Nurturing the Music Community

Sometimes, you just don’t know what you’re getting into. Oft-times, it’s a good thing you don’t—because if you did, you’d run for the hills.

Thus was the case when OffBeat started, some 25 years ago.

Had I known how hard the magazine business was, I probably would never have ventured into creating a print publication dedicated to promoting and expanding the public’s awareness of New Orleans and Louisiana music and culture.

Selling advertising and managing money was never my forte; but when you’re in business for yourself, you learn pretty quickly that unless there’s money coming in the door and the rent is paid, your business isn’t going to last very long.

I thought I was getting into a business. As it turned out, I was applying for membership in a music family.

I have a lot of empathy for artists and musicians who—despite leading lives devoted to expressing their creativity—are really entrepreneurs. They face all the challenges attendant with any small business: paying taxes, keeping their tools of the trade in tip-top shape, marketing, managing finances (particularly difficult as many musicians don’t have steady gigs), rehearsals, travel expenses and, of course, hustling new work. Add this business expertise into why they’re in the “business” to begin with—to make a living creatively—and you have the makings of a very difficult profession. And that’s to say nothing of managing your personal life: Imagine being on the road, staying in subpar lodging (to save money, since you’re self-employed), not seeing your significant other, or your kids for long periods of time. We’re talking a rough life here. There’s a price to be paid for living a creatively fulfilling life, especially in the U.S.

So it’s no wonder that the local music community is so tight. Because we all understand each others’ lives, and how difficult it is to stay healthy, housed, fed and employed, and how expensive it is just to live even in a relatively inexpensive town like New Orleans, the musicians, bands and everyone else connected to music here form a very tight-knit family. We try to look out for each other—we have our squabbles, as families do, but all in all, belonging to the New Orleans music family is truly a privilege.

Recent emails to my inbox have informed me that city tourism officials are “truly committed” to letting the world know that this is
a music town. Hopefully, this will mean a concerted effort to market New Orleans as a city that lives and breathes its music, something the “family” has known for a long time. The people who live outside the city but belong to the “church of New Orleans” know it well. Look at the Threadheads, a group of individuals who met through connections on the Jazz Fest message board. These are people who not only love the music, they love this city, and will put a financial commitment on the line to help our musical culture by financing the creation of CDs and other projects that musicians and artists can’t afford on their own.

Did the city ask the Threadheads to get this effort going? Nope, the Threadheads understood that cradling and nurturing the musical community in New Orleans is paramount, and getting exposure via CDs and the internet is crucial.

My point is that it’s up to us— the members of the community— to educate the tourism folks— who aren’t really sold on our musical culture—on what it means to be a family. Note to the New Orleans CVB: You’re not dealing with a bunch of people who perform on the streets and in local bars and pubs. We’re not just entertainment for conventioneers or background music for hotel lounges. If that were true, New Orleans (and the rest of the state’s musical cultures) would be like any other southern region. But we’re not like that at all. If you come here and are enchanted by the city’s quirkiness and propensity to party at the drop of a hat, you still won’t “get it.” We’re much more than that. Music runs very, very deep in the city’s culture; its authenticity and passion keeps it alive. Music nourishes the roots of New Orleans and because it does, the people who make the music protect each other and form a community, the understanding of which is crucial to comprehending the nature of our creative world.

Music here is influenced by the city itself, her river, the swamps, the craziness, the traditions, the stories, the poverty, even the mentality of the business and government folks who simply don’t get what we’re all about. Our mind is of one piece.

As I mentioned, we are a family, and like kin, we have falling-outs with each other. Most of those problems have to do with money, and lack of recognition from the business community that holds the purse strings. Many have experienced the problems that living in a poor city that doesn’t seem to value the importance of our musical resources. Exposing our music to the world in an “official” way can do nothing but good for our culture.

A caution: When the tourism folk reach out to the music family to determine what can be done to promote local music and musicians, and to market New Orleans as a music mecca (my God, how long have I been pushing for this?), I hope they realize that the “product” they are working with is not just a few bands—it’s a community that has the respect and admiration of people from around the world. They not only need to find out how to market the city’s musical culture, they need to consider the ways to keep it pure and thriving. Quite a challenge, but one that I’ve been up for since before OffBeat was born. Can’t wait to make it happen!