For years, New Orleans has tried to establish itself as a major music center. “We’ve got the talent here… why don’t we have the business side?” is the refrain we’ve heard time and again from musicians and music business outsiders.
Granted, music business acumen has improved in the years since OffBeat was founded in 1988. We have a city government that’s at least given lip service to developing the music industry with the establishment of a Music & Entertainment Commission. We have a new distribution company that’s specializing in Louisiana artists (Big Easy Distribution). We’ve had more educational seminars for local musicians and business people interested in the music industry.
And now there’s The Music Business Institute’s Cutting Edge Conference.
Conceptualized by the city’s Music & Entertainment Commission and a gorup of local music biz professionals, The Music Business Institute was originally conceived as a series of free workshops geared to helping musicians learn more about all aspects of the business of music. Good idea — but, in our opinion, this effort should be presented on an ongoing basis by an established local educational institution — perhaps Delgado Community College — that could offer these much-needed courses at an affordable cost to the general public.
The South by Southwest (SXSW) Music & Media Conference, held in Austin each spring, is now in its eighth year, and is generally considered to be a model of success for music biz trade shows/conferences. Perhaps with the success of SXSW in mind, Eric Cager, the former executive director of the city’s Music & Entertainment Commission, privately incorporated the Music Business Institute as a non-profit entity and established The Cutting Edge Conference as New Orleans’ version of SXSW.
The conference debuted in 1993, when Cager still worked for the city’s Music Commission. Unfortunately, it drew a very small audience — not unusual in the first year of a music trade show and conference.
We expected bigger and better things this year, especially since The Music Business Institute was aided by a five-figure grant from the city’s Economic Development Trust Fund and monies from local corporate sponsors. The three local publications that do the most music coverage — OffBeat, The Times-Picayune and Gambit — all gave the conference, held Oct. 13-16, advance press, as did the broadcast media.
But once again, attendance was disappointing. There was nowhere near the 800 registrants sponsors were told had signed up (or did that include the 300 bands who showcased at night?). No one seems to know the exact number of registrants at the conference — calls to the Cutting Edge requesting information on paid registrants went unreturned.
The Cutting Edge Pop Festival, held on the afternoons of Oct. 15-16 at Lafayette Park in downtown New orleans, was populated primarily by Cutting Edge crew, band roadies and street people. And many of the multi-band showcases at clubs on the nights of the conference were sparsely attended as well.
A random sampling of attendees turned up more complaints than compliments. Bands that shouldered the expense of coming to town in the hopes of mingling with — and shocasing for — record company execs who were in short supply were especially disappointed.
Based on our observations, we could not recommend that individuals fork over the entrance fee (walk-up registration was $150 this year) or that out-of-town bands pay to come in for future Cutting Edge conferences unless some drastic changes are made.
To that end, the purpose of this editorial is to provide constructive criticism, because we believe that any project designed to uplift and educate New Orleans’ music community is good. Here are some suggestions — based on our observations and interviews with attendees and sponsors — for next year’s conference:
- The nighttime showcases were too spread out (even with a shuttle service) and in venues not known for presenting music. Scale down the showcases to one or two clubs in venues with reputations as live music clubs. And these venues should be in relatively close proximity to one another to create a “scene” attractive to locals and people visiting for the conference.
- Less venues would mean less showcasing bands-another good idea. There were too many bands this year, many not of showcase caliber. Carefully screen bands who send in tapes for consideration and only pick the top bands (not just any that can afford the $15 processing fee).
- The showcases were all but deserted, mainly because unknown bands, as good as they may be, don’t attract either people visiting New Orleans or locals. Include well-known bands and some acts already signed to major labels to give the showcase line-up some pizzazz and drawing power.
- Downsize the Pop Festival to one stage. With three stages, sound bleeding between stages was bad. Also, numerous, scheduled bands didn’t show up. Include some bands with drawing power.
- This year the Pop Festival had to compete against the Habitat for Humanity Fest in City Park and Jeff Fest. Schedule the Pop Festival (and perhaps the whole conference) on a less-busy weekend.
- Use conference speakers primarily from outside New Orleans, preferably from the. nation’s recognized music centers (New York, Los Angeles, Nashville), who can provide an up-to-the-minute perspective and a global view of the music industry. Ninety-nine percent of what happens in the music business happens in these three cities, and that’s going to continue until we obtain not only first-class knowledge, but the contacts players in these cities already have. Besides, big-time speakers draw bigger audiences, and can create a “critical mass” of star speakers who will attract other star speakers.
- Spend more money on getting A&R people, the talent scouts of the music industry, to the conference and showcases. To our knowledge, there were very few, if any, A&R people in town for the conference. One Austin-based major-label A&R rep told us she called the Cutting Edge office on two different occasions to get a list of the bands who were showcasing. She didn’t get the list (until we faxed it to her) and ended up not attending.
- The Cutting Edge trade show only contained a handful of booths-and several of these remained empty throughout the conference when exhibitors didn’t show up. Forget the trade show until the conference and showcases are better organized.
- Work more on substance (top-notch speakers, better bands) than on hype. Focus more on specific topics in conference sessions. The conference information and concept was too broad and covered too thinly.
Let us emphasize that we want to see the Cutting Edge succeed. We’ll all be better off if it does.