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Who's Steppin' It UP? Sweet Home New Orleans steps aside

sweethomeLast week, Sweet Home New Orleans officially moved out of its Healing Center offices. As a board member since fall 2012, I can personally attest that the process of suspending operations was complicated, un-fun, and a bit deflating. Yes, losing a major advocate for the hundreds of musicians who live and work here is reason for significant concern, but it’s also important to understand what the organization accomplished.

When SNHO restructured and unveiled its musician empowerment programming, the results were nothing less than a complete change in the conversation. It proved that the best way to help musicians was to help them help themselves, revealed new ways for the community to relate to its musicians and culture bearers, and raised the profile of those who generate cultural economy in New Orleans. That was the broader mission, and by many measures Sweet Home achieved what it set out to do.

Major strides toward achieving that mission were the result of Sweet Home’s data collection; advocacy through courses for music business and the Empower Musicians Seal of Approval; and through partnerships with groups including WWOZ, Offbeat Magazine, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy, the New Orleans Business Alliance, the New Orleans Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the Ellis Marsalis Center, and the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans.

Sweet Home’s economic data has been used by an astounding number of groups. This has encouraged wide acceptance for figures that reveal, in 2012 for example, that in spite of $14.4 million in sales for the city New Orleans generated by the entertainment industry, and more than $4 billion from tourism, the average annual income for a musician here is less than $18k.

I spoke with SHNO’s former executive director, Suzanne Mobley, who points out, as I’ve heard her do on several occasions, that, “this could be cast as a social justice issue,” which it is, “but at its core, it is an economic issue. We have a long history of simultaneously treating our culture as presumed, while neglecting and/or restricting the creators of our cultural assets.” Hopefully, in future discussions about cultural economy and economic development, the use of these concerning numbers as well as Sweet Home’s annual reports will continue.

Providing quality music business education for working musicians in order to “move the needle for the cultural community as a whole” was also an important goal.

“When we restructured SHNO to provide musicians with the business training they need to diversify and increase their incomes, it was with the knowledge of the historic vulnerability of our musical population," Mobley continued. "It was also, however, with the understanding that tourism and our cultural economy, our appeal to young entrepreneurs, and our city’s brand to the world relies on our music and culture.”

She recalled being “met with skepticism when we projected that our pilot classes of musicians could see increases of 100 percent in their royalty checks. Imagine our joy when they actually had an average increase of 226 percent.”

This should be the easiest part to keep going. What distinguished Sweet Home’s programming wasn’t the course content as much as the methodology. By targeting “small groups of musicians with an emphasis on key thought leaders and cross cutting diversity,” the course applicants were chosen for their potential to share the business skills they developed across lines of race, age, education level, even styles of music.

The Empower Musicians Seal of Approval draws attention to the real costs of a "free show." Currently there are 10 music presenters that satisfied a variety of conditions to show that their success and fair treatment of musicians could go hand-in-hand. I personally plan to bolster local support of these venues so they benefit from their efforts. Already, this program is contributing to similar efforts in other cities.

Sweet Home’s board shares Mobley’s recognition that “New Orleans culture bearers are resourceful, resilient, and talented beyond belief,” as well as “how often this sector is underestimated. We wish we had been able to find the funding to continue but remain confident that Sweet Home’s work, and better, will continue. It must, because this mission is vital to our city that owes its musicians every opportunity to thrive.

We are proud to have proven the need and potential for a vibrant, homegrown cultural economy. Per Sue’s well-wishing to whomever picks up the baton for the next leg of this mission, “may you have a team, partners, and allies as dedicated as Sweet Home New Orleans has been fortunate enough to have.”

New Orleans-based musician, Evan Christopher writes Who's Steppin' it UP exclusively for NolaVie. This Wednesday, September 18, his "Clarinet Road" performs at the Little Gem Saloon, one of the venues awarded a Seal of Approval for musician-friendly business practices. More information is on his website: http://clarinetroad.com/announcements/event_news_2013.09.18_little_gem_salo 

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]