The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Slate’s technology podcast What Next: TBD.
New Orleans isn’t just famous for its music—it banks on it. Musicians are part of a culture industry, from restaurants to festivals to parades, that draws in tourists. They, in turn, support a host of other jobs—hotel workers, airport baggage handlers, cab drivers. New Orleans has, as a share of the workforce, about twice as many restaurant workers as the average city. The role of hotels in the economy is four times as large.
That entire pyramid has been collapsing since COVID-19 hit because people just aren’t coming to New Orleans anymore, and worse, there’s no sign that they’ll come back. Crowded, sweaty bars in the Quarter might be the last part of pre-pandemic America to return. Until there’s a vaccine, an entire musical ecosystem is in suspended animation—and with it, the rest of the city.
New Orleans has more than 130 live music venues, and what makes them special is their size: The median venue is smaller than it is in almost every other American city. “It’s like the nursery of the whole music community,” says Jesse Paige, a percussionist and owner of the venerable Frenchmen Street club the Blue Nile. “We’re raising musicians into where they get too big for us, and they become these worldwide superstars and give joy to everybody all over the world. But they start someplace, and they start in small music venues like the Blue Nile.”
That cultural infrastructure, as much as the music itself, is a unique thing about New Orleans. I’ve spoken to several people who run venues, and all of them say that even in good times, it’s a labor of love. And perhaps the evidence of that is that they’re all local musicians. They’re not private equity guys, and they’re not Clear Channel.
Paige is trying to secure funding and keep the club afloat until it can reopen. “If I open those doors, I’m losing more money by being open than being closed, and I would lose it rapidly,” he says. It costs him about $8,000 to $9,000 a month to have the doors closed.
But if the musicians are all still in New Orleans and they find a way to get by, then what does it matter if the buildings close or change ownership? Won’t they just find places to perform, and people will find ways to see them? “To a degree they can,” Paige says. “But a music club provides a safe venue for somebody to actually make money in instead of going out and busking. If you have a concentrated place where a musician can play in a safe area, you can collect a good amount of people, the government is getting their tax money off of it, which ultimately supports the safety because you’re talking about police services, ambulance services, all the community functions that you need.
“It’s a structure that converts music to security for musicians. It’s not just buildings, and it’s not that the venue is making a lot of money. We’re providing a lot of jobs for a lot of people, but nobody’s walking away from these music clubs rich—at least not in New Orleans, I don’t think. It’s really creating a safe place for musicians to have security in their art.”
This conversion from music to security, as Jesse puts it, relies on visitors. New Orleans puts on 85 shows a day, by one estimate, which is far more than its residents can support on their own.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, it devastated many juke joints, especially in the city’s Black neighborhoods. The difference between Katrina and COVID, Paige says, is that “with Katrina, it was just us. But we had great advertisement from a lot of great musicians on television every night, people like David Letterman saying on his show every night, We need to go down to New Orleans. Put your money into New Orleans. We can’t lose this treasure. And so we had a lot of people from all over the country coming to support New Orleans and New Orleans music and the culture. But in this case, obviously, everybody’s in the same boat. San Francisco is in trouble. Chicago’s in trouble. New York’s in trouble. All the music venues across the nation, we are all in the same boat because we don’t really know how to navigate this one.” Paige thinks he has enough money to get the Blue Nile through 2020, but “it’s going to get sketchy in 2021 as to how long we can survive.”
After Katrina, displaced musicians found gigs in places like Houston and Chicago, but now their clubs are closed too. Performance is at a standstill nationwide. New Orleans is unique, but it’s also representative of the way that city culture, the food, the performance, the art, has grown reliant on visitors. In New York City, for example, 24 percent of all credit card sales at restaurants and bars come from tourists. So even if New York restaurants are able to open, without tourism, they’re a long, long way from normal. Same thing in New Orleans: Reopening alone is not going to make the city whole again.
To understand the challenges artists are facing, I talked to Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, a Central City institution that does a bit of everything—residencies, performances, summer camp. She works with artists all day, and she knows it was hardly a golden age for local musicians before the pandemic. In 2016, the average annual salary in the entertainment sector was $34,000, nearly a third below the metro average.
According to Ecclesiastes, many New Orleans artists make at least 50 percent, and some as many as 75 to 100 percent, of their income during festival seasons. “New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Essence Music Festival, Voodoo Festival, those big events provide a big source of income and opportunity for our artists,” she says. “They sell at the festival, yes, but they make contacts that might give them commissions for the rest of the year.” But now, of course, there are no festivals, and tourist attractions like jazz bars have all gone dark.
“A lot of the art that we create is for ourselves, so I think there can be a new normal that still creates wonderful and beautiful art,” Ecclesiastes says. “But the ability to make a living as an artist changes. This is not a sustainable system. It just isn’t. And that should be clear to everyone at a time like this.”
Ecclesiastes is worried about the city’s cultural infrastructure, but she’s also confident that what New Orleans offers to the world is not something that could close. “People will never stop wanting to go to Venice. … They’re never going to want to stop seeing the Eiffel Tower or the ancient pyramids. New Orleans will be one of those places. People will always want to come here, but what’s different about what brings people to New Orleans is it’s not a structure. Nobody’s coming to see the Superdome, no matter how fly it is, right? Nobody’s coming to see the Mississippi River bridge. They’re coming to experience the culture of New Orleans, and that is rooted in its people. They’re coming to hear the music. They’re coming to eat the food. They’re coming to hear people say ‘Yeah, baby’ and ‘Come on now’ and ‘How your mom and them?’ That’s what folks are coming for.”
Ecclesiastes has some ideas about how to make this more sustainable. She wants more diversity on the city’s cultural boards and more revenue sharing across the city’s neighborhoods. But her point is bigger than that. The system, by which so many cultural creators in the city and in the country live hand to mouth, work odd jobs to survive, and depend on the flighty spending habits of the rich, didn’t get broken by the pandemic. It’s been broken.