Not as many people have been around music as a business for as long as me, and just like everything else, the local club scene has changed drastically.
I’ve written about this before, but an email from a bar owner uptown started me thinking about it again.
Almost 30 years, when I was still a major club rat (oh, yes, I was), I spent most of my time at venues uptown: Tip’s, Le Bon Temps, the Maple Leaf, Jed’s (that changed into Muddy Water’s), Carrollton Station, Jimmy’s, Tyler’s Beer Garden, some places I can’t remember the names of, and a few other holes in the wall…Kemp’s, even the Dew Drop (when it was open). Being a music freak, I also hit the Bourbon Street Gospel & Blues Hall (it did exist), the original Howlin’ Wolf in Fat City, Sidney’s Saloon, the Funky Butt, Donna’s, Check Point Charlie’s, the Mint (then the Matador, then BMC), the Toulouse Theater (then the Shim Sham Club, now One Eyed Jack’s), Snug Harbor, the Dream Palace, Café Brasil, Joe’s Cozy Corner, Sweet Lorraine’sand just about anywhere else there was music being played. I was always looking to experience the music.
Now I was not a college kid, I was just a dyed-in-the-wool music freak, and that’s why OffBeat exists. I know these people like this still exist.
But it takes hard work to keep a bar open, and really, really hard work to keep a venue that features music open and thriving.
As a music lover who was also a business person, it was evident to me that there were a lot of things the music community could have done better. For one thing: organizing and promoting its common interests. The music bars uptown were, for the most part, not close to each other; they were “uptown” and unless they were clustered on Oak or Willow, you had to drive go from one club to the other, which what us music freaks used to do: hear two or three or four bands in a night.
But we did it.
About 12 to 15 years ago (I’m not sure exactly when), there started to be a shift in where you could hear music. There was the “uptown” contingent and the “downtown” contingent. Slowly, there started to be a coalescing of music venues more downtown than uptown. That became Frenchmen Street.
At the time, the uptown venues took no notice. They should have. Tourists and visitors have always been an important market for music in New Orleans. It takes a lot more marketing and promotion to get Joe Tourist to schlep uptown than it does to get them to walk a few blocks or take a short cheap cab ride to the Marigny. In my memory, the only club who really tried to court visitors was Tipitina’s. They distributed flyers at hotels, sought publicity, and marketed the club heavily towards visitors. Yep, there are local music freaks (like yours truly, and a lot of college students) who will venture out to hear music on a regular basis, but savvy music club people recognized the fact that their bars could and did attract visitors.
Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?
A couple of uptown clubs other than Tip’s made sure they did the same thing (OffBeat helped, since the magazine has always been delivered to area hotels). Some half-heartedly marketed to visitors.
And then we got hit by Mademoiselle Katrina, which kicked live music uptown—and live music in general—in the butt. Musicians were gone, no one was here. It’s a miracvle that any of the music clubs survived at all.
Maple Leaf rallied, Tip’s rebooted by establishing the Tipitina’s Foundation. Jimmy’s closed, Carrollton Station was sold to new owners. But all-in-all, the music scene gravitated more and more downtown, to Frenchmen Street. It grew organically, and steadily into what it is today: pretty much to a tipping point of too much music and too many patrons, if there is such a thing. But the music venues on Frenchmen flourished because they were in proximity (music freaks could walk from club to club and get a different dose of band), and also because they were able to establish a brand.
The uptown clubs were never able to work together to do that.
So, I’m reminded of this by corresponding with a bar owner uptown who claims that he’s pretty much had it with music. He just wants to have a neighborhood bar that has music every once in a while. Too hard to keep it going. I must note that the current owner doesn’t market his place to visitors.
So in some ways, it almost seems that the music scene uptown is sadly shriveling away.
I don’t think that you can blame it on Frenchmen Street. From my standpoint, we want music venues all over the city where musicians can play, get paid, and what could be done is to create music districts where other music clubs could literally brand themselves under a single moniker, just as Frenchmen Street has done. Why haven’t the uptown clubs marketed themselves to music lovers, even those (sometimes) dreaded “tourists.” Hey, tourists love music and they drink beer and booze. Show them a little real local music. Get in touch with me. I’ll commit to help. The more music, the better, all over the city.
Just takes a little work, planning strategy, marketing, politicking and most of all, dedication to keeping the music culture alive and well.