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Riffing On the Tradition: Strike Up the Band

Although I’m writing from arguably one of the least lively places I’ve ever performed (after 25 years in this biz, that’s saying something), from a drab hotel that smells like a grandparent’s guest room (unused, save for the family dog), on a day that couldn’t possibly be drearier (even the drizzling rain seems to fall apathetically), ANY DAY MAKING A LIVING AS A MUSICIAN IS A GOOD ONE. (I need the caps right now.) ... If I let myself think otherwise, I’m cheating myself.

“Riffing on the Tradition,” which I’ve been writing for just shy of one year, has been a great way to feel productive in times like these. These short articles have heightened my sense of activism, encouraged me to read more, and have helped me feel like I’m contributing to the scene in some way besides working for tips. And that returning to New Orleans after the failure of the levees was more than opportunism.

My latest efforts have been devoted to trying to understand aggressive permit enforcement that has been adversely affecting our live music scene. My conclusion so far is that one of the biggest problems is the mixed message our community gets from our civic leaders, who brag about our contribution to the city’s character and tourism-dependent economy, while simultaneously assuring citizens that their “quality of life” will not be compromised by our noise and the people who support us.

Last week, to facilitate and encourage the sharing of specific accounts of lost work, revenue, frustrations with the permitting process, sound ordinances, and even flyering protocals, I helped music-business expert Sarah Gromko launch an awareness campaign called "New Orleans Noise." The webpage serves as a repository for accounts by musicians and venue owners about how enforcement is affecting them, as well as other information that can help us move forward. The site's Facebook and Twitter feeds offer additional platforms where our point of view can be shared easily and show people what’s in jeopardy.

Musicians and venue-owners are slowly engaging it, and hopefully that’s because we are spreading information in other ways, and not because we’re under the delusion that educating the public and ourselves in concrete terms isn’t necessary.

Perfect example? DJ Soul Sister posted her response to a letter from neighbors of Mimi’s in the Marigny. If you read it, you see what we’re up against, and to what extent there is zero consensus about what culture sounds like in the new New Orleans.

Controlling the narrative in this way is crucial at this moment. Thanks to a meeting hosted by Kermit Ruffins, as of last week, we have reached a tipping point and people are listening to us. It’s time to put on our long pants, roll up our sleeves, sit down, and deal with this like professionals. There are opportunities here that we can not afford to miss.

The question shouldn’t be, how can we keep things the way they were before the enforcement crackdown? What would that be defending anyway? The right to have a marginally sustainable music scene monetized by passing a bucket, pandering to tourists, where creativity lives underground and where we advertise gigs on telephone poles?

We should be focusing on using enforcement in our favor. If we’re savvy and thoughtful, we can leverage this new change in climate to ask for music business infrastructure, ask audiences to actually pay to hear our music, ask venues to be more thoughtful about how they present and market us, and, lastly, do the hard work of asking ourselves the most important question: What does truly meaningful music in New Orleans sound like?

If we demand less, we're cheating ourselves.

Evan Christopher, a noted member of the New Orleans music community, writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie. His columns also are archived at Clarinet Road.com.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at [email protected]