If We Knew What We Were Doing …

Friday, Lt.-Governor (for now) Mitch Landrieu held a cultural economy roundtable on the grounds at Jazz Fest, with Irma Thomas, Terrance Simien, Dr. Michael White and OffBeat‘s Jan Ramsey among the participants. Landrieu has been doing these since 2007 (I think), with the intent of trying to develop the business infrastructure to capitalize on New Orleans’ cultural output. He has been trying to address the conundrum that New Orleans musicians have faced for years: how can we be so good and so poor? How and when do we get paid?

When Terence Blanchard spoke as part of the panel, he highlighted – intentionally or not – the crux of the problem. “We grow up in this before we realize what we’re involved in,” he said. His thought echoed one that David Simon expressed in an interview about Treme. For him, the show’s about the power of culture, and how it fueled New Orleans’ recovery, and it wasn’t a governmental or organized effort to preserve culture. “The people who understood culture as a way of life in New Orleans couldn’t imagine life anywhere else,” he said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “It’s Sunday, and the Money Wasters are supposed to have their parade. It’s Monday, and it’s red beans and rice.”

The point both make is that for many people playing it, music starts first as cultural practice – a way of life – not as a commercial good. That suggests there’s an honesty in the music, which is perhaps what people respond to, but it also means that to try and sell it means trying to sell a piece of your life and culture, and that’s something I’d think would be hard to do without feeling somehow unclean. Or, without having others in your community accuse you of doing something unclean.

This way of thinking suggests that New Orleans music – including second line culture – is akin to folk art. It’s an imperfect comparison, but the awkward relationship between the folk artist and the marketplace mirrors that of the New Orleans musician with the marketplace. Many recordings are poor because they’re either cynically made – as souvenirs to sell to tourists off the bandstand – or because the artists are detached from the CD marketplace, with their primary relationship to the marketplace being a live one, and they’re aware of other musicians from performing with them or hearing them live, not from CDs.

All of that suggests that the challenge of capitalizing on New Orleans’ cultural output is substantial because the impediments are things that won’t be affected by tax credits and grants. That doesn’t mean that Landrieu’s efforts to develop the cultural economy aren’t valuable and effective, but at a core level, change will only come when culture changes – though that would change its product.

  • belyin

    New Orleans' culture seems pretty well commodified to me–just look at Shell Oil's Jazz Fest, or Treme for that matter. The beauty of the commodity (for the the Capitalist class, which now includes all us middle-class flunkies as well, to some degree or other) is that it obscures the labor (and the lives, the history, the emotions) of it's primary producers and strips off all value other than exchange value.

    Labor that produces the commodity can only leverage their labor in terms of the capital investment required to produce it. Miners and steelworkers and autoworkers (and movie techs) were able, through labor struggle and strife, to extract relatively high wages because of the huge capital expense required to extract or produce these respective commodities relative to their wages. The capital cost of a steel mill shutting down do to a strike is so great, it was worth it to pay steel workers a living wage. The production of music has become so cheap it has driven down the wage its producers can extract. Of course the rhetoric that we hear all the time is that these lower costs has broken down barriers and expanded opportunity, but where is the evidence? Fewer and fewer musicians making more and more money is just like the Wall Street model. And the cultural climate in this country has rarely been worse.

    If any government were serious (and don't believe for a minute that they ever could be) about improving the cultural climate and economic climate surrounding cultural production, they would focus their efforts on improving the economic conditions of the populations that creates and supports that culture (i.e., poor black folks, for the most part) through finding ways to raise wages and lower housing costs, instead of their usual practice of suppressing wages (Right to Work (for a starvation wage) laws) and inflating housing costs (tearing down public housing, etc.) Culture is how a population group communicates to itself and defines itself as much as how it communicates and defines itself to the larger world. The mainstream culture seems to want the culture of New Orleans (in a safe commodity form of course) but it doesn't want the population attached to that culture.