I was on the panel for the Mayoral Forum at the Carver Theater on Monday earlier this week. As I’ve written, this is the third such forum that I’ve helped to organize, and it’s pretty remarkable that the questions and concerns that are generated by the music community have hardly changed since the first such forum in 2001.
How do musicians make a living wage in New Orleans? Many feel that they are being exploited by the city’s hospitality industry, by festivals, by club owners. Musicians don’t feel respected. They feel as though they are forced to play for starvation wages by bars who don’t pay them a guarantee (tip jars and a percentage of the bar). Indigenous African-American culture bearers (social aid and pleasure clubs, second liners, Mardi Gras Indians) complain that they are still hassled by police and are forced to pay higher parade permit fees than the much wealthier (mostly white) Mardi Gras krewes, which generate more of a need for city services such as garbage pickup and security.
I’ve been hearing the same thing for well over 30 years.
There’s obviously an inherent “take-for-granted” mentality towards local music, musicians and culture bearers, mainly because everyone knows that musicians need to gig, and they are not willing (or able) to organize to demand higher, fairer and livable wages (the Musicians’ Union tried but has not been successful in recent years). SAPCs and Mardi Gras Indians are indigenous to our culture; they’ll be there no matter their poverty; it’s more about a culture than dollars. The hospitality industry knows that there will always be music in New Orleans and they will pay what the market will bear. The Jazz Fest is always criticized by some local musicians who hate that a national band will always be paid infinitely better than a homegrown act.
So, the same-old, same-old issues exist.
I noticed that the running candidates seemed to have a less than comprehensive view of the issues related to music in New Orleans, and they need to study up, because if they don’t understand the problems, they’ll never be able to fix them. But I would also caution them not to get caught up in those “same-old” arguments because most of them are related to a much larger issue of what will improve our attitudes toward music and music makers as a whole. How can we legitimately turn New Orleans into a “music city” that is truly that: one that respects, supports, nurtures and promotes its musical culture and its support system? None of the candidates were capable of addressing this.
I would also encourage candidates not to get sucked into music issues that focus on racial division. Until the music community can unite in all ways, its problems will never be taken seriously. Focusing on black vs. white is not productive. It’s a serious issue, of course, but the music in this city encompasses all skin colors, various diverse art forms, cultural identity, ways of life and a constantly-changing culture that transcends issues of race.
I’d encourage anyone who is interested in changing the attitude towards music in this community to look at the big picture to determine what is going to help everyone, not the few.
I saw a lot of hatred and resentment from some people on the stage on Monday night, and it’s not going to help heal or solve problems. It’s not going to be productive, move us forward and convince us that we have to work together.
Another thing: I heard several people on the stage claim that they knew absolutely what had to be done to “fix things” because they were inside the musical culture, and had grown up in it, as had their families.
In my opinion, not having exposure to what’s been done elsewhere or outside your immediate comfort zone can create a narrow-minded mentality, and a cocksureness about solutions that isn’t justified. To improve our problems, we need to make sure that musicians and their support systems (infrastructure like managers, retailers, bars, clubs, festivals, and issues related to noise, zoning, permitting, health, education etc) are adequately addressed. This doesn’t just mean musicians on Frenchmen, or Mardi Gras Indians. It means a lot more. Unless the entire community can make a living wage, is educated, housed and has decent healthcare, and literally has accrued from genuine respect from the community vis a vis the importance of music to this city, we will fail.
We all need to basically agree on what’s the most important. We need to reach out to other communities and government officials, consultants, and more who can provide us with models that have worked in other locales. We also need to understand that not everyone gets everything that they want in the creation of positive change. It’s called compromise.
Finally, we need to agree on what we want the New Orleans community to look like in eight to 10 years. We need to set goals and priorities and strategies for achieving them. Look at the big picture and address the details as you create an overall forumla for success. New Orleans has never been really great at that. There are too many factions pulling this way and that, trying to make sure they get the best deal, that they keep their turf covered. Maybe the best deal is for everyone to get a little of what they want and to work with the rest of the members of the music ecosystem to create something that’s workable for everyone in it.