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Matters of Life and Death 

The need for a Musicians Tomb underscores the stubborn fact that artists can have a tough time here.

On Saturday, Oct. 23, a small group of mourners gathered to initiate a new kind of family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1: The New Orleans Musicians' Tomb. Housed inside an 18-vault structure long controlled by the Barbarin family -- themselves a family of musicians -- the long-planned memorial became a reality that day with the interment of the ashes of Lloyd Washington, the former Ink Spot who died last spring at age 83.

The bylaws governing burial in the Musicians' Tomb allow every New Orleans musician to have his or her ashes placed in the tomb, as well as the ashes of one spouse, free of charge. That leaves only the costs of cremation and a funeral to survivors -- a savings that's important in a town where so many musicians struggle to make a living.

The Musicians' Tomb exists today because of the generosity of Paul Barbarin and Marie Barbarin Baptiste, the brother and sister who gave the nonprofit Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries the right to use part of the tomb for musicians' burials. Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries and a raft of devoted volunteers have been working on setting up a tomb for the past five years, and they're to be congratulated for sticking with the noble project.

Yet the need for the tomb underscores the stubborn fact that musicians can have a tough time here. The Mayor's Office of Economic Development has been hammering at that problem. Scott Aiges, director of the Office of Music Business Development, says that the best way to help musicians is to assist them in gaining business skills and developing sound business practices that they can parlay into better gigs and licensing opportunities. "It's about making sure people have the skills they need to have sustainable careers," Aiges says. We agree.

To that end, Aiges has showcased New Orleans talent by presenting local groups at events such as MO (for "Mayor's Office") Fest during Jazz Fest, when agents and scouts swarm New Orleans, and by setting up a music industry hospitality area at the festival itself. The office also offers workshops on business practices, marketing and legal issues such as copyrighting. One recent workshop directed participants to event producers who book acts for the lucrative convention market. By coaching musicians in convention protocol (Do arrive on time; don't raid the buffet or try to undercut the producer by dealing with the client yourself), Aiges' office hopes to improve the chances of local musicians to get repeat business from the event planners who serve as the gateways to convention work.

Visual media projects also offer opportunities for musicians, says Aiges. The mayor's legislative agenda last spring included pushing for tax credits for film companies that include Louisiana music in their projects. That credit will be extended to videos, video games and TV commercials as well. Other future projects include a free digital music download Web site for sampling New Orleans music and a monthly open mic hip-hop contest.

One recent morning in its offices on Tulane and Carrolton avenues, the New Orleans Music Co-op hummed with a row of high-powered computers connected to the Internet by T-1 lines. The co-op's audio processors connect to several stations, allowing musicians to snatch tracks from their CDs and post them to their own Web sites. Graphics packages allow musicians to create everything from business cards and flyers to complete press kits. Upstairs, a more elaborate studio with three stations allows musicians to create short sampler CDs. For a $10 monthly fee, musicians can use the office, which is supported and staffed by the Tipitina's Foundation. New Orleans Video Access Center has agreed to share the space in exchange for assisting musicians with video technology. Now approaching its first anniversary, the office has exceeded its goal of serving 200 members. More than 70 of those members have produced Web sites for their work, says musician Mark Fowler, who runs the office.

Other local groups also are helping musicians help themselves. The New Orleans Musicians' Clinic has stepped in to make sure that medical care is available to low-income musicians. Louisiana Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a program of the Arts Council of Greater New Orleans, coordinates a pool of about 75 volunteer lawyers to provide pro bono short-term legal assistance on civil matters for artists and musicians, such as reviewing a licensing agreement or a contract. As New Orleans musicians draw more money to the city by licensing and publishing their work to a growing market, Aiges hopes they'll draw additional infrastructure -- including high-powered lawyers and agents who make other cities power centers for the industry. It's a trickle-up approach that hopefully will help New Orleans' far-flung musicians and musical families find a good living here -- long before they play their eternal gig in St. Louis No. 1.

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