Tuesday, July 26, 2011

9081: Mariachi Money Matters.

From The New York Times…

Mariachi Bands Hit Hard Times, Leading to Rifts Over Their Fees

By Jennifer Medina

LOS ANGELES — Alejandro Cisneros calls the newer arrivals “pirates.” They simply put on a costume and trick customers into thinking they are mariachi musicians, he says, but they know nothing of the history of Mexican music.

Juan Ariso calls the old-timers “the businessmen.” They are too focused on charging more money and pushing out those who they believe are taking gigs they do not deserve, playing at weddings and quinceañeras and the occasional backyard cookout.

The two groups cannot agree on many things, but the most important is this: How much should a mariachi charge?

“This is our profession, our job, our passion,” Mr. Cisneros said. “We don’t want to have it ruined by these people who do not know what they are doing.”

For Mr. Ariso, it is a simple business calculation: “I charge what they are willing to pay. That changes all the time.”

For generations, musicians have gathered each day in a corner of the Boyle Heights neighborhood, just east of downtown. The sprawling square has been called Mariachi Plaza for as long as anyone can remember and has served as a central band-gathering spot since the 1940s.

The players come with their violins and trumpets and guitars, like roaming minstrels offering to play their traditional ballads for anyone interested, and especially for those looking to hire a band. A few dress in traditional charro outfits, elaborate dark suits accented with chains and embroidery, topped with ornate sombreros.

Mariachi Plaza is a sort of day-labor center for musicians, and the mariachis will quickly gather around passers-by, a horde of them jostling to get their business card into the hand of the would-be customer. The leaders encourage the customer to hire the full band, typically six musicians, and will belt out a tune or two as an enticement.

The going rate here has been about $50 an hour per musician for more than a decade, but when business began to dry up and newer musicians moved in a few years ago, competition became far more intense. Some were willing to drop their price to $30 an hour, and shouting matches over who would get the infrequent jobs would occasionally turn into fistfights.

Now, roughly 200 mariachis have joined the United Mariachi Organization of Los Angeles, a group that formed to set a minimum price in the plaza. To join, musicians must pay $10 a month and pledge not to charge less than $50 an hour. In return, they receive a gold-colored picture identification card, which leaders hope customers will recognize as a badge of authenticity.

Customers have come back to the plaza to complain about mediocre bands or musicians who did not show up on time, said Arturo Ramirez, the president of the organization and the leader of Mariachi Los Dorados De Villa.

“We want to have a standard,” Mr. Ramirez said. “There are good and there are bad, and it is difficult to tell who is who when you just hear them play one song. If you buy a pair of pants for $20 and another for $80, it’s not the same quality. The same is true for music. For this to work, we need people to understand the difference.”

Mr. Ramirez, who has worked out of the plaza for more than 25 years, said he had always charged for travel and setup time, something unquestioned by customers until recently, when the lower-price groups began undercutting by charging only for the time they played.

Jose Luis Avenas said he began coming to the plaza about five years ago, first on the weekend to supplement his income as a contractor. Then as that work began to dry up, he came more often.

“This was good work, easy work and honest work,” Mr. Avenas said. “I get it myself, and nobody should be able to take it away from me because of the rules. This is America, where there is freedom and a free market.”

Rimmed with cafes serving strong coffee and Mexican food, the plaza serves as a social gathering area as much as an employment center. The Mexican state of Jalisco, also known as the birthplace of mariachi, donated a concrete bandstand and iron benches several years ago. A community development group is now renovating a crumbling hotel that has housed musicians for years, many who traveled back and forth to their Mexican hometowns with their earnings.

While the murals have faded and begun to peel, a new subway station at the plaza has revived the area, which now features a farmers’ market on Friday afternoons. Many of the mariachis worry about being pushed out of the square as the area has begun to gentrify with hip coffeehouses and wine bars. But for now, the shops selling the traditional instruments and outfits are still doing brisk business.

“This is ours, and we have to keep it ours, not let others tell us what to do,” said Martin Gonzales, who has been in the plaza for more than 20 years.

For now, Mr. Gonzales is ambivalent about the new organization. He wants to keep prices fair, but he is distrustful of new rules that do not promise to give him all that much in return.

“Do we need this?” he asked. “I don’t know. What we really need is more work.”

It was the second day in a row that Mr. Gonzales had stood for hours without getting a job. By 5 p.m., he gathered his bandmates in the van and took off. Like others, they had scrawled the band’s name and phone number on the window, in case potential customers might see them on their way home.

No comments: