In 1979 New Orleans native and young divorced mother Jan Ramsey was driving home from work when a drunk driver jumped the median on I-10 and crashed head-on into her car. Prompt EMS response saved her life, but when Ramsey left the hospital seven months later she was permanently disabled and confined to a wheelchair. Ramsey’s disability did not break her. She determined to change her life and overcome the tragedy through her work.
“When something catastrophic like that happens to you, you don’t know how you’re going to react,” she says. “You just deal with it.”
Ramsey dealt with it by returning to UNO to finish her degree.
“It was hard,” she says. “I remember dragging myself back to school on crutches. I could barely move.”
Her professors knew of an international CPA firm that was going to open offices in New Orleans. Ramsey finished her degree, moved to Miami for master’s studies (and to further recover), and went to work. She moved back to New Orleans in 1982 and spent many a night frequenting music clubs around the city. Eventually she decided to combine her marketing skills with her love of music and started OffBeat out of her Mid-City apartment in 1988. Twenty-five years later, Ramsey is still publishing the magazine.
What led to your decision to start the magazine?
Jason Berry had written a piece contemplating why there was no music industry in New Orleans. Me, I had stars in my eyes about all the great musicians in town. I knew nothing about the music business, but I loved music. That article struck a chord with me. I thought this was something I could sink my teeth into because I had come to the decision that I was an entrepreneur. I had gotten to know all these music people and they had interesting ideas but they never seemed to get anything done. So I thought I could offer some of my business expertise. I started this nonprofit whose mission was to develop and support the music industry of New Orleans and I thought, if I want to change the way people look at music in this city, the media is the most effective way. Back then the Times-Picayune didn’t even have a music writer. “Lagniappe” had some freelancers but there was hardly any music coverage in our mainstream media.
I had met Connie Atkinson, who edited the local music ‘zine Wavelength, and she tried to sell it to me. But it was in financial trouble and I gave up on it eventually.
I put together a music conference, and gave the mayor’s office credit. It was very successful and got lots of publicity. I thought—being a businessperson—that the way to get people to pay attention to music was to look at it not from the entertainment side but from the economic side. We put together a survey and came up with an economic impact study that showed live music had a $90 million economic impact.
That opened people’s eyes.
Big time. We got on the front page of the business section of the Times-Picayune, a write-up in the Wall Street Journal. The Republican National Convention convened in New Orleans in August 1988 and Connie told me that it would be a good idea to give them something that put local music in front of the media who were expected to come. So we sat down together, started another magazine and that was OffBeat, with her as editor and me as publisher. David Jones, an old friend of mine, hooked me up with the people at the RNC. I sold ads, got quotes for the printing. Apparently, Connie didn’t take it seriously and bailed, leaving me in the lurch. I had promised 15,000 copies to the RNC people, so I had to get it out. We had included the “New Orleans Music A-Z” piece before she left, but not being experienced at magazine publishing, we had four pages with nothing on it, so that’s why we included some of Bunny Matthews’ older “Vic and Nat’ly” cartoons. John Sinclair’s piece on Mardi Gras Indians had run in Wavelength and we used it again for the first OffBeat issue. I managed to get the magazine out. Kevin Combs, who served as art director, and I did everything. Connie was really dealing with a neophyte—she said we could use photographs filed at Wavelength, but neglected to tell me we had to pay people to use them. It was incredibly hard work, but I got pumped. I put another issue out in the fall, and the first monthly in February 1989. I never intended to have OffBeat set up against Wavelength but that’s what happened. Wavelength finally went under in 1991. I did whatever I could just to keep the magazine going.
Where was your office?
I had an apartment on South Murat Street and I set up a separate office in my house. My first intern was Anthony Clark, and he’d work on my dining room table. The magazine was originally supposed to be like Time Out London. It was going to be broader culturally, but music was going to be the focus. Times were tough. I had put everything into the magazine. I had started it on my credit and I was broke. Anyone who starts a magazine with no capital is insane! One month I decided to write about psychics and the one I interviewed said, “Someone is going to contact you in the next few days and give you a really big boost.” The next day, no kidding, I got a call from Philip Carter, who had been involved with Figaro, the precursor to Gambit. Philip had bought the Maison Blanche building and he said, “I would like to see if I could build up a sort of music incubator in the Maison Blanche building. If you help me get some music tenants, I’ll give you free office space.” So I moved into the ninth floor of the Maison Blanche building. Larry Jacobs, Rockin’ Jake, was our first sales rep!
You’ve had a lot of characters as sales reps.
I tell the story about the sales rep shoes. My daughter Meredith had moved back to town and she called me and said, “Ma, there’s this really good sales person. I know he can help you.” So this guy comes over and tells me, “I can sell anything!” He comes to the office and he’s wearing sneakers. He says, “I’m gonna take my sneakers off and leave ‘em here because I want to put on a pair of good shoes and look sharp.” I had made an appointment for him at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. So he leaves and I’m working at my desk and the office manager comes in and says, “There are two guys in suits out here from the FBI.” They come in, one of them shows me his badge, and they ask me, “Does this guy work for you?” I told them I’d literally just hired him to make sales calls. He was wanted by the FBI! So they went chasing him and jumped him in the lobby of the hotel and took him away. I still have his shoes. A relic.
When did you feel that the magazine was going to succeed?
WWOZ used to have a small Jazz Fest booth, smack in the middle of the Fair Grounds. I knew the Jazz Fest was onto something really important in exposing local music to a wider audience, something I knew I wanted to do too. So I volunteered to work the OZ booth. People were always coming up to ask us who was playing at what stage. Back then the schedule in the local media, instead of being in the cube format, was listed by stage. They weren’t user-friendly. The Jazz Fest program had the cubes and I thought obviously this was the way to do this. One day I made this little brochure myself to give out at the OZ booth. I saw people reacting positively and thought this is what’s needed: user-friendliness. We started including the cubes. Accurate live music listings were also crucial. A few years in, I made a deal to offer a free copy of OffBeat to people on the Jazz Fest shuttles. It worked like a charm and I started getting advertising for the first time. But I think Jazz Fest perceived me as exploiting the festival, which is a pity, because that’s not what I was doing at all. I put OffBeat out 12 times a year, not just at Jazz Fest.
Jazz Fest then tried to ban the distribution of OffBeat outside the festival?
It wasn’t quite like that. After three or four years of working together, the shuttle bus contractor couldn’t work with us anymore because Jazz Fest didn’t want them to do it. So we started distributing the magazine outside the Fair Grounds. We did that for several years, and the NOPD tried to stop us from distributing the magazine one year. They said we needed a permit, but you couldn’t get a valid permit around the Fair Grounds then. There’s a law covering distribution of commercial literature—but that means timeshare brochures and that kind of stuff. Long story short, we were in a courtroom the day before Jazz Fest started, and the judge said that clearly it was a First Amendment issue and we had every right to give the magazine away on the street. The judge looks at the magazine and says to the city attorney, “This is a magazine. There’s editorial content here. Why are you doing this?”
What do you see as OffBeat’s legacy?
Music is now a regular part of all local media, and it just wasn’t happening when we first started. Now there’s somebody working at the daily paper [Keith Spera], who was almost like a protégé of mine, a really good writer, plus there’s even a second music writer!
All this stuff that’s happening with music, I don’t think OffBeat can take credit, but we certainly had an influence. I guess that OffBeat helped to open up the minds of the people in the community to how important music is to the culture and to the economy, and how we need to take care of our musicians and their legacy. I don’t feel like I’ve done enough, because I still don’t think that the city appreciates music the way it should and doesn’t really market New Orleans as a music destination. It doesn’t have a music museum and it’s still trying to crack down on clubs and live music. All that stuff bothers me. But at least I started a movement that is continuing.
I’ve been asked the question a million times by people from around the world: “Why is music important here?” And there’s no place where people can go and find out the answer to that question and be entertained and educated at the same time. We need something like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Country Music Museum or the Experience Music Project. There’s no place to go to get the answers in one place as to why New Orleans is considered a music city. We really need that.
You set out to do something and you’ve accomplished it. A lot of the people you were looking to bring attention to when you started are gone now. OffBeat documented their lives while they were still here. That is an accomplishment.
I hope people can read the magazine and learn about our musicians and musical history. Many thought OffBeat could never last, but I didn’t get into it for the money. I got into it to do something good for the community, and that’s still the way we operate, and will as long as we can.