When I started this blog, it was to vent my spleen about things that matter to me. Though music was the first subject, and my past work as a public servant trying to help Louisiana recognize the importance and economic impact of music spawned many posts here, I’ve almost never discussed my musical career. In fact, the only blurb about my band was back in 2008. But it’s time to change that.
I spent 15 years as a full time musician in a Lafayette, LA-based band called Bas Clas. The name is from a Cajun insult for people deemed “low class.” There’s a long story behind that and I recommend our Facebook page for the best version. This band was my full time profession from 1976-91. I lived, breathed, ate and slept that musical life. But in 1991 the stresses and struggles and the lack of money finally caught-up with us and we disbanded. I did not play my guitar for the next 9 years. My fingertips had no callouses and I cared not a bit about my “career” in the music business. And when I blundered into my job at the Louisiana Music Commission I knew I could do it without conflict.
For more than 20 years I’ve described myself as “a musician in remission,” and joked that I generally had it under control, though it flared-up now and then, and that music was no longer ruining my life. Well it’s time to sing a different song.
When I withdrew from my musical path, my eyes opened about the desperation and frustration that drives many artists to complain and be unhappy. While at the LMC, a standard line I dispensed to frustrated fellow musicians was, “Play music because you love it. If you are unhappy, quit. And don’t complain, because you’ll find little sympathy.” I still believe that. In fact, in this latest incarnation of my musical life, I live by this: “If it’s not fun I don’t want to do it.” This attitude has been occasionally met with mixed reviews by some of my friends. But I mean it.
So off I go with my band/family to explore our musical horizons. We’re going to spend 9 days playing music. And it’s going to be fun.
After 4 years of lifeless existence under the direction of Chairwoman Maggie Warwick, the Louisiana Music Commission (LMC) is finally being put out of its misery. As reported in newspapers a few weeks ago, after July 1 the LMC will disappear. The articles quoted Ms. Warwick as saying she “supports eliminating it.” That’s like quoting Nero during the burning of Rome.
I would like to congratulate Ms. Warwick for her vision and talent in destroying the state’s (and nation’s) first agency dedicated exclusively to music. And thanks also to Lynn Ourso, the ostensible “director” of the LMC for directing it right into oblivion.
Though there were 15+ people appointed to serve on the LMC over the past 4 years, evidently none of them had the ability or power to grasp the controls and pull the LMC out of the dive it entered when it was eviscerated by (convicted and jailed former film office director) Mark Smith, then relocated and de-funded during the Blanco years (with the assistance of former Secretary of Louisiana Economic Development Mike Olivier). To those members who tried, really tried to represent the best interests of musicians, I say thank you. To those who colluded with and bought-in to the tired and ineffective leadership of Ms. Warwick and Mr. Ourso–and you know who you are–I say that the proof is in the pudding. And yours turned out to be a runny, smelly failure.
Since 2006, when they finally wrested control of the remnants of the LMC that had been systematically weakened by their team, observing the Warwick-Ourso tenure was like watching an elderly nursing home patient slowly, painfully gasp for breath–for month after month after month. It was a pathetic and absurd situation. And now it’s finally over.
The coroner has declared the patient dead but did not cite the cause. I say it was starvation, deprivation, and neglect compounded by malpractice and out-of-touch stewardship. And there will be no investigations, no funeral, no accurate recapitulation or memorial. This will likely be my last blog on that subject. And for that, I’m sure some will be grateful.
I’m proud of the work Ellis Marsalis, Bernie Cyrus and I did, but we were far from alone. From 1992 to 2006 literally hundreds of people helped us achieve unprecedented levels of support for Louisiana music. Because of our work, thousands of Louisiana musicians appeared on radio and television; tens of thousands of elementary school students statewide experienced living jazz history lessons; sites were saved (though many were lost); and attention to the health and welfare of working musicians was raised to new levels not surpassed until the tragedies of the failed levees of Katrina. You can read about what we did here: LMC Summary Report 1992-2003.
The LMC is dead. And though I spent 25+ years in music, it was always with a focus on environmental and social justice issues, on reducing our impact and helping the needy. Today, that’s what I do full time. I love music. I hope to play again some day. But I have a great job and a mission to bring positive change to the way we live. I am blessed to be where I am today.
Music is vital to our quality of life in Louisiana. Perhaps one day it will benefit from dedicated resources and support equal to what we give other industries such as agriculture, petrochemicals and film. One day. But not today.
Ok, it’s time for me to re-visit a festering splinter. I apologize to readers who are bored with this subject. But here goes….
The basically non-existent Louisiana Music Commission (LMC), operating as a very minor component of Louisiana Economic Development (LED), continues to fail miserably at it’s mission “to promote and develop the popular, commercial music industry” in Louisiana (as per LA R.S. 25:315-317).
Under the administrations of two governors and two different leaders at LED, the state tossed 14 years of leadership by the impeccable and experienced Ellis L. Marsalis Jr., and the LMC was eviscerated. In 2006 they disposed of all the office computers and data, failed to maintain and renew the agency’s 8 years of web presence via louisianamusic.org and buylouisianamusic.com (and lost the URLs) and reinvented the LMC as a do-nothing entity–still with no website–that occasionally holds meetings and apparently produces nothing in the way of action.
Of course there’s no budget specifically for music; and, with the state obsessed with Hollywood, chicken plants and sports, it’s no surprise that music continues to suffer.
As one of Louisiana’s signature natural assets–and one of the few industries here that continues to influence the world–this failure: to lead, to market, to support, and to recognize the importance of this irreplaceable and immeasurably valuable citizen-resource, is inexcusable.
The latest attempt to quantify Louisiana’s music resources reveals the depth of misunderstanding by economic development staffers, and represents another squandering of money on out of state “experts” who gather readily available data and then call it a study. Economics Research Associates in February released a state-funded report (anyone know the cost?) on Louisiana’s entertainment industry. It is a very revealing and, regarding music, deeply flawed document.
The music section begins with a lengthy overview (5 pages of 11) of the music industry using data readily available to anyone (even the LMC’s current director). The report then uses federal labor statistics and other industrial data to surmise that Louisiana’s business of music ranks well below 30+ other states, a patently ridiculous conclusion. And it is obvious that ERA did not fully understand, nor seek to document, the many facets of Louisiana’s unique music landscape.
What’s truly sad is that were the LMC fully funded and staffed with imaginative people, this study could’ve produced something worthwhile.
Back when we worked to gather this information, we used a combination of resources, including tourism data, staff researchers at LED, the Louisiana Music Directory and more. Since much of tourism is generated by music, that industry’s ups and downs are directly tied to music’s economic impact and contributed to our studies–this component was analyzed, by the way, by LED’s own highly qualified research staff. And, the only proper study ever done–by Dr. Tim Ryan of the University of New Orleans in the late 1980s–was not conducted by an out of state entity.
To continue to believe that only companies based out of state are capable of telling us who we are is a lingering problem in Baton Rouge and at LED.
The experts we need to help us analyze our music resources are readily available here in Louisiana. Utilizing this talent keeps money flowing between state government and higher education, helping to grow a new crop of experts and future businesspeople. In other words, it’s ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT to first use your university resources to conduct studies.
Louisiana Economic Development fails at its mission when it fails to utilize readily available in-state resources within universities, nonprofits and businesses.
But I digress. When Ellis Marsalis, Bernie Cyrus and I were in charge of the LMC, we produced many reports on the state’s music industry. We posted these reports on the web for all to see. We distributed this information to the Office of the Governor and the Louisiana Legislature. And we determined that music’s impact on Louisiana was in the range of nearly $3 billion! Yet according to ERA, film is bigger than music in Louisiana. Really?
Of course Louisiana is spending more than $115,000,000 in cash money as tax credits to buy the friendship of the film industry here. And that money is giving lots of people work, many people from here–including some of my friends–and who knows how many from out of state. The data and the state’s “experts” have not quantified exactly how much of that money and those jobs stay in Louisiana.
But back to music, for that is our world renown, immeasurably valuable, historically significant, naturally occurring and most neglected asset. At a time when it is obvious that the recording industry is the component in the worst free-fall, both the state and ERA focused on the sound recording business as a measure, and as the only recipient of a little-used tax credit system.
Having done some of the earliest research of the state’s recording industry when this tax system was proposed–and kept out of the final drafts by a few nefarious folks, one of whom is headed to the pokey–I strongly believe that the current tax credit system is not what is truly needed. In my research–which involved me calling studio owners and asking them what their biggest problems were and what they though the state could do–I learned that studios sought sales tax relief and felt that the budget-oriented credits would both be little-used and have little effect.
ERA’s data certainly proves the little-used aspect, as only a handfull of projects have tapped into the credits. Of course the lack of staff at the LMC to process these credits is also partly to blame. But, as national data and the ERA report indicate–and anyone in the studio and music business can tell you for free–the recording industry is not doing well. Nevertheless, that segment is the focus of the state and of ERA.
The only apparent good news in the report is that music credits do better than film in the report’s cost-benefit analysis, supposedly generating $6.78 for every dollar in tax credits compared to $6.64 for film. However, since only $340,000 in spending was tallied for credits, the data says only a couple of jobs were generated. The study also notes that in 2008, $816,800 in productions applied for nearly $204,000 in credits. It’s encouraging to see the numbers rising. But it’s also frustrating to see the emphasis be only on this one aspect of the business. As a musician, I liken this approach to giving the cotton companies a tax credit during the waning days of slavery. What does this credit do for the musicians who are truly Louisiana’s musical gold?
Admittedly a few musicians have been hired to work on subsidized projects. And I don’t want to disparage the intention behind trying to support our vitally important recording studios, they need all the help they can get. But it’s almost like we’re subsidizing buggy manufacturers after the automobile was introduced. And studios, like every other aspect of music, won’t survive if musicians aren’t thriving.
Live music, which we determined in previous LMC reports has a multibillion dollar economic impact statewide, is given one short paragraph in the study–with no economic impact numbers. There are no inputs, no data, no charts, no information on taxes generated or jobs created in this live music paragraph.
Then the music aspect of the report ends. A total of 11 pages in a 90 page report.
There is no doubt that this report provides valuable data for state leaders. The study presents a very informative review of film incentives nationally. This will help people understand the landscape of film and media industry tax credits. And I’m sure this was the intent of all concerned in producing and funding this report. But, music is much bigger than this study says.
Louisiana music is a brand, unlike every other component of the report. And that brand has a worldwide value and recognition factor that needs to be tallied and supported.
The failure of the State of Louisiana–whether it is Louisiana Economic Development and/or the Lt. Governor’s Office of Tourism–to fully understand and support our vital music resources, is one of the great tragedies of mismanagement in the history of this state.
The power of our musical genres, of our music history and of our musical stars has never been fully or properly understood, valued, promoted or nurtured. What is even sadder is that everyone knows this and yet nothing substantial is done.
Were it not for the continued efforts of the many nonprofits such as Tipitina’s Foundation, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the N.O. Jazz & Heritage Foundation, Louisiana Folkroots, WWOZ, NARAS/MusiCares the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, KRVS and many other wonderful organizations, Louisiana music would be nothing more than an afterthought, a component of our tourism advertising that presents an image of love and support that in reality does not effectively exist within the institutions producing these promotions.
We convey an image to the world that our music matters. But it’s all just smoke and mirrors. We can do better.
Sidenote: Here’s a report we generated in 2002. It’s the kind of report that covers analysis of the industry both internationally and locally and includes all our projects, accomplishments and interactions for the year. Will the current LMC ever produce anything even remotely similar?
OK, so the numbers are in and, as reported today in the Shreveport Times, in 2007 Louisiana invested $100,000,000 in film (after recouping $14m in taxes) on $429,000,000 of film spending. Of course verifying these numbers, particularly the spending by film companies, is a fuzzy math situation in which we remain dependent upon the film companies themselves to report their spending, so I have my doubts as to the accuracy.
Can you imagine that if you were an investor in the film industry, say in a film fund, how much of a long term return your money might be getting? You’d be getting checks for the rest of your life and that of your heirs if you had spent $100 million in a film investment vehicle that spread your investments around the industry. But what does Louisiana get? One time, poorly validated “spending” by these companies that results in short-term jobs averaging $32,000. But we look good on camera!
If this is such a good investment, why don’t we do it for music? In fact, why don’t we do it for every business in Louisiana. If the state can directly spend a dollar and get back four, why not spend on restaurants, grocery stores, construction companies, or any business? Because it defies the laws of physics and economics. You can’t create a perpetual motion machine and you can’t use public money to create perpetual economic engines. For the public to benefit, any expenditure needs to produce more in tax revenues than it spends. Just as too many calories make you fat, too much spending makes you broke. No matter how you extend the numbers to “secondary spending” you cannot ignore the fact that more money is being taken from public coffers than is being replenished.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: where’s Louisiana’s share? If individuals invested this much money in the film business, they’d be getting a a piece of the action, a return on investment. Why is this not possible for public investment?
Music is our true asset. Though we welcome Hollywood and the movie industry, it is not one of Louisiana’s naturally occurring assets. Music is our calling card to the hearts, minds and wallets of the world. Yet we continue to allow it to flounder, leaderless, budget-less and without accountability for what little is being done. The press and public remain silent about the ongoing tragedy that is the Louisiana Music Commission.
Here’s the kind of readily available information that used to be produced by the LMC and which was publicly available on the web until 2006 when the years of undermining by a small, avaricious group empowered by soon-to-be-jailed former Louisiana Economic Development (LED) Entertainment director Mark Smith and other cohorts finally prevailed in destroying the LMC:
In fact, let me state this: former LED secretaries Don Hutchinson and Mike Olivier, along with Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the aforementioned Mark Smith were to music what the US Army Corps of Engineers was to flood protection in New Orleans in 2005–a massive disaster with ongoing consequences that will affect future generations.
Of course, I could be wrong. In fact, I hope I am. Someone, please convince me that I’m wrong about all this and that Louisiana is better off because of these things. I’m a reasonable person.
Louisiana’s overly generous film tax credits finally made the New York Times. Thanks in no small part to the ease (caused by lax oversight) with which budgets are overstated and credits overpaid, film tax credits are being challenged around the country. Economists are having a difficult time justifying the state paying $27 million of a $167 million budget, for example. And if one compares other industries and businesses to the way film is treated by governments around the world, it’s no wonder people are starting to complain. Besides being unfair to every other industry, the tax credits have not been proven to be cost-effective.
To their credit, Louisiana commissioned a study to determine the economic impact of the film subsidies; and, lots of people are waiting to see the results. I’m sure few would like to see anything but a positive return on this creative investment. However, there are myriad questions that arise when the taxpayers become major partners in productions. Why, for example, are we not entitled to a piece of the pie?
If an investor puts up millions of dollars for a production company to produce a film, the investor is a partner. So, why aren’t we partners? If we put up 16% of the budget of a $167 million picture, shouldn’t we be entitled to the same financial arrangements as the other investors? And the same goes for sports and all other economic bailouts or investments by the taxpayers.
I’d ask former Louisiana film commissioner Mark Smith what he thinks, but he’s busy talking to the feds.
Of course my ongoing criticism of this investment of public money into the film industry is that Louisiana isn’t known for producing Spielbergs the way we’ve produced Nevilles or Marsalises. Why, then, can’t the state commit to properly funding work to support its historic music resources?
As has always been the case, Louisiana would rather support sports, film, petrochemicals and agriculture and do what it has always done: take music for granted.
Too many folks in economic development overemphasize recruiting. At a time when most admit that Louisiana’s greatest export is our smart, talented, innovative people, highly paid government “leaders” continue to believe they can recruit outsiders to save us.
When I was at the Louisiana Music Commission, we used to joke that to economic development people an expert was someone from out of town carrying a briefcase. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to hear what “we” all have to say. Only the “experts” seemed to know up from down. Though we tried at every opportunity to bring an appreciation for indigenous talent to economic development, and tried our best to be a part of all aspects of the department, nobody wanted to hear anything from us unless it was about music; and, all-to-often only if it involved access to backstage passes.
I recently met with an important person from Louisiana Economic Development who believed that the music director needed to be “working the phones and recruiting.” I said that Louisiana’s music industry can’t recruit its way to success–unless someone has a line on Steve Jobs. I don’t know if I made my point; but I know it’s true. Unfortunately, the folks in charge of music at the state level just don’t get it and remain overwhelmed by the demands of the film industry. Music is still being taken for granted, and the potential of the state to be helpful continues to be untapped.
Our unique music resources, it seems, are still perceived as lacking only what outsiders can bring to it. Well, as far as I (and I’m sure most musicians seeking to make a living) am concerned, the main thing outsiders can bring to our music is their appreciation and their money. And if anyone wants to move their booking or management company here, I’m sure there are incentives that can be utilized. No doubt music could use some help. But what the state is (or rather isn’t) doing is about as useful as a one person sailboat with no rudder on a landlocked pond with no wind or even a paddle.
There are no miracle workers in the music industry anymore. There are no simple solutions to the difficulties of being a musician. The era of the music moguls is long over. And legendary music mogul Clive Davis lost his job (again) this week. Blame whatever you want for the demise of the industry: downloads, supply & demand, competition from video games, all of the above. Whatever you want to call it, the international music industry has changed and the state doesn’t get it. Meanwhile, Louisiana continues to produce some of the world’s best and most interesting music.
But don’t expect the state to fix things anytime soon. Instead of building upon the more than a decade of work that Chairman Ellis Marsalis fostered, the current folks at the LMC continue on their “rebuilding” path by starting from scratch and proceeding at a snail’s pace.
I also learned that nobody at the state’s entertainment office has access to any of the voluminous paperwork we generated in our 13+ years of running the Louisiana Music Commission. The people in charge don’t even know where the ring binders are that hold the reports, plans and the printed version of the (defunct) website. So, again, here is the comprehensive report covering 1992 to 2003, a summary version (bullet text and easy to read) and our last Strategic Plan. And of course anyone can view the old website by visiting Archive.org and typing “louisianamusic.org” into the Internet Wayback Machine.
I know I’m boring some of you with this stuff. But the fact remains that you can’t just erase what we did; and, I won’t let the opinions of openly hostile, manipulative people be the only version of history. I know what I did and I know what we did. And it’s far more than anyone is doing now.
The State of Louisiana continues to neglect its responsibility to nurture our precious music legacy. Our musicians deserve better.
Follow this link to get the latest information on former film office director and co-saboteur of the Louisiana Music Commission, Mark Smith. According to the Times-Picayune Smith’s sentencing has been delayed, evidently because he’s cooperating. Though I don’t wish him any more misery than Allah desires (he’s Muslim), he and his cohorts were caught with their hands in the public cookie jar and prosecuted. And soon enough, they will face the music, take their medicine and do whatever time a judge decides. Just the rules of the game they played.