Live Music is Back in the Big Easy: How long Will it Stay?

By Will Lake

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck New Orleans hard over the last year, as it has struck the rest of the world. According to the New York Times, roughly one in thirteen New Orleanians has been infected and gone through COVID-19. Nearly 800 citizens of Orleans Parish have died due to the virus.

While the loss of human life can never be matched, the economic impact on the city has been almost as painful. Restaurants, hotels, and venues have all staggered under the crushing weight of the effects of COVID-19. Festivals like Voodoo, French Quarter, Essence, and Jazz Fest were cancelled, the Saints could not hold fans in the Superdome, and Mardi Gras, the ultimate revenue generator for New Orleans, reportedly annually worth over a billion dollars, likewise cancelled. Live music in the city fared no better than any of these woe begotten industries and events. In some respects, it actually hurt even more. At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Latoya Cantrell, like many municipal leaders across the country and globe, announced a moratorium on live music in public spaces with crowds. Musicians and those who operated music venues were equally devastated.

Beloved neighborhood music venues like Gasa Gasa and the Circle Bar were forced to shut their doors permanently, though Gasa Gasa was saved at the last minute by musician Brandon Kempt, who felt the venue was one of many in New Orleans which are “culturally important. More than they are to any single musician, they belong to the community.”

Even the iconic Tipitina’s, a cultural behemoth in the New Orleans music scene for decades, was only just able to avoid a similar fate by public fundraising and generous treatment from their creditors. “They [the bank] were very good to us, not demanding us pay thousands of dollars a month that was due on the mortgage on the building,” said Brian Greenberg, the General Manager at Tipitina’s.

Tipitina’s during the daytime.

John “Papa” Gros, a native New Orleanian and musician whose music reflects a combination offunk, traditional jazz, brass band, and the blues, was all too familiar with the pain those venuesfelt. With the crash of COVID-19, Gros saw his upcoming tour completely wiped out. “It disrupted all of that, you know, I don’t know if it ended all those plans, just disrupted, that story is yet to be told, told, you know, how it really affects it in the long haul,” said Gros.

Finally, in April of 2021, thirteen months after live music in New Orleans went quiet, light began to appear at the end of the tunnel for musicians and venue owners alike. Mayor Cantrell re-authorized live music at venues, with stiff restrictions on capacity limits, and Gros was able to perform live for the first time in over a year. The venue? Tipitina’s.

For Gros, who now has shows booked in Louisiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut over the next two months, it was never a question of whether or not music would come back to the Crescent City. “You know, we survived Katrina. We thought New Orleans was finished inthose days. Then we survived the oil spill, the Gulf, when tourism stopped coming here. The pandemic is another thing, it’s just on a global scale this time. My mantra is, ‘I’m gonna find away to just keep plugging at it.’ You know, it’s hard. But what hasn’t been hard?” said Gros.

Even with the suffering imposed by the COVID-19 virus, Gros has strived to find silver linings.“ One of the greatest things I believe that’s going on in New Orleans right now, in how we comeback, is all of the rogue neighborhood porch concerts, neighborhood parties,” said Gros, who continued, “I find that each neighborhood has their own house that kind of is like the host to the you know, the porch concert or the backyard party where there’s live music, and it’s strengthening neighborhoods and bringing neighborhoods closer together.”

In Gros’ eyes this could lead to a revival of classic New Orleans sound. “What’s always made New Orleans different from a lot of the places is the cultural and the stylistic differences of our sound. From Treme comes the brass band. From Uptown on 13th Ward, you have the MardiGras Indians… Dr. John came out of mid-city and hanging out in the French Quarter,” said Gros. With a year of tight knit community music now gone by, Gros hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic might indirectly lead to a neighborhood musical renaissance. “With the strengthening of our neighborhoods, we might invent or re-ignite the sounds of neighborhoods or reinvent maybe new sounds for new neighborhoods now, because of that. That’s kind of exciting,” said Gros.

Though Gros hopes that this reinvigoration will in fact occur, he also harbors concerns about the future of live music in New Orleans, even as COVID-19 restrictions are eased up on. Much of this concern comes from what Gros sees as a generational gap. “I believe we’re losing audiences.A lot of the live music, I think we’re losing people who thrive and crave to hear live music. I don’t believe the younger generations have the same craving that my generation had,” said Gros. Gros thinks this is an issue which has predated COVID-19, though in his eyes the pandemic has certainly exacerbated it. “I don’t see that same scene that I came up in. Where the younger generation or the college student is one of those who is like ‘whose playing live music?’Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, every night of the week, they had togo get a taste of it. And so, with a year removed from that, that’s a lot less people wanting to investigate and learn about live music,” said Gros.

Charlie Neuman is a part of the generation Gros worries about. Neuman, a senior at Tulane University, has worked as a DJ in New Orleans for the last four years. For Neuman, DJing was originally a hobby, but then it turned into a mean with which he supported himself, regularly playing at bars and venues such as the Rendon Inn Hangar, Republic NOLA, The Willow, andBourbon Heat. “I learned how to DJ in High School, just sort of messing around on a cheap fifty dollar soundboard, doing house parties, that sort of thing,” said Neuman, who continued, “And then once I got to college, I started doing it professionally. So, before COVID, I was a resident Club DJ at two venues, and then would also be a private event DJ. So I would do on average, three to four shows a week.”

Charlie Neuman performs a DJ set.

Like Gros, Neuman was hit hard financially when COVID-19 arrived in New Orleans. The same city orders that prohibited Gros from playing live also applied to DJs. “When the pandemic started, those three to four shows went down to zero shows a week,” said Neuman.

Also like Gros, Neuman initially dabbled in live streaming at the start of the pandemic. “I did some live stream stuff just for, different groups I was working with… I did one or two for charity. But otherwise, a complete stop of income when the pandemic started,” said Neuman. To a certain extent, Neuman agrees with Gros worry about a generational divide in those who are patrons of the music industry. From his point of view, however, he simply thinks it’s a genre based issue. “I think that there is definitely a big difference in culture from someone who’s going to a jazz show, versus a EDM concert or house concert. I think that it’s mostly a younger crowd going to see electronic music and DJs rather than someone who’s wanting to sit down in a quiet bar and listen to jazz,” said Neuman.”

While the potential pool of new listeners may be shrinking, Gros is also worried that the current group, his own generation, may be slow to fully return to the live music scene, if they do at all.“The [problem] with the older generation is you have a lot of people who have died, you have a lot of people are going to be more fearful and more careful when they’re going out. When you deal with my generation, I’m talking 50s and 60s, they don’t go out five days a week to hear music anymore. They pick and choose to go out Friday and Saturday, maybe a Thursday night, or something like that to go to a live concert. They’re more choosy about when they go,” said Gros, who continued, “I think it might take that demographic a little bit longer to get comfortable to see music on a regular basis. And that’s one thing that concerns me in the long term.”

For Neuman, the loosening of restrictions has been good, and offers at venues like House of Blues and elsewhere have started to come in. As bars and music venues still struggle financially,however, the compensation for artists has been disappointing. “Right now, for the first time,starting last week, I have been doing three shows a week. But the pay has been a lot lower. And I’ve not really able to do the same type of gigs that I was doing last year, just because of different COVID restrictions,” said Neuman.

The road ahead may be difficult, says Neuman, and based on conversations with his employers, he thinks that it may be some time before things fully return to how they were before last March. “I think it’ll take a lot longer than I [originally] anticipated. Just because I’m doing a few showsnow doesn’t mean that I’ll be doing full concerts. I used to be doing club gigs, and it was more of a concert situation. But now it’s me and a small DJ booth, separated from the audience. It’s more of a crowd than an audience. I think it’ll probably be at least a year to year and a half before it’s back to what it was,” said Neuman.

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