Guitarist Bill Solley and his wife, singer Kim Prevost, are watching a fresh stack of bills get higher, and don't know how they're going to pay them. Solley and Prevost have seen their income drop dramatically in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.
"It's been really tough, because we do a lot of hotel gigs and conventions," says Solley. "I do the Hotel Intercontinental with Leah Chase, and that was cancelled for two weeks. The Fairmont gig on Fridays was cancelled. Then we had a couple convention gigs and some private stuff cancel. We've lost thousands of dollars."
They're not alone. The aftershocks of the Sept. 11 tragedy have hurt a number of local businesses and individuals, local musicians and music clubs among them. And the effects aren't limited to tourism destinations in the French Quarter. Attendance is down at venues across the city, resulting in trimmed live music schedules. Weekday nights have been hit the hardest; both Vic's Kangaroo Café and Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl have discontinued live music on Tuesdays for the time being, and Mama's Blues has scrapped Thursday night performances. Thinner crowds have also translated into sliding pay scales for bands.
"The bands have been great about it and they understand the situation, but it's hard for me to pay the guarantees that I was paying before, because the market's so soft," says Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl owner John Blancher. "Our business is probably down 50 percent overall, so I'm having to pay bands based more on revenue from the door."
Travel concerns have also derailed a number of high-profile touring shows scheduled for New Orleans, including jazz pianist Cedar Walton at the Contemporary Arts Center, heavy metal band Judas Priest at House of Blues, and comedian Jim Breuer at Tipitina's. Those cancellations trigger lost advertising and promotion expenses, lost bar revenues, and lighter paychecks for venue employees.
Convention cancellations have meant no paychecks for many New Orleans musicians. Ed White's White Oak Productions books convention entertainment, and White says that his company has lost a dozen convention bookings since Sept. 11 -- resulting in the cancellation of approximately 25 bands. And White Oak Productions' losses haven't been limited to the New Orleans market. "We just lost a big event in Columbus, Ohio, where we had booked James Brown," he says.
The status of a number of upcoming conventions in New Orleans is still up in the air, adding another layer of uncertainty to a process that can already be a financial shell game for entertainers. "It's a somewhat precarious situation for musicians, because they're hired under the auspice that it's a 'pencil-me-in' situation when we bid on conventions," says a source with USA Host, a New Orleans destination management company. "If the client buys a package and goes along with the entertainment, it's a done deal. But if a musician has been holding on to a date, and perhaps turned down other work they've been offered, sometimes we then have to tell them that the package didn't sell, or the entertainment was cut because of cost issues."
The domino effect from cancelled gigs also plays havoc in unforeseen ways. One bandleader who asked to remain anonymous has lost $7,000 in convention work -- and their drummer quit the band to search for steady employment. Despite such stories of hardship, optimism remains in the industry. "People are still booking private parties, so I don't think they're pessimistic about the future," says Blancher.
"I think we're going to come back," says jazz pianist Daryl Levigne, who plays in multiple bands. "The music scene is part of the thing that's going to heal things in the city. We have to go on, and we can't be scared." For Levigne, that also means honoring his touring commitments. "I have a gig in Washington, D.C. with Wanda Rouzan on October 3, and we're flying into Dulles (Airport). We can't let them intimidate us. In New Orleans, I think that we need to keep doing what we're doing. We need to keep Jazz Awareness month going, and not change schedules.
"Most of all," Levigne adds, "we need to ask people to come out and support live music. This is a chance where they can support the economy."