Who Needs Music Media?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of having a long chat with one of OffBeat’s contributors, Michael Patrick Welch. He’s written for OffBeat for years, and both of us were discussing the changes in the music scene in New Orleans over the years.

One thing that we talked about is the origins of OffBeat, and how we’ve been faithfully documenting New Orleans music for 30+ years.

When we opened our doors, the Times-Picayune did not have a full-time music writer. Scott Aiges was the TP’s first full-time music writer, and he went to work in the early 1990s, worked for the paper for about five years, and then left, when he was replaced by Keith Spera (OffBeat’s original full-time editor). It’s hard to believe that in a city like New Orleans, the local daily paper didn’t even have a music writer.

Now the Times-Picayune doesn’t even have a full-time music writer. Spera was told by the TP that he’d have to cover a wider range of topics (music is now the part-time beat of Doug MacCash, another OffBeat alum, at the TP/NOLA.com).  The New Orleans Advocate hired him as their music writer a few years ago.

Gambit’s music writer was Geraldine Wyckoff, who contributes regularly to OffBeat. She was let go and Gambit hired Scott Jordan (another OffBeat alum) as their music writer. When Jordan left Gambit to pursue an editorship at the Independent in Lafayette, the weekly tapped Alex Rawls (who had written a book review and rock column for OffBeat for several years prior to Hurricane Katrina; we hired him post-Katrina to be OffBeat’s editor when Gambit declined to rehire Rawls after the storm).

So local publications (without developing their musical expertise) have more often than not taken advantage of OffBeat’s expertise by appropriating our music-savvy writers. How ironic is it that Gambit no longer has a designated music writer (we assume they’ll tap Spera, since both the Advocate and Gambit are the same company now). Neither does the TP/NOLA.com.

How ironic is it that we created (and supplied) music writers for the rest of the city’s publications over the years, and now the only steady source of print and online music writing falls to OffBeat.

Is music less important than it was 20 years ago in this city? Who even reviews music in New Orleans anymore, except for OffBeat?

I’d say yes. But. Visitors are still enthralled (something we’ve known since the magazine started in 1988; OffBeat has been distributed at local hotels for over 30 years).

Except for OffBeat and OffBeat.com, other local print and online media—which has a lot to do with creating and maintaining interest in local music and musicians—no longer supports the music scene in a big way. It’s all a function of social media.

This is a shame, but’s also symptomatic of 1) the loss of many of our elder musicians, 2) the market of young people who comprise local live music support and 3) digital music. I’d venture to say that the internet has stifled interest in local music, and that the music that’s being played on Frenchmen is not emblematic of local music’s deep connection to our roots in black music and in the black community.

Welch said,”When you hear music on Frenchmen, you don’t really see the older, more experienced musicians there anymore [probably because the older players won’t play for tips or a percentage of the bar ring]; for the most part, it’s young white musicians who haven’t quite developed their chops yet. The scene is very different, music-wise, than it was a decade ago.”

So is there even a need for local media to cover the music scene? Will New Orleans still be known for its unique music 20 years from now, or will it be homogenized? Or will the live music scene here be the same as can be experienced in Austin, Seattle, Brooklyn? What do you think?

  • bugzapper

    Tell you this much. The music scene in Seattle will NEVER come close to what New Orleans has. Seattle has pretty much kicked it musical history to the curb, and even grunge is now over 25 years old. (As I was reminded at last week’s Alice in Chains show at the Saenger. Whole lotta thinning hair on those fans!) Seattle hasn’t had a cohesive music scene in decades, and draws very little on its elders. Maybe that’s because so many of them left and never came back. In 1982, a Seattle Times columnist itemized the City’s musical superstars who split town because opportunity was so bleak: His conclusion: If you want to “make it” in music, leave.

    Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Bumps Blackwell, all the way to the Brothers Four, Larry Coryell and Heart. They got out. Even folksingers Jim Page and Jef Jaisun, who succeeded in Europe. Was there a musical press in Seattle at the time? Kinda sorta. But it usually held its breath til the artists became famous elsewhere. Then it was, “Oh, we’re so proud. We knew them when!”

    New Orleans and its musical heritage form an entirely different world. For all practical purposes, it’s the center of the musical universe. You can’t do anything about the elders dying off. That’s just going to happen (and why “blues” festivals are now dominated by line-ups of young, white rockers). But there’s a validity to documenting the music and its artists in print that social media will never approach, and certainly will never consider in-depth. Social media is like sex for fruit flies — it feels good for a few seconds, then you’re off to the next screen and your battery dies three days later. Personally, I can scan multiple pages and/or listings of a magazine in the time I’m waiting for one web site to load. Scanning through Twitter to find what you want? Ack!

    I take my copy of Offbeat with me pretty much everywhere. I read it in coffee shops and on airplanes, and it helps me plan my day/week/month. I can’t and won’t do that on my phone. But I’m old school. I can make it past 280 characters without going all ADD. The next generation’s mileage may vary.