In New Orleans, we’re big on tradition. We believe that doing things the same way they’ve been done for generations keeps us connected to our history and maintains the grandness of the city that our forebears created.
But there’s a difference between tradition and habit. That difference can be knowledge.
For example, in the 1950’s if you, your parents, and grandparents all smoked cigarettes, you might have called yourselves “a traditional tobacco family.” Now that we know smoking is the cause of seriously life-limiting medical conditions, you’d be more apt to describe that family as having a bad smoking habit.
Which brings us to Mardi Gras. Wait, what? If you’ve lived in New Orleans for any time and you go to Mardi Gras parades, you’ve probably caught or thrown hundreds, if not thousands, of Mardi Gras beads. Mostly manufactured in China, these plastic beads are allegedly made from unregulated petroleum products and reportedly contain unhealthful levels of lead, arsenic, and other chemicals you don’t want your kids anywhere near.
Are Mardi Gras Beads as bad for you as cigarettes?!
We put that question to Brett Davis. And we’re betting you can guess the answer.
Brett is Director of an organization called Grounds Krewe. Grounds Krewe’s mission is to make New Orleans events sustainable by diminishing waste and instituting recycling wherever possible. When it comes to Mardi Gras, Grounds Krewe’s aim is to get us to replace plastic beads – and other toxic throws – with sustainable throws that are local, healthful, and as affordable as the ubiquitous, Chinese, plastic beads.
Now let’s move on to another mainstay of the New Orleans economy in which there’s a blurred line between tradition and habit: the music business.
The traditional way the music business is structured in New Orleans tends to financially benefit purveyors of alcohol more than the creators and performers of music. That’s because we have a very robust live music culture that’s centered mostly in bars. Unlike other music-centric cities – like Nashville and Austin – we don’t have a similarly robust allied music economy.
If you’re a New Orleanian and you want a high-level career as a music business attorney, agent, manager, song writer or recording artist, you’re in the same position locals in other businesses were in till recently. That is, you have to leave New Orleans. Think about that for a moment. You live in a city people come to specifically to hear music. But to be truly successful in the music business you have to leave.
This tradition has been going on for some time. Louis Armstrong left New Orleans to make it. So did Lil Wayne. Winton Marsalis. Jon Batiste. Evan Christopher. Harry Connick Jr. Davell Crawford. Nicholas Payton. No Limit Records left. Cash Money Records left. Daniel Lanois, Lenny Kravitz, Trent Reznor, and Ray Davies from The Kinks all moved their music operations here, then left.
You could argue that Winton Marsalis had to leave here for his prestigious job as Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Jon Batiste had to leave here to be music director on The Tonight Show. But that’s the whole point. We’re the birthplace of jazz but we don’t have a jazz institute. And we don’t have the infrastructure a national TV show needs to originate from here.
At what point do we go from regarding this talent-emigration as a tradition, to calling it a habit – and do something about breaking it?
Best-selling songwriter Jim McCormick knows as much as anybody about finding an answer to this question. Jim is a New Orleans native who left. He went to Nashville for 15 years. Then he came back.
Jim has written a string of hit songs for artists like Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw, Kelly Clarkson, Brantley Gilbert, and many more. He’s been nominated for a Grammy 5 times. He’s had 3 songs hit number one on the Billboard country chart. And he’s done much of that while living in Orleans parish.
It’s easy to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. It feels good to label ourselves as the home of Mardi Gras, because Mardi Gras is amazing – if it doesn’t bring a smile to your face probably nothing will. And we’re justifiably proud of New Orleans being a place where you can hear enormously talented musicians all around town, every night.
None of this has to stop. But it can change. What’s already good can be better. And what are now just hopes, dreams and visions can become reality. We can have a healthy Mardi Gras that’s safe for everybody. And we can have a robust music business that makes money for musicians and everybody else in the chain of music marketing. But none of that is going to magically just happen. For things to change it takes people like Brett and Jim, giving us the benefit of their knowledge, experience, and passion for the city of New Orleans.
Out to Lunch is recorded live over lunch at NOLA Pizza in the NOLA Brewing Taproom. Photos by Jill Lafleur.