This essay explores the relationship between New Orleans and the music produced, performed, and inspired by and in the Crescent City. The content presented is based wholly on personal experience, research conducted within the city of New Orleans, and interviews conducted with musicians currently residing in or originally from New Orleans. The examination is intended to represent a modern glimpse at the cultural economy of, and trends concerning, alternative genre music within the city of New Orleans, specifically following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
New Orleans, one of America’s original and greatest Bohemian cities, has a musical history that is rarely matched elsewhere in the United States. Commonly regarded as the birthplace of jazz, the city of New Orleans, in modern times, would seemingly cater to, accept, and appreciate all types of music, no matter how eccentric or aberrant.
Storyville courtesy of GNOCDC.org
Imagine, for instance, walking into a ramshackle speakeasy or brothel in New Orleans red-light district, commonly known as Storyville, sometime during the early 20th century (before it’s closure by the federal government in 1917) to find a small group of musicians – the forefathers of jazz – huddled in a corner playing their acoustic instruments. This was a setting which has been described as the “unofficial American capital of vice,” where “prostitution flourished openly and a seductive new sound called jazz was coming into its own.” Legend even has it that “Louis Armstrong delivered coal to the district as a boy, [where he] lingered to hear the great jazzmen who performed in elegantly appointed bordellos and scruffy saloons.” (Powell)
Why then is the city of New Orleans, a destination once so readily willing to claim and even praise unique forms of music, so reluctant to do so in modern times? A typical night in one of New Orleans’s greatest musical institutions may evidence that the city and her inhabitants are hesitant, and oftentimes blatantly opposed, to accepting fresh genres of music – even ones that have commonly evolved from prior musical traditions just as jazz did in the late 19th century. This phenomenon, perplexing as it is, will serve as the driving inspiration as I seek to explain what has become a helpless consistency within the city New Orleans, one often driven by her citizens, to exhibit an unwavering focus on a minimal amount of specific musical genres.
I. A Glimpse at the Scene:
a. Subdivisions of Metropolitan New Orleans and Venues within those Districts
Before an outsider can begin to understand the issues surrounding the cultural economy and musical trends within New Orleans, in relation to the success of live musical performance within the city, one must understand the stipulations that implicate the current scene. In short, one must have a good understanding of the current musical setting within the city including, but not limited to: the cities’ most predominant live venues, the districts in which those venues are located, musical oriented festivals, and radio programming within the city.
Any local mildly invested in the local music culture will know that the metropolitan New Orleans area is subdivided into three or four districts that predominate local music: Uptown, Downtown and the Central Business District, Mid-city, and the Marigny/Bywater. All of said districts typically offer slightly different styles of music, and some more than others.
Tipitina's Uptown courtesy of Jeffrey P. Dupuis
Uptown is limited, for the most part, to the legendary music hall Tipitina’s. Save Tipitina’s uptown location, almost all venues located in this district cater to younger college bands, and audiences that follow them. In the scope of this piece, college bands are often an exception to the typical music trends of New Orleans, as it likely is in most cities throughout the United States. While musical education within the city of New Orleans often places a heavy emphasis on jazz, other musical genres, as expected, flourish among college students within in the city; this is something that I will discuss later.
Mid-city, much like Uptown is a very limited district when it comes to live music. Though there are several venues to be found in the area, relevant underground happenings are few and far between. Also, much like Uptown, these bands cater to college bands, but from UNO, as opposed to Tulane and Loyola, which are located Uptown.
Downtown New Orleans, which includes the Central Business District and the French Quarter, is a place to find much of New Orleans’ live music. The French Quarter, as a predominating tourist destination, is home to a handful of bars and venues. While one can’t walk more than 10 steps on Bourbon street without hearing a different band pouring through the open doors of a New Orleans or Mardi Gras themed bar, this certainly isn’t the place to go in search of anything more than background music to accompany a night of heavy drinking and general debauchery; and yet, this is where much of the money in New Orleans music is to be made. Though it may be true that acts performing on Bourbon or in a similar setting aren’t hired to do more than play what the common masses want, or expect to hear, i.e. jazz, covers, or cultural music, don’t think for one second that these musicians aren’t earning their take. For those unfamiliar with the setting, believe that there is something very admirable about possessing the tolerance to do exactly what these musicians are paid to do.
For a more serious musical experience downtown, there is the House of Blues: the New Orleans location for this corporate chain of venues. The House of Blues’ main room, capable of accommodating 843 people, is typically reserved for bigger touring acts and local acts that possess a considerable amount of clout. Bands like these, as this piece will evidence, are acts playing genres of music that tourists and locals alike would expect to find performing in this large concert hall on any given night. A more alternative experience at the House of Blues will most likely be found in the venues smaller concert hall, located above the main room. While it is commonplace to find more underground acts performing in this room, called The Parish, local groups rarely play here, unless opening for a touring act.
Washed Out at One Eyed Jack's by Joshua Brasted
The French Quarter’s other leading venue is One Eyed Jacks, a locally owned an operated venue. OEJ’s is arguably the best venue that the French Quarter has to offer,
boasting a schedule usually catering to local and touring underground acts alike. As a locally operated venue, a more intimate experience is likely to be had at OEJ’s. The setting is very aesthetic and the venue has played host to several groups that travel off of the mainstream, as the past year’s schedule will evidence. Toro y Moi (touring), Washed Out (touring), Sun Hotel (local), and Ty Segall (touring) have all performed in Jack’s concert hall in the past few months alone.
The Central Business District is one of the areas more decent locations for local alternative music. On the same street, in the span of one block, can be found two of New Orleans bigger local venues, the Howlin’ Wolf and the Republic. Though the main room of the Howlin’ Wolf, a huge space, is most typically reserved for touring acts and large local events, the Den, located in the rear of the venue often caters to local alternative groups, typically college students. The Republic, much like the Howlin’ Wolf, often plays host to touring acts, but boasts a “Throwback Night” every Friday. This event features local alternative acts like Jean Eric, Sun Hotel, Vox and the Hound, Empress Hotel, Royal Teeth, and Big History (who have all played in recent times) playing a selection of “throwback,” interspersed with original pieces. The Republic has also become home to “New Orleans’ Bounce,” a monthly event that showcases what is claimed to be the best of New Olreans Bounce.
The Marigny and Bywater are most likely New Orleans greatest alternative and underground music locations. Found in the Marigny is New Orleans’ legendary Frenchman street. Located on Frenchman street, in a matter of only a 3-5 block radius are no less than 13 music venues: the Dragons Den, the Maison, D.B.A., Snug Harbor, Mimi’s, and the Blue Nile are just a few to name. While Frenchman is known as one of New Orleans’ definitive jazz locations, the area has shown a real interest in alternative forms of music as of late. The Dragon’s Den is often home to local punk rock and electronic dub-step acts. On a similar note, the Maison has recently played host to many local alternative acts, as well as electronic DJ’s and producers. Frenchman street will undoubtedly continue to become known as one of New Orleans’ greatest alternative music locations.
If one travels still further into the Bywater, New Orleans’ final frontier, one will find what is arguably New Orleans’ most alternative and underground music scene. Regarded currently as the “cool part of town,” the Bywater serves as New Orleans’ Echo Park. A conglomerate of bars and music venues can be found, all within a short distance of one another: the Hi-Ho Lounge, Siberia, Saturn Bar, and the Allways Lounge are just a few. In addition to “legal” events held in bars such as these, there are also quite a bit of events held in houses or “speakeasies” found (or not found) in the Bywater. The underground venue owned by local swamp tech and noise rock musician Quintron, called the Spellcaster Lodge (no longer active), was the location of music shows, art events, and other weird happenings both before and after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
b. New Orleans Music Festivals
Generally speaking, New Orleans has two predominating music festivals every year: the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Voodoo Music Festival. The name alone of the former says it all. Both of these festivals, like many large festivals, aren’t held to solely showcase local music. Both are in essence, and actuality, held each year as huge corporately funded festivals that draw both local and international crowds.
Jazz Fest, as its name implicates is more than just a music festival. Because the appeal of Jazz Fest is more than just great local and international music, there is room for deviation, and the festival does play host to almost as many, if not more, local acts as it does touring acts. This interesting fact has much to say however about the typical trends of New Orleans music and may be capable of answering, as a microcosm, the anomaly of New Orleans music. The simple fact is that the New Orleans Jazz Festival draws large amounts of external people to the city every year. In 2010, around 375,000 people were in attendance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, while a New Orleans census report, given the same year indicated that only 343,829 people were currently living in the city. These numbers will prove useful later on.
New Orleans Voo Doo Festival serves as the cities more traditional music festival, comparable to Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival, Chicago’s Lollapalooza, or Austin City Limits. Because this is the case, there tends to be much less local acts at Voo Doo, and quite a number more of national or international touring acts. This festival is almost irrelevant to observe in relation to this piece.
In absence of New Orleans NOIR (New Orleans Indie Rock Collective), Foburg Festival has assumed the role of New Orleans’ leading underground and alternative music festival over the course of the past couple years. The festival, modeled somewhat similarly to Austin’s South-by-Southwest festival, is run by a group of locals and caters to acts both touring and local. Last year’s installment of the festival featured performances by Big History, Brass Bed, Sun Hotel, Caddywhompus, and Empress Hotel. Events like these provide light at the end of the tunnel for the independent New Orleans music scene.
c. Radio Programming
A look at New Orleans radio programming is one of the best ways to learn what is and isn’t popular in the city of New Orleans. Because most radio stations obtain large parts of funding through donations to remain on the air, it goes without saying that they have to play what the people want to hear. While in New Orleans, a quick turn of the dial on an FM radio will leave very few choices besides top 100 country, rap, pop, and rock. The few main exceptions are WWOZ (90.7) and WTUL (91.5). WWOZ prides itself for the broadcasting of what is almost strictly New Orleans music, while WTUL is Tulane University’s radio station. Since WWOZ plays music predominantly from New Orleans, it offers a good reflection of what exactly most people, especially the station’s programing directors, consider as being New Orleans music. So, in 2003, when Davis Rogan was fired from WWOZ for, among other things, his “non-adherence to the music that should be played on the New Orleans Music Show,” a lot was said about what supposedly is, and isn’t, New Orleans music. In this particular instance, the WWOZ management was upset that a rap tune was played on the air, but as Scott Jordan acknowledges in his article regarding Rogan’s dismissal, “New Orleans rock and electronica are also invisible on WWOZ.” Furthermore, when WWOZ’s programing director at the time, Dwayne Breashears, claimed listeners have called in and reported (supposedly) that “’that’s not why we’re tuning in to ‘OZ, and that’s not why we support WWOZ,” as a response to rap music, and no telling what else, he also conceded to what the masses regard as New Orleans music.
On the other hand, WTUL is open to all types of music being played on the air. But, as before, this is not an adequate reflection of common New Orleans music trends because of the inconsistency that typically follows college students
II. The Success of Jazz in New Orleans
a. Cultural Tradition
Anyone familiar with New Orleans will know that tradition is one of its always present and inescapable qualities. Nothing in the city of New Orleans and, in a more general sense, most of Louisiana goes untouched by cultural tradition, both in the professional and personal realms. According to the official tourism website of Louisiana, the state has over 400 festivals every year – that’s more festivals than one person has time for in a year.
Almost every aspect of daily life isn’t just affected by Louisiana cultural tradition, but celebrated somewhere, in some festival. Natives in New Orleans don’t only expect things a certain way, they have learned to love them the way that they are here in New Orleans: spicy, drenched in alcohol, and jazzy. To summarize, New Orleans is a city with a central identity apparent to outsiders and lived, almost religiously, by the insiders. So the anomaly that has subsequently become the driving piece of this study should come as no surprise to anyone. The people of New Orleans love what they know better than any other form of music: swinging, horn-heavy jazz.
Your run-of-the-norm New Orleanians aren’t the only people that brave the New Orleans nightlife in search of the jazz music that they expect to find. Tourists, visiting the city from external locations around the world are also part of this expectant demographic. Reid Martin, the lead vocalists and rhythm guitarists for the Blue Party, a local New Orleans indie-pop act, said that “the main reason jazz does so well [in New Orleans] is because it’s a central part of our biggest industry: tourism.”
Indeed, tourism is among the biggest industries in New Orleans. In fact, according to the New Orleans Industry Report, conducted by the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation in 2008, the “tourism industry is the largest employer in the metropolitan New Orleans area, and second largest industry in the state of Louisiana…the tourism economic engine accounts for 35% of the City of New Orleans’ annual operating budget.” Additionally, the report itself includes music venues as one the predominating business categories responsible for contributing to this specific industry, an industry often credited for expediting the recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina more than any other industry. Also included in this report are attendance approximations for “record breaking festivals” held during the 2008 fiscal year, four of which (out of seven) are held solely for, or in accordance with, musical attractions.
After acknowledging tourism as one of New Orleans’ biggest industries, if not its biggest, it seems only rational that businesses everywhere within the New Orleans metropolitan area must consider what tourists want, as a huge customer demographic, almost more than any other demographic. This simple fact alone seems to greatly evidence the observation offered earlier by Martin. People come to New Orleans, a place that is often heralded as the birthplace of jazz, with expectations to hear jazz, and probably jazz alone.
Yet another controlling factor concerning the success of jazz in New Orleans is education. Musical education is certainly a prevalent area of scholarship at all levels within in the city of New Orleans, and among that musical education, jazz is one of the predominate areas of study. Though there are many institutions of higher education within New Orleans, the University of New Orleans (UNO; public; current total undergraduates: 8,345), New Orleans largest public urban institution, Tulane University (private; current total undergraduates: 7,803), and Loyola University (private; current total undergraduates: 2,922), are all among the cities largest higher education institutions.
All three of these institutions boast undergraduate and graduate degree programs within the field of music, and again, all offer areas of concentration pertaining specifically to jazz. Furthermore, Loyola University New Orleans, one of 28 Jesuit Universities in the United States, is the only one to have a college of music and fine arts. Knowing this, it is safe to assess that high school graduates eager to study music, and often times specifically jazz, will likely consider the city of New Orleans as a serious option for their higher education experience.
Another interesting factor to note of is the effect that student bodies within the city of New Orleans have on the success of cultural economy, especially when pertaining to alternative genres of music. According to statistics given by College Search and College Board, 87% of Tulane Universities’ first year students come from out of the state, while 58% of Loyola University New Orleans’ first year students come from out of state. This means that many university students in New Orleans are pseudo citizens, or part-time citizens of the city, or that they maintain chief residences and billing addresses elsewhere, outside of New Orleans. This paired with earlier observations concerning the implications that university student demographics have on the success of alternative music genres within the city mean that the cultural economy of alternative music oscillates throughout the year, experiencing more success during times of study.
The effects such things have had on alternative music genres within New Orleans are drastic to the point of obvious noticeability. For instance, it is considered unwise, almost to the point of taboo, for show promoters and venues to throw or host certain types of alternative genre events in the city during intermediate periods of typical university sessions, i.e. winter and summer breaks. Furthermore, large portions of New Orleans’ alternative genres music groups, as college students, disband during such breaks, returning to their homes for these periods.
III. Alternative Genres in New Orleans
Of course, New Orleans isn’t a city completely void of alternative music genres. There are exceptions to all of the generalizations that made have been made or implicated throughout this piece thus far. New Orleans has boasted its fair share of non-jazz musical acts to emerge from the city in recent times. For instance, many influential rappers hail from the city of New Orleans: Currensy, Master P, Lil’ Wayne, Juvenile, and Mystikal are just a few to name. But in search of any group that claims New Orleans as their home, influenced by rock or other alternative genres, very few come to mind. In most recent times, one familiar with the genres of music discussed here, will think of indie-pop noise duo Belong, and American indie-rock duo Generationals. Save these two exceptions, New Orleans can lay claim to almost no alternative, indie-rock or pop acts that have gone on to achieve national or international acclaim in recent times.
a. Local Alternative Genre Bands
There are several exceptions to be found in New Orleans when observing music on a more local level. New Orleans does in fact possess a small group of musical acts and bands performing alternative genres. The first places to go in search of these groups is the NOIR Collective and the universities of New Orleans, as most of these groups are found within younger circles of people.
Of course, the large amount of these groups would hope to play music at a national or even international level, but simply haven’t succeeded yet. As a member of one of these groups myself, I have a deep understanding of the two sentiments usually shared among these circles. The first offers a hopeful outlook for New Orleans music: it is one that longs for a dramatic shift of New Orleans to a great cultural center and birthplace for alternative musical genres. Several movements within the city characterize this specific longing. Chinquapin Records, is a “cooperative” of local musicians and advocates, mostly from Loyola University, that “seeks to be an outlet for sharing the music we make and the music we love.” Another similar organization – one claiming itself more explicitly as a record label, is Park the Van Records. With many groups currently receiving representation from Park the Van, it is arguably the leading formal organization within New Orleans to promote alternative forms of music. Finally, there is the media and fans in New Orleans that hope for something similar: music blogs like Art Official and Barryfest are doing their best to make sure groups like these find their way to the rest of the world. On the other hand, there are those currently in New Orleans, possibly against their own will, that would like nothing more than to take their musical talent and abilities elsewhere, believing that New Orleans will never be capable of offering them what they need. These are the skeptics. Those resigned to the fact, sometimes unwillingly, that New Orleans, as it stands, is not capable of offering local musicians the fan bases and venues they need to grow.
In conclusion, I will bring together the observations made previously in one concentrated set of theory concerning cultural economy and the success of alternative genre music, specifically independent rock and similar genres, within the city of New Orleans. The answer to this question can be answered, in large part, with simple mathematics and populace figures.
Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the population of New Orleans was altered dramatically. Prior to the hurricane in August of 2005, the population of New Orleans was situated somewhere approximately around 484,674, a number that hasn’t been reached again since the storm. As of 2010, the U.S. Census bureau maintained that the population of New Orleans was only at 343, 829, almost 150,000 below its figure in 2000. The effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans have therefore been dramatic to say the least; where would New Orleans be today, had the storm never happened? This question obviously implicates every part of New Orleans life, music being included.
The unavoidable truth however is that niche groups and interests, ones like alternative genres of music, simply will not do well in a city lacking numbers. Reid Martin, of the Blue Party, makes this observation: “there are simply not enough people in this city to make it possible for most musicians to make a living from solely playing gigs…[but] for jazz musicians in [New Orleans], the audience travels to you.”
From this springs yet another unavoidable truth: that a predominating number of audiences in search of musical experiences in the city of New Orleans come from outside of the city. And they come in search of what they expect to find. In order to continue facilitating what is currently our greatest industry, the city of New Orleans must provide those things, which are in high demand.
Of course, the audience doesn’t always come from elsewhere, and cultural tradition is yet another major factor playing into the success of jazz within the city. It is a success that almost directly affects that of other musical genres, and most often negatively. The term “cultural economy” alone says an infinitesimal amount about why alternative music and music events, within the city of New Orleans, are almost completely glossed over. The initiative of cultural economy, as given by the office of the Lt. Governor, the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, and the Office of Cultural of Cultural Development, is to “support the development of creative industries as a viable sector of Louisiana’s economy.” The key word of this initiative obviously being viable; meaning that any cultural niche incapable of securing a lucrative economy will most likely be ignored not only by the government of New Orleans, but often times her people as well.
Cover image taken from Belong courtesy of Kranky Records
Tales from Storyville by: Eric A. Powell
The Rap on WWOZ by Scott Jordan
New Orleans Tourism Industry Report
U.S. Census Bureau on New Orleans Populace
College Board / College Search
Other Relevant Websites: