On May 2-5, top user-experience designers from around the nation will gather in New Orleans for UX for Good, where they’ll solve a big challenge for the common good. In collaboration with Insight Labs, MusiCares (a nonproﬁt initiative of The GRAMMY Foundation), and the Clinton Global Initiative, they’ll seek to answer the question:
How can we re-arrange the elements of the New Orleans music scene so that artists there can survive and thrive in a digital economy?
Check out the following brief to learn about the challenges the designers will confront as they seek to “raise the roof” on the potential of the NOLA music scene. To learn more about UX for Good, check out http://www.ux4good.com.
Challenge #1 – Re-imagining the New Orleans Musical Ecology
The music business was one of the ﬁrst industries to be visibly and painfully reconﬁgured by the digital revolution. From Napster through the iPod to Spotify, it’s a familiar tale – information technology made it possible to duplicate, without cost, a form of valuable data that was once bound to a physical product.
Many companies failed to adapt, launching numerous anti-piracy campaigns instead of thinking about how to best use emerging technologies. Others made a bundle by ﬁguring out the key components of user experience that listeners were willing to pay for. Musicians got caught somewhere in between. Some used new technologies to deepen their art and expand their audience, while others despaired that they would never make money from selling recordings.
Everyone who works in the digital realm knows this story of how technology changed the way we experience recorded music. But when it comes to America’s live music ecology, the story is longer and more complicated. Scott Goldman, vice president of The GRAMMY Foundation and MusiCares, says the trouble began when record labels stopped viewing themselves as caretakers of regional musical cultures.
“If you go back to the halcyon days of the music industry, record labels were incubators,” he said. “Talent was recognized and groomed over time. If your ﬁrst record didn’t sell a huge number of copies, that was okay, as long as there was someone who was willing to work with you to grow your brand.”
Most big cities still have a local music scene. But Goldman laments that many of them have just become feeders into a “national celebrity culture.”
“You’re either ubiquitous or you’re nobody,” he said. “To my mind, that stinks.”
But then there’s New Orleans. The city where much of American music was born still maintains a distinctive musical milieu. It’s not just that there are more musicians in the Big Easy or more places to hear them. It’s the way that the music produced there interacts with a greater variety of forms from the past and present. If NOLA could ﬁgure out the right way to combine a local music ecology with digital technology, it could serve as a template for the rest of the nation and the world.
“It seems like all the ingredients are there,” said Goldman. “The musicians are there. The clubs are there. The audience is there. But what’s the tipping point that could send it into overdrive?”
Your job is to ﬁnd out: How can we re-arrange the elements of the New Orleans music scene so that artists there can survive and thrive in a digital economy?
Nearly every form of distinctively American music has its roots in New Orleans. It all goes back to Congo Square, one of the few places in the United States where African-American slaves were allowed to play music freely. When combined with European music and instruments, those local traditions led to the formation of New Orleans’ famed brass bands, who played the ﬁrst jazz music. The city’s mix of cultures also guaranteed it a key place in the development of major American genres like blues, gospel, country, rock, R&B and hip-hop, as well as distinctive local traditions like zydeco, cowpunk, bounce, and more.
Today, the New Orleans music scene still has many advantages that make it distinctive and strong. In building a systemic solution for music in New Orleans, you can take advantage of the following:
• The sheer number of musicians and venues. After Hurricane Katrina, GRAMMY’s MusiCares
project sought to help musicians and others supported by the music economy. To be eligible for assistance from MusiCares, a person must have made a living working in the music industry for ﬁve years or more. In the end, the organization provided aid to more than 4,000 people. When one considers that there was also a large number of local musicians who did not need or apply for assistance, the data shows that the number of musicians per capita in a city of around 340,000 is signiﬁcant.
Despite Hurricane Katrina and the economic downturn, there are also still plenty of places for those musicians to play. “There are probably more places to see live music here on a Monday night than there are on a Saturday night in most cities,” said Reid Wick, the Recording Academy’s local Production Manager for Member Services.
• The music scene is more diverse than in many other places. “In New Orleans we have top-notch talent from nearly every music genre, even if they might not all be household names,” Wick said.
• Unique neighborhoods and collections of venues cultivate musical tradition and innovation. In New Orleans, one can hear great American music in a club. But it can also be heard at a jazz funeral, during a gathering of one of the city’s “krewes,” or during traditional celebrations like Mardi Gras. Because of the number of musicians, even more pedestrian settings from wedding receptions to street corners are likely to yield quality tunes, Wick argues.
Furthermore, unlike in many cities, music venues in New Orleans are tightly concentrated in settings that encourage interaction. “On Frenchwood Street, you have 16 clubs in a four-block stretch where you might be able to hear everything from traditional jazz to reggae to a singer-songwriter to R&B,” Wick said. “In other places these styles are walled off from each other, but here they all inﬂuence each other.”
• Music is intertwined with deep regional identities. Goldman argues that while in many cities music is a nice distraction, New Orleanians understand that music is part of who they are. “People who live here are not only proud of the region’s music, but support it to the best of their ability,” he said. According to Wick, the region’s ability to produce new musicians is akin to a “natural resource.” But it’s not just artists who are born here; Wick says that many students who come to the city to study music prefer to stay.
“New Orleanians don’t want to leave,” Wick said. “Even if they have to go somewhere else in order to make it, they want to come back here.”
• Frequent festivals and other gatherings give musicians a chance to learn and interact. It’s not just Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest – major music gatherings in New Orleans also include Voodoo Experience, the Essence Music Festival, Southern Decadence, the French Quarter Festival, and many smaller annual events.
• Combined, these factors create a “hothouse” for musical talent. Says Wick: “Because of the number and quality of musicians, everyone is pushed to be as good as they can be. There is always going to be somebody coming to New Orleans who is going to be better than you. You have to work hard to work on your craft, hone your skills, keep your gigs, and hold on to your audience.”
A hothouse can produce beautiful and exotic plants, but it isn’t always pleasant to live there. Many of the same factors that make New Orleans a great place for music also make life difﬁcult for musicians there. What’s more, the city faces problems that limit its creative potential or even threaten to destroy its unique musical ecology. In designing a solution for New Orleans, you should keep in mind:
• Musicians are often under-valued or poorly paid. On one level, it’s simple supply and demand. If you have a ton of musicians in one place, club owners can afford to pay bands less. Scott Aiges of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation says that the average musician in the area makes less than $27,000, is married, and has two or more children. The concentration of musicians can also make it harder for New Orleans performers to improve their lot. “If you protest against bad treatment or low pay, there is always another hungry musician willing to take your place,” Wick said.
• Artists sometimes lack access to tools they could use to improve their position. Many older musicians may understand that younger musicians are using digital tools to promote themselves, but feel afraid to take on a new skill set. Meanwhile, younger musicians’ potential is sometimes limited by the lack of skills normally embodied in a manager or agent. For example, Reid Wick tells the story of a group of innovative hip-hop musicians who could not legally release their records because they did not know how to obtain the rights to the music they sampled.
• Musicians are not accustomed to articulating or leveraging their own value. A musician isn’t a day laborer. To simply reach a level of competence, an artist must log thousands of hours of practice and performance. Even a mediocre performance requires a musician to call upon the higher faculties of creativity, cooperation, and empathy. “People who are not in the music world don’t understand the level of craft that goes into being a musician,” said Reid. “The stereotype is that musicians are spending all of their time hanging out in nightclubs and having fun, when in fact it takes a huge amount of time just to maintain your skills.”
But most musicians as well as most venue owners only think about placing a value on the time a performer spends on a gig. This isn’t just a problem of The Man keeping the artists down – musicians also have trouble developing and leveraging their own value. The money artists earn from gigs seems so meager that they are reluctant to spend it in entrepreneurial ways like hiring a better publicist or manager. Furthermore, competition between musicians is so ﬁerce that they do not form the kinds of partnerships that could beneﬁt them all.
Wick also questions whether musicians and venue owners have truly adapted to New Orleans’s
changing economy. He points out that while many young professionals in the area would gladly see local musicians perform on a weeknight, they also have to get to work the next day. He argues that venues are failing to recognize demand for earlier shows that start on time. Musicians would also beneﬁt from a stronger professional ethos, he argues.
Overall, Wick uses a characteristically Cajun metaphor to explain the problem: “If you’re a shrimper, you’re out doing your own thing all day. But at some point you’ve got to come back and connect with the dock of the rest of the economy. That’s what musicians need to do too.”
• Hurricane Katrina disrupted traditional patterns of celebrating and transmuting musical
culture. Sure, the French Quarter is still there. Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are as loud and as fun as ever. But the music of New Orleans really lives – or lived – in its neighborhoods. As Wick puts it, many New Orleans artists played through the night at a corner bar on Saturday, then walked up the street to play in the church on Sunday morning. The “krewes” and brass bands so essential to the NOLA music traditions were also neighborhood-based. While many of the most visible elements of the New Orleans music ecology are still healthy, it will die within a generation if there is no way to transmit it.
Needless to say, the storm also caused serious damage to the region’s economy and infrastructure. While many people have gotten back on their feet, there are still plenty of people who don’t know how to make it in New Orleans whether they make music or not.
• Despite widespread respect for music among New Orleanians, there is no overall strategy for the city’s music culture. Everyone in New Orleans loves its music. Yet Wick argues that to release the city’s full creative potential, the city and region need a strategy similar to those pursued by other American cultural hubs. Austin is frequently called “the live music capital of the world.” The word “Nashville” is shorthand for country music. Mississippi has successfully billed itself as “the Birthplace of American Music.” Wick says that New Orleans could beneﬁt from a similar, sustained effort by the political class to organize the city’s musical past and present.
“A lot of people took music for granted here,” Wick said. “It took Hurricane Katrina for us to realize what it might be like if that culture started to disappear.”
Your solution to the challenge could address some or all of these problems. But it could also bypass them in pursuit of an even greater good – it may be that the value that could be realized by New Orleans’s music community transcends these concerns. Keep this in mind as you talk to the various members of the city’s music scene you will meet as you do your research.
The following are a series of hypothetical personae whose needs you should address as you design a solution for New Orleans.
The Old Hand – Clarence, 54, has made a living playing the bass in New Orleans since he was in his early 20s. He once played regularly with three different music groups, but one of them was disbanded after most of the band members left New Orleans after Katrina. Clarence also lost his home to the hurricane. He and his family currently live in an apartment that barely meets their needs. Clarence says, “I’m getting by, but I’ve given up on getting ahead. I worry that choosing a life of making music has made it impossible for me to build a better life for my kids.”
The Neophyte – Stephanie, 19, was undoubtedly the best pianist in the small Alabama town where she grew up. Instead of going to college right away, she decided to move to New Orleans to try making it as a professional musician. She thinks she can afford to stay in the city a few more months before she has to move back in with her parents. She says: “I’ve heard so much great music here and met so many interesting people. But I’ve only gotten a few gigs – I feel like I’m missing something about how the system works. And honestly, I’m not sure whether I’m meant to be a professional musician.”
The Celebrity – B.D., 42, is a respected saxophonist who has won several major awards. He’s nationally known because of television appearances and collaborations with big names from other genres. Everyone knows B.D. is from New Orleans, but for the past decade he’s been based in New York. After Katrina, he made the decision that he would move back home, and in 2009 it was ﬁnally feasible for him to get a place in NOLA. But since returning, he’s been frustrated that he hasn’t been able to do more for the city. He says: “I’ve played everywhere. I know there are unknown artists in New Orleans who could go toe-to-toe with players who are national names. But the city just can’t seem to get it together – what’s missing?”
The Restauranteur – Bill, 33, grew up in New Orleans but left to go to business school. He returned to the Gulf as part of a mission trip after Katrina and fell in love with the region all over again. After growing disillusioned with high ﬁnance after 2008, Bill and a few buddies decided to open a restaurant in New Orleans. The food is a hit and the guys are turning a proﬁt. But their dream always included live music, and they haven’t quite ﬁgured out how to make it work. “I love New Orleans jazz as much as anybody,” Bill says. “But at the end of the day it doesn’t seem worth the hassle. How can I support the music scene in a way that ﬁts with my business?”
The Innovator – Pierre Valentín has a uniquely American pedigree – his father is Cajun, his mother is Indian, and he grew up in New Orleans. Styling himself “DJ Wiggin,” he’s come up with a style of dance music that insiders say could be the next dubstep. The trouble is that Pierre hasn’t yet ﬁgured out how to actually make a living making his music. He sleeps on friends’ couches and does all of his work from a laptop. “I’m totally psyched about my music. I know hundreds of people who have said it makes their lives better. But I’m still trying to ﬁgure out how to make a life for myself. Is New
Orleans the place to do it?”
We have consciously left out one user type you may be considering – “the listener” or “the
consumer.” Why? Because the category has been over-thought and over-analyzed to death. Besides, our goal here is to design the system that is best for New Orleans music and musicians. It may be that the solution requires imagining a different kind of listener or fan than the one we all think we already know.