Musicians talk about the benefits that come from playing Jazz Fest. Part one of a two-part story.

revivalists jazz fest photo by patrick ainsworth for my spilt milk
Can you spot the festival bookers? Music supervisors? By Patrick Ainsworth

When The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell cancelled a day in 2004, I wrote a story for Gambit examining the potential impact on musicians if those that whose sets were lost to the rain and mud didn’t get paid. They eventually were, but wasn’t a sure thing in the days after the cancellation. More than one musician declined to be interviewed for the story because Jazz Fest played a large role in his or her career, so much so that the artists were afraid to say the wrong thing to the media, piss off organizers, and end up 86’ed from the festival. 

The musicians’ anxieties were ill-founded as those who talked to me remained regular parts of Jazz Fest lineups, but their concerns were understandable. Musicians who are playing this year confirm that playing Jazz Fest means more than just one more paycheck.

“Jazz Fest is a pretty good paying local gig,better than average certainly,”says pianist Tom McDermott (April 29, Lagniappe Stage, 4:15 p.m.). How much money he actually pockets depends on how many musicians he hires to join him on the gig, but McDermott cautions against focusing on the bottom line. 

“Really, what you want to do at Jazz Fest is hire a lot of people and make the best possible impression because you never know who’s going to be out there.” 

Most of the musicians spoken to for this story agree with McDermott’s assessment, but Paul Sanchez (April 30, Gentilly Stage, 11:20 a.m.) thinks about the money slightly differently. He has played Jazz Fest with Cowboy Mouth and as a solo artist, and he finds the pay to be “respectful to me as a member of the New Orleans music community,” he says. 

“But it's not just the money because when I was in the Mouth, we may have played festivals that paid more but I don't think any that had the sense of community I feel from the moment I am contacted to play. I feel how much they love Fest and New Orleans, and I like being part of that feeling so much that I've turned down shows in other cities that may have paid more so I wouldn't miss Fest.”

Since many musicians primarily work at night, a daytime paycheck is a bonus, but that’s only one of the financial upsides of the festival. Because it attracts fans from around the world, many of whom have a hard time getting music by New Orleans artists in their cities, the festival is invaluable for CD sales. It helps that the baby boomers that remain a significant part of the Jazz Fest audience are the demographic that still prefers to buy CDs instead of stream. 

“CD sales tend to happen after live performances,” Sanchez says. “Folks want something to remember the moment. When you play Jazz Fest, you're not only seen by thousands but there are tens of thousands more who saw your name listed but didn't make the show, hundreds who heard about your set from friends due the level of awareness about our music is raised on a city-wide level, even if subliminally. A normal weekend is not a half million music fans coming to their musical Mecca for two weeks and bringing back the sounds. I appreciate anyone who makes a show or buys a disc, there's just more of them here during fest.” When he played Jazz Fest for the first time as a solo artist in 2007, Sanchez worked to make sure he had a CD to sell.

Over the years, Tom McDermott figures he has made a few thousand dollars from CD sales at Jazz Fest, or later at Louisiana Music Factory when people who didn’t buy at the Fair Grounds decide to buy his music after all. 

“I know that’s happened,” he says.

Meschiya Lake of Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns (April 28, Blues Tent, 2:55 p.m.) thinks the group’s monthly CD sales double during Jazz Fest between the sales taking place at the Fair Grounds, Louisiana Music Factory, and at the merch table at club dates. “We’ll see a quarter to a half as many more [CD sales] at our regular Spotted Cat gigs,” she says.

The ebullient pop/rock of Royal Teeth (April 24, Gentilly Stage, 2:10 p.m.) isn’t exactly in the traditional Jazz Fest wheel house, but the band also sees a jump in sales. The band members do their part to help the process, doing signings in the CD tent after their set, and perhaps it’s an indication of the band’s core demographics, but it sees the Jazz Fest bump continue after the fest is over. 

“We have especially noticed an increase in digital sales following the festival,” singer Gary Larsen says.  

“Jazz Fest is just like a big club,” says K.C. O’Rorke of Flow Tribe (April 22, Gentilly Stage, 12:20 p.m.), who estimates that 35-40 percent of the band’s merch sales for the month come from Jazz Fest fortnight(ish). “You put on a really good set and a lot of people will go and stock up. CD sales kind of blow me away: Who is still buying CDs?” He’s glad the market exists, though. “It’s easier to put a thousand of those things in your trailer than a thousand albums.” 

Jazz Fest appearances have value beyond the direct dollars that come from the gig check and CD sales. Club and festival bookers from around the world come to Jazz Fest, so good shows at the Fair Grounds can lead to out-of-town gigs. Craig Klein thinks it has happened for Bonerama (April 29, Gentilly Stage, 12:35 p.m.), but he’s not sure. Meschiya Lake is. ““There’s a saying, People die of exposure, which is true,” she says. “But Jazz Fest has definitely opened doors for us. We’ve got international offers because organizers have seen us play at Jazz Fest or nighttime gigs in the clubs.” 

Scott Aiges knows it happens, and for a while he kept a spreadsheet to track musicians booked to out-of-town festivals through Jazz Fest. Aiges runs Sync Up, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s entertainment industry conference timed to Jazz Fest specifically to bring industry professionals to New Orleans at a time when its music is most efficiently on display. When the conference began nine years ago, he intentionally put festival bookers on panels so that area musicians could see them and schmooze them. To help validate Sync Up to state government and his board members that the conference was worth their money, he kept a spreadsheet of the gigs that he knew of that were a direct result of Sync Up and Jazz Fest. He also documented songs by New Orleans artists that were placed in television shows and movies, and other deals that advanced local artists’ careers as a direct result of Sync Up. For the most part, the conference only institutionalized and expanded on his own experience as a manager.

“I have very clear recollections of the bands that I used to manage playing Jazz Fest, and more than once they would finish their set at the Fair Grounds and I’d get a tap on my shoulder and it would be a guy saying, I have a festival in Germany and your band is terrific. You must come and play our festival,” Aiges says. 

Aiges can’t know in advance how many of Sync Up’s registrants will actually show up, nor can he know all of the industry professionals who’ll be at Jazz Fest since they don’t all sign up for the conference, but so far he’s aware of 27 booking agents, 70 event producers, 60 artist managers, 28 record label reps, 33 music publishers, and 24 music supervisors that have registered for Sync Up. Those aren’t just potential buyers and contacts; they’re motivated buyers and contacts, and there are likely more than that. Those numbers don’t include people in those industries who are coming to Jazz Fest but haven’t registered for Sync Up. Whether they register or not, they’re motivated buyers, Aiges says.

“They’re not making the trip to Jazz Fest just to have a good time. They’re coming on business, scouting, and they aren’t leaving without signing a couple of bands because otherwise they’ll have wasted their money.”

But the music business people in the crowd aren’t the only ones who are potentially valuable. Members of the general public who see a New Orleans band at Jazz Fest and enjoy themselves are likely to try and see the bands they like when they come to their towns. “If you’re a touring band, it definitely makes a difference,” Bonerama’s Craig Klein says. “These last four shows we’ve played, we had someone coming up to us: Man, I saw you at Jazz Fest. There are a lot of people at Jazz Fest, and a lot more out-of-towners than we think. I think that’s the biggest benefit of Jazz Fest—you got a lot more ears spread out around the country, around the world, actually.”

A Jazz Fest appearance can also have a more ephemeral value. For Flow Tribe, playing the Fair Grounds punched a ticket of sorts. K.C. O’Rorke suspects that international festival bookers are looking for something rootsier than his band, but “It gave us some legitimacy,” he thinks, and now doors are open to the band in the region that once were closed. “A good Jazz Fest show can lead to really nice slot in a local festival between Texas and Georgia,” he says.

It also helped broaden the band’s following. Until it first played Jazz Fest in 2012, the audience for its more rock and hip-hop-oriented funk was largely college-aged and younger. “Jazz Fest has helped us reach a diverse audience,” O’Rorke says, and Royal Teeth have had a similar experience. 

“It's wonderful to play a festival like Jazz Fest and feel like we fit in,” singer Gary Larsen says. “It was something we thought about more at first, but now we just enjoy the experience as much as possible. People in New Orleans who are unfamiliar with the band definitely perk up a little when you tell them you are on the bill. So in that way, I guess its sort of a stamp of approval.” 

This year will be the first appearance at Jazz Fest for Dave Jordan and the Neighborhood Improvement Association (April 28, Lagniappe Stage, 1:50 p.m.). He played the festival as a member of Juice in 2000 and 2001, and he has performed as part of other people’s bands, but this is the first time he has done so as a solo. “The actual gig itself is great but the biggest impact is just being on the fest lineup,” he says. “If you're trying to get your band on the road and on other national festivals, it's certainly validation to those talent buyers and booking agents. It opens a lot of doors just having it on your resume. And there seems to be an impression that if you're a New Orleans act and not on the fest, then you somehow aren't good enough or hip enough or something. On a personal level, as someone who grew up here and has toured all over the country and played thousands of gigs, it's just great to not have to be asked why aren't we on the fest.”

Tomorrow: What about if you're not booked at Jazz Fest?