By Mark F. Gray, AFRO Staff Writer, [email protected]
In 1917 the great musician Duke Ellington and his band earned $100 per night entertaining audiences on U St. in Washington, D.C. By today’s standards that would equate to $2000 which would cover paying the band, the venue, and himself. It was then, as it is today, passion not pay, that keeps the spirit alive in performing artists around the nation’s capital.
Since those days early in the 20th century musicians have struggled to earn that $100 per evening to satisfy their passion. With clubs and restaurants opting not to employ live bands or other forms of entertainment, artists find themselves with fewer venues to perform as they generate, in some cases, over $1 million in revenue annually.
However, the D.C. City Council recently passed a bill that could benefit musicians and other entertainers by offering property owners an incentive if their venue hosts live events. The Performing Arts Promotions Amendment Act of 2018 provides a $15,000 tax rebate to venues that stage local performances. Venues that host at least 48 hours of live entertainment per month with a seating capacity of 300 will qualify for the rebate starting January 1, 2019.
“We hope this encourages restaurant and nightclub owners to add more live music,” Herbert Scott, Founder and Executive Director of the Capital Hill Jazz Foundation, tells the AFRO. “This bill provides opportunities for musicians to get paid.”
Scott understands the struggles facing freelance musicians and the other untethered artists who don’t have performance opportunities that build audiences for them to be compensated. In 21 years as an independent saxophonist whose played with bands throughout the District, Scott has watched as business decisions by property owners have limited the number of performing arts platforms especially for musicians. He hopes this bill encourages them to revisit the days of the dinner club.
“Hopefully this will be an incentive for the restaurant owners to bring live performances back to their establishments,” Scott adds. “We can’t tie their hands, but we hope they will do the right thing.”
The Capital Jazz Foundation has been vigorously lobbying to encourage local legislative efforts to preserve performing arts on all platforms. Scott says that these restaurants and their middle class audiences are where the stimulus for the shift in philosophy starts because they influence how entertainment dollars are spent.
“Musicians won’t start making more money until it becomes an issue of the middle class,” Scott says. “Changes in tax codes, health care, public safety and other aspects of society are not decided by the top or the bottom they come from the middle and most restaurant owners fall into that category.”
Scott, who is an alumnus of Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts and Michigan State University, is also spearheading the protection for the platform of the street musicians who routinely are seen outside Metro stations throughout D.C. Last summer when a bill was almost introduced to the City Council that would’ve arrested the street performers, confiscated their instruments, jail,and fine them, the Capital Jazz Foundation intervened with a lobbying effort that temporarily prevented it from coming to a vote. The Foundation is hoping to use its political capital as they are negotiating with Chinatown business owners to create a special platform for those artists who play for tips through a “pop up musician’s” series.
However, there is no guarantee that local establishments will see the merits of adding live entertainment and benefit from the tax incentive. There isn’t currently any oversight provision to enforce the law or to ensure the businesses will reinvest it into creating more chances for artists to perform in D.C.