The title of a recent article in the Times-Picayune: “Can New Orleans Become A Thriving Music Industry Hub Like Nashville?”
Wait. Have I heard this question posed before??
At least a hundred times, many times in the pages of OffBeat over the years; in meetings with the local music community; in meetings with several mayors’ offices, city councils, lieutenant governors, governors and their staffs; in meetings with hospitality execs and promoters of the city; with educators; with music business people locally and in other cities.
Does anyone remember the junket about 15 years ago that city and “top business” leaders took to Austin where they were astonished and bemused to see that Austin, Texas was calling itself the “Live Music Capital of the World.” (Well, we all know New Orleans is! No question about that! Right?).
As I write this, SXSW (that’s South by Southwest, or “South By” to the initiated) is taking place in Austin. It is the event’s thirty-first year. It’s become the largest and most recognizable conference and festival of its kind in the US and has spun off many other events throughout the country.
It started the year before OffBeat was created, and I’ve been to the event many, many times. It’s grown from a music event to an interactive media and film conference that’s the largest of its kind in the world.
Were you at SXSW in Austin in 1987? SXSW was a start-up, the vision of the owners of the Austin Chronicle (Austin’s alt-weekly), some local music business types and musicians. It was tiny and took place in a downtown hotel, focusing on music and music media (there were a lot more music magazines back then in the olden days). It now consumes the entire Austin convention center—as well as the entire city of Austin—for 12 days. SXSW’s influence has spread throughout the international music business and it attracts participants—bands and business types—from all over the world. It’s expanded into a separate educational innovation conference, environmental conferences, and one for start-ups.
SXSW put Austin on the music business map in a big way.
But it’s still no Nashville. Not even close. Although Austin does have an established music business infrastructure, mainly because of the attention created by SXSW.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a vision. In the mid-1980s certain Austinites saw that their city was unique and special musically, and they capitalized on those qualities to make Austin into a powerhouse player of a city vis a vis music—and technology. But the SXSW founders were only able to accomplish wonderful things with the support of the city government and state support. These smart people had a vision, and they pursued it by enlisting serious support from their government officials, and lo and behold: the “Live Music Capital of the World” became not only a monier; it became a reality. More importantly, SXSW has the reputation of being the best networking opportunity in the music business. And let me tell you, networking and contacts in the music biz are everything.
New Orleans is, and has been for the past 40 years or so, a live music city. It is not a music business mecca. I and many others worked for a lot of years with the idea that New Orleans could be on the same level as Austin: we could educate and develop our music business infrastructure and create what Austin did. (Austin is not even close to being in the same league as Nashville in terms of music business).
Nope, has not happened.
I attribute this to the fact that New Orleans city government and tourism leaders and our business community have never had a vision for music, and they still don’t. They don’t understand that music is big business because they don’t know how it works, or why it’s important that we nurture our music ecosystem. They still don’t get that there’s money to be made in the industry. So this town was, and remains, a city whose music is a serious part of its appeal to tourists (note that the hospitality industry realizes this—but mostly only during Jazz Fest and no other time of year). Our musicians are allowed to be exploited for peanut pay. There’s no thought or vision for actually getting serious about creating a strong music business infrastructure; most of that action has come from the private sector via entrepreneurial activity, and frankly, it’s pretty miniscule.
Although there are many more entertainment/intellectual property attorneys than there were even 10 years ago, that’s not enough. Recording studios can be set up in someone’s garage. There are managers and business management firms that have sprung up over the years. Few booking agencies. Record labels come and go, and in some ways are almost passé, with the age o digital streaming and downloads. No music publicists to speak of. Song publishers? Nope. We simply do not have the critical mass of music biz types to say we’re anything but a great town in which ti experience live music.
Yes, there are many more educational programs in the city; there’s some serious attempt to create networking events around the Jazz Fest (like Sync Up, put on by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation under the auspices of Scott Aiges, who’s been to SXSW many times, worked with one of its founders to set up a similar event in New Orleans [LMNOP], has worked in a mayor’s office). Jazz Fest is actually New Orleans’ greatest networking opportunity for music biz. I can’t tell you how many I’ve met as a result of Jazz Fest. At least Aiges is trying to capitalize on that. It’s sort of our version of SXSW—without the conferences and workshops.
I predict—and I have the chops to do this—that we should never compare New Orleans to Nashville, or Austin, because it is not ever going to happen. For New Orleans to devise a critical mass of music businesses to rival either of these cities is a pipe dream at this point. We can set up businesses in New Orleans that cater to music, but Music Row in New Orleans. Nope. Been tried, actually, a few times.
What we can do is to support, nurture and educate our musicians on business practices, intellectual property basics and technology. We can try to get them involved with the music biz types who can help them. We can make sure that they have the support of the city so that they’re not exploited (musicians are surely not the best group to know how to take care of themselves financially; they are artists, and are not well-financed, insured or housed). We can create support systems for them (and I do not mean “welfare”). We can also create support systems and incentives for anyone who is involved in the music business. I’m not talking about tax incentives for creating jobs over $35,000. That’s an admirable concept to attract big companies to New Orleans, but isn’t going to help us in the next three to five years. The fact is that musicians and most music businesses are entrepreneurial. People who go into the music business in this city are struggle to keep their business alive. We need to support and enable them first and foremost.
But before we can do anything, we have to have to know exactly who we are, what our resources are, our strengths and weaknesses, and have a vision of what we want New Orleans music and its music business to look like in five to 10 years. Do we really want to be another Nashville? Can or should we compete with Austin?
I don’t think so. We should look at other city’s models, steal what works for us, and come up with our own plan of attack.
Who crafts the vision? I think it should come from city leaders, from our new mayor.
And then we have to hold our government officials, hospitality industry execs, and business community responsible: hold their feet to the fire.
Answer this question: What exactly do we want the New Orleans music scene to look like in 10 years? Do we even know? What’s the vision? What’s the strategy?
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