We all want the New Orleans’ music scene to grow and prosper, which means that musicians make enough money to live at least a middle-class (if not better) lifestyle, and that we have a strong music business infrastructure to not only support local musicians but to also be players in the international music world. This is a thoughtful guest editorial by experienced music industry producer, A&R Director, musician, educator and three-time Grammy-winner Scott Billington on the potential for developing the music industry in New Orleans. Billington has also received the OffBeat Best of The Beat Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Music Business.—Jan Ramsey.
In my 35-plus years of working in the New Orleans music business, first as a producer and A&R person for Massachusetts-based Rounder Records, and more recently as a locally-based producer, educator and musician, I’ve seen a number of initiatives for the development of a New Orleans music industry come and go. While the marketing of New Orleans as a music business destination may have been improved in those years, the realization of New Orleans as a Nashville-scale center for the music industry has remained elusive, even as our music remains a diverse cultural resource that few other cities can claim.
It is gratifying, then, to see the creation of the New Orleans Music Economy Initiative by Greater New Orleans, Inc., which, according to Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO., will offer “an action plan, as well as a full economic assessment of the current and potential impact of the music industry in Greater New Orleans.” Perhaps it is finally time to perceive New Orleans music not only as a self-sustaining background for other businesses, but as a business unto itself that has the potential to deliver a far greater benefit to the New Orleans economy.
In a business that often requires no physical footprint, it is certain that many dollars generated by New Orleans music are going to out of state companies—managers, booking agents, record companies, publishers, attorneys, etc.—although it may be argued that all of these businesses are employed by musicians who are looking for the best opportunities. It is also easy to point out musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Harry Connick, Jr. to Jon Batiste, who have moved elsewhere to maximize opportunity. We really don’t have the infrastructure here. Or do we?
In reality, there has always been a steady and persistent music business in New Orleans. Many national and international acts are drawn to New Orleans to rehearse and record. The city now boasts several world-class recording studios (along with many top-rate smaller rooms), several highly qualified music attorneys (some with clients from other parts of the country), many ambitious and creative artist managers, one of the best music industry education programs in the country, and, surprisingly, a new record pressing facility. Many of these businesses are driven by highly motivated entrepreneurs who have learned on the job, or by apprenticing with others.
However, there’s one major factor that is missing, especially when New Orleans is compared to Nashville, because New Orleans is not a hit-making center, and the sound of New Orleans is not generally what anyone would call a mass-market commercial property, in spite of our vibrant live music scene. Look at Nielsen Soundscan figures (which include digital streaming) for many of the city’s most emblematic artists, and you’ll be pressed to find any that have exceeded sales of 25,000 copies. Perhaps the city’s last big hit was Li’l Wayne’s Tha Carter IV, which sold 2.5 million copies in 2011. Nothing on a similar scale has followed.
During the Fats Domino/Little Richard era of the 1950s, and again during Allen Toussaint’s rule in the 1960s and 1970s, New Orleans generated hits. These records were mostly produced for national labels, although the city never had a shortage of creative indie operators. During the 1980s and 1990s, labels such as locally-owned Black Top and NYNO, among others, and my own employer, Rounder, continued to record the best New Orleans talent, both legacy and new artists. The Jazz Fest-driven obsession with New Orleans music and a friendly network of national media and record stores meant that sales were sufficient to pay studios and musicians, and often to make a profit. Now, the record stores and the media are mostly gone (with the notable exception of several excellent local shops and this publication!).
Nashville, on the other hand, remains a hit-generating and song-based culture. Publishing companies sign writers and set up collaborative writing sessions. The songs are pitched to A&R people and artists who get them recorded, employing local musicians, studios and mastering engineers. The record companies generate hits by promoting the music to the substantial number of radio stations that play country music. While the Nashville sound may now be more varied than it once was (with Americana-based artists balancing the pop sound of contemporary country music), the bar for musicians and the overall professionalism of the business there is high. It’s a complete circle, serving a large and steady marketplace.
What, then, does New Orleans need to develop its music economy? Tech-driven distribution companies such as Tunecore and CD Baby have opened the digital marketplace (and the remaining niche physical market) to everyone. The performing rights organizations—BMI, ASCAP and SESAC, all with Nashville offices—collect royalties for traditional radio and other song performances, while international publishing companies such as Kobalt Music administer song rights and collect performance royalties from around the world for very reasonable fees. The government-sponsored Sound Exchange collects royalties from digital radio, and anyone can sign up for free. Could a New Orleans company do one of these jobs better, or could one of the above businesses see the value in opening an office here? I’m not convinced.
I would argue that what we need is a true songwriting culture. That’s exactly what Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint brought to the table in their day—taking the sounds of the culture itself, in its manifestation of the day, and adding the element of universally appealing songs. It’s what Bob Marley did with reggae—taking dancehall music and using it as a foundation for songs that spoke to the world. Songs are the foundation upon which everything else is built. It’s not that we don’t have great songwriters, but that the connection between songs and the other parts of the business is missing. It’s what Nashville, and, to a lesser extent, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York, have. Certainly, the door seems open for pro-active local music publishers who could nurture a songwriting aesthetic and make connections with artists and record companies.
Education is also a critical factor that may be missing. There is no reason that any New Orleans musician should not currently be receiving all due royalties, whether from airplay, streaming, public performance of songs, sync use, and other sources. It’s a matter of knowing how to put these revenue streams in place. Of course, the music has to be something that people want, and the challenge of getting any music heard can be formidable without focused marketing and promotion.
There is also the question of venues in which music is not used simply as an accompaniment for partying (even if the joyous sounds of New Orleans music are often perfect for that). Nashville certainly has its version of Bourbon Street, on Lower Broadway, but it also has its substantial institutions—the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium and The Country Music Hall of Fame. Memphis has the Stax Museum, Sun Studios and myriad destinations for music tourists. The Austin City Limits television show partially led to the branding of that Texas city as “America’s Live Music Capital.” Mississippi welcomes travelers to “The Birthplace of America’s Music,” and has funded the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Many New Orleans nightclubs keep the flame burning, and we now have the New Orleans Jazz Museum (one of the best rooms in the city), but the large scale with which other cities showcase their music is missing. Further, few venues present new talent which may not fit the New Orleans template. Is there a possibility of a performing arts complex that would give our music its due, and pay musicians a fair wage?
There certainly are more questions than answers. Could there be a New Orleans podcast or TV show that would showcase our immense pool of talent? Could we have our own New Orleans music trail, with a map, markers and streaming playlist? Could a new local record company galvanize the scene by bringing writers, musicians, singers, producers, engineers, recording studios and mastering facilities together? Could New Orleans music support additional music supervisors, video directors, graphic artists, photographers, publicists, social media managers, and other professionals? In the era of streaming, can we find new ways to steer people toward our music?
In many ways, though, a provincial attitude may be wrong, because a real New Orleans music industry would serve artists, songwriters and other music creators from around the world, as, to some extent, it already does. And, in an era when physical location means less and less, a culture that delivers the absolute best service in every area is what will bring more music business here. That’s what our most successful attorneys, managers, musicians, songwriters, recording studios and engineers have done, often following passion before profit. The New Orleans Music Economy Initiative is a step in the right direction, but we also need to recognize the very real infrastructure that we already have, and build from there, one song at a time.
© 2019 Scott Billington
Scott Billington has won three Grammy Awards and eleven Grammy nominations for his productions of Louisiana music. In addition to his ongoing career as a music producer, he is a Trustee of the Memphis Chapter of the Recording Academy, an instructor in the music business program at Loyola University and a music consultant. As a musician, he performs regularly with his wife, the children’s musician, songwriter and author Johnette Downing.