Touched by Treme

Tom McDermott on HBO Treme. Photo by Paul Schiraldi.

Tom McDermott on Treme. Photo by Paul Schiraldi courtesy of HBO.

“I now have all the Facebook friends I’ll ever need.” Tom McDermott appeared in episode three of the television show Treme, starting a rift between Lucia Micarelli’s violin-playing Annie and Michiel Huisman’s Sonny when he asked her to accompany him on a gig. The appearance gave him the sort of exposure only television can give, but many of the results are intangible or of uncertain value, such as Facebook friends. He’s not aware of getting any gigs as a result of Treme, nor has he seen any change in his record sales. Still, time on the show has been valuable. “One day of filming covers my monthly house note,” McDermott says. “Having an original placed in the show (assuming I own all rights) pays my note for the whole year.”

Discussions of money may seem crass, but in this city and this economy, money matters. Sweet Home New Orleans’ study of musicians’ income showed the average musicians’ income to be approximately $15,000 a year; admittedly, the number represents only a portion of New Orleans’ musical population, but the bigger picture is accurate enough—there’s no surfeit of money washing around the Crescent City, so when it comes as it has with the production of Treme, it merits attention not only for its dollar value but because of what it buys—security in McDermott’s case.

Davis Rogan is a consultant, writer and performer on the show. Treme money has allowed him to make the album he wanted to make. Like many New Orleans artists, he’s used to recording on the cheap, cutting corners and settling for performances that are good enough. “For the past two records, I’ve had $5,000 and two weeks to go from start to it’s in the can and being shipped for 1,000 units,” Rogan says. “You’d do two takes and, ‘Well, we’re out of money; gotta go.’” He recently completed his new album, The Real Davis, and “this is a whole other plateau, where I had time to fool around and get things right,” he says. “Change the tempo of a song. Switch drummers. Explore in a way I hadn’t before.”

John Boutte is also one of the more obvious Treme success stories. His “Treme Song” was chosen as the show’s theme song, which means he gets royalties for each airing and “a generous signing bonus,” he says, one that goes up yearly. Still, he rides his bike around the French Quarter and the Treme, and has an old car that he only drives when he has to. He still rents his house and rarely buys new clothes. “I’m 5’2”,” he says. “It’s not like I can buy things off the shelf.”

“Money is what it does,” he says. “Maybe I can get a better bottle of wine, some lights for my bike so I don’t get hit, a better cut of meat at the store. Or I can cancel this gig to play a benefit.” After Katrina, his mother moved to the Northshore; she’s on a fixed income, but Treme money made it possible for him to move her home, where he pays her bills. Boutte has been “touched by Treme,” according to the show’s music supervisor, Blake Leyh. It’s a phrase attributed to Alex McMurray (who acknowledges his role in popularizing the phrase, though he gives Henry Griffin credit for the “touched by” riff) that describes the phenomenon of a musician suddenly coming into money as a result of the show. There are stories of musicians buying new countertops with Treme money, while others bought cars.

But Boutte got more than just money. The success of “Treme Song” has been good for his ego, “validating,” his friend Paul Sanchez says. Boutte recently heard the Roots of Music marching band perform the song, and “it freaks me out to see a two-year-old girl singing the ‘Treme Song’ on YouTube.”

But the biggest benefit is freedom. “I could be working every night of the week,” he says. “I’m in better voice now because I’m not working as much. I don’t have to sing three, four times a week, three or four days in a row. The show’s given me the opportunity to not have to say yes to any gig that popped up. Treme gave me a big ol’ stack of ‘Hmmmmm, I Don’t Think So’ cards.”

Paul Sanchez appeared in episode four, and for him, the value of money is what it says. “Money is real respect in the same way that getting heard is,” he says. “It’s not like you can retire, but you get to call yourself a professional.” In a city where playing for the tip jar remains sadly common, simple signs of respect and fundamental acknowledgements carry a lot of weight. Blake Leyh believes that the show has earned not just credibility but affection from the music community because it takes them seriously. “I feel that there’s been a genuine heartfelt response to the content of the show and the idea that someone finally got New Orleans right,” Leyh says. “I’ve spoken to other musicians in other places who really love that the show takes the time to talk about music and the lives of musicians.”

Like Tom McDermott, Wilson Savoy of the Pine Leaf Boys hasn’t seen a spike in CD sales since the band’s appearance on the show but, he points out, “A Cajun band doesn’t sell a lot of albums.” Still, the Pine Leaf Boys’ time on the show paid off in other ways. “We spent so much time and effort recording those records and until Treme, we didn’t get much back from it,” Savoy says, and just as New Orleanians are aware of the momentousness of seeing their music community accurately depicted, Savoy understands the importance of the Pine Leaf Boys’ appearance. “A Cajun band typically would never have a chance to go on HBO,” he says. “This has been a great window for Cajun musicians.”

The Pine Leaf Boys were also beneficiaries of the show’s desire to do one music video per show with an artist from each episode. In terms of business, the series was a mixed success—musically and visually exciting videos that commercially underperformed (they’re still on sale at the iTunes Store; search for “Treme Musical Performances”) due to a lack of promotion. But the Pine Leaf Boys are featured in one, joined onstage at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival by Lucia Micarelli. This makes them one of the few Cajun bands with a professionally shot video. “It’s something to send when you’re trying to get booked at a festival,” Savoy says, and he’s found that being associated with the show has garnered the band as much if not more credibility than three Grammy nominations.

Treme helped Davis Rogan find an audience. “After the storm, I played Frank’s Cocktail Lounge in Ft. Greene (in New York) to a dozen, two dozen people,” he says. “Last summer, they billed me as ‘The Real Davis from HBO’s Treme’ and I thought that was cheesy until I walked into Sullivan Hall and 200 people had paid. To have ‘the real Davis from Treme’ means I can pack Three Muses-sized clubs and people will come up and want to talk about the show, or they heard about me from the show. It’s a way to expose yourself to a whole other audience.”

His acceptance by the production has given him the ability to get press quotes from such buzzworthy names as David Simon, Jonathan Lethem and Sarah Silverman (“Davis Rogan is an idiot savant, I think they call them savants now. I’m a big fan,” she wrote), and it got labels to consider (and eventually reject) The Real Davis that never would have considered it before. But he’s satisfied that his association with Treme has helped him get a reputable manager and booking agent. As for the label: “Three million people watch the show,” he says. “One percent of three million is 30,000. If you own a hundred percent of your record and you sell 30,000 every time you put one out, you can have a comfortable, middle-class existence and not be beholden to corporate interests. That’s all any artist can ask for.”

Paul Sanchez had a Sullivan Hall-like experience last summer while on tour with Washboard Chaz, Matt Perrine and Alex McMurray, all of whom had appeared on the show with the exception of McMurray. “We walked into a packed nightclub and wondered who they were there to see,” Sanchez says, laughing. Throughout the tour, they had more press and larger audiences than they’d received in previous trips, and much of it had to do with Treme. “I hope people who aren’t on the show realize how much this enhances their chances to get press, to get gigs in other towns. Instead of New Orleans meaning ‘Dixieland,’ the show’s got funk bands, brass bands, gypsy jazz bands in the streets. Instead of New Orleans being an old postcard or an old film that someone remembers, they’ve got, ‘Oh, I saw this on Treme. Did you ever play this bar?’ They know the names of the bars.”

While most musicians who have appeared in person or in music on Treme say the appearance hasn’t sold CDs, Basin Street Records’ Mark Samuels says Kermit Ruffins’ sales are up due to the show. “There is an immediate effect when an episode airs and the HBO.com playlist points people to the songs in the episode,” Samuels says, and perhaps Ruffins’ success has to do with having machinery in place to make the most of the exposure. “There is also a secondary effect when more people show up at Kermit’s shows and further increase his exposure. We have leveraged his appearances on the show with blog entries and Facebook posts to further increase sales.” Samuels hired the national publicity firm Girlie Action to work Basin Street artists, and the publicists have the credibility that David Simon projects carry to help them further push the artists, including Ruffins.

Like sales, some phenomena are subject to debate. Since the debut of the show, attendance at Ruffins’ Thursday night shows at Vaughan’s and John Boutte’s Saturday night d.b.a. shows has grown to the point of being unmanageable. Boutte sees that as part of a growing Treme tourism, but aside from anecdotes and unfamiliar faces in places such as Bullet’s and the Apple Barrel, it’s hard to be sure that’s happening.

It similarly looks like business on Frenchmen Street is doing better than ever, but d.b.a.’s Tom Thayer says his boom started in 2007 or 2008, and while business grew last year, it grew more slowly than it had in previous years.

Those who want to be touched by Treme have become more business-conscious. One artist cut an album hoping to have a song licensed from it by the show. Others now have incentive to get their publishing in order, which represents a consciousness shift in a city that has treated albums like souvenirs to sell off the bandstand. This isn’t, however, a result that accompanies all television productions. It’s more likely that a show will use library music that it can get cheaply instead of find existing songs or commission new music by area musicians to accompany a scene. But, as Leyh says, “It’s not what they’re thinking about.” Treme is consciously trying to spread some money around. “How can we get some real people paid?” Leyh asks, but he tries not to think too much about what the money means to artists to avoid unnecessary pressure. One band told him that placing a song in the show made it possible for them to make another album.

“Once people saw the show, that changed a lot of people’s attitudes about what we were doing,” Leyh says. “The level of justified mistrust and paranoia that was there in the beginning was proportional to the amount of love and respect that we got after we crossed that bridge.” At the same time, Leyh hopes that good experiences with Treme don’t cause musicians to let down their business guard. “I hate to think we might lull people into a false sense of trust,” he says. “Those people in Hollywood are motherfuckers.”

  • TPerlic

    Good read…I think there is a untapped market out there that Treme/Threadheads/JFest folks can tap into, as Davis so accurately points out, it’s really a numbers game.

    I was one of the Threadheads that booked Paul and Tin Men last summer for a gig (I’m hopin’ he was talkin’ about my club, The Trolley Stop, when he made that comment!) Treme was only one of the reasons that we wanted to book Paul and the guys…but we certainly used the Treme “hook” to sell the show. We did what “Treme” talks about, we created a wonderful, genuine, New Orleans “moment” at our little club in Dayton, something that we’ll hopefully recreate in a number of midwest venues as time goes on.

    I’m hoping to start an effort that can create “mini-tours” for NOLA folks that will expose their great music to a much wider audience that may have never heard these great musicians before…I’ll be focused in the midwest for now, and planning on working w/Offbeat, Threadhead “nation,” and any other NOLA entity that can help build an audience outside of NOLA for these great artists of all music types. Communication is key, I’ll be @ JFest (May 2 – 8) and hopefully forwarding my plan while also collecting more NOLA moments for my wife and I!