For some time now, I’ve observed a noticeable change in the New Orleans music scene, and it seems to be less New Orleans-centric than it used to be. Now, in case no one has noticed, we have a lot more tourists and visitors to the city than we used to. In fact, we have a substantial amount of transplants from other cities who live in New Orleans now, lured by the cost of living (rapidly rising), our joie de vivre, the music, the food, the celebrations, the ease of living here.
New Orleans used to be a place from which residents never left. You were born, lived your life, and died here. Hell, I know people who have never ventured outside the New Orleans metro area. That’s the way it used to be.
New Orleans is what it is because we were an island unto ourselves: unique way of life, unique food, unique music, deep history and family roots unlike anywhere else. “Outsiders” were tolerated and ultimately (sort of) welcomed into the fold after a time when they were deemed worthy to be called a local (that could take a lot of years!).
The two most prevalent parts of our culture—our food and music—developed the way they did because we had an inward view of ourselves. And frankly, we didn’t care if you liked us or not. That’s just the way it is, take it or leave it. If you didn’t like our ways, you can just move on and we won’t care one bit. We are what we are.
Food writer Ian McNulty’s column in the Advocate today described what’s happening to our restaurant scene. It’s not “New Orleans”-centric anymore because we have many more visitors than we used to: 17.7-million in 2017, up close to six percent from the year before. Visitors come to New Orleans to experience our culture, specifically food and music. McNulty aptly points out that there’s a difference of 45-to-one for visitors over locals, a fact that continues to fuel the opening (and relentless closing) of new restaurant establishments. Visitors don’t need to eat in a place more than once. And they come to New Orleans expecting something indigenous to the city. Which means that some of those hundreds of restaurants that open don’t necessarily have to be good (or local and indigenous) over the long haul. That makes the restaurant scene extremely volatile, and it also creates a scenario where the restaurant doesn’t necessarily get the proper support from locals. He says “The more New Orleans chases that one-time visitor, the more locals forfeit what is unique and distinctive about this place, the more New Orleans will become just another tourist town with too many restaurants.”
I contend that the same could be true for local music clubs.
The more places like Frenchmen Street—which used to be a local hang for music—turn to tourists for their clientele, the less locals will participate in the music scene.
My office has been on Frenchmen for 20 years, and I’ve witnessed the transformation first-hand. Clubs outside of Frenchmen are not doing the same business as they used to, either. That’s a combination, in my opinion, of the concentration of visitors downtown, and the influx of club-goers who aren’t really into local music. They dig music, but in some of the newer clubs, you might as well be in Austin or Brooklyn.
Our food and music culture is being transformed into something totally different, a facsimile of the New Orleans that is a unique, authentic place we know and that the world has put on a pedestal for hundreds of years.
What can we do to prevent this from happening even more than it has? It’s a troubling question. If you don’t care about this, then you’re a very short-sighted person who can’t care about what’s happening to our city’s culture.
Personally, I think that preserving the culture is part of the responsibility of our government, and that includes the hospitality industry, because in a capitalist society, culture and culture-makers aren’t venerated or even appreciated. If you want to use our culture to make money, then it’s your responsibility to keep the culture alive.
It’s recently been suggested that part of the hospitality tax collected by hotels go to fund our crumbling water and sewer infrastructure, which is going to cost an enormous amount of money. My contention is that a part of that tax should be earmarked to make sure the culture is authentic and true for locals and visitors alike, or else the hospitality industry won’t have anything to sell at all.
My two cents.