ELLA Project Forum, August 16, 2017. Photo: Greg Lambousy, New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Vision Quest

A couple of weeks ago Mojo Mouth described a small conference, organized by the ELLA Project. This forum brought in music-involved people from all over the US and Canada to create an in-depth discussion and dialogue with selected members of the New Orleans music community regarding what we need to do to improve the music ecosystem in the city.

I’m stealing that “ecosystem” term from Kwende Kefentse, one of the panel speakers because I think it’s an accurate description of how we need to think about music in New Orleans. (Kefentse handles Cultural Research & Development for the city of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada).

Our music ecosystem doesn’t just include musicians and bands. It includes clubs, bars, restaurants, retailers, government officials, non-profits, experts on housing, urban planning, educators, instrument manufacturers, the hospitality industry, recording, festivals and more. The way music’s impact is interwoven with many different aspects of the city has tentacles that reach very deep.

All the representatives who were there presented different ways of looking how to solve problems and to devise a policy that includes more than just increasing musicians’ income.

Also on the panel were Michael Bracy— the Founder and Director of the Music Policy Forum and the Co-Founder of the Future of Music Coalition; Jesse Elliott, Director of The Music District in Ft. Collins, CO; Jocelyn Kane, Executive Director of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission; Ismael Guerrero, Executive Director of the Denver Housing Authority; Amy Terrill, Executive Vice President of Music Canada in Toronto, Ontario. Their wide range of experience and how their actions have impacted their respective cities was enlightening, fascinating and created an inspiration for me, one who’s been plugging away at creating an eco-system for the New Orleans music community since way before OffBeat was born.

All agreed that it was important to first coalesce and organize all the disparate members of the music ecosystem. Everyone needs to be represented and agree on what the actual vision for the future of music policy is for New Orleans. That vision needs to be written down and codified and set as an actual goal.

I’m a native, and have lived in several other cities. One thing I know about New Orleans: strategic planning and future vision is not one of her strong points. New Orleanians live for the moment and just can’t seem to plan too far ahead, more’s the pity. It’s more about the party now and less about the future. It’s about walking down Bourbon Street for 50 years and never improvingthe street or underlying infrastructure. It’s about not improving our pumping systems. You get the picture. It’s all about the now.

All the panelists said that what’s really needed is a goal, and a vision—what we actually want the city’s music scene and community to look like 10 years into the future? We need to consider the impact that gentrification is having on housing for musicians; educational processes and resources and how to improve them; changes in energy needs; flooding (of all things, that’s something we certainly need to consider); zoning and permitting; sound; how musicians are paid by venues and how they could be paid; festival support; safety, security and parking; neighborhoods’ impacted by music, how technology will impact us, and so much more.

But before anything can move to make changes, we need to organize and agree to determine what we want to be in 10 years’ time and then work backwards from there to determine how we can achieve the goal, including how much money and support is needed to accomplish the vision and from where the monetary and other support will spring. One thing that is desperately needed is a strong, disciplined group of the disparate music ecosystem that currently exists. I’ve found over the years that it’s very difficult to get bars and venues, musicians, city services, the hospitality industry (which certainly profits from music in the city), non-profits, universities, department of education, the state, and corporations to the table to agree to work together to fulfill the music vision…to say nothing of getting musicians on the same page.

We first need the vision and the goal.

We also need an in-depth census of our resources (OffBeat attempted that with the Louisiana Music Directory) and a professionally-produced study of the economic impact that music has on New Orleans. This is crucial. The last time a study like this was done was in the mid-1980s, and back then I believe the impact was shown to be $95-million. Think of what it probably is now.

On Thursday there will be another discussion that will include the same panel members and potential mayoral candidates. I’ll keep you posted on the results of that.

Remember, we first need to develop a vision and goal for our city and its music. What is that to be?

It’s a different version of a vision quest, indeed. But a concept that’s long overdue.