Monday, August 06, 2007

Helping the Music--and New Orleans--Keep Playing

It's easy to forget that there's still a lot of rebuilding left to do in New Orleans; nearly two years after Katrina, the plight of the Big Easy has faded from the top of the news for most people who aren't at least indirectly involved with the effort.

One of the biggest symbols of New Orleans is its music, and among those hardest hit by Katrina were the local musicians, many of whom have yet to return. But those who remain do have a few things working in their favor.

In yesterday's New York Times, Andrew Park takes a look at the music scene through the eyes of the Tipitina's Foundation, one of several local charities that are helping musicians get back on their feet. He describes a typical day behind the scenes at Tipitina's:
[U]pstairs, past balconies smelling of stale beer and cigarettes, past walls plastered with yellowed concert posters, musicians are working. Some edit concert fliers, tweak Web sites or research overseas jazz festivals; others get legal advice or mix audio and video; others simply chatter about who has found gigs and who is still struggling.

Since late 2005, just a few months after Hurricane Katrina tore through this city, more than 1,000 New Orleans musicians have become members of Tipitina’s three cooperative music offices. “I go in sometimes and all I’m doing is checking my e-mails,” says Margie Perez, an effervescent blues singer.

For Ms. Perez and others trying to rebuild fragile livelihoods as artists, grass-roots efforts like the co-ops have been a boon, helping them to replace lost or damaged instruments and sound equipment, arranging and subsidizing gigs and providing transportation, health care and housing. The Tipitina’s Foundation, the club’s charitable arm, has distributed about $1.5 million in aid; in all, Tipitina’s and other nonprofit groups have marshaled tens of millions of dollars in relief from around the world to help bolster the music business here.

But it remains to be seen how long a loose-knit band of charities can stand in for coordinated economic development in one of New Orleans’s most important business sectors. Although New Orleans is one of the country’s most culturally distinct cities, a large-scale recording industry never took root here, even before Katrina. Yet the informal music sector, the kind visitors find in clubs and bars, and large-scale musical events like Jazz Fest, is a mainstay of the city’s tourism business.
It's a mixed bag these days; convention business is back to 70% of pre-Katrina levels, but tourism is still way down, probably in no small part because of the constant reports of rampant crime. Still, it's good to know that private groups like the Tipitina's Foundation and Renew Our Music (formerly the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund) are stepping up to the plate when the government's resources have been directed elsewhere. But ultimately, the city will need to get involved as well:
[It's] an article of faith among New Orleanians that the music scene is an indelible part of the city’s appeal. But the city and state historically haven’t recognized the role that musicians and other creative workers play in driving tourism and improving the quality of life, advocates say. As a result, they say, the city and state have underinvested in the cultural sector of the economy.

“People don’t think of artists as a category of workers,” says Maria-Rosario Jackson, director of the Urban Institute’s Culture, Creativity, and Communities Program, which found that the city’s infrastructure for “cultural vitality” even before Katrina rated in the bottom half of the country’s metropolitan areas.

Figuring how “to translate that authenticity to economic development has been the challenge for all these years,” says Scott Aiges, who headed the city’s music office before Katrina and is now director of marketing and communications for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, which owns Jazz Fest.
So progress is taking place, even if it's sometimes in baby steps. Hopefully, the powers that be will realize what a major contribution music and its makers are to the life of this city and do what they can to help the scene flourish again.

Hello embarrassment: Police officers in Thailand who break the rules--litter, commit parking violations, show up late, etc.--will be forced to wear hot pink "Hello Kitty" armbands for the rest of their shifts.

Speaking of cats, this kid landed like one...or he might have nine lives: Give it up for Matthew Savage; the Georgia teenager fell six stories from a hotel balcony and escaped with only cuts and bruises.


NOMRF said...

Hey Kev, quick correction, Renew Our Music was formerly the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. We at NOMRF don't want to take credit for their considerable and ongoing efforts. Good blog!

Kev said...

Thanks; fixed now. I wasn't aware that there were two similarly-named groups down there (which I guess explains part of the reason they changed their name).