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.