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Playing for Work: Music as a Form of Labor in New Orleans


Aral Sea

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


New Orleans is ideal to study music as a form of labor, because live musical performance is critical to its overall economic infrastructure. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the reliance on the return of displaced culture bearers to facilitate recovery exposed the inner workings of the cultural economy and highlighted long-standing patterns of exploitation that are endemic to black musicians, the culture industry, and global capitalism. This case study, based on years of ethnographic study among black brass band musicians in New Orleans, offers a view of broader issues of heritage tourism, commodification and authenticity, festivalization and exhibition, racial appropriation, and the value of economic and social capital. The author’s observation of musicians provides a foundation for reevaluating live musical performance as a form of labor, extending a large body of literature on the political economy of music with emphasis on the monetary economy of musicians.

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