Louisiana Promotes Music Scene with New Agency

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The state of Louisiana is creating a new agency to market its music to the world. Some think it's a great way to get musicians back on their feet after Hurricane Katrina. Others say that many of those same musicians have no home to come back to, and that these basic needs should be the state's first priority. Reporter Eve Troeh reports.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Time now for business news.

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Louisiana is launching a non-profit agency called The Louisiana Music Export Office. The idea is to market local artists to audiences across the country and the world. Plans for the new office were in place before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the area.

But some worry that the state's focus on getting music out of Louisiana will overshadow the pressing need to get musicians displaced by the storms back home.

Eve Troeh reports.

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EVE TROEH reporting:

The Hot 8 Brass Band, which actually has ten members, played for crowds of mostly young, white hipsters at the recent South by Southwest Music Conference.

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TROEH: Trumpeter Alvarez "Big Al" Huntley says he wouldn't mind seeing more crowds like this. The Hot 8 has been on the road a lot since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and that's meant more pay than before the storm.

Mr. ALVAREZ HUNTLEY (Trumpet Player, Hot 8 Brass Band): The money is definitely better away from New Orleans--away from Louisiana, period.

TROEH: That's partly because there are so many musicians in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans. Club owners don't have to pay a lot to get good bands to play. Even the most popular local musicians struggle to get by.

So, one of the goals of the new Louisiana Music Export Office is to connect local acts with high paying, out of town gigs. The idea for the office came from Scott Aiges. He modeled it on national music export agencies in such countries as Australia and Denmark. The state gave him a contract to start it up late last year.

Mr. SCOTT AIGES (Director, Louisiana Music Export Office): We're all about revenue streams here. Directing those revenue streams towards the artists, so that the cultural providers are the beneficiaries, and that they are the catalyst for growing the industry.

TROEH: Aiges' office helped pay for the Hot 8 Brass Band's trip to Austin. But trumpeter Big Al Huntley says he didn't talk to Aiges much about the office's goals. When asked what he thought local musicians needed most, Huntley's answer had little to do with revenue streams.

Mr. HUNTLEY: You've got to have somewhere to stay before you can come back to the city. So that would be the most immediate thing that's needed by musicians--housing, first and foremost.

TROEH: Seven members of the Hot 8 have not returned to New Orleans. Either their houses were flooded or their families settled in new cities after evacuating. Housing, however, isn't on Scott Aiges' agenda. He says hurricane relief organizations will do a better job with that.

His agency's focus is on business.

Mr. AIGES: I want to be the first guy to be selling totally obscure Cajun music ring tones on the web.

TROEH: Before the Louisiana Music Export Office opened, the primary state music agency was the Louisiana Music Commission. The Commission lost its chairman earlier this month when 80-year-old jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis resigned. Executive Director Bernie Cyrus went with him.

Marsalis maintains he stepped down to let someone younger step in. Cyrus, however, says he saw what the state was doing with the Export office and felt abandoned.

Mr. BERNIE CYRUS (Former Executive director of Louisiana Music Commission): They don't understand that the music industry is really a natural resource. You take a seed, you water it, you plant it, you hope the sun comes out. You work on it, you work on it, and it happens. No, they come in, and they cut the grass and try to put in a bale of hay, and market it. And they think that's the export.

TROEH: By contrast, Cyrus says his Commission took a more grass roots approach. It helped repeal a tax club owners had to pay when they presented live bands. It took jazz performances into public schools and co-sponsored local music awards.

But no musicians interviewed for this story said they knew much about the state music commission, nor had they directly benefited from its efforts. No matter what form a state music office may take in the future, many musicians and their advocates say the role of government and music is often contradictory.

Mr. MARK BINGHAM (Owner, Piety Street Recording Studios, New Orleans): They put a picture of a 12-year-old with a trumpet, and they put it on the cover of the tourist magazine, and then they try to stop those very same people from playing on the street.

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TROEH: Mark Bingham is referring to recent efforts by the City of New Orleans to ban street musicians. Bingham runs Piety Street Recording Studios in New Orleans.

Mr. BINGHAM: Yeah. Now, this sounds really good. I can't, all we've got to do is start over. Dive in, we'll be all right.

TROEH: Bingham says the state also missed the boat when it passed a new tax credit for music recording. It's similar to Louisiana's credit for film production, designed to attract big budget TV and movie shoots through tax breaks. The recording tax credit was first proposed by the State Music Commission. Now it's overseen by the Export Office.

But it too requires fairly deep pockets. Musicians or record companies have to spend at least $15,000 dollars a year to get a 10 percent tax refund. Bingham says few local artists would qualify.

Mr. BINGHAM: It'll impact people that are already on an economic level to where they can afford, you know, $900 dollars a day in a recording studio, or up. It's not really going to impact people that are making records that cost less than $5,000 dollars--which is, in case anyone knows, about 90 percent of the records made in the known universe today.

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Mr. CHRIS THOMAS KING (Musician): (Singing) When the levy broke, baby, dirty water come rushing in.

TROEH: Chris Thomas King plays a demo track from his new album, "Rise." He recorded it in Nashville and Los Angeles in the months after Katrina hit.

Mr. KING: (Singing) When the levy broke, now baby, and dirty water come rushing in. Yes, and washed away my happy home, baby, I hope it washed away my sins.

TROEH: The New Orleans native reached a national audience as an actor in the films "Oh Brother Where Art Thou", and "Ray." He says a business approach to music, like the one taken by the Louisiana Music Export Office, is a good idea. But if the state is serious about supporting local artists, it needs to do a lot more to teach them about the business.

Mr. KING: They need people that understand what intellectual property is. You know, you need to recruit some people from Nashville, New York, or from Los Angeles, to set up an office here, like a publishing company, to set up a branch here. And when musicians have their great song, or they have that great idea, somebody have that great script, they need to have these kinds of professionals that they can go to.

TROEH: Until then, he says, most local musicians will continue to have to scrape a living from bar gigs on Bourbon Street.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh, in New Orleans.

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Unidentified Man: Drop me off in New Orleans!

(Soundbite of Music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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