I never thought I’d still be cranking out OffBeat after an entire generation. I thought that I would have completed my work by now, that is, I thought that the New Orleans and Louisiana music community would be cohesive; it would be prosperous; and its accomplishments would be recognized and applauded. But what I discovered is that a generation isn’t long enough and that process of growing and changing will go on long after OffBeat and Jan Ramsey are gone.
OffBeat sprung from a crazy idea of mine that the musicians and music community in New Orleans and throughout the state was underappreciated and undervalued. When OffBeat started, there wasn’t a full-time music writer working at our local daily newspaper. Listings of music in local clubs weren’t a big part of any local publication. The Jazz Fest had not yet become the enormous success that it is today. There was no Voodoo Fest. French Quarter Festival was a mere five years old. Tipitina’s was a funky club uptown that started as a juice bar and evolved into the largest club in town, where music lovers could enjoy everything from Bonnie Raitt to Dr. John to Flora Purim. Jimmy’s, the Maple Leaf, Jed’s and Carrollton Station comprised a thriving Uptown music “district.” Frenchmen Street had Snug Harbor, the Dream Palace and Café Brasil, and only Snug had jazz and was patronized by mostly locals.
The Warehouse District was just starting to be turned into a gentrified high-rent residential district. Canal Street still had department stores like Maison Blanche and D.H. Holmes, the remnants of the times when the street was the place to shop in New Orleans.
There were maybe two entertainment attorneys in town, and the Louisiana Music Commission in Baton Rouge didn’t have a budget.
Southwest Louisiana was the birthplace of Cajun and zydeco music, but most everyone in the outside world thought those genres were “New Orleans” music.
So things have changed. Not drastically, but they’ve certainly gotten better. More people know about Louisiana music than ever before. I do, ironically, have to give Hurricane Katrina some credit for that. And OffBeat is still here. This magazine has been the defining experience of my life and I am so grateful that I and the OffBeat team are still trying to promote Louisiana music. Writers, editors, salespeople, distribution folks, printers, graphic designers. There have been so many of them. But I’ve been here from the beginning.
OffBeat came to life in May 1988 as a special edition geared towards visitors who would be coming to the Republic National Convention in New Orleans in August of that year. At that time, I was working for a fine gentleman by the name of Robert Siegel, who had a small real estate consulting firm. Mr. Siegel encouraged entrepreneurship in his employees, and when I decided I wanted to leave his firm to start a business “marketing music,” he thought I was out of my mind and that I’d never make it.
Bill Metcalf, the New Orleans media mogul who has since retired, told me after reviewing my business plan for the magazine that there was no way it would work. My parents thought I had really lost it. I had a good job making great money, and I’d leave it all behind to start a music magazine? Sheer madness!
The real madness was there wasn’t enough capital to start a mimeographed flyer, much less a monthly magazine devoted to of all things, local music. But I had a vision and a dream, and borrowed, begged and cajoled advertisers, friends and family into keeping the dream alive. I found that staying true to the path I’d chosen, especially when it had the public good at the center of the dream, was the most crucial part of keeping the vision alive. Smarts are one thing, passion is another, and persistence is really the sustaining quality.
For eight years, OffBeat struggled along, slowly but surely working its way into the consciousness of Louisiana musicians, the music community, locals, and readers all over the world. The financial part was a bitch because making money wasn’t what I was all about. I worried constantly about how to keep our staff, writers, photographers and printers paid. We managed to do it, but it was sometimes really, really hard.
And then I met a partner who would change everything, Joseph Irrera. Joseph (he’s not a “Joe”) was working for First National Bank of Commerce when he came into the OffBeat office with the goal of promoting some friends’ band. Being a New Yorker who had been in the business world for a long time, he knew he could get a lot further if he schmoozed the editor and publisher of the city’s music magazine. That he did, and it worked. Although the band didn’t make the OffBeat cover, Keith Spera (then OffBeat editor) gave the band a nice write-up, as did Scott Aiges, who had been hired as the first music writer for The Times-Picayune.
First NBC was bought by Bank One, and Joseph had the choice to move to Columbus, Ohio, or stay in New Orleans and get more involved with OffBeat. By that time, he had won the heart of the publisher, and proved himself to be just as dedicated to the magazine as me. The great part about Joseph was that he was a “numbers guy.” He identified financial problems and has not only managed to solve them over the years, but he’s made some crucial decision in making sure the magazine was financial strong. Joseph is a wide reader of music publications, and he’s come up with so many interesting ideas over the years: “Classic Songs of Louisiana,” the “100 Essential Louisiana CDs,” “Louisiana Music Masters,” and many more. Joseph is responsible for developing our reviews section of the magazine. Joseph has also been the moving force behind OffBeat’s exclusive premium CDs and several special projects we’ve taken on. He’s taken on our Best of the Beat Awards as his personal responsibility (you can read more about the history of this event online in our “Anniversary” section); he’s helped enormously in helping to produce the Louisiana Music Directory (the next one is due out by the end of the year). He delivers magazines; he inputs surveys. He handles subscriptions and subscribers, and he does the books. Whatever needs to be done, Joseph is there.
Joseph is my life partner and my “other half” in OffBeat. This is my opportunity to thank him publicly and to let you, our readers know that without him, OffBeat and our affiliated businesses would be long gone. Thank you, honey, from the bottom of my heart.
I’m gratified by knowing that so many wonderful young writers passed through OffBeat and not only used it as a training ground, but a springboard to full-time careers as accomplished writers: Keith Spera, Michael Tisserand, Doug MacCash, Scott Jordan and many others. I’m glad we’ve been able to showcase talents like Bunny Matthews, Greg Miles, Romney Caruso, John Sinclair, Tom Piazza, Rick Oliver, and so many, many more. I’m grateful for my current staff, Alex Rawls, Eric Broad, Sarah Lockwood and Richard Giraldi, who all are forced to work much harder since Katrina reduced our staff. Thank you all for making OffBeat what it is today and for your support.
I’ve had a lot of fun over the years, and have met so many wonderful people—so many beautiful-souled musicians, artists, writers, and fans and business people devoted to the music. We’ve had road trips to SXSW, many meetings with business leaders, advertisers, musicians, politicians; road trips to blues, jazz, new music, rock, jam, Cajun, zydeco and classical music festivals. Lots of great lunches, dinners, parties and drinking bouts. We’ve had (famous) run-ins with the Jazz Fest; the Louisiana Music Commission’s ex-director; and with others I’ve felt were not doing right by the musicians and music community. I’ve always said what I thought was right to support the Louisiana music community. My one regret is that I have not been able to do more to help our great musicians; particularly after the tragedy we all endured two years ago. We’ve published what our staff agreed that our magazine stood for. We’ve chosen the “high road” of integrity in editorial versus special sections and advertorial that are only designed to put money in the publisher’s pocket, and to decrease the integrity of our product.
We’ve tried to shine the best possible light on local music and musicians with purpose, integrity, beauty and humor, and I am very proud, humbled and grateful that that I’ve taken the “offbeat” path. My greatest hope is that a new generation of music lovers will continue to preserve, sustain, promote and grow our unique musical culture.
Are you up for it?