Thirty years ago, when OffBeat was born, there was very little coverage of music in New Orleans. This is hard to believe, in a city where Jazz was born and music has been a part of the city’s culture for 300 years.
The local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, didn’t have a full-time music writer. Gambit had a column written by now-OffBeat writer Geraldine Wyckoff. There was Wavelength, a monthly music pub and the predecessor to OffBeat (Wavelength folded in 1991—it’s hard to sustain a music magazine, and getting harder, believe me).
Bourbon Street was transitioning from a music street (with cover charges at the clubs) with the added attraction of adult entertainment, to a party street where music was free. The old timers (think Al Hirt and Pete Fountain, and the burlesque houses) sold their clubs to owners who were more interested in making beer and liquor sales than presenting good local entertainment.
Bourbon bars featuring music eventually opened their doors and quit charging covers. Their strategy was to keep their doors open to blast loud music outside to see who could attract the most liquor- and beer-consuming patrons. They all tried to outdo each other (and still do) to see who could make the loudest noise and thus attract more partiers (because the music didn’t matter). Tourism people marketed Bourbon as the greatest free party on earth: Bourbon was no longer about music and legitimate entertainment, it was (and currently is) more about the street scene. Tunes emanating from bars is more about how loud it is (sell more beer!), not about the quality of music. And what resulted was that local people came to Bourbon less and less. It just wasn’t the same.
Uptown was the location of Tipitina’s, the Maple Leaf, Jimmy’s Club, Jed’s (which became Muddy Waters), Carrollton Station. All of these had regular bands. All had cover charges. This was the major music scene when OffBeat came into being.
Frenchmen Street was the home of Snug Harbor and the Dream Palace, and a little later added Café Brasil. Frenchmen was the place for local music aficionados to hear great bands. Unless they were tipped off by a local music lover, visitors had no idea where Frenchmen Street was (or the clubs uptown, for that matter). Tip’s was the first uptown club to realize that visitors were a good source of revenue, and they began to market their music to hotels. Ultimately, so did the other uptown music venues, and it paid off. OffBeat has always been distributed at local hotels, and it promoted local music—not the street party—to visitors.
Back then, the Jazz Fest was still mostly a local festival. French Quarter Festival started as a tiny festival in 1984 to attempt to get locals to “come back” to the Quarter. Voodoo Fest didn’t exist, nor Buku, nor Wednesday at the Square, or Jazzin’ in the Park, nor any of the music venues on Frenchmen or St. Claude. WWOZ was a struggling small—yet beloved—station in constant turmoil, with no money and major internal political problems.
I’m not tooting my own horn when I claim that OffBeat helped to increase the attraction of New Orleans’ music to music lovers both inside and outside New Orleans. And when WWOZ needed help in the early 1990s we were there to help. OffBeat helped to create Frenchmen Street as a music destination. That is a fact. But at the same time, we tried to make sure that the musicians were appreciated in their own hometown; we supported (and still support) music, bands, music clubs, festivals, events, and the behind-the-scenes music industry people who keep our live music around.
So it’s ironic that while music has become much more of an attraction (helped by OffBeat and WWOZ) that musicians are probably worse off than they were 30 years ago. Many Bourbon Street music venues and the majority of Frenchmen Street clubs (not all) are no longer meccas for great music because the people who own the music bars just don’t care especially about the musicians. We all know that that Bourbon is a party street. Locals don’t go there. Anyone who’s involved in music-making now knows that Frenchmen Street—while it has a great variety of music and no strip clubs—doesn’t really support musicians or the culture of music anymore. It’s not about a real appreciation of music and musicians (with the exception of some places on both streets). It’s about the party. And locals have, for the most part, stopped going to Frenchmen Street. Too “touristy,” they say.
There’s no need to me to ask Bourbon Street bars where their clientele comes from. But I’d certainly ask the majority of Frenchmen Street venues where their patrons come from. Ten or 15 years ago, you’d know the people patronizing Frenchmen bars were music lovers where they knew they could find great music. But the cat’s been let out of the bag, probably mostly through social media, which doesn’t seem to have a lot of depth vis a vis music. It’s not about the music anymore, it is about the party. It is about getting wasted. Music is the background noise.
Frenchmen Street now even smells like Bourbon Street (stale beer, dirt, grease). There are yahoos screaming and hanging from balconies at AirBnB apartments on Frenchmen who are throwing beads to people on the street. WTF? Frenchmen has become Subourbon. And it’s such a pity.
My office has been on the corner of Frenchmen and Decatur for about 20 years, and I can tell you that the club across the street has a band that’s playing a cover of “Superstition” so loudly (doors wide open, of course) that I can barely think. That would never have happened in the times Frenchmen was “the music street” it used to be.
But what can be done? Where is the next “music street”? How long will it take before it, too, gets discovered and corrupted to the point where it’s more about the party than it is about the musical culture?
My god, I surely hope OffBeat hasn’t been instrumental in creating a Frankenstein monster that devours the culture. It looks like it’s heading that way…