Riffing on the Tradition: Love for sale
This last week, I was glad to learn that I’m not the only musician who resents being bullied into becoming overly reliant on the fan-based business model. The situation I described is “Technological Share-cropping*,” whereby big businesses are working hard to control Web infrastructure while democratizing production and distribution to gain more content from us cheaply.
[*Although I concluded that “digital sharecropping” sounded hipper, when I searched that on Google, I learned that it had been coined by a very astute writer named Nicholas Carr. I’m looking forward to reading his work!]
To my colleagues, thank you for all of the thoughtful side discussions that started. Some of us seemed optimistic, citing strategies that focus on “true” fans; others of us are wary (and weary) of expending so much energy cultivating our fan bases; and some of us shrugged and went back to waiting for the phone to ring. Regardless, we all agreed that the time-tested model of playing what we love and trying to create personal art for a live audience is still the goal, and we shared confidence that true music-lovers feel the same.
But, now it’s time to bring this conversation back home to the subject of creating sustainable careers right here in New Orleans. I know, sometimes, when it feels like you’re really connecting with a club full of people and that tip bucket is just ...overflowing, you’re glad you’re here. But, I want us to raise the bar. It is precisely because music in New Orleans is viewed as a cultural resource that we can allow ourselves to think bigger. I also want us to be more vigilant, because the controllers of the Web are not the only ones who are content for us to produce for free.
I’m not talking about our local followers so much. We have earned their loyalty and, over time, they will understand the necessary shift to a paradigm where our performances are not free. But in this small tourism-dependent town, in which our music is an integral part of the “fun” and “authentic” experience marketed to attract visitors from around the world almost year round, you might want to consider the extent to which our efforts to make a living here are thwarted by our own tourism industry.
I’m not claiming there is any intentional malice. Actually, many in that industry would be completely surprised that we could be anything less than grateful, even beholden, for the work they offer us, e.g. strolling in their staged Second Lines, reveling in fake Carnival parades, or lugubriously noodling in the background for their brunch buffets and cocktail receptions. I’m certain they don’t realize how unhelpful it is to brag on their websites that music here is often free or inexpensive. I bet they would be perplexed why we might take issue with the fact that only a handful of the music venues they choose to promote are legitimate ones that charge for the music they present.
Commodifying our culture is a strategy to increase a visitor’s sense of familiarity. But there are costs when we reduce our music to a symbol, and that’s the next subject we're going to start riffing on.
Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of Nola Art House Music. Click here for an interview with the artist. He writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie.