On Friday, April 30, rain cancelled a full day of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time since 1993 -- the third rainout in Jazz Fest's 35-year history. Almost immediately, rumors and suspicions started to circulate among the music community. Those who were rained out wondered if they were going to get paid, how much they were going to get paid, and if everybody was going to be treated the same. Many musicians don't want to speak on the record, for fear of jeopardizing future Jazz Fest bookings. But they point to rained-out headliners like Harry Connick Jr. and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and speculate that those bands will be paid, even if others aren't.
On that second Friday of the festival, Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes had a 2:45 p.m. slot on the Sprint Stage. "We were bummed," says Harry Hardin, the band's violinist. "It would have been our first Jazz Fest, and we'd rehearsed like crazy for it." In their case, the day was partially redeemed when they ended up playing an impromptu set for a wedding reception at Rosy's Jazz Hall. "It was the best thing we could have done," he says.
Others weren't so lucky. For some bandleaders, the rainout meant more than potentially losing their fee -- it also meant they were out the money they paid their musicians. Kim Carson and Deacon John Moore, both of whom were scheduled to perform that day, hire the members of their bands and pay them whether they play or not. "People that are working for me are working for me, not for Quint (Davis, president of Festival Productions and director of Jazz Fest)," Moore says, "so I'm responsible for paying the musicians. Some had turned down gigs to play the festival." Moore has already met his payroll -- 16 musicians and a four-person road crew.
Some rained-out musicians experienced an additional financial hardship, as they spent money recording new CDs for a release timed to Jazz Fest. Out-of-town fest-goers are typically aggressive buyers, snatching up CDs that can be hard to find outside New Orleans. Consequently, artists often time releases to coincide with the festival. Kim Carson hasn't yet heard the sales figures on her new CD, Live at Tipitina's, but she's not hopeful. "Most sales come the day of the show," she says. Without her day-of-show sales, Carson says, it will be a while before she recoups much of the nearly $7,000 she spent on the album.
TWO MONTHS HAVE PASSED SINCE THE RAINOUT, but the Jazz & Heritage Foundation and Festival Productions remain silent on how -- or if -- artists will be paid. To date, the only official statement from the Foundation was issued May 21, stating, "The issue of paying our local musicians whose April 30 Jazz Fest performances were cancelled is obviously very important to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. We're still working very hard to resolve the situation in a manner that will be satisfactory to all parties involved and in a way that demonstrates our deep appreciation for the great New Orleans music community."
The standard contract the Foundation offers performers basically states that musicians may or may not get paid in a rainout: "In the event, as a result of inclement weather or other circumstances beyond our control, we can not present your performance on the date set forth above, we may at our option elect either to pay you in full in lieu of your performance or reschedule at the same price either during the 2004 Festival or the following years [sic] Festival."
Not every musician who plays Jazz Fest signs this contract. "National artists typically have their own contracts," says Louis Edwards, associate producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "Local people don't have lawyers that draw up larger documents that stipulate everything they want considered when they're performing. You're going to get a very different document from a larger agency that you're going to have to deal with, in addition to your own document."
Edwards admits he's not sure what would happen if a local artist brought his or her own contract to serve as the agreement between the artist and the festival. "I'm sure it would have to be read and work within the overall context of the festival," he says.
Many local musicians sign the standard contract without question for fear of doing anything to jeopardize the gig, due to the potential importance of playing Jazz Fest. Carson -- like many other local musicians -- found herself on the European tour circuit as a result of playing Jazz Fest.
"It opens up so many doors for bands that play there," the Dirty Notes' Harry Hardin says. "The exposure -- people from all over are there."
IN 1993, THE FOUNDATION OPTED TO PAY musicians whose shows were rained out. That doesn't necessarily mean it will pay up again, says Edwards.
"That's when it was obvious they could," Edwards says, referring to the 1993 festival. "It's a bigger picture when you're looking at a loss overall, subsequently laying off staff, shortening the time when people would have worked, all of which happened post-festival. Then you've got other considerations."
Such considerations include the revenues from this year's Jazz Fest, which according to Edwards fell an estimated $600,000 to $900,000 below projected amounts. This year, 377,000 people attended the festival, down from 503,000 in 2003. Organizers point to this year's rain as a cause for the decline, in addition to the economy and continuing after-effects of Sept. 11, 2001. According to Johann Bultmann, a member of the Jazz & Heritage Foundation's Past Presidents Senate, international travelers haven't been coming in the same numbers since 9/11 -- and the international market can be very lucrative. "They don't buy a poster; they buy a bunch," he says. "They don't buy a T-shirt; they buy dozens."
Some musicians correctly speculated that Jazz Fest bought rain insurance, looking to that as a possible source of money for payment. Edwards confirms that the festival did get insurance, something it hasn't done every year. "It's expensive," he says. "There were a couple of days when there was enough rain for some -- some -- funds to be collected, but nowhere near the amount of money it costs to put on the festival on any given day." The insurance money will be used to minimize the festival's overall loss this year, Edwards says. "It's a huge operation to build a city out there (at the Fair Grounds) and operate it seven days of the festival, 10 overall," he says.
In Birmingham, Ala., the annual, three-day City Stages also books a blend of local and national acts on multiple stages. It doesn't always buy rain insurance, either. It has never experienced a complete rainout since it started in 1989, but it's been severely hurt by bad weather in recent years. Beverage and merchandise sales dropped so much that this year's festival -- which took place June 18-20 -- began more than $480,000 in debt. Unlike Jazz Fest, though, City Stages musicians always receive the contracted amount, rain or shine, even if their set is cancelled. "They get paid," says Jason Marchant, City Stages' office manager.
Festival Internationale de Louisiane coincides with the first weekend of Jazz Fest, in Lafayette, and this year it suffered the same weather system that dumped rain in New Orleans. The festival lost four hours on Saturday, April 24, then it shut down at 4 p.m. Sunday. "We had only had rain one time in 18 years," festival director Dana Canedo says. "We really had never experienced it to this magnitude." Like City Stages, Festival Internationale pays its performers rain or shine. "Even acts of God," Canedo says. "We pay whether they perform or not."
Canedo adds that Festival Internationale started making changes a year ago to deal with the overall downturn in festival attendance. "We were hit last year," she says. "We made a lot of changes so we wouldn't be caught off guard." The festival is free in downtown Lafayette, and 60 percent of the revenue comes from beverage sales. As the festival's success has grown, the downtown has grown up around it with bars selling drinks, which cuts into the festival's revenue. "We're victims of our own success," Canedo says, "so we changed the way we do beverages, selling drink tickets in strips like they do at the Taste of Chicago (festival)."
Festival Internationale is also a nonprofit organization, though unlike the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, it doesn't have a program of charitable donations. "We exist primarily by corporate sponsorship and private donations," she says. "We have a group called Rain Angels that donate money in the event of rain."
Kim Carson has personal experience with festivals throughout Europe. "One requires I hold open a weather date, but most that I have played pay rain or shine," she says. "On occasions I've had to put a rain clause in the contract." When she has, she asks for half of the contracted price. Carson admits she didn't scrutinize her Jazz Fest contract to see what provisions were made in the event of rain. "I assumed a festival of Jazz Fest's scale had a rain clause," she says.
MUSICIANS ARE NOT THE ONLY PEOPLE to suffer because of Jazz Fest's revenue shortfall. The Foundation laid off half of its eight-person staff and had to take a look at its charitable contributions -- including one of its best-known recipients, WWOZ 90.7 FM. WWOZ general manager David Freedman is understandably concerned. "We're aware that the Foundation has announced that it has a shortfall and that it could have an effect on us," he says. "Our finance committee has started formulating some plans to address the problem."
The station would not be crippled by reduced support because 65 percent of WWOZ's funding comes from listeners, Freedman says. "The reality is that the station has since '92 increased its funding and support through a variety of ways," Freedman says. "It's not like we've been waiting for the Foundation to give us money." At this point, there's little to do but wait until the fiscal year ends on June 30, when the books will be closed on the year and WWOZ will know by how much its funding will be decreased. "We know they've got bad news, but we're waiting to find out how bad," he says.
Last year, the Musicians' Clinic found out how bad the news could be. The clinic opened in 1997 with financial support from the Foundation, but the Foundation cut off its funding for the clinic after the 2003 Jazz Fest drew only 503,000 people over eight days, down 36,000 from the year before. The clinic continues to operate, but it has been forced to find grants and additional sources of income to compensate for the loss.
The Foundation's executive board is still weighing options. Some musicians who say they have spoken informally to members of Festival Productions say there are indications that they won't be paid. Harry Hardin hasn't spoken to anyone, but he's not holding out hope, either. "We assumed we weren't getting paid," he says. But Deacon John Moore, who was paid after his set was rained out in 1993, is guardedly optimistic, following a conversation with Quint Davis (a conversation that Davis confirms). "I talked to Quint and he says, We're working on it,'" Moore says. "He didn't say they weren't going to pay me at all. It sounds like they're trying to decide if they're going to pay the full amount or half of it or some of it."