It's a music industry hothouse.
The three-ring circus that "SXSW" has become -- with its live performances, signing opportunities and panel discussions about current music industry issues -- even draws musicians from other musical hotbeds, including New Orleans. Crescent City musicians of all stripes -- from up-and-comers to veterans still looking for that major-label deal -- make the annual trek. But with the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita opening up old wounds while creating new opportunities for New Orleans musicians, this year's circus has the potential to affect the New Orleans music scene maybe more than ever.
For the many players in the Louisiana music industry at this year's event -- a group that varies from such pedigreed performers as Allen Toussaint and Cyril Neville to journalists, agents, studios and record labels -- Scott Aiges could play the role of ringmaster.
As the head and sole staffer so far of the private nonprofit Louisiana Music Export Office, Aiges masterminded a series of music events over the course of one SXSW weekend. His goal: to promote Louisiana music the way some countries use their cultural export offices to promote their native sound and generate tourism. Indeed, countries like Australia, Canada and Norway have their own booths here, as does Louisiana. At SXSW, it means literally exporting a cultural product -- getting the right musical artists to meet the right people.
For Aiges, the perfect outcome would be seeing all the dancing, eating, boozing and handshaking under the banner of Louisiana lead to lucrative festival bookings for Louisiana acts, more plane tickets to New Orleans for the last weekend of April for Jazz Fest, more cover charges paid at local clubs and, all in all, happier musicians who continue to call New Orleans home -- and thrive while they do it.
For years, officials at the city and state levels have tried to figure out how to use Louisiana's most prolific organic product -- music -- to generate revenue and sustain a viable industry. They have not succeeded, but local musicians still managed to nurture themselves and one another, at least artistically. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which scattered hundreds if not thousands of native musicians to the four corners of the nation, that mission has taken on a greater sense of urgency, if not desperation, than ever before.
That's where Aiges comes in. His nonprofit, formed after he resigned as head of the Mayor's Office for Music Business Development in October 2005, has been retained by the state as a consultant in that effort to promote Louisiana music. The Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT) has ponied up half of Aiges' $65,000 budget for the weekend's events at SXSW, with the rest supplied by sponsors Southern Comfort, Hibernia Bank and Putumayo World Music.
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's office, which oversees CRT, has long been a supporter of a "cultural economy" model for the state. One aspect of that effort -- film industry tax-credit incentives passed in 2002 -- has succeeded beyond expectations. Based on that model, state legislators passed a new tax-credit incentive bill for sound recording and the building of studios and other recording industry infrastructure. The new law took effect Jan. 1. The state now hopes to consolidate all efforts to develop entertainment media into a single state office -- with attendant tax credits.
So the message is clear: Music is business in Louisiana, and hopefully big business. After Katrina, exposure at SXSW is marketing gold. On one hand, selling this homegrown product with more savvy and aggressiveness sounds like a no-brainer to help patch up a ravaged state economy. On the other hand, New Orleans musicians have long chafed at their treatment by the city and the state -- and now they've got a national platform to air their grievances.
At a SXSW panel in Austin, Cyril Neville didn't mince words.
"What's life like for the average New Orleans musician? It's hell, to be specific," he says. A highly competitive marketplace combined with grudging government support for issues such as music education, health care and pay scales make the city less than ideal for struggling musicians, Neville says. He adds that the export models most often used don't address any of those concerns.
The vibrant neighborhood culture that spawned second lines, Mardi Gras Indian tribes and social aid and pleasure clubs hangs in limbo because of the still-uncertain fate of New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods. Unconfirmed buzz has it that chairman Ellis Marsalis and executive director Bernie Cyrus' recent resignations from the Louisiana Music Commission may have been prompted by their disenchantment with Louisiana's economic development efforts. With Marsalis gone, ominously, there are no working musicians assuming a functioning role in the future of music -- at least with the ear of the policymakers -- in Louisiana.
Meanwhile, SXSW featured relatively few "undiscovered" New Orleans musicians. Some non-traditional local acts, like Quintron, Rhoades D'Ablo and Susan Cowsill, were not even attending under the umbrella of Aiges' export office. Otherwise, Louisiana's SXSW offerings read like a who's who of well-established names -- Neville, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Allen Toussaint and others. Apparently, the aim was not to book recording deals, but rather hotel rooms back home.
At the same time, a lot of New Orleans musicians were looking for signs of renewed life -- and appreciation.
IT'S ALMOST MIDNIGHT ON FRIDAY IN AUSTIN, and if the Continental Club were a cartoon, the walls would be visibly pumping in and out, Chuck Jones-style, like the bellows of an accordion to the sound of Barbara Lynn performing "What'd I Say" to a capacity crowd of around 400 -- plus a few dozen hopefuls lining up outside on South Congress Street. Lynn is playing the Ponderosa Stomp, an annual two-night roots-rhythm-and-blues party that bridges the two Jazz Fest weekends in New Orleans. The Stomp, which will relocate for this year only to Memphis, is on a bit of a field trip here in Austin, and the show is just starting to smoke.
On Saturday morning, the daily Austin American-Statesman will declare that "if you missed the Ponderosa Stomp, you missed South by Southwest." The Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau, the group behind the Stomp, will still be up to get those morning papers. "We were in a shoe store with a frozen margarita machine at five in the morning," Ira Padnos says with a grin on Saturday afternoon.
Padnos, or Dr. Ike, who has spearheaded the four annual Stomps so far, was planning to steer his caravan to Austin this year anyway. Hooking up with Aiges' export office was a convenient afterthought. Funding came from longtime sponsor American Spirit tobacco. The Stomp has long been an alternative to traditional New Orleans music. Its usual calendar positioning screams that it's filling in the blanks left by Jazz Fest, championing the "unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll" like cult 1960s hitmakers Roy Head and Archie Bell, whose touring schedules are, to put it mildly, not as hectic as those of the Dirty Dozen or Cyril Neville.
Padnos considers this year's move a success: "It was great publicity, and the bands killed."
ON SATURDAY AFTERNOON, the Stomp veered from the official "Louisiana showcase" and set up in the parking lot of Opal Devine's Freehouse on the West End of Austin's Sixth Street strip. The day was gray and drizzly, but both the silent auction inside and the show outside buzzed with energy as the previous night's acts reprised their three-song, hit-heavy sets with the template of a vintage rock 'n' roll revue.
Just across the river at the outdoor stage at the Town Lake Auditorium Shores, an event partly subsidized by the festival, the standard Louisiana fashion show of anti-Katrina T-shirts and LSU sweatshirts was in bloom as several hundred people danced in the mud to Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk and the New Orleans Social Club. The latter group features shifting membership of New Orleans musical evacuees -- including, but not limited to, Ivan and Cyril Neville, Henry Butler, Troy Andrews, John Boutt and many others -- that formed in Austin in October. The album they recorded, Sing Me Back Home, is scheduled for release on April 4. In Austin, they also recorded a 90-minute special for the TV show Austin City Limits, which included appearances from Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas.
All the money raised from the $5 suggested donation benefits the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. Mostly, the musicians involved were happy to join in the familiar setting of an outdoor show of New Orleans music.
"It was a good vibe, a good atmosphere, and good New Orleans music," the Dirty Dozen's Roger Lewis said.
EARLIER THAT AFTERNOON, comedian, Simpsons star and part-time New Orleans resident Harry Shearer moderated a panel on the state of local music, talking with OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey, Times-Picayune music writer Keith Spera, musicians Cyril Neville and Allen Toussaint, and Aiges. The initial round of reports, for the benefit of the non-New Orleanians in the room, focused on whose house had taken how much floodwater; who made out OK and not so OK; and who was living where. Shearer, in an interesting analogy, compared the stories of New Orleanians who had gone through Katrina to the tales of his European ancestors fleeing Europe before World War II. The second question posed to the panel -- What was the state of the official attitude towards music in the city after Katrina? -- got the discussion going as the panelists tried to address the scattered state of our musical culture.
At least some raised the issue of how to maintain musicians' trust in their hometown's support.
"There's a New Orleans music diaspora out there that we need to hold onto," says Ramsey, who also sits on the board of directors of the Louisiana Music Export Office. She and Aiges had long felt stifled by a lack of funding and attention during Mayor Ray Nagin's administration. They both also felt certain that private nonprofits -- citing the work of the MusiCares Foundation in getting funds and instruments to displaced musicians -- serve the cause of New Orleans music far better than government efforts. All parties agreed that the city's music bubbles up from the streets, and that City Hall's treatment of it has been, for the most part, not very good.
"I have no faith anymore in the government doing anything," says Ramsey. "It's got to come from the private sector."
Shearer brought up the uncertain future of neighborhood authenticity and music programming in the new charter schools, who receive no incentive, as had the public schools to maintain music programming. Ramsey appeared hopeful about the planned Musicians' Village housing, joint venture between Habitat for Humanity and musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. in which residents will be required to spend 350 hours a year mentoring children in the community. The most interesting counterpoint, however, came from the two musicians in the room -- Allen Toussaint and Cyril Neville. It was a given, they said, that to succeed as a New Orleans musician you had to spend quite a bit of time outside New Orleans. Neville took it a step further; with housing and education in flux, why spend any time in New Orleans at all?
"I'm one of the lucky ones," Neville said. "I get to play Jazz Fest, and usually the day after Jazz Fest we're on a bus or a plane out of New Orleans and stay away for the whole summer. If you don't have another day job, you can't make a living playing music in New Orleans, and that goes back to way before Satchmo. In New Orleans, if you want to make a hundred dollars, you can play 10 sets on Bourbon Street, 45 minutes on, 45 minutes off. And if you get anything from the bar, they take that out.
"That's New Orleans," Neville continued. "New Orleans has got it down to a science -- cutting off their nose to spite their face."
Toussaint, who said he remained committed to living in the city, agreed with the often-outspoken Neville's assessment: "I'm not sure why this happens, but we'll see something that doesn't work and keep doing it again and again." Toussaint raised the point that in New Orleans, a music act that might play Carnegie Hall one day will play at home in a hotel lounge between the bathroom and the bar. "New Orleans takes its music for granted," he said. "They don't feel it's worthy of presentation. New Orleans musicians will go and play in other places, and then the rest of the world accepts it and sells it back to us. I understand why people leave and play in other places -- we settle for a little less to live in New Orleans. But for me, I would accept millions less to get to live in New Orleans."
Keith Spera pointed out that the weekend's location should not escape anyone's notice. "New Orleans could learn a lot from our host city the way the music is packaged. A lot of lip service is paid to music [in Louisiana], but it doesn't trickle down," he noted, alluding to a controversy over zoning a jazz entertainment district on Rampart Street.
Austin, which bills itself as the "live-music capital of the world," Spera notes, has a live-music stage in the airport, as well as an active music commission that received several million dollars from FEMA after the storm for the housing aid it provided to New Orleans musicians. During the months after Katrina, Austin played host to many displaced New Orleans musicians, and several found the situation more amenable than New Orleans for permanent living. Besides Neville -- who was voted Austin's 2005 Musician of the Year and honored with a Cyril Neville Day (Feb. 2) -- two members of the Iguanas are currently Austin residents; Big Sam Williams of Big Sam's Funky Nation and the Soul Rebels Brass Band have set up shop in Austin, and guitarist Rhoades D'Ablo, formerly of the New Orleans rock outfits Rock City Morgue and The Devil's Right Hand, is now a Texan.
Late Sunday night, setting up to play a showcase at Headhunters on Red River Street, D'Ablo seems like a man committed to starting a new life. D'Ablo -- whose blog of his post-Katrina experiences in the Louisiana Superdome was widely read -- notes that this past Mardi Gras was the first one in 14 years he'd missed. He's wistful about the city. "If not for Katrina, yeah, I'd probably still be there," he says. Although his Bywater home was undamaged, he had no recourse but to move when his landlords demanded rent for September and October, and rents in his neighborhood nearly doubled.
"The cheapest we could find was a dump in the Bywater for $1,200. It's just no place to live. Why raise kids in that atmosphere?" he asks rhetorically, adding that in Austin his girlfriend's two grade school-age children can attend public school. "You really forget how other cities just have a better quality of life. Slowness is part of the New Orleans charm, I guess, but now when I go back I feel like I got shot in the leg. Here, I call the landlord to get something fixed -- it gets fixed the next day."
As a musician, D'Ablo also thinks Austin will provide better opportunities: "My new band's been together since January, and we're already turning down gigs. In New Orleans, you have to tour or stagnate."
BASIN STREET RECORDS FOUNDER Mark Samuels also evacuated to Austin and has been based out of that city since Katrina, returning to New Orleans frequently to work on his house. After taking 5 feet of water in his home and a foot in his Mid-City office, which he's written off, the road back is a wet one, but he's committed to slogging through. Although he's down to only himself from a previous staff of five, he hopes to have hurricane-delayed albums by label artists Theresa Andersson, Henry Butler and Dr. Michael White out by Jazz Fest and is hopeful that most of the acts in his roster are slowly but surely trickling back into the city.
"I lost $100,000 in property value and real estate," Samuels says. "But things are looking up week by week, month by month. We're starting to see some positive cash flow. Kermit Ruffins is back in New Orleans most of the time, although he's maintaining a regular gig in Houston. Irvin Mayfield, Jon Cleary, Theresa Andersson -- they're all back. Michael White's in Houston but teaching at Xavier. It's a challenge and an opportunity -- after nine years, I get to start fresh."
Samuels supports the efforts of Aiges and the Louisiana Export Office, but is wary of the prevailing state attitude toward rebuilding New Orleans music. "The sorts of things I think [Aiges] has in mind -- those things will be helpful," says Samuels. "He was doing a good job before with what he had to work with. And there's been an immediate payoff for us from South By Southwest -- last year, the Agency Group walked right up to Theresa Andersson after her set and signed her. But the Small Business Administration, the governor, the mayor, the city council -- they're all missing the boat. We can't get a lot of [the musicians] back if they don't have a place to live."
"My concern is long-term," continues Samuels. "Developing communities again. How could we have the Rebirth Brass Band forming in their neighborhood now? Filling the clubs is no problem. It's creating cultural opportunities for the future."
Cyril Neville is ready to echo that statement -- fiercely. "I feel like not everyone's welcome back," he says. "And I'm part of that contingency. I'm sure if they really wanted to get in touch with musicians from New Orleans, they could have. I live in Gentilly, and since the second week of October my house has been gutted, and up until this last week I couldn't get information on what the plans were for that part of the city. It's business as usual. The elite private sector who really run the city has made its decision, and the politicians are gonna step in line with that. There's no straight answer -- just a lot of talk about 'future green spaces.' They're gonna do just like they did with Louis Armstrong's house: tear it down and build a new parish prison. But old Pierre Maspero's slave market is still down there."
According to Neville, the post-Katrina landscape is nothing new for musicians. "The New Orleans that I love was disappearing way before Katrina," says Neville. "There was a storm brewing in the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Ward long before Katrina. We were written off long before that storm, and we've been written off again. People like me have been trying to tell them what could be done for artists and musicians for a long time -- there's no reason to think they're going to listen now. They know where to find us. If they wanted to know what we thought, they could have asked.
"I don't want to get into comparing," Neville says, "but the bottom line is things have been better for me here than in New Orleans, and I'll just leave it at that."
Rewinding to Friday afternoon, Scott Aiges is setting up outside the Continental Club for the New Orleans-at-SXSW networking crawfish boil -- part of what, he hopes, will be a step toward making things better in New Orleans for the music industry. So far his plan is rolling pretty well -- the Hot 8's guerilla street marketing, in the form of unscheduled second lining through the streets of Austin, has drawn a crowd. The familiar smell of steaming crawfish is wafting down South Congress Street.
"You can't show up here from New Orleans and not bring food," Aiges says. "Last year, Jack Leonardi from Jacques-Imo's cooked, and we ran out of spoons." The total delegation from New Orleans at SXSW, including musicians and representatives from the Stomp, Jazz Fest, OffBeat, Basin Street Records and various agents, studios, equipment manufacturers and other suchlike persons of interest totals more than 100 people, which necessitates a lot of crawfish.
"I don't know if you want to call it ironic, but we had already seen SXSW as a major marketing opportunity," Aiges says. "We started building the model last year, but if we hadn't had the hurricane, I don't know if they would have offered us [the large stage at] Town Lake. I'm in the marketing business -- you want attention focused on you. It totally sucks that it was because of the hurricane, but ... ." Ultimately, Aiges' goal is to build an online, iTunes-like consignment store for Louisiana musicians to sell their songs and continue promoting awareness of Louisiana music outside the city, with the bulk of revenue coming from sponsorships and grants. "Mitch Landrieu says if you export musicians, you import tourists," Aiges says. As a private nonprofit, the office will focus on raising awareness of Louisiana music outside the city and not specifically on musical infrastructure within the city, to which the reaction, among musicians, is mixed.
BY THE END OF THE FESTIVAL, Ira Padnos is pleased. "It seems like something good to pursue, and we would work with them again," he says. "It helped draw attention to the Stomp through all that great press and legitimize it, I think, in some people's eyes. And some artists have already been contacted about gigs, and that's the ultimate goal -- to get musicians work. We just want to see these heroes and pioneers working."
Although this year's Stomp will be held in Memphis because of the need to make final decisions on it in September, Padnos plans to return to New Orleans next year.
Neville, on the other hand, has been made aware of little about the state's plan to develop the music business and trusts it less. "I really don't know anything about it. As far as I'm concerned it's just another organization put together by somebody other than the musicians of New Orleans themselves," he says. "And I'm not going to be a monkey on a stick to make anyone look good anymore. Two weeks after the hurricane, I left my family in a hotel to play, to donate my performance and raise millions of dollars for hurricane victims, which WE was. And nobody knows where that money went. There's more relevant organizations for me to donate my energies to: the Backstreet Cultural Museum, the Tambourine and Fan Club, the Mother-in-Law Lounge, the St. Augustine's Church.
"That's my New Orleans, and that's all that I miss."
Roger Lewis, speaking from the studio in Austin where the Dirty Dozen is putting the finishing touches on a new CD to be released early next year, is as pleased with SXSW as with any gig.
"Hurricane Katrina didn't affect our work schedule at all," says Lewis. "We're more on the road than we are in New Orleans anyway. And I think this was great exposure for musicians -- the rest of the country gets a little taste of New Orleans music, get some guys some work -- it's positive energy. And it's always a good time to get to perform your craft and see smiles on people's faces. There are still times, you know, when I feel like this was all a bad dream. Sometimes I still think I'm dreaming."
The album in progress would have been eligible for the recording tax credit, but the Dirty Dozen chose to record half in Austin and half in Los Angeles to accommodate its touring schedule. "This is the first time I heard about that, but it's probably a good thing," Lewis says of the tax credit. "Would I have took advantage of it? I don't know. I don't know if this is really going to help us, anyway. We get about 300 gigs a year already."