[The Tipitina's Foundation, which we've long been proud to highlight on the CCAI Web site–see bottom row of splash page, is the focus of an in depth article on New Orleans' musicians in today's New York Times. Reprinted in its entirety below.]
August 5, 2007
The Katrina Effect, Measured in Gigs
By Andrew Park
ON a recent sultry afternoon here, Tipitina’s — arguably the most famous musical haunt in a city famous for its music — is eerily quiet. This ramshackle, two-story yellow joint at the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas won’t start jumping until after dark, when Ivan Neville and his band, Dumpstaphunk, take center stage.
But upstairs, past balconies smelling of stale beer and cigarettes, past walls plastered with yellowed concert posters, musicians are working. Some edit concert fliers, tweak Web sites or research overseas jazz festivals; others get legal advice or mix audio and video; others simply chatter about who has found gigs and who is still struggling.
Since late 2005, just a few months after Hurricane Katrina tore through this city, more than 1,000 New Orleans musicians have become members of Tipitina’s three cooperative music offices. “I go in sometimes and all I’m doing is checking my e-mails,” says Margie Perez, an effervescent blues singer.
For Ms. Perez and others trying to rebuild fragile livelihoods as artists, grass-roots efforts like the co-ops have been a boon, helping them to replace lost or damaged instruments and sound equipment, arranging and subsidizing gigs and providing transportation, health care and housing. The Tipitina’s Foundation, the club’s charitable arm, has distributed about $1.5 million in aid; in all, Tipitina’s and other nonprofit groups have marshaled tens of millions of dollars in relief from around the world to help bolster the music business here.
But it remains to be seen how long a loose-knit band of charities can stand in for coordinated economic development in one of New Orleans’s most important business sectors. Although New Orleans is one of the country’s most culturally distinct cities, a large-scale recording industry never took root here, even before Katrina. Yet the informal music sector, the kind visitors find in clubs and bars, and large-scale musical events like Jazz Fest, is a mainstay of the city’s tourism business.
In fact, local authorities say, music and cuisine are the twin pillars of the tourism industry here; the leisure and hospitality businesses account for almost 63,000 jobs in the city and for about 35 percent of the sales taxes. Both of those figures are larger than those of any other business sector, including the energy industry.
Still, nearly two years after Katrina, there are fewer restaurants and bars offering live music, and the ones that do are paying less, musicians say. As the reality of the slow recovery has set in, fewer locals feel that they can afford cover charges or even tips, so clubs that used to have live music four or five nights a week have cut back to two or three.
Conventions, typically a strong source of music gigs, are running at 70 percent of 2004 levels, but leisure travel remains far below pre-Katrina levels, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Over all, visitors generated $2.9 billion in spending in 2006, down from $4.9 billion in 2004, according to the bureau. About 3.7 million people visited the city in 2006, compared with more than 10 million in 2004.
Compounding the music scene’s slow revival is the challenge of tracking musicians — who are typically paid in cash and often hold down other jobs — in order to get them financial support. Habitat for Humanity, which is building what it describes as a “musicians’ village” in the Ninth Ward, initially struggled to find creditworthy applicants — just one instance of relief for artists failing to meet its mark.
“It’s kind of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle,” says Roland von Kurnatowski, who owns Tipitina’s with his wife, Mary. “New Orleans musicians are unique and if you try to mess with what makes them unique too much, it’s not a good thing. What they need is revenue opportunities.”
Economic development leaders for the city and the state of Louisiana praise the efforts of Tipitina’s at a time when governmental resources are strained. “With the demise of the venues and the lack of tourism, we’ve got to find a way to get people back to work,” says Lynn Ourso, executive director of the Louisiana Music Commission. “They’re putting these musicians to work on computers, showing how they can globally transmit and distribute — they’re teaching job skills.”
MR. KURNATOWSKI, 56, is an unlikely anchor of the local music business. A New Orleans native and Tulane graduate, he says he had never heard of Tipitina’s until he was asked to invest in the club in 1995. By then it was a beloved venue known for rollicking performances by locals like Dr. John and the Meters as well as touring acts like James Brown and Widespread Panic, but it had a spotty financial history. It was started by friends of the influential New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair as a place for him to play late in his career, but struggled under novice management and closed for a year in the mid-1980s.
Mr. Kurnatowski, a real estate investor who owns about 35 apartment complexes in the Gulf Coast region, had begun marketing storage units in a converted hotel as rehearsal space and thought that having a connection with Tipitina’s might lure musicians into renting. But the deteriorating club, facing new competition from the House of Blues, needed a new sound system and air-conditioning system. Mr. Kurnatowski agreed to make an equity investment; within a year he bought it outright for about $500,000.
He soon realized that he had neither the expertise nor the time to run Tipitina’s properly — especially because he was a morning person. “It’s a different routine,” he says. “It’s working nights, and it just wasn’t very practical.”
Intrigued by the club’s history and its intense following, he couldn’t bring himself to sell it. He also says that his other real estate investments gave him enough financial breathing room to think creatively about what to do with Tipitina’s. So, in 1997, he and his wife formed the Tipitina’s Foundation, which would begin to use the club, still for-profit, to serve the nonprofit mission of helping musicians. The move provided a rationale for holding on to Tipitina’s, even if it only broke even, and marked a return to the club’s early purpose of supporting the local music scene.
Its projects included an internship program for children wanting to get into the music business and a fund-raiser to buy instruments for local school bands. The first of its co-ops, a collaboration between the foundation and the city, opened in 2003. (Branches in Shreveport and Alexandria, La., opened later.)
The foundation could have easily fallen victim to Katrina’s devastation. Many of the city’s cultural organizations suffered extensive damage to facilities and had to cut their payrolls. Tipitina’s suffered only limited wind damage, and the foundation’s services were in demand. Many musicians lived in devastated neighborhoods like Gentilly and the Ninth Ward; those in other parts of town still lost instruments, amplifiers and CD collections to the flooding. Bands were scattered around the country, and some meager savings accounts were obliterated.
After Katrina struck in August 2005, Mr. Kurnatowski and the executive director, Bill Taylor, decided to try to reconstitute the foundation’s work. By late October, they had reopened the club and the co-op, both of which quickly became hubs of activity for musicians returning to town. A legal clinic that provided musicians with free help with contracts, copyright issues and licensing agreements became a popular service.
“Even if they lost everything, they still had their intellectual property,” says Ashlye M. Keaton, a lawyer who runs the clinic. “You could see the look in people’s eyes: ‘This is all I have, this is my career, and I’m going to do everything I can to protect it.’ ”
For his part, Mr. Kurnatowski pledged to plow all profits from Tipitina’s, which scaled back its staff and eliminated guaranteed payouts to musicians, into the foundation. The club has cut its number of shows to four nights a week from six, but has seen total attendance and bar sales stay steady. Even so, Mr. Kurnatowski says, Tipitina’s operates on razor-thin margins: he says the club earned about $40,000 last year on revenue of about $500,000.
Other organizations also tried to put some financial muscle behind the local music business. The New Orleans Musicians Clinic paid musicians to play at the airport and offered $100 guarantees to musicians who could find gigs for themselves elsewhere. The Jazz Foundation of America also subsidized performances. The New Orleans Musician’s Relief Fund, a charity started by the former dB’s bassist Jeff Beninato, offered a temporary apartment to musicians. Renew Our Music, another relief fund, gave financial grants to musicians, while funds from Gibson Guitar and MusiCares, a charitable organization affiliated with the Recording Academy, helped buy scores of new instruments.
For artists dependent on support, such backing was invaluable.
Margie Perez, a former travel agent, had arrived in New Orleans just eight months before the storm. She returned to town in January 2006 to discover that her apartment in the Broadmoor neighborhood had been badly flooded. Determined to stay, she found other housing — for twice what she paid pre-Katrina — went to work cleaning damaged houses and started visiting the Tipitina’s co-op. She picked up work in different bands and this last spring was invited to sing with the pianist and producer Allen Toussaint at Jazz Fest.
Ms. Perez, 42, also has a part-time job at a clothing boutique and is training to be a tour guide; the music business here is still too anemic for her to depend on it for her livelihood. “You just get into as many projects as you can,” Ms. Perez says. “I’m in, like, five different bands and that’s kind of the case with a lot of musicians in town.”
Indeed, even as crowds come back, littering Bourbon Street with beer cans and daiquiri cups, musicians say they’re not seeing their incomes rebound. Wil Kennedy, a guitarist and singer who plays for passers-by in Jackson Square, says the situation is still “as bad as it was after 9/11,” with his tips down as much as 75 percent from the peak period before 9/11. In the clubs, guarantees of a minimum payout are now less common; many clubs offer musicians just the take at the door or a percentage of drink sales.
“They’ve kind of gotten used to getting the music cheap when people were so desperate they’d play for a sandwich and a $20 bill,” says Kim Foreman, secretary and treasurer of a local branch of the American Federation of Musicians, which has lost about 120 of its 800 dues-paying members. Poverty keeps many musicians living with substandard housing and health care, Mr. Foreman says.
Katrina left as many as half of the city’s roughly 5,000 working musicians marooned elsewhere, says Jordan Hirsch, executive director of Sweet Home New Orleans, an organization that provides financial support to musicians.
“A lot of people in Texas and Georgia and around the country want to be back, feel that their best economic opportunities are here, but just can’t get from A to B,” Mr. Hirsch says.
Others are scared off by the rampant crime and lack of basic services here, despite an economic need to be back in the Big Easy’s cultural stew. “Right now, New Orleans is not fit for my family,” says the Hot 8 Brass Band trombonist Jerome Jones, who has relocated to Houston with his wife and four of his five children. Mr. Jones, whose bandmate Dinerral Shavers was murdered here last December, says he plans to commute to New Orleans for gigs and band business.
IT’S an article of faith among New Orleanians that the music scene is an indelible part of the city’s appeal. But the city and state historically haven’t recognized the role that musicians and other creative workers play in driving tourism and improving the quality of life, advocates say. As a result, they say, the city and state have underinvested in the cultural sector of the economy.
“People don’t think of artists as a category of workers,” says Maria-Rosario Jackson, director of the Urban Institute’s Culture, Creativity, and Communities Program, which found that the city’s infrastructure for “cultural vitality” even before Katrina rated in the bottom half of the country’s metropolitan areas.
Figuring how “to translate that authenticity to economic development has been the challenge for all these years,” says Scott Aiges, who headed the city’s music office before Katrina and is now director of marketing and communications for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, which owns Jazz Fest.
Just weeks before the storm, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu unveiled a new strategy for developing what was described as the “cultural economy.” Since then, the state has pushed through tax breaks for arts districts, musical and theatrical productions and sound recordings and made sure that events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, which provide work for many musicians, survived.
But a separate individual tax break for artistic earnings failed in the State Legislature because of concerns that it wasn’t fair to other working people, and other large-scale attempts have languished because of a lack of financing. In May 2006, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which was formed by Mayor C. Ray Nagin, recommended plowing $648 million into the cultural sector to create jobs, rebuild damaged facilities and open a national jazz center. But those ideas were shelved with the rest of the commission’s work, and subsequent, scaled-back proposals still await financing.
New Orleans “needs some anchors around which the economy can begin to rebuild, and arts and culture are an obvious one,” says Holly Sidford, a principal at AEA Consulting in New York, which developed the recommendations for the commission’s cultural subcommittee at the request of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. “But without investment, really deliberate and coherent investment, that won’t happen.”
Ernest Collins, the city’s executive director for arts and entertainment, says of the commission’s recommendations, which Mr. Nagin endorsed: “That was a very large price tag. And needless to say, we don’t have that money.”
Leaders of nonprofit groups and organizations like Tipitina’s say they are resigned to filling the void left by the public and private sectors as long as they can. Mr. Aiges, whose group owns Jazz Fest, is using receipts from the event to add new festivals, build an Internet-based system that will allow musicians to connect with talent coordinators and potential licensees, and put on a networking event for musicians during next year’s festival. Sweet Home New Orleans is compiling the first database of local musicians, which should help it to distribute relief faster and more effectively, and hopes to get part-time work for them in other businesses.
Next month, the Tipitina’s Foundation will release a new CD honoring Fats Domino, with proceeds from it earmarked for resurrecting his music publishing company and opening a co-op near the singer’s home in the Lower Ninth Ward.
But musicians say they wonder if New Orleans will ever nurture their careers the way it once did. The Hot 8 Brass Band, which was featured prominently in Spike Lee’s documentary film “When the Levees Broke,” is concentrating on touring elsewhere in the United States and abroad — even if that might mean missing Mardi Gras — so it can play for outsiders. Outsiders, say band members, seem to value them more than their hometown.
“They make you feel how valuable you are to New Orleans,” says Raymond Williams, a trumpeter for the band. “I feel like maybe the city should treat musicians in the same way.”
[image, an 1878 plan of New Orleans, from the Maps from the Library of Congress and the University of Alabama Web site.]