More than 40 musicians playing all jazz styles will take to river barges for the San Antonio River Walk Association’s second annual Ford Jazz Floating On The River, a celebration along the 2½ miles of our beloved River Walk during the heart of Mardi Gras revelries Feb. 10-13.

The River Walk Association put out a call for all jazz musicians interested in participating. I’m a saxophonist, and after my initial inquiry I received an application and wrote back to the staff. “I see that there is no charge to play – is there any compensation for the bands that are chosen?” 

“There is no compensation for the bands that are chosen,” the reply read. “This is more of a marketing event for you all as we can promote your group through our website and social media.”

Receiving replies of this nature is not uncommon in the music business, or for people in the creative industry in general. I understand there are reasons to accept a gig without compensation (see music blogger Ari Herstand’s The Perfect 30, which breaks that decision down to its crucial elements). Yet until we take a stronger stand and respect our livelihood, the creative economy will continue as it has for centuries. 

To its credit, the River Walk Association puts on 26 free events throughout the year – all have a budget for artists, according to Maggie Thompson, the association’s executive director.

Thompson, who is joined by six staff and a board of directors (see members here), said this jazz event is different, because in addition to local musicians, participating talent is coming from some high schools. “We’ve created this to help highlight young talent,” Thompson said. “If this is successful and we see a lot of response, then we will reach out to larger sponsors.” More sponsors means a better possibility for paying musicians.

Noah Peterson, a saxophonist and owner of Peterson Entertainment, is a member of the River Walk Association, as well as a contractor for the organization.

“They’re doing everything they can do to help the city thrive, but they are cash-strapped – not a lot of sponsors coming in for this particular event [Jazz Floating on the River].” He believes the River Walk businesses could step up to help pay musicians.

Without being paid, all the musicians can expect is to see their name on the event’s website and get a few social media shout-outs.

“We didn’t hide the fact that this is non-paid,” said Paula Schechter, the association’s director of marketing and public relations. “Musicians are coming forward on a voluntary basis, of their own goodwill.”

Peterson is one of those individuals, participating in the event because he wishes to support the River Walk association and its mission. “There really is nothing in it for the musicians,” he said. “They can’t promote, advertise, sell merchandise.”

“[The San Antonio River Walk Association is] asking the wrong people to give, no question about that. But they’ve asked everyone else, and they’ve said ‘no.’”

Sit with that for a second.

This begs the question of who should step up to the plate here. Does the creative class have to learn how to say “no,” or do businesses have to learn how to say “yes,” or “I won’t do this if I can’t pay the talent?”

My intent is not to single out the River Walk Association for this particular event. It’s clear it pays artists for other events. Plenty of businesses, nonprofit and for-profit alike, ask musicians to volunteer their time, and the conditions are clearly understood by both parties.

Rather, my goal is to shine light on a debate that has been ongoing since the nascent days of the music industry.

Anyone who is a part of the creative class has experienced this conundrum: Do I stand my ground, let them know the full value of my art, and walk away if they don’t honor it? Or do I accept that this is part of my “hustle” and sell myself short?

As San Antonio turns 300 years old, the tides are turning. We as artists have tools and momentum we didn’t have before. Is it a question of value? Check out the Rivard Report’s latest article on the SA Music Industry Study, which showed that the music industry has a $930 million economic impact on our city.

City support? Tune into the work of the Department of Arts & Culture with their Cul-TÚ-Art plan, which includes a cultural equity clause aimed at championing “policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable city.” There are more platforms than ever for us artists to let our voices be heard, more opportunities to keep our leaders accountable.

Creative class: The power is in our hands. We can say “no,” but that means nothing if we don’t actively work to prove our worth, meet with leaders, share our story. If businesses wish to put our talent on display, then they will have to invest real dollars in us – doing away with the “starving artist” once and for all.

Businesses: Join us in our quest to do what we love for a living. Start by supporting the River Walk association, so they can always pay the musicians promoting our city’s River Walk.

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Adam Tutor

Adam Tutor is a Trinity University graduate, a saxophonist who performs with local bands Soulzzafying, Odie & the Digs, and Volcan, and a freelance music contributor to the Rivard Report.