Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Backtalk interview.

During his tenure as the state’s Lieutenant Governor, Mitch Landrieu made “cultural economy” his calling card. He worked to show how cultural products aren’t simply valuable in an aesthetic, intellectual or social way, but that they are good business. He has maintained this interest as mayor, and the recent 2010 Cultural Economy Report shows that the cultural sector is the second-largest employment sector in the city, and that it is responsible for 28,000 jobs, or 12.5 percent of New Orleans’ workforce. His approach hasn’t been an unqualified success as he acknowledges, but it has been overwhelmingly effective in establishing the city as Hollywood South, and he’s clearly optimistic that it can work for other cultural endeavors as well.


What do we take away from the culture economy report?

First of all, that culture absolutely means business. From an objective measurement, it’s a huge piece of the economy of the city of New Orleans and is something that should be treated like a business from a policy perspective. We started this initiative when I was Lieutenant Governor and we had statewide numbers. Now we have the numbers that are specific to New Orleans, and it’s broken down in a way so the individuals working in each sector know that they are part of a much larger picture.

The idea here is to identify what is, and then to design a strategy to continue to grow each one of these sectors. We broke it down into non-tourism cultural jobs, non-cultural tourism jobs, and then we showed people where the intersection was. We’re hoping that each of the folks that fall into these categories will be aware of the other partners and shareholders that they have so that we can grow it purposefully. We’re going to do that through good tax policy, good zoning, and treat it just like how we would grow maritime or how we would grow IT. I think it’s a great first step and I’m very happy with it.

On top of that, it basically confirms exactly how much money is generated by all of these cultural not-for-profits, and the percentage of the economy that it is. When they come to the table, for the policymakers, they actually come with the position of strength in numbers. Look at it. It’s 12,361 jobs in cultural jobs that are non-tourism related, 20,218 jobs that are in non-cultural tourism industry and then 16,000 jobs that fall in the middle. That is a bucketload of economic development for the people in this city. It basically proves what people have been saying—that almost by accident, we have created this industry that is probably bigger than in most other cities in America, and it is something that we ought to pay a lot of attention to.

Does the model of using tax policy work as well for the music sector as it does for the film and television industry?

Let’s answer that two ways. First of all, right now it does not because I think that the numbers reflect that we’ve put a tremendous amount of emphasis on film. One of the things that we’ve never done particularly well—that we’ve all scratched our heads at—is how you treat music like a business in its narrowest sense, so that we become more like Nashville. Everybody’s perplexed. How did Nashville get to be the music capitol of country music? Why does Austin claim to be the music capitol of the world when we know that the authentic production of music is in New Orleans? We’ve gotten the front of the house side of it right, but we really haven’t got the back of the house side of it right. We need to spend more time (on that) because now we know it’s possible. Now we know that if you concentrate on publishing, if you concentrate on production and if you concentrate on writing, then you can get there. But the problem is that most musicians have never seen themselves as business people or industry-providers. They’re just players of music. What happened in those other areas is that the business people got there first and then brought the musicians. What we have to do is train people in the industry of music. We haven’t done that well. We’ve done the artist side better than anybody else. But that’s why people have taken our raw talent and exported it some place else, rather than us having the raw talent here, adding the value to it here, and I think we can absolutely do it. I think we’ve proved that with the film tax credits. But we haven’t yet as a community agreed to get that done and actually done it really well.

Do you have thoughts about how we can make this work better for the working musician who is bringing home around $17,000 a year?

Yes. That’s one of the reasons why Scott Hutcheson (Advisor on Cultural Economy) is here. One of his jobs is to figure out how to do that and how to create the industry of music in the city of New Orleans. Scott has spent a lot of time on this, I know you have, I know Jan [Ramsey] has—a lot of folks. But it’s fair to say that we haven’t gotten there yet, right?

Some of the way the business works is that people have to travel. New Orleans is not Chicago and it’s not New York and it’s not Los Angeles, so the major houses are not here. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep adding value to it and find a way for folks to make a better living. We tried to create products where they could participate, so you’ve got Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, and Essence Festival. You’ve got a bunch of different opportunities, but we’re not anywhere close to where we could be.

The study shows that festivals increase the number of gigs per day by 34 percent, and that they attracted approximately 3.2 million people in 2010. With that in mind, does the city have a role to play in helping festivals? Perhaps in helping to pay musicians who play the French Quarter Festival?

You asked two questions: What is the city’s role in helping festivals get off the ground and work? Well, first of all, none of the festivals could operate without the city being involved in them because they are using city space and city streets. A huge amount of day-to-day coordination, even though they aren’t city-sponsored events, is actually run by the city. For example, for French Quarter Fest, just the logistics for the police department, fire department, city services, and sanitation are huge. People don’t count that for some reason, but it is a huge investment from the city’s perspective.

When you get into the idea of should the city be in the business of sponsoring and/or producing, you get into a kind of difficult territory because there’s not enough money in the city to subsidize music festivals. One of the things we tried to do with the cultural economy initiative is make cultural products—Satchmo SummerFest, French Quarter Fest, Tomato Festival—understand that they really need to be a business and have to have a business model that could sustain themselves. That business model could take on a couple of different forms: a closed gate where you charge for tickets and have sponsorships, or an open gate where you just have sponsorships. But it would be unrealistic to expect that at any point and time that the city would become the major producer of festivals.

Before we got good at movies, the state tried to be the producer of movies. People would come to the Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism and say, “Please give me money so I can film a movie about—pick the subject as it relates to authentic Louisiana culture—and they did that. So Glen Pitre did a little piece and a couple other people did, but there’s not enough money. What we decided to do is let the private market do it, but we create the incentive and we didn’t care what they produced as long as what they produced created a job. That was the private sector/public sector model that worked. We think that makes a lot more sense than the city becoming the producer of a festival.

One of the ways that the city can help the French Quarter Fest grow, for example, is to ask them to think about expanding the footprint of that festival. If we close the quarter down to traffic, that festival can grow at least twice the size that it is right now with the city’s involvement from a facilities point of view. That’s a better way for us to do that because we can use city services to give them the footprint, and then they can actually fill it in with whatever model they think works. We’ll continue to do that. Same thing with Jazz Fest. We think that’s a smarter way to leverage city assets than just handing over cold cash. Having said that, there are some instances where the city will sponsor certain events. When the BP money came in and it was important to communicate to the world that seafood was alive and well, we made some direct sponsorship investments in those festivals to trumpet that particular message. We can do that, but we never want to be in the position of being the first place people come.

The study estimates that the economic impact of New Orleans’ festivals to be more than $600 million. Does that mean we should look to create more festivals, or will we reach a point of diminishing returns?

I don’t think we know the answer to that yet because we haven’t maxed out. But let’s ask the direct question: If we keep pushing the French Quarter Fest so it grows twice as much, is it going to hurt the Jazz Festival? That’s a legitimate question because they are in close proximity to each other. We haven’t seen that, and the long-term experience in the other sectors of the economy would reflect that that’s not going to happen. Let me give you an example. In the drugstore business, everywhere there is a Walgreens, there is a CVS. They’re not doing that so they can compete for a limited amount of people and steal each other’s business. They’re doing that because they know that once a corner becomes a place for a thing to happen, more people actually come there.

I think that you’re going to find that at some point and time it’s possible—I guess if you had a festival every day—then people would stop coming, but I don’t think we’ve gotten close to how big the Jazz Fest could be or the French Quarter Fest. What’s interesting is that they are two completely different models, and I don’t think one is going to rob the other one. I think we need to add more product, not less.

Have you talked to any businesspeople about this year’s experience? A few business owners that I’ve talked to said their business was down from what they’re used to this year during Jazz Fest, and that there was concern that the audience might be being split by the two festivals.

We haven’t heard that, even anecdotally. What I heard was the opposite. Now, I did hear was that businesses that were busy during the French Quarter Fest were not the same ones that were busy during the Jazz Fest. It appears as though they serve different markets. For example, the po-boy shop on Magazine and First (Magazine Street Po-Boy Shop), they were really busy during Jazz Fest but not so much French Quarter Fest. I don’t know why. That’s a peculiar thing. Maybe it’s a different demographic, a different group, I don’t know. A lot of local businesses during the French Quarter Fest say they didn’t do so well (during the festival) because a lot of business went to the French Quarter. It was a free ticket, so they spent their money eating in the Quarter. Jazz Fest is the exact opposite. So if you call up La Petite Grocery on Magazine Street and ask when he did better business, it’s usually one or the other and not both. It’s kind of good because a good part of the city eats during French Quarter Fest and the other eats during Jazz Fest.

I did hear people talk about how great the at-night functions were after Jazz Fest. The clubs really seemed to be getting a hold of it, and it’s starting to feel a lot more like SXSW now than it did in the past, which means that we’ve got a lot of room to grow especially if you think of the entire city as the stage. If you think about the French Quarter as the stage for French Quarter Fest, with a stage on every corner instead of just linearly along Decatur and the river, if we would shut it off to pedestrian traffic and then drive a clear picture between the river and Armstrong Park, what that could actually look like for a weekend or two. That would be a pretty spectacular event.

The city has a much bigger role to play in that. Now think about the opposite. The opposite would be the city saying, “Look, it’s just too inconvenient for people who live in the French Quarter to do the French Quarter Fest so from a zoning perspective we’re not letting you have it.” We’re doing the exact opposite. We’re saying, “Yeah, let’s try to find a way to coordinate all this stuff.”

You mention zoning. That leads to another question. Where do we stand with the effort to find some sort of accommodation for street musicians in the French Quarter?

Can I let Scott answer that for you? He’s been point on that and the sound ordinance with Kristin Palmer’s office.

Scott Hutcheson: To kind of do this in the right order, we have to deal with the noise issues first. Jan was a part of that working group we put together. The ordinances have been scrubbed, which means it has been looked at for redundancies, contradictions, and for things that are blatantly unconstitutional. It’s in Councilwoman Palmer’s office now. It’s been reviewed by the NOPD, the mayor’s office, and it’s in their court right now to move forward with offering public comment and renewed legislation. I think that a lot of the issues that are zoning issues are really noise-based issues. I think we’re going to tackle the first piece of that when that ordinance is revised. It’s going to be a very positive piece.

Historically, many of the city’s signature live music venues are in places that aren’t zoned for live music. In recent years, clubs have tried to put on live music but have been forced to stop because of zoning violations. Speaking philosophically, what do we do when the study says cultural products are economically good for the city, but the neighbors object to the music?

It’s a very good question. The fundamental question is, do you have to have complete anarchy on the streets of the city in order for an indigenous art form to manifest itself on the streets? Or, can you grow an authentic culture through managed chaos? This is the underlying question about Super Sunday or Mardi Gras Indians. Are the police watching over the Indians or are they protecting them? There are some basic lessons in civility or protections that always have to be taken when people are marching down streets. If there’s nobody stopping folks from driving through the parade, somebody is going to get hurt. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have the parade. It means that there has to be some organizational structure to that.

The same thing is really true about how you grow an indigenous culture. Because there are so many competing interests, zoning is designed, by the definition of the word, to allow certain uses in certain neighborhoods at certain times. Basically, what’s happened in New Orleans is anything goes and no rules apply, and then when they are enforced, they are enforced in an unequal and an unfair way. What we are trying to do is bring some organization to what it is that we want to accomplish. I do think that you can do both at the same time, although it takes a little bit of work.

For example, in the last couple of years, there has always been a rift between the NOPD and the Mardi Gras Indians when they want to do second lines because nobody knew where anybody was going, and the cops didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand the police officers. This year it went off perfectly well, and the reason it went off well is because it was planned. Now it may not have looked planned while it was marching down the street because it looked as free and as open, but the Mardi Gras krewes and the Indian krewes and the police said, “You know, it worked just like it was designed.” There was a kind of broad protection and whatever happened within that protection was free. It was freedom of expression and freedom of music and it worked really well. And I think you can do that with culture too, but you’ve got to design it in a way.

Music and culture are just like any other use. They can’t not be part of a much larger organizational structure of how our city works with itself. In the French Quarter right now with the noise ordinances, the challenge you have is that some of the quarter is residential; some is commercial. Some is live music; some of it is not. They have to work out that consensus and once they do, then everybody’s got to follow the rules. Eventually, you get to a place where everyone can live in peace and harmony. People play where they’re supposed to play, and people sleep when they’re supposed to sleep. That’s the way it is supposed to work, but that takes effort, it takes strategy and it takes implementation.

I look forward to that day.

I didn’t say it was easy chaos to manage [laughs].