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Riffing on the Tradition: There'll Be Some Changes Made

[For Evan Christopher, our hospitality industry has achieved little more than stagnation for cultural tourism. For our local music industry, he proposes that new venues are essential to true growth, and that musicians are the ones to create them.]

Since I started this column about the New Orleans musical landscape, I hope one thing is clear – To make a music scene that is sustainable, it’s up to us, the music-makers.

Recap of some facts:
• Music and dance have been the lifeblood of New Orleans since the city’s inception. Around the turn of the last century, nearly 800 spaces for musical performance have been documented.
• Music continues to be an essential component of defining and building our community.
• The tourism machine is of very little use to us for providing cultural infrastructure. If we create something that they decide they can use to attract visitors, they use it, but usually by either counterfeiting it (fake Carnival parades), or mass marketing it (Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street).

The decline of Frenchmen Street, that one colleague described as being “gutted” by tourists, is a perfect example. The hospitality industry actually has their own language for this cycle of exploitation. They might describe Frenchmen as a “mature tourist destination,” meaning, in spite of its seeming popularity, it has reached a stage of “stagnation.” Evidence might include increased friction between locals and visitors, an increase in workers from outside the community diluting the quality of our contact with visitors (e.g. annoying busking hipsters), or marketing strategies that have done little to increase our earning potential. Yes, it’s our fault for giving away the product in the first place, but the fact that our tourism advertising brags about the music being free doesn’t help.

As I stated last week, it’s time for us to make a move. In the current business climate, however, that move will not likely be some new entertainment zone. The move should be toward creating non-traditional performance spaces and non-traditional partnerships.

Think of the “Pop-Up” restaurant concept that has been quite successful in London or New York that relies heavily on social media for publicity and minimal infrastructure. Here at home, I think there is great potential for creating similar events that will attract a diverse, high-quality audience made up of discerning locals, who according to a recent “Travel & Leisure” study is a reason that New Orleans ranks very high in community pride, as well as certain visitors who are more culturally sensitive and willing to explore beyond the French Quarter.

One fairly sophisticated local model is the New Orleans Fringe Festival complete with 501c3 status and a quality website. “Fringiness” may not one of my personal core values, but I’m very impressed by their resourcefulness. I’m familiar with the “original” Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland because I perform often at the jazz festival there that is around the same time. Our Fringe has an even stronger community element and is more creative in transforming spaces for performances.

In another example, bringing these elements together, NOLA Art House Music will make a Christmas concert on December 17. Decidedly not a traditional performance space, Holy Name Church, by Loyola University represents a unique partnership that bolsters the commitment of all parties involved to strengthen the community. Christmas itself is one theme of many around which artistic programs can be developed. Additionally, the opportunity to build a more diverse audience holds great appeal. NOLA Art House Music's goal is to prove that productions like these can be an effective way to elevate our perceived value. (For more information, I’ve put a link on my own website.)

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.

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]