000 viewers participated.

One artist who performed was the Songbird of New Orleans, Robin Barnes. Barnes, along with her husband and fellow musician, Pat Casey, were excited to participate.

“We thought it was such a great idea and so special for us to be a part of an event that was helping to raise money for fellow musicians and gig workers,” said Barnes.

Barnes and her husband are both fulltime musicians and performing is their sole source of income. With festival bookings canceled and venues closed, they are seeking other sources of income. Barnes said she is constantly applying for grant money, to the point where she considers that her full-time job for the moment.

She said the most important thing people can do today to support musicians is to buy their music and their merch, watch live streams and tip if you can.

“It’s the only income full-time musicians have right now,” she said. “We’re trying to make the best of it.”

For the time being, Barnes is playing a “Songbird at Home” livestream show on Monday evenings at 7 p.m. with her husband, Pat Casey, playing bass. They stream from Facebook @Robin Barnes Music and Instragram @NewOrleansSongbird.

As for the future, Barnes is staying positive.

“I am so excited that French Quarter Fest was able to move their date to October and I cannot wait to celebrate at that show,” she said. “There’s nothing like a hometown show, and hopefully we will be celebrating with lots of visitors to the city! I also can’t wait to be back at my Sunday night residencies at Spotted Cat!”