Music and Tourism

If you read my columns and blogs on a regular basis, you know how I feel about tourism related to music. New Orleans does not really spotlight music in its tourism and advertising campaigns; I think there’s too much other stuff going on in the city that the hospitality people feel is a lot more important: food, partying, drinking, architecture, parades (oops, that’s under the heading of party). Music hardly ever takes front and center in overall advertising campaigns.

Too bad. Other cities have capitalized on their historical past and their (thin, compared to New Orleans) music ties. Yet, we have festivals with music all year long, not just during big festivals like Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest. These events draw locals and tourists alike.  We have a vibrant live music scene all over the city (which music naysayers and haterz want to keep from expanding).

I’m unfortunately convinced that most citizens of New Orleans and the rest of the state aren’t particularly interested in local music and musicians. They’re more into the pop music that’s fed to them by commercial interests.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s not attractive to people outside of this state.

Second Line: Real. (Photo: Kim Welsh)


There’s always a push-pull between locals who want to keep the music “local” and not have it corrupted by commercialism. If you live or work in downtown New Orleans, at some time or another, you’ve been subjected to a faux second line parade, one that’s staged by a meeting or events planner to give visitors the opportunity to march in a parade. They pass out hankies for waving, hire a brass band and a grand marshal for hire, get a parade permit and march the poor suckers down St. Charles Avenue or through the Quarter to show them how we roll down here in New Or-Leens.

As obnoxious as that sounds to a lot of local people (particularly to the actual Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs whose second-line parades are deeply embedded in their culture), you have to look at it this way: if these tourists didn’t participate in this fake second line, they’d never have the ability to get a glimpse of what real New Orleanians do at a second line parade. Can you imagine a concierge at a local luxury hotel sending a group of people to a real second line parade? Horrors! The majority (but not all, hopefully)  would be scared to death of all those black folk marching, drinking, dancing and carrying on! Thus, the sanitization and commercialization of our culture.

Second Line: Fake.

If nothing else, visitors need to be educated about our music and the culture it springs from by people who know what they’re talking about. They need to be shown how vibrant our music scene is. They need to know where it’s come from and how it’s evolving. The wonderful thing about New Orleans is  that it’s a laboratory for the creation of new music. All the musicians here play together, all types of music and there’s some inevitable cross-pollination. That needs to be communicated too.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, why can’t we put together an entity, a museum, that shows visitors (and locals who need to be educated) why music is important in New Orleans, and why it’s the most authentically musical city on earth. It’s not manufactured  or imported; it’s real and it’s part of who we all are.  Music is the glue that holds the other elements of the culture together. We can preserve it and develop it at the same time. All it takes is some commitment from us, the people.

I recently read an interesting term paper sent to me by Dr. Connie Atkinson, written by one of her history students, Douglas Rowe. I received his permission to publish his thoughts, and I think it’s worth your time to read. Bravo, Mr. Rowe. We need people like you who “get it!”


Tourism, Music and New Orleans

When considering the debate over the indigenous, “authentic” culture of a particular place, and the ways in which various forms of tourism can impact that culture, for both good and ill, cities and regions known for music in particular make for interesting and revealing sources of study.

Though it is frequently the case that the denizens of cities dependent on tourists cannot stand the sight of the meddlesome interlopers, in some cases these flocks of visitors are not only a necessary evil, they may actually be beneficial in many ways, even to the culture, music and arts of the communities upon which they are often accused of preying.  In the case of cities that are particularly known and visited for music, these benefits can be quite concrete.  Stated simply, tourism helps to keep many musicians employed more often.

People who are on vacation in a “music city,” with no obligations to be at work the next morning, and with a sometimes sizable sum of money set aside for just this purpose, will actually go out and pay a cover charge to see music, even on a weeknight, something that many working locals, even if they wish to, simply cannot do.  On a given weeknight on Beale St. in Memphis or on Frenchmen St. in New Orleans, as much as locals in those cities might like to be enjoying a night out at the clubs, if the places are packed, there are a large percentage of tourists taking in the music.  Those same visitors are also more likely to spend a bit of that “vacation money” on CDs or other merchandise sold by musicians they’ve seen on their travels, sometimes simply to have a reminder of an enjoyable experience.  They may return home as lifetime fans of a musician or band they’ve seen and heard play in another city, spread the word amongst their friends, and continue to follow the artist’s career from afar, which is more easily possible, even likely, in the current internet and social media networking era.

Some tourists with an especially keen interest in music go so far as to thoroughly educate themselves in advance of visiting a particular city (or in some cases have already been a long-time fan of a certain city’s music style or history), so that they know who and what they want to hear and where to go to hear it, which flies in the face of the classic impression of the clueless tourist wandering aimlessly.

These types of tourists would never want an indigenous music style to be affected by the presence of too many outsiders, and usually want to see the distinct local styles of music continue to flourish.  Even for casual tourists who aren’t necessarily obsessed with music in their everyday lives, exposure to a memorable, enjoyable live performance in a vacation city known for its musical heritage can help keep them interested in the subject, and encourage them to view music and musicians as things of real value and worth in society, resulting in some level of continued support, however great or small.

Of course there are those aspects of tourism that justify the concerns of the local naysayers.  The existence of the traditional, ill-informed, just-looking-for-a-good-time, no-idea-as-to-the-cultural-nature-of-the-city-they’re-visiting tourist cannot be denied, particularly in New Orleans, which attracts various demographic groups for many reasons other than music.  Whether they are “go-cup”-obsessed college-age visitors (or, sadly, often much older age groups as well) simply looking to get excessively drunk on Bourbon Street, or conventioneers who want to sneak in a visit to a “gentlemen’s club” while away from their wives, many people who visit a musical city like New Orleans may know or care little, or absolutely nothing, about that particular cultural aspect of their destination.

Even if these travelers do come across a live musical performance while away from home, they may consider the music merely an unimportant “backdrop” to a fun evening out of drinking and socializing.  If they do actively seek out live music, they often want to simply hear covers of pop music with which they are overly familiar (the type of material the interchangeable bands along Bourbon Street pump out of virtually every open door), and have no interest in anything resembling the style of music specific to the local region’s culture.

Many locals are fully aware —and wary—of the type of tourist with no musical interest in a city like New Orleans, and these visitors certainly don’t help the local music culture, but—other than perhaps indirectly encouraging the existence of throw-away, generic “Top-40”-style bands in the French Quarter (which, it must be acknowledged, still employ local musicians)—they don’t necessarily damage the local scene, either.  Potentially more harmful are the unintended consequences of the enthusiastic visits by knowledgeable, hard-core music travelers.

While these usually well-meaning tourists can be beneficial to the local culture, there is a downside to this type of visitor as well.  These fans of a city’s music and culture often want to go “where the locals go,” and see and hear the “real” music in an “authentic” setting.  As soon as a few of these out-of-town enthusiasts discover a place, again, particularly today with the internet and social media networking, the location can suddenly cease being a “locals” spot, and the musical acts may begin to cater to the new and different visitor crowd, making subtle or even overt changes to traditional musical styles practiced at a particular location for years.

Another side effect of the influence of these more culturally educated tourists stems from their very interest in and passion for the music of the city or region they visit.  They can sometimes have a preconceived notion of what the music they are seeking should sound like, and can passively, even perhaps subconsciously, demand that it fit their expectations.  If they visit Memphis, they may want to hear classic blues, rockabilly, or soul music, despite the fact that those genres flourished and peaked as active, innovative musical styles in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.  Likewise in New Orleans and Louisiana, visiting fans may have been waiting for years to take in some live jazz, funk, or Cajun/zydeco performances; again, these styles of music and their original innovators reached their full creative bloom decades ago.

While it can be thrilling for many to hear these musical genres, so associated with particular regions, performed authentically in those locales by extremely talented purveyors of the craft, there is an argument that this is an unhealthy development for any artistic pursuit.  The music can become stagnant, preserved like a prehistoric mosquito in a drop of amber.  Talented musicians can spend their careers practicing an essentially dead musical form, however enthusiastically and authentically performed, fueled only by the nostalgia of the audience (or even of the musicians themselves).

Music that was once vibrantly innovative can be forcefully, if unwittingly, barred—by audiences and players who only want to hear it in a narrow, specific way—from any further advancement.  Perhaps at some point a subsequent generation, with the proper education in one of these classic music styles as a base, can grow to push these genres forward.  There have been a few examples of musical hybridization of some of these classic styles, both with each other and with more modern offshoots, so there remains some hope for future development.

If there is to be any hope at all for the cultural fabric of New Orleans itself, policymakers must begin to find ways to make tourism work with and for the region’s musical heritage; the two sometimes opposing forces of a visitor-based economy and a unique indigenous musical culture will ultimately need each other to survive.

New Orleans could market many more aspects of its musical history and culture than simply a photo of a smiling Louis Armstrong or a graphic of a young brass band (as titanically important as both of those cultural touchstones are to the city).  There is a rich, non-jazz music history in New Orleans that never seems to make it into marketing materials.  The successful early rock and roll and rhythm and blues boom centered in the city goes ignored by the mainstream.  Memphis does a great job of making huge tourist attractions and/or museums out of its rightfully famous recording studios; New Orleans does absolutely nothing of the sort.  The average Joe has no clue about the endless stream of popular hits recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studios in the 1950s, but a huge percentage of the mainstream population is fully aware of Sam Phillips’ work in Memphis during the same period.

If New Orleans would take its great musical heritage more seriously, in all its breadth and depth, the public at large might realize the true value of our culture as well.  There needs to be a more organized effort to preserve our many and varied cultural and musical landmarks and make them known, beyond a small sign on an out-of-the-way, run-down building.

There must also be more ways developed to funnel substantial money out of tourist-based taxes (hotels, restaurants, clubs, etc.) to go toward real music education for future generations, both within conventional school band programs and outside of them.  If the traditional New Orleans music styles are to continue, and if there is any hope of future innovation, music education is an absolute must.

The city also needs to find a way to work with different music venues fairly and reasonably on recent permitting issues; the music clubs are the incubators, and music must be allowed to flourish there as it always has.

New Orleans will never be a financial or business center for music the way New York and Los Angeles are (or once were; there really is no music business anymore as it was in the 20th century, when it enjoyed endless streams of money based on record sales).  This city depends on its live music scene, and tourism is a huge, essential part of that, whether locals like it or not.  Until New Orleans has some other viable business prospect to drive its economic engine, which doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon, we’re stuck with lots of visitors.

People have enjoyed traveling throughout modern human history, and individual tourists cannot be blamed for doing so, no matter how convinced some New Orleanians are that they should be.  The best we can do is to utilize the revenue willingly provided by these visiting fans of our city, its music and its culture to ensure that the very thing they come here to get, that they—and we—can get nowhere else, is kept healthy and continues to thrive and develop for generations to come. —Douglas Rowe


  • Foxessa

    A thoughtful, and well thought out, paper. Congratulations, Mr. Rowe.

  • Tom Jacobsen

    Congratulations to young Mr. Rowe. He writes very well–and thoughtfully–for an
    undergrad. I’m not sure about creating an “entity” educating tourists–especially since many of them (as Rowe observes) know more about our music than most of us seem to. And getting some unified body together to take on such a task would be like herding cats. It’s nice to encounter a young man who seems so informed about the issues. Congrats to Connie A. for her working with him.

  • BJ Carr

    I’m one of the tourists: have been visiting New Orleans once or twice each year since ’93. I’ve been exposed to so many great musicians, and incredible music of varying styles; I purchase lots of cds/put much of my budget in tip jars. It’s a source of frustration that, despite the fact that there *are* valuable collections and archives, there is no one building that houses, curates and displays same. Seems every year or so I read that someone’s gonna have a museum of NO Jazz here, a Historical Collection there…. and it’s either a one-month special event, or never happens. I’ve looked up and visited as many ‘sites of interest’ as I can, and it’s heart-breaking the way so much history is torn down or rotting away. I truly cannot figure why someone doesn’t ‘get’ that this stuff is a draw to some tourists.

  • MJN

    I am a musician, though not from NOLA…I am from the Lafayette area. Music has brought great joy and understanding into my life. I KNOW FOR A FACT that I would not be a musician if it wasn’t for the rich LIVING culture around me when I was growing up.

    Besides the music here in my area, I would go to New Orleans (and still do) often. The city always inspires me. In my mind I can not disconnect south Louisiana and music. It is everywhere. It’s in the flow of the bayous, and rivers, it’s in the city traffic, it’s in the rhythm of the daily commuter, it’s in the spices in the food, it’s in the air we breath.

    The fact that the people with the power to bring this obvious fact to the forefront dismiss it, boggles my mind. How is it that these people do not understand the power of music? Just like Mr. Rowe wrote, it is the glue that holds it all together.

    I recall a time, not very long ago, when the police were coming down on street musicians. During this time I remember walking through the Quarter, and having the feeling that the city felt so cold. Music is literally the heartbeat of NOLA. Gone are the days when people NEEDED the ports, with access to the Mississippi, and the Gulf to do commerce. Gone are the days of the military stronghold protecting the country at the mouth of the Mississippi. The cash that flows through the economy now, is in large part generated by people who come to New Orleans to experience the magic of the city. Without it heartbeat, the city would die…and with it, the money that lines the political pockets.

    There is more history in one block of New Orleans than most other places put together…and it is still being made. Maybe not on Bourbon Street (unfortunately…yet I do remember a time when there were a few clubs that still had the real deal…now it’s just bad renditions of old hits…and not even the ones that were made in the city itself! Although a lot of it is being played by talented, frustrated musicians, just trying to make a living) but in the neighborhoods around town, the music is still evolving, and flourishing…even though it is neglected.

    Unfortunately all I have to offer are words. It would be nice to see the music be brought to the forefront in advertisement for tourism, and education of the public, there in the city, who are either ignorant to it’s rich history, or simply take it for granted. Like they say, you can’t see the forest through the trees. My wish is that everyone would have a chance to travel extensively The more you get out and experience, the more you begin to appreciate how incredibly unique and wonderful New Orleans, and all of south Louisiana really is…and how important music is to that experience.

    Lastly, I just want to say that it isn’t just the Jazz music (although it certainly is important) all genres of music as well as some that are unknown, but currently being cultivated in someone’s garage, is alive and well in the city, and deserves to be recognized in a big way.