It’s one of the oldest paradoxes in New Orleans culture. Even as the city enjoys an international reputation as one of the world’s great music hubs, those responsible for making that music have struggled for decades. New Orleans musicians have to deal with the unpleasant truth that to have a shot at real success, you usually need to leave New Orleans.
The Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the city’s best-known musician support organization, was founded to answer some of those hard questions about music in the Big Easy. The organization is best known for throwing Jazzfest, a two-weekend outdoor music festival with dozens of local, national and international bands. It’s New Orleans’ biggest tourist event after Mardi Gras. For the past five years, the Foundation has also been trying to spin that Jazzfest attention forward, to bring year-round viability to the scores of musicians performing in the festival.
“Jazzfest is a magnet for very high level professionals in the entertainment industry,” says Scott Aiges, Director of Programs, Marketing and Communication of the Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “You could be standing on line for Crawfish Monica and be standing next to the President of Columbia records.”
That’s why Jazz and Heritage hosts Sync Up, a conference that runs alongside Jazzfest to put the luminaries who have been coming to the Crescent City for decades in contact with the musicians they’re coming to see.
It’s a step forward for New Orleans musicians, and some have seen festival bookings and distribution deals from the event. But in a changing industry, those old avenues aren’t worth as much as they used to be. It’s a murky future, but Aegis hopes Sync Up can also help spur innovative thinking about how to harness digital distribution to promote independent musicians.
Pandora founder Tim Westegren spoke at this year’s Sync Up Conference. For him, digital distribution is the tool that independent musicians, like the ones in the clubs of New Orleans, need to support themselves in a modern economy.
“I think that the principle effect of digital in general is to give equal access to artists – the first hurdle that its helping artists getting over is that you can not only make music easly with software you can distribute it internationally for practically nothing,” he says.
“Then you deal with promotion – how do you get noticed? If digital can solve that it will redraw the whole basic deal.”
It’s a hopeful notion, but the real infrastructure that’s going to support musicians in the digital era is still being built, even as the record industry rages against its own demise. New Orleans offers an opportunity to experiment with how to take some of the most talented musicians in the world and give them financial viability to go along with their international reputation.
“Especially as the industry is changing so radically because of digital technology. We’re using New Orleans as not only a showcase but also something of a laboratory to try to answer some of these questions,” says Aiges.