By: Audrey Connelly
Max Topelson, a soon-to-be Tulane University alum, has finished his classes and is now living in New Orleans to pursue a career in music. An accomplished pianist, guitarist, songwriter and producer, his skills span the scope of musical ability. He is using them all to work towards his dream of breaking into the music business, and what better place to start than New Orleans?
Max sits at the picnic table on the porch in front of my apartment, messing around with my guitar I brought outside to show him. He is trying to show me how to play bar chords, which I can’t seem to get the hang of, but he says it really just comes down to practicing. He plucks the strings effortlessly, suddenly making me self conscious of the rudimentary chord progressions I had been strumming moments before. Luckily, he isn’t here to critique my guitar playing. He’s here to tell me about life as a blossoming musician in New Orleans.
“A big reason that I came to Tulane was the jazz aspect. Being in New Orleans was something that really intrigued me.” This decision makes a lot of sense for Max; he has played piano since he was just three years old and he became a jazz pianist in highschool, which inevitably brought the idea of living and studying in New Orleans into his orbit. “The music of the city was honestly a huge reason that I came here in the first place” he says, a notion that many people who have found themselves in NOLA can surely get behind.
It can feel as though the music scene in New Orleans has already seen its heyday: if you attempt to break into the music scene here, you are up against the likes of Louis Armstong and Fats Domino. When I ask what the experience of coming here from Denver, Colorado was like, Max’s answer is very frank:
“Very intimidating. Coming here, I had a bit of an ego. I didn’t know that many musicians in high school outside of my high school jazz band and none of them are really pianists, so I had nothing to compare myself to.” He chuckled to himself. “It was like oh, welcome to the real world. Musicians here are so much better.”
While this imposter syndrome and the feeling of being in over your head is familiar to many people when moving to a new city or going through a new life change, the added layer of being a musician definitely amplifies the uncertainty. How does someone assimilate and integrate themselves into such an established scene without getting discouraged and throwing in the towel? What are the upsides to putting yourself through this massive challenge? Max’s attitude towards all this is refreshingly (and somewhat surprisingly) very positive.
“ Yeah it’s intimidating, but it’s a great opportunity. It is competitive, but also people just want to help each other and so it was a huge opportunity to learn from people around me. In New Orleans, it’s a lot about the history and the live aspect of it and it’s very jazz-based, which I love.” Max goes on to discuss an opportunity he recently had: “ I was fortunate enough to be part of a couple of bands and one of those is Olivia Barnes’ (a fellow Tulanian musician) band. After our concert at Gasa Gasa, the bassist from the band had told me that he was playing on Frenchmen street that night and to come sit in at the gig. I kind of just went down to Frenchmen on my own and went to 30/90 – which is I think one of the coolest bars on Frenchmen Street – and I got to play a song there.”
Opportunities to get involved in New Orleans music are still available, even if they occur through a chance encounter. These kinds of happenstance opportunities seem to be ripped from the pages of a movie script, but here I was faced with living proof of their reality.
His sunny disposition seems to bode well for the health of New Orleans’ music scene, but it is hard not to be skeptical when the backbone of music in New Orleans is jazz, which to some may be considered a dying art form. Is it possible that the music scene is still flourishing? The way people consume music is shifting from live performances to digital media and streaming platforms. Popular music styles continue to shift and adapt with the changing world while New Orleans seems to function as a musical time capsule, a city and a sound frozen in time. At least that is the perspective of many, and a seemingly valid one. Max has a different point of view.
“I think jazz is definitely a genre of music that is not as popular as it once was and I wish I could’ve been alive in time where it was. New Orleans is the center for jazz, but it’s also a hub of really creative people, whether you go down to Frenchmen or to the French Quarter and there’s just people painting on the streets or playing live on the streets. That kind of thing makes me reminisce about what it would’ve been like in the past – I don’t think it’s the same, but it’s still such a culture that’s rooted in the history of the city and that stuff will never truly go away.”
He goes on, adding details about the music scene in New Orleans that I had never heard about; “a lot of recording studios (in New Orleans) are actually set up so that you can record a full band all at once, which is definitely something that I did not see quite as much and I wasn’t aware of. I think that’s special.” If there are still studios like that in business today, then that must provide a glimmer of hope for young artists like Max as they begin to navigate the convoluted landscape that is the music business.
There are differing opinions throughout the young music scene in New Orleans, and while many of Max’s sentiments hold strong throughout the group as a whole, there are obviously some differing opinions. Andrew Tannebaum, a Tulane junior, is unimpressed with the musical resources that the university offers. When I asked him how he was getting involved on campus, Andrew replied “One thing that I would love to change is I think Tulane is not a music school the same way that Loyola is. They have more resources, like studio time. With Green Wave Sound we are trying to change that.”
Andrew is the rising president of Green Wave Sound, a Tulane club for students interested in music business. The club is trying to expand the options at Tulane for students who are interested in music as well as create opportunities for student artists to showcase their work. However, they’ve had some hiccups along the way when it comes to Tulane policies: “We have to put on our next show under the title of Nola Nights because we got in trouble with the school for promoting an off campus event where alcohol was served. We have absolutely no money to spend on the show. For this show we had to raise the money through selling artisan space and sponsorships, which has been really helpful. The bands are playing for free, which is really awesome of them.” The club is handling the red tape to the best of their ability, and Andrew will be manning the helm next year.
Andrew is also involved in music outside of the realm of university life. He is part of a band called Dog Haus and he works with a band called Funk Griot which is composed of professional musicians who perform on their own as well as together. Andrew reaches out to venues and acts as a manager for the band, and he has faced some obstacles along the way.
“I have reached out to a bunch of venues for Funk Griot and only heard back from a few of them. When I do hear back, they don’t have time to market everybody.The fact that we have such historic venues, like Tipitinas and a lot of stuff on Frenchmen street, shows that there is opportunity for a lot of musicians to play here, but not many actually get those opportunities.”
Andrew’s experience highlights the issues up and coming artists struggle against when trying to make a name for themselves in New Orleans. It is difficult to get traction, because even though there are a ton of venues where bands can perform, there are also a lot of performers who want that opportunity. It becomes an issue of mobility in the music scene – there are places to go, but it’s hard to get there.
Not only is it difficult to make it big in New Orleans, but bands and artists who have already made a name for themselves seem to be avoiding the city as well. There are very few record labels or recording studios in the city. Andrew definitely sees this point as integral to the health of the New Orleans music scene.
“One thing to note for sure: There tends to not be a lot of touring musicians here. Shows don’t sell well here. Bands will come into town and they have a hard time selling out, and even if they do the cost of being here will often outweigh the profit. It’s unfortunate because I feel like there would be a bigger scene here, but I wish more people would spend money on concert tickets.” A city that is known for its music and tickets don’t sell here? It seems ludicrously ironic, but it seems to be a common theme noted by young artists. So it sounds like the music scene is dead, or at least dying. But is that true?
Andrew doesn’t think that’s quite the case:“I don’t think the music scene is dying; I think it’s a little stagnant.” This is a succinct description that really gets to the heart of the issue. The music scene is not disappearing, it just is not moving forward along with the rest of the world. Of course there is value in history and tradition, both of which New Orleans is steeped in, but there’s value in progress as well. Andrew hopes that “in the future New Orleans will be able to be associated with broader music, not just funk and jazz.” Unfortunately, those genres are limiting, and they do not attract the kind of buzz that other genres may. And no matter how you feel about jazz, the truth is it’s just not as popular as it used to be, and thus neither is the New Orleans music scene. But Andrew is not at all jaded about creating and managing music in New Orleans. When I asked him why, he said “Being here allows us to have some influence, if we’re lucky.” Andrew is one of many young artists effecting change and inspiring hope for the future of NOLA music.
Kate Luehrsen is a videographer for young artists in New Orleans, giving her a front row seat to how everything works. She got involved in the scene purely by chance.
“A year and a half ago, a friend in the music program here told me that a kid in his class needed to hire a videographer for an upcoming concert he had. I had been a filmmaker/photographer my whole life, but never had one focused subject. I said yes to the gig, and ever since then, I have been filming and photographing the known up-and-coming singer songwriter at Tulane, Hans Williams.”
In this way, Tulane provided an opportunity for her to explore her passion and allowed her to become a part of a scene of which she was previously unaware. She has had even more opportunities since then:
“I now run my own informal production company here, focused on short-form content creation. I work for local musicians at Tulane, doing concert photography and videography, producing their promo videos.” Kate’s story is one of success in the music business in New Orleans, and definitely a spark of hope for others interested in similar things.
So I guess that leaves us somewhere in the middle: jazz is not dead (to the joy of some and the chagrin of others), and neither is the music scene in New Orleans. As long as there are passionate creators injecting creativity into this city’s veins, it will continue to be a hotspot for artists of all kinds. A huge element in keeping this spirit alive is artists like Max and the other young artists he works with who make music for one reason: because they love it.
“I think that’s really awesome that students are just down to play and it’s not really about the money or anything, it’s just having a good time for ourselves” Max says, “In making music I think the most important thing is just to have fun with it and focus on making the best music possible. I think it’s very easy for a lot of people to go into the music business and get distracted, whether that’s by money or just trying to make it big. There’s a lot of external factors and it is easy to get drawn away from what you’re truly trying to do: just make good music.” New Orleans is known for its vibrant culture and creativity and in order for it to keep these qualities, people need to intentionally focus on doing things that they love.
Jazz music will always be a part of New Orleans culture even if other things have become more prominent as the years go by. “Music just isn’t what it used to be” is an extremely common phrase these days, and while there is some truth in this statement, it can also be extremely limiting. If too much energy is focused on reminiscing about the good old days, the right now will be squandered. There is still music being played in bars and in homes and on the streets, even if it does not always sound exactly how it used to. There is so much to learn from the art that is being produced all around the city, whether you are a musician or not, and Max makes that abundantly clear via his enthusiasm for music and the city of New Orleans.