Riffing on the Tradition: 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'
Judging by the responses to my "Love for Sale" post about how sustainable music careers in New Orleans are hindered by the very industry that uses our efforts as a focal part of their marketing, some elaboration is needed. My discussions with many of you revealed that you feel the tourism machine is short-sighted by not utilizing our musical services better or supporting musicians more constructively.
Well, trust one thing: They’re not missing opportunities.
Actually, some in the hospitality industry genuinely believe they ARE supporting us. For example, a local event planner, who cited sharing a personal passion for New Orleans culture with her clients as the reason she started her business, took great offense that I, a musician, could be anything less than grateful for her eagerness to sell our talents.
No, I don’t know why some in that sector think fake Mardi Gras parades can educate visitors about jazz. (I doubt even real ones can.) No, I’m not sure how they think showcasing us alongside tarot card readers or ice sculptures gives visiting convention groups a greater appreciation of our music. I do know this, however. Despite their warranted defensiveness, we aren’t likely to convince them that their efforts are anything but good for everyone involved.
The reality is that most in that industry just don’t care about us. More than 75 percent of our visitors are leisure tourists, many looking for music. However, much of the city’s tourism marketing is funded by hotel room occupancy taxes. If a picture of you playing in the street signifies authenticity enough to attract visitors, great! Why spend money creating infrastructure for the real thing? If pictures of Bourbon Street cease to effectively convey the “idea” that New Orleans is a music destination, no problem, they’ll take pictures of you on Frenchmen Street instead. (And no, you won’t often be paid for that, either.)
It’s actually quite savvy in tourism marketing worldwide, that symbols become reality and the things they represent don’t have to exist at all. I saw a funny one just the other day in one of my favorite magazines, Louisiana Cultural Vistas. A full page ad for the state’s official tourism site pictures a lone musician in Jackson Square ... playing a BARITONE saxophone of all things! Boobs.
It’s quite an interesting problem. It’s bad enough that the “authentic” gets diluted and distorted, but when authenticity is replaced by passive images, our work and we are reduced to those symbols and visitors' expectations are reduced to witnessing what they saw in pictures. This is why it’s unlikely that our tourism industry will ever need to actively promote music to brand the New Orleans experience.
So what’s the good news? It’s simple. As long as we’re not under the delusion that tourism professionals care about much more than filling hotel rooms, and as long as we realize that they will react to whatever the latest hospitality studies indicate, we are in control.
They know it can’t always be smoke and mirrors, and that recycling symbols isn’t sustainable. In fact, one important aspect and appeal of New Orleans music is that it can’t be controlled and that it evolves, continuously creating new moments. They followed us to Frenchmen Street and they’ll follow us to St. Claude or the Tremé or or wherever we go next.
The solution? Let’s make sure that next move counts.
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.