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date: 24 May 2022

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

Abstract and Keywords

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.

Keywords: labor, New Orleans, Katrina, musicians, performance, jazz, brass band, black music, culture workers, New Orleans music


New Orleans is an ideal site to study music as a form of labor, because live musical performance is critical to the city’s overall economic infrastructure. Tourism is the city’s largest industry, and it is culture—most specifically food, architecture, and music—that makes New Orleans a desirable destination. Visitors to Louisiana are more than twice as likely to participate in nightlife and dancing than when visiting other states (Mt. Auburn Associates 2005, 38), and in New Orleans alone there are approximately twenty-eight thousand live music “gigs” each year, an average of seventy-seven per day (Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy 2014, 41). While the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would appear to have rendered New Orleans incomparable to other sites, the reliance on the return of displaced culture bearers to facilitate recovery actually 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 most broadly. This case study, based on years of ethnographic study among black brass band musicians in New Orleans, offers a window onto broader issues of heritage tourism, commodification and authenticity, festivalization and exhibition, racial appropriation, music-as-labor, and the value of economic and social capital.

As with the literary arts studied by Pierre Bourdieu, music has often been isolated and romanticized within a “substantialist mode of thought” that “tends to foreground the individual, or the visible interactions between individuals, at the expense of structural relations” (1993, 29). To contextualize the experiences of musicians and audiences within what Bourdieu termed a “field of cultural production,” I draw on policy documents, the discourse of culture brokers, and quality of life data (on income, housing, education, and health care). This essay also references an abundance of post-Katrina literature from fields such as political science, cultural geography, sociology, medical anthropology, and media studies, as well as comparative studies of the cultural economy in other cities where music is incorporated into the machinations of business and policy.

These studies, paired with my ethnography of musicians’ experiences in the culture industry, provide the basis for reevaluating live musical performance as a form of labor, extending a large body of literature on the political economy of music, with a new emphasis on the monetary economy of musicians. Musicians are “creative agents” who “also hold jobs in a capitalist system,” writes Matt Stahl, and thus are “subject to control by their employers and to the appropriation of the products of their labor” (2012, 19). By concentrating on economic and social precarity, my intent is not to strip musicians of their agency as creative artists, but to situate this creativity as a form of labor within hierarchies of race, power, and privilege.


New Orleans has enjoyed a reputation as an exceptionally musical place since the antebellum period, when the city’s musical identity was based on the sheer abundance of offerings, representing the racial and ethnic heterogeneity of its inhabitants. There were the famed ring shouts at Congo Square, adjacent to the French Quarter, where slaves were permitted to dance, sing, and play drums and other instruments (Evans 2011; see also Sakakeeny 2011, 295–304). But New Orleans was also a center for ballroom dance, marching bands, concert music, and opera. French settlers organized the first permanent opera company in the United States and established New Orleans as an elite cultural center through celebrated tours to New York, Boston, and other northeastern cities in the 1820s.

Since the emergence of jazz in the early twentieth century, the city’s musical associations have narrowed in scope, encompassing jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, brass band, hip-hop, and gospel. These styles are bound together through an association with race, place, and social dance more firmly than in many other locations, so that “New Orleans music” is now virtually synonymous with black American music. The persistence of the parading traditions that are the focus of this study, and their accessibility in the public sphere, have ensured that new generations are socialized into live music making, along with related cultural formations such as Mardi Gras Indians (Lewis and Breunlin 2009) and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs (Nine Times 2006).

The ongoing vitality of community-based traditions, which imbue New Orleans music with symbolic authenticity, is nevertheless dependent on staged cultural exhibitions for varied audiences. In the second half of the twentieth century, as the oil and shipping industries scaled down their investments in New Orleans, tourism became the foundation of the local economy, and as in many other postindustrial cities, the labor market shifted away from industrial work and toward service work (Souther 2006; Stanonis 2006; Gotham 2007). The culture industry became subsidiary to the tourism industry as hotels, restaurants, convention centers, nightclubs, and other venues sought to incorporate live music into promotional strategies designed to meet visitors’ expectations of an authentically New Orleans experience. Drawing on Richard Florida’s influential concept of the “creative class” (2002), tourism boosters describe a “value chain of the cultural economy” that reaches to the upper echelons of state governance—the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, directed by the lieutenant governor—but the foundation is laid by musicians and other individual culture workers.

This study offers a bottom-up view of this value chain from the perspective of musicians who traverse social and economic boundaries in the process of accumulating social and economic capital, from the back streets to the main stage. By way of example, the Olympia became the most popular brass band in the 1960s and 1970s, not only because band members were called upon to perform at parades, funerals, parties, and other neighborhood functions, but because their status was enhanced by tours of Europe, Japan, and America, and appearances at the 1970 Superbowl and tourist venues such as Preservation Hall. During this period, institutions such as New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (“Jazz Fest”), Preservation Hall, and Tulane University’s Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz were established to preserve and promote what has been variously termed “traditional,” “authentic,” or “indigenous” music. These middle-layer culture brokers work in conjunction with upper-level agencies such as the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau to bestow social capital upon New Orleans musicians, but economic capital trickles down to them very unevenly. As tourist dollars now amount to $6 billion per year, New Orleans presents itself as an opportune place to study what George Yúdice calls the “expediency of culture” (2003), in locations where cultural artifacts and performances are identified as an economic resource and recontextualized in new spaces for exhibition and consumption.

The Expediency of New Orleans Music

The state-sponsored report Louisiana: Where Culture Means Business was compiled by the Boston-based consulting firm Mt. Auburn Associates and intended to “quantify the economic importance of arts and cultural activities” (Mt. Auburn Associates 2005, 14). In the section dedicated to New Orleans, the category of entertainment is dominated by live musical performance, made evident by the number of music festivals scheduled throughout the year—including Jazz Fest, Essence Festival, French Quarter Festival, Voodoo Festival, and Satchmo Summerfest—all of which rely on the staging of local musical talent to a degree that would not be possible in other locations in the United States. “New Orleans continues to draw tourists and conventioneers in search of jazz,” note the authors, who argue that music “is probably doing better today than it has for many years” because of the opportunities created by tourism (2005, 17).

In their book Ethnicity, Inc., Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff argue that social identity formation increasingly relies on the packaging and staging of culture: “Ethnicity is both commodified, made into the basis of value-added corporate collectivity, and claimed as the basis of shared emotion, shared lifestyle, shared imaginings for the future” (2009, 2). Their work extends previous research on the relationship of identity and culture in the market, such as Néstor García Canclini’s (1993) foundational study of Oaxaca, Mexico, which traced the utility of ritual as staged folkloric performance (such as peasant fiestas) and traditional handcrafts (such as barro negro pottery) as cultural commodities. In New Orleans, black musical performance provides a basis for shared identity while also providing income for culture workers, curators, and brokers, who profit directly from the production of heritage, and a host of others (property owners, retail operators, college professors), who benefit indirectly (Gotham 2007).

Once we acknowledge the extent of cultural commodification, the question, following the Comaroffs, is: Who benefits, who suffers, and in what proportions? Unsurprisingly, patterns of imbalance persist: “Difference, patently, may produce profit in a wide variety of ways. But those who embody its essence are often too marginalized by it to be able to control its potential market value” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009, 71). In conducting interviews with culture workers for their report, the Mt. Auburn researchers determined that black musicians in New Orleans felt the “most exploited” of all artists in the state (2005, 60). In a subsection under the heading “The African-American and Creole Communities Feel That They Do Not Capture the Economic Benefit of Their Considerable Contribution to Louisiana’s Wealth,” the authors noted a “profound distrust” among “African Americans and Creoles whose African-based culture is at the root of so much of Louisiana’s culture” because “their work is being used to make profits for others” (2005, 59).

It is in this section, about black music performance in the state’s largest city, that Mt. Auburn locates a gap between the discourse of state and industry and the experiences of culture workers: “What is striking … is the disproportionate amount of wealth generated by culture relative to what finds its way back to the originators of that culture” (2005, 59). The problem, musicians and researchers agree, is that culture begins with culture workers who originate content, but cultural economics ends with these same workers, who are the last to receive any financial return. There is no cultural economy without their labor, but the bulk of the finances they generate accumulates elsewhere.

In the remainder of this article I refer to my ethnographic research among brass band musicians in contemporary New Orleans to form a microlevel case study of the local cultural economy. The brass band ensemble is particularly well suited for an economic study, because it has become an archetype of the city’s unique culture. Brass bands provide music for two of the most significant black performance traditions in New Orleans, the jazz funeral and the second line parade; as these same musicians march off the streets and into concert halls, festival grounds, and recording studios, they have been fully incorporated in tourism marketing strategies, and they move with relative ease between staged cultural exhibitions and community-based performance contexts.

Brass band is but one of numerous styles that constitute the pantheon of New Orleans music, and bands such as Rebirth, Hot 8, and Soul Rebels appear at festivals and other cultural exhibitions alongside traditional jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, and soul artists, as well as cajun and zydeco musicians from southwest Louisiana. Because these are all forms of social dance music and are eminently compatible with the festivity and pleasure that New Orleans audiences expect, they are programmed more frequently than potentially “difficult” music.

As one example, musicians pursuing “straight ahead,” “free jazz,” and other subgenres of modern jazz have struggled for recognition within the canon of New Orleans music. Prominent musicians who specialize in these styles intended for close listening, without dance accompaniment, have all relocated to other cities to launch their careers (including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison Jr., Nicholas Payton, and Christian Scott) (see Battiste 2010; Kunian 2013). At Jazz Fest, modern jazz artists from around the world are confined to a single stage (the “Jazz Tent”), while two stages are dedicated entirely to traditional New Orleans music (the Jazz & Heritage stage, and Economy Hall tent), and local musicians may appear on any of the nine other stages. Of the 116 live music venues in New Orleans, only three nightclubs regularly program “nontraditional” jazz (Snug Harbor, Sweet Lorraine’s, and the Prime Example) (see Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy 2014, 41).

Hip-hop, on the other hand, has a much larger presence as the most visible form of contemporary popular music. Artists from New Orleans such as Lil’ Wayne, Mystikal, and Juvenile have flourished nationally (Sublette 2009); a regional style of rap known as “bounce” was extremely popular with local black audiences in the 1990s (Miller 2012); and transgender rappers performing what has been called “sissy bounce” have been especially popular with white audiences post-Katrina (Fensterstock 2008). However, because it is associated with black youth cultures, explicit lyrical themes, and technologically produced sounds, hip-hop has been largely excluded from the domain of tradition upon which the cultural tourism industry was largely built (Sanneh 2006; Sakakeeny 2013, 109–142; Hobbs 2015).1 Only a handful of hip-hop artists appear at Jazz Fest each year, and contemporary hip-hop is all but excluded from programming on community radio station WWOZ-FM (“New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Station”). Meanwhile, the brass band has been fully incorporated into media outlets and spaces of live performance in New Orleans, bestowing social capital upon musicians who nevertheless face challenges in accruing economic capital.

The Brass Band Parade

A traditional jazz funeral is a public burial service in which a black New Orleanian is “buried with music.” The musicians, funeral directors, and family and friends of the dead make up what is called the first line, while the crowd marching behind them is collectively known as the second line. As the procession moves from the funeral service to the burial site, the first and second lines march to the beat of a brass band. At the beginning, the band plays dirges, somber hymns performed at a slow walking tempo. After the body is laid to rest, or “cut loose,” the band starts playing up-tempo music, the second liners begin dancing, and the funeral transforms into a celebration.

After the Civil War, black funerals with brass bands became commonplace, and by the twentieth century the funerals had become forums for the performance of a new style of music—jazz—and eventually became known as “jazz funerals” (White; Sakakeeny 2013; Breunlin and Barnes 2014). Funerals were historically arranged by benevolent and burial societies, which collected dues to pay for members’ health care and burial costs and offered a brass band for an extra fee. At some point in the late nineteenth century the second line detached from the funeral and took on its own identity as a parade sponsored by these societies, which have carried on as Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs. Second line parades wind through the neighborhoods of club members, making designated stops at their houses and other significant neighborhood sites, usually barrooms. From September through May there is at least one parade every Sunday, often scheduled on the anniversary of a club’s founding. Each club hosts fundraisers throughout the year and collects dues at regular meetings to pay for police permits, brass bands, and the coordinated outfits that members wear at their parade.

A second line parade is a public festival in which club members, musicians, and second liners come together to create what anthropologist Helen Regis describes as “a single flowing movement of people unified by the rhythm” (1999, 480). At the head of the parade, club members wear suits and sashes that display the club’s name, often twirling matching umbrellas above their heads. For approximately four hours, they strut their dance moves in front of the band while the second liners fall in behind and along the side. Many second liners show off popular dance steps such as the high step and the buck jump. Others make their own sounds by singing, clapping, blowing whistles, hitting cowbells and beer bottles, and shaking tambourines. Writing about Louis Armstrong’s socialization into the brass band tradition as a child at the start of the twentieth century, musicologist Thomas Brothers interprets the second line parade as a “public display of African American vernacular culture” that was implicitly a “symbolic act of resistance to Jim Crow” (2006, 22).

Contemporary parading has continued to create a sense of shared identity among many black New Orleanians. Rachel Breunlin and Helen Regis discussed how the return of Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs and their parades in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina engendered a powerful sense of “home” for displaced New Orleanians:

Despite the obstacles of time and distance, Nine Times, other Social and Pleasure Clubs, and residents who participate in the tradition through the second lines see parading as a route back to the city and to each other. In the first months after the storm, there were a number of parades organized in Baton Rouge and Houston. At these events, second liners used their cell phones to call friends and family scattered around the country to let them listen to the brass band music that defined Sunday afternoons in New Orleans for so many years. (2006, 758)

Here, the sound of the brass band—the familiar repertoire, the rhythmic grooves, and the melodic improvisations—facilitates cultural cohesion and healing for predominantly black New Orleanians. A crowd of black bodies occupying public space signifies collective resistance, situating Katrina within an unbroken history of structural marginalization, including the collapse of Reconstruction, the implementation of Jim Crow, and the failure of civil rights legislation to ensure equal opportunities for African Americans. Yet brass bands, second line parades, and jazz funerals are not solely intraracial community rituals; they are also iconic symbols of cultural distinctiveness that circulate in an expansive field of cultural production. On the streets, this includes professional photographers, journalists, ethnographers, and other culture brokers, who together make up what has been called the “third line.” And beyond the streets, musicians make commercial recordings, perform in concerts and festivals, and are hired to stage exhibitions of heritage for diverse audiences. Their cultural labor is integral to what tourism promoters refer to as the “holy trinity” of attractions that make New Orleans a desirable destination: food, architecture, and music.

Cultural Exhibition of Brass Band Parades

The performance events with the closest affinity to the neighborhood parades are processions of tourists led by bands through hotel lobbies, convention center halls, or French Quarter streets. In these performances—variously called “mock” parades, “hotel gigs,” or simply “white gigs”—musicians are hired to play familiar repertoire and appear in the traditional uniform of white “button-down” shirt, black pants and shoes, and a visored cap bearing the band’s name in gold lettering. The musicians and spectators are often led by a parade marshal, adorned with a sash and an umbrella, who demonstrates second line dancing to the uninitiated. These jobs are frequently contracted by destination management companies (DMCs), which arrange venues, suppliers, and entertainment for meeting planners, such as Bonnie Boyd and Company’s jazz funeral package, “complete with pallbearers, mourners, styrofoam coffin and ‘widow woman.’”2

Brass bands also appear in live music venues, including bars and nightclubs in each neighborhood of the city and music festivals during every season of the year. In the spring the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival draws nearly half a million visitors to New Orleans; it has an economic impact of over $300 million, second only to Mardi Gras (Price 2005). In “Producing the Folk at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,” Helen Regis and Shana Walton write that the ideology of Jazz Fest “spring[s] from a desire to create authentic representations of beloved traditions” (2008, 401), including music and food from all over Louisiana. Dozens of brass bands are hired to play onstage, and many pair up with Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs to parade through the fairgrounds, but there are consistent complaints that their fees amount to a fraction of those paid to the national acts performing alongside them.

Though the Jazz & Heritage Festival lives up to its name by putting local culture front and center, headlining acts such as Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi are paid upward of $1 million, while rates for local musicians can go as low as $1,500 and rarely exceed $10,000.3 These fees are above average for a local gig, and many musicians also benefit indirectly through increased off-site performance opportunities during the festival season, but the money is incommensurate with the exorbitant prices paid to “marquee” names, especially considering the symbolic premium Jazz Fest places on local culture. “While Jazz Fest ideology and marketed authenticity remain rooted in folk reverence,” write Regis and Walton, “festival practices often result in folk marginalization, as producers are enmeshed in the larger process of cultural commodification of music and arts in the global marketplace” (2008, 401; see also Watts and Porter 2013, 12–31). Local culture is an asset to Jazz Fest, just as Jazz Fest is an asset to local culture, but culture bearers look at the festival logo—a silhouette of four second liners dancing with umbrellas—and question whether the money that trickles down to them is commensurate with that generated by their very presence.

Brass Band Musicians and the Symbolic Economy of Authenticity

In anthropological and cultural studies, the preceding sections on community parades and staged exhibitions would traditionally be approached as a study in contrasts of authenticity and meaning. Dick Hebdige identifies this shift as the incorporation of the subcultural by the dominant culture (1979, 90–99). For Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, the move is one from actuality to virtuality, from the performance of tradition (“music that is part and parcel of a way of life”) to the production of heritage (music “singled out for preservation, protection, enshrinement, and revival” (1998, 52). And Helen Regis’s research situates staged second line parades specifically within a long history of racial exploitation, referring to the practice of staging parades as a “minstrel-like appropriation of a black cultural tradition by the city’s elites and the tourism industry” (1999, 473).

There is also a rich lineage of research on the intracommunal meanings of music among black performers and audiences, within which music is perceived as an inherent racial property that has been authentically reproduced in revised form by each generation of black Americans. Since the earliest research on slave songs and spirituals, there has been an antiracist imperative to validate musical significances through the search for African retentions, cultural memory, vernacular performance, and communal resistance (e.g., Jones 1963; Floyd 1995; Ramsey 2003; see also Sakakeeny 2005, 144–51). In specific relation to New Orleans, foundational writings by George Washington Cable (1886), Melville Herskovits (1941, 261–69), Frederic Ramsey and Charles Edward Smith (1939), and Alan Lomax (1950) established the city as a wellspring of authentic vernacular culture, where “those aspects of the African tradition peculiar to this specialized region have reached their greatest development” (Herskovits 1941, 245; see also Sakakeeny 2011, 295–304).4

These intellectual legacies made great strides in countering racist claims of deculturation by underscoring the social value of black music within the particular history of expropriation, enslavement, segregation, and continued marginalization. They have also been subject to criticism for essentializing black music, in other words, for setting the terms by which essential musical qualities and performance contexts are valued as authentic (e.g., Gilroy 1993; Filene 2000; Radano 2003; Wald 2004; Schroeder 2004; Miller 2010; Sakakeeny 2011). In a particularly provocative deconstruction, Ronald Radano argues that authenticity is not a derivative of the music “itself” but is a value added through the very process of circulation: “Black music as an unmediated expression of private, bodily feeling becomes through the economic forces of commodification and property ownership a public form available to all. This contradiction between the private world of racialized black music and its public access in the world of consumer capitalism is what gets to the heart of black music’s authenticity and power” (2010, 365). Retaining the analytical focus on authenticity, Radano and other scholars have begun asking how musicians, listeners, researchers, and others continually reinvest in the social capital of black music.

A useful comparison to New Orleans brass band music can be found in the blues, a very different style that is nevertheless rooted in race- and place-based identity, as two studies of Chicago and Mississippi Delta blues tourism demonstrate. In I’m Feeling the Blues Right Now: Blues Tourism and the Mississippi Delta, Stephen A. King attended festivals at which “African-American[s] playing acoustic blues (e.g., Delta blues) preferably in a rural or rural-like setting” (2011, 101) met white spectators’ expectations of cultural authenticity. This recognition led festival organizers and tourism promoters to stage and market these performances differently than contemporary “soul-blues” acts popular with local black audiences.

Chicago has been associated with electric urban blues since the midcentury peak of the Great Migration, but today’s blues musicians, much like brass band musicians in New Orleans, play in a variety of contexts in which audiences have differing attachments to authenticity. In Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs (2003), David Grazian charts a sliding scale of authenticity as he tracks musicians recycling standards for a revolving cast of spectators at the Chicago Blues Festival, upscale blues-themed nightclubs in the downtown district, and modest blues bars in North Side neighborhoods. As in New Orleans, the rootedness and durability of musical styles (city blues or brass bands) and songs (“Sweet Home Chicago” or “When the Saints Go Marching In”) are due in part to their ubiquitous presence in musical exhibitions that take place in “urban entertainment destinations” (the Chicago Loop or the French Quarter). In Grazian’s accounting, spaces explicitly groomed for consumption, such as festivals and venues that cater to tourists, are not wholly autonomous from community events, partly because the musicians themselves mobilize across these boundaries, and partly because authenticity is itself subjectively measured. Grazian’s theory of a “symbolic economy of authenticity” accommodates the broad “network of commodified signs, social relations, and meanings” that together construct the authentic as “an arbitrarily measured kind of value, like money” (2003, 17).

In New Orleans, a symbolic economy of authenticity can be measured by tracking the movements of the “Joe Avery riff,” a five-note musical phrase that can be inserted into virtually any song and has consequently become a sonic icon of brass band music and New Orleans more broadly. Because the riff is a call-and-response phrase—a trumpet call prompting the audience to yell “HEY!”—it is a microcosm of the participatory nature of street parades, which also include singing, whooping, clapping, blowing whistles, hitting cowbells and beer bottles, and shaking tambourines. Drummer Keith Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band explained to me: “If you want to get a response from the audience, drop that in there, and in New Orleans, you got one right away.” In secondary contexts, such as concerts, festivals, and “mock” parades for conventioneers and tourists, “Joe Avery” is also deployed by brass band musicians to overcome differences and provide an authentic “New Orleans” experience for the uninitiated. In these instances, Keith continues, “We go ‘da-da-daaaa-da,’ [then] one of our band members says ‘HEY!’ [and] the next time we do it, they say ‘HEY!’ Pick up on it pretty quick, you know.” As “Joe Avery” circulates within a symbolic economy, an accumulation can be measured whereby authenticity attached to music in staged exhibitions feeds back into community spaces, enhancing the status of cultural traditions and culture bearers and thus exploding the binaries of community versus staged, vernacular versus commodified, unmediated versus appropriated, and so forth.

The entanglement of mediated cultural representations (Kirschenblatt-Gimblett’s “heritage”) with community performances (Kirschenblatt-Gimblett’s “tradition”) was evidenced by the television program Treme, a fictional account of the experiences of New Orleans musicians recovering from Katrina. The show, named after a historic neighborhood that has been home to numerous musicians, featured live performances by a cavalcade of New Orleans musicians, many with speaking roles. Protagonist Antoine Batiste was a trombone player who made guest appearances with several brass bands in the city over the course of the series. The intimate close-ups of second line parades, back-a-town club gigs, and Mardi Gras Indian ceremonies were praised by critics and audiences and lured viewers to experience these events in the city itself while the show aired from 2010 to 2013.

A noticeable “Treme effect” could be detected in the larger, whiter audiences at parades, which inspired a mixed response from those long invested in the tradition, with some welcoming the increased attention and others concerned about voyeurism and appropriation. The show exemplified what Lynell Thomas identifies as “the tension between the welcome recognition and celebration of New Orleans black expressive culture and its spectacularization and commodification” (2012, 215; see also Gray 2012). Further, as the “Treme effect” and the circulation of the “Joe Avery” riff demonstrate, the boundaries between community performances and staged exhibitions are fluid. Following Radano, situating these resonances within a symbolic economy of authenticity challenges long-standing attachments to black music as “a primordial entity, a racially determined sound form whose economized origins in slavery were reenvisioned according to a new origin in the African past, only to be reeconomized and reracialized in the modern as the cultural property of a new African American citizenry” (2013, 131).

What lies beyond symbolic economies and cultural consumption, in a radically underexplored domain of musical study, are monetary economies in which live performance is approached as a form of material production (Faulkner and Becker 2009; Stahl 2012). For all its representational power and symbolic weight, Treme also offers insight into the economic terrain that brass band musicians traverse as they seek sustainable livelihoods. In comparison to standard pay rates for live performances in New Orleans, musicians appearing in Treme were compensated generously. Each musician was typically paid $750 per day on the set, and more went to composers for licensing fees on original music. These rates far exceed those for a live performance; musicians at the top of the pay scale are used to receiving $200 to $300 for a standard performance, and those at the lower end expect $50 to $100. But as with the Jazz & Heritage Festival, the fees paid to artists represent a tiny fraction of the film economy. More significantly, musicians, actors, and production staff in Louisiana are paid far less on average than their counterparts in Hollywood, and media companies are offered over $250 million in annual tax breaks and other financial incentives to film on location in the state (Mayer and Goldman 2010; Russell 2014).

This media example indicates the magnitude of the infrastructure in which musical performance is a component part, always bought and sold, regardless of scale, from grassroots traditions to Hollywood productions. Authenticity and symbolic capital are measured subjectively, but economic capital, specifically labor power, is a brutally objective mechanism of materialism. Musician-laborers are largely absent from studies that focus on production at the systemic level of the culture industry and/or consumption at the level of the consumer, without attending to those who create units of production. In the following section I evaluate how symbolic economies of authenticity are entwined with monetary economies of exchange by considering the “branding power” of New Orleans music.

Brass and Musicians and Economies of Exchange

In Ethnicity, Inc., John and Jean Comaroff argue that structures of meaning cannot be isolated from structures of power and attendant economic flows. They make reference to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, the symbolic value of affiliating with a particular culture, and suggest that it has become inseparable from economic capital:

Being founded from the first on a misleading antinomy between the symbolic and the substantive, the immaterial and the material, [the distinction between cultural and economic capital] can no longer be sustained when the two species of capital merge so overtly: when culture is objectified by those who inhabit it, thence to be deployed as a brute economic asset, a commodity with the intrinsic capacity to compound wealth of its own accord. (2009, 32)

An initial step in pursuing this claim is to approach community parades not only as the originary source of cultural capital and symbolic authenticity, but also as a site of economic exchange (a “gig”). Parades have their own informal cash economies that are surprisingly expansive and include hair dressers and designers who outfit club members; clothing shops that print individualized T-shirts for second liners; bar owners who host stops on the parade route; vendors who sell food and beverages; and in the case of burial processions, the funeral industry that makes arrangements. Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs are a recurring source of income for brass band musicians, who get hired not only for the annual parades but also for the dances, dinners, and other fundraising functions the clubs hold throughout the year.

Ideally beneficial to all, the second line economy, like any formal or informal economy, is not free from market competition, imbalanced transactions, and self-interested strategizing. Clubs with close social ties to top bands make a concerted effort to pay them their full asking price, up to $3,500, but others offer as little as $850 and hire lesser-known bands if an agreement cannot be reached. To put this in perspective, brass bands are large bands, requiring at least eight musicians and usually ten or twelve, and second line parades last for four hours, so the individual pay rate may be as low as $20 per-hour. The romanticization of grassroots cultural events as unmediated spaces of vernacular expression or collective resistance is complicated by tense intracommunal negotiations such as these.

Musicians and club members share racial and geographic identities, but their relationship to the symbolic and economic capital generated by their cultural activities is distinct: a form of cultural expression, parading is also a form of cultural labor for musicians. Though my research focuses on musicians, I have also interacted with Social Aid & Pleasure Club members who organize annual parades that generate money for musicians and everyone else who relies on these moving festivals for income. Based in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, the Nine Times Social Aid and Pleasure Club mounts its parade at great expense, and longtime member Gerald Platenburg is able to pay his share with income generated from his job as an executive chef at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel restaurant. By catering to hotel guests seeking Creole cuisine in the French Quarter, Gerald’s economic capital derives in part from the symbolic capital of New Orleans culture, specifically indigenous food such as gumbo and red beans and rice. Gerald’s “work” as a chef is integral to the cultural economy, but his “play” as a club member is incidental.

It is not simply the potential for cultural commodification that differentiates Gerald from the musicians he hires; as I have discussed, the parades Gerald organizes have their own economic systems, and his work as a chef is a form of cultural labor. What makes the case of musicians unique is the degree to which they harness the branding power of local culture to construct a career. While New Orleans has undergone a process of “place branding” as a cultural destination, the creators of distinctive traditions have themselves become branded as authentic culture bearers, constructing a kind of “commodified persona” that is birthed in the community but cultivated in the market (Bunten 2008). It is their very identity as black New Orleanians, and their socialization in distinctive traditions, that enables musicians to access a host of other staged contexts in which they not only supplement their earnings from community performances, but also accumulate symbolic capital.

In Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, Sarah Benet-Weiser argues that authenticity itself is a brand: “What is understood (and experienced) as authentic is considered such precisely because it is perceived as not commercial” (2012, 10). The perpetual recurrence of community parades and the omnipresence of their mediated representations offer the musician an opportunity to construct a commodified persona as an ambassador of authenticity derived from his or her birthright as a culture bearer. Even though the customers at Gerald’s restaurant are the target audience for staged parades, as a club member his branding power is limited, and consequently he is not self-commodified to anywhere near the degree of the musicians who are regularly called upon to exhibit their culture.

A select few bands—such as the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, and the Soul Rebels—have been able to harness this branding power and construct a viable career. But like the restaurant workers, hotel maids, and security guards employed by the hospitality industry to cater to tourists, most musicians work nonunion jobs that demand flexible hours, offer few or no benefits, and rise and fall according to the precarities of the market. Further, musicians do not clock-in a full workweek, so the amount they receive for intermittent performances must cover the costs of preparation, practice, transportation, and meals. Surveys conducted by the local musicians’ nonprofit Sweet Home New Orleans indicate that the average earnings are about $17,800 per year and have remained at that rate since 2008, despite expansive growth in the cultural economy and tourism sectors overall (2012, 4). Setting aside the differing conditions of musical laborers from service workers without commodified personas, Gerald’s place on the value chain of the cultural economy is roughly comparable to those of the musicians he hires to play in his club’s annual parade.

The juncture of the tourism and culture industries uncovers a dimension of the artist’s role in society that receives little scholarly attention: a musical performance, in addition to being a creative endeavor, is also a service provided by a worker (musician) to a client (curator), both of whom are catering to a customer base (the audience). This art world is driven by economics as much as creativity; more precisely, creative production is inextricably bound to economic production. To use the language of the report Louisiana: Where Culture Means Business, it is a place in which a musician joins the ranks of the “cultural workforce” and is tasked with the responsibility of originating “cultural products.” The central issue, then, becomes one of labor, creative labor as a means of turning a “knowledge strength” into cash.

What is presented as common sense in Where Culture Means Business and is verifiable “on the ground” as musicians navigate economic infrastructures, is their classification as service workers within the cultural economy. It is not simply economic exploitation that unites musicians with other service workers, but an entire landscape of insecurities—in education, health care, housing, violence, and much more—that social scientists have termed “precarity” (Muehlebach 2013). As policies have adapted to accommodate and exploit the potential of culture as an asset, patterns of marginalization have remained relatively intact; in the following section I evaluate New Orleans musicians as service workers at the bottom of a trickle-down value chain.

The Lived Experience of Precarity in Education, Health Care, and Housing

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, images of those most vulnerable to devastation were beamed to every corner of the globe, “exposing” masses of urban black poor and underscoring, to quote author-activist Mike Davis, “the devastating consequences of federal neglect of majority black and Latino big cities and their vital infrastructures” (2005; see also Woods 2009; Lipsitz 2011). Many of the pleas to rebuild New Orleans relied on its reputation as a uniquely musical city, from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s editorial “Saving America’s Soul Kitchen,” to author Tom Piazza’s book Why New Orleans Matters, to the state’s congressional report “Louisiana Rebirth: Restoring the Soul of America.” Testifying on Capitol Hill just weeks after the levee systems failed and 80% of the city was flooded, Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu argued, “Louisiana has an economic asset that other states can only dream of: a multifaceted, deeply rooted, authentic, and unique culture” (Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism 2005, 14). Because the city’s overall economic infrastructure was predicated on the return of musicians, it was not only the fate of authentic cultural traditions under threat of disappearance, but New Orleans itself (Spitzer 2006).

Rebuilding a cultural destination requires culture workers, which in the case of New Orleans music means native-born black tradition bearers, and it was this population that bore the brunt of the devastation. Blacks were twice as likely to have suffered storm damage as whites, and their rate of return to New Orleans was hampered by the inaccessibility of public housing and affordable rental units; homeowners were hindered by the failure of the federal Road Home program to disperse federal rebuilding funds expediently and equitably (Adams 2013). But by and large musicians did return; the annual report from the musicians’ advocacy group Sweet Home New Orleans calculated that by 2010 over 80% had come home (Sweet Home New Orleans 2010). The question I pursue in closing, then, is this: If the city’s infrastructure is being rebuilt on the backs of musicians, how have they fared in the process of restructuring systems of education, health care, and housing?

In New Orleans, many of the youngest black musicians are among the two million students in the United States attending what have been called “apartheid schools,” in which 99 to 100% of students are nonwhite (Kozol 2005, 19). The education reform movement that spawned President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (2001) has only widened the education gap, holding students with unequal access to funding and resources to common standards and creating what one researcher referred to as a “collision of new standards with old inequities” (Darling-Hammond 2004, 213). High-stakes standardized tests in core-curriculum subjects have devalued music education, and the inability to quantify the benefits of arts-based curricula has led to a sustained disinvestment in underfunded public schools. While the Louisiana: Where Culture Means Business report indicates that government and industry recognize the need for future generations of musicians to sustain the cultural economy, music education budgets have been systematically cut since the 1980s.

The calamity of Katrina allowed lawmakers to radically restructure the school system in ways that have only further marginalized arts education. The state, which had passed legislation in 2003 to take over low-performing city schools, passed Act 35, transferring an additional 107 schools to state control and eliminating the restrictions on community consent for the takeover. The Orleans Parish School Board acted swiftly, firing forty-seven hundred teachers and dissolving their union, then converted public schools into charters with selective admissions policies and no requirements for integrated arts curricula (Dixson 2011; Carr 2013). As Naomi Klein has argued, the transformation of New Orleans into a giant laboratory for educational “reform” was not an aberration but a tenet of disaster capitalism: “waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the ‘reforms’ permanent” (2007, 7). The privatization of education in Louisiana means that elementary school music education is virtually nonexistent; high schools are primarily limited to offering marching band; and students must rely on independent youth programs, such as the Roots of Music afterschool camp, to receive basic training in the fundamentals of music (Sakakeeny forthcoming).

Health care is a chronic problem for New Orleans musicians, and because access is currently changing as the 2009 Affordable Health Care Act is being implemented, further study will reveal how this affects musicians. According to research conducted in 2010 by Sweet Home New Orleans, “While over 70% of residents of Greater New Orleans have some form of private health insurance over 70% of the musical community does not” (2010, 15), and the number of insured musicians is well below the national average (Future of Music Coalition 2010). Virtually all musicians are contract workers who are not entitled to benefits, and while the Union of New Orleans Musicians offers group health insurance, only 11% are members.5 There is no public hospital in New Orleans: both Charity and University Hospitals were closed following Katrina and have been replaced by a loose network of clinics, drastically reducing options for emergency medical care and mental health treatment (Lovell 2011; City of New Orleans Health Department 2013). Since 1998 the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic has offered affordable health care specifically to the musician community. As with the Roots of Music afterschool program, the state and city bank on nonprofit organizations such as these to pick up where they leave off.

Affordable housing has decreased drastically since Katrina, not only because 80% of the housing stock was damaged, but also because all of the public housing projects were shuttered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans and are being gradually redeveloped as privatized, deconcentrated, mixed-income housing. The demolition of existing projects, many of which were largely undamaged, was widely interpreted as an attempt, as one prominent New Orleanian put it, to “use this catastrophe as a once-in-an-eon opportunity to change the dynamic” of New Orleans. In his chapter in the collection Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans, John Arena uncovered how “[t]he New Orleans power elite at the state and corporate levels identified public housing, partly due to its location in highly valued parcels of the central city, as a key impediment to its class project of developing and expanding the main engine, and source of profit, for the local corporate elite—tourism” (2011, 155–156). The dearth of public housing options contributed to a 46% rise in rents, directly affecting musicians, whose reliance on informal cash economies prohibits them from qualifying for most homeowner loans.6 Gentrification has also driven up housing costs in neighborhoods such as the Tremé, which was a hub of black culture for centuries but since the 1980s has attracted wealthier, whiter residents lured by its location adjacent to the French Quarter and its beautiful old houses (Sakakeeny 2013, 26–36). Following Katrina, a cohort of educated entrepreneurs was “enticed by the relatively robust regional economy compared to the rest of the nation,” observed Richard Campanella, pushing lower-income residents out of the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods farther downtown (Campanella 2013). The geographer estimates that the arrival of fifteen to twenty thousand newcomers, enticed by a post-Katrina economic boom at a time when the United States was enduring a financial crisis, has significantly impacted the social geography of New Orleans. With gentrification has come an increase in restrictions on live music and alcohol sales, and since 2013 the city council has been revising both the noise and zoning ordinances to further tighten the permitting and regulation of venues that hire musicians. A heated debate between neighborhood organizations and musicians’ advocacy groups over how “quality of life” is defined in a musical city has captured the attention of politicians and the media (Le Menestrel 2014).

Beyond housing and neighborhood concerns, broader changes in zoning laws and the use of public space have had a direct effect on musical performance. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the French Quarter and the Central Business District neighborhoods, where tourist traffic is concentrated, were rezoned as entertainment districts. This enables New Orleans to better compete with other cities for large events such as the Super Bowl and Republican National Convention, while also creating spaces of consumption where enhanced security for some is predicated on the exclusion of others (Passavant 2011). As Eric Porter writes in New Orleans Suite: Music and Culture in Transition:

[T]he low income communities that produce the workers for the tourist industry and larger service sector of the economy, as well as many of the artists who create the distinct cultural mosaic that makes the city appealing to locals and visitors alike, are also seen as sources of the crime and social unproductivity that threaten to undermine civil society and the economy.

(Watts and Porter 2013, 28)

In the entertainment districts where brass bands lead “mock” parades, and where nightclubs and restaurants host jazz “happy hours,” gospel brunches, and all-night dance parties to lure tourists, street musicians are policed and routinely forced to stop performing after 8:00pm. This is despite the fact that the New Orleans Convention and Visitors’ Bureau specifically advertises the perpetual accessibility of music, claiming in one advertisement: “Right now in New Orleans, there’s a brass band playing on Bourbon and a jazz combo jammin’ on the corner.” Playing for tips in the French Quarter has been a first step to a professional career for generations of New Orleans musicians, but a French Quarter neighborhood association has spearheaded revisions of the noise ordinance that would further constrict street performers and live music venues.

This is the view of the cultural economy from the bottom looking up. As politicians and investors become increasingly attuned to culture as a resource, the question is: For whom is expediency constituted? In a place where the local economy is based in local cultural traditions, the stability of a city’s infrastructure rests on the backs of musicians. In New Orleans, as in many other locales, the cultural capital of being a local artist is greater than the economic capital most earn for creating art. As Thomas Adams writes, “Commodification and fetishization is abundantly clear in New Orleans, where ‘cultural preservation’ is a buzzword that drowns out attempts to revalue the producers of such commodities in the name of preserving the commodity itself” (2014, 255). The cultural economy could not exist in its current form without musicians, but in the value chain they reside at the bottom, where money generated by their creative labor trickles down to them unevenly.

Conclusion: The Predicament of the Musician-Service Worker

Patterns of vulnerability that were determined long before Katrina create a thorny predicament for brass band musicians. On the one hand, their racial and geographic identities make their professional identities possible, because the cultural capital of New Orleans music creates jobs. On the other hand, these jobs do not provide a reliable way out of poverty, because their earning power is equivalent to others in the service industry. While cultural policy has changed to accommodate the shift to a tourism economy based in local culture, patterns of marginalization have remained intact. To be specific: the privitization of education and attendant decrease in arts education, the reduction of available public housing in desirable locations, the rezoning of entertainment districts, and the increased regulation of street musicians and live music venues all exemplify further constrictions on the principal demographic for New Orleans musicians, the black working poor. The brass band musician is given the chance to achieve social mobility, but following procedure is anything but a guarantor of wealth.

As a city that sells itself on cultural distinction, New Orleans’s economic survival is dependent on young musicians to renew culture, to do so in publicly accessible spaces, and to lead healthy and sustainable lives, but their welfare hinges on competing discourses of marketing, policies of governance, and value chains of the cultural economy. The stability of the city’s infrastructure rests on the backs of culture workers, and while the skill set required for musicians and the representational power they wield make them distinct, on average this does not distinguish them from their counterparts in the service sector as the working poor. They may be better positioned for career opportunities than their peers pursuing other lines of work, but their livelihoods are characterized by insecurity.

Placing musicians within a field of cultural production requires casting them not only as creative artists, but also as workers who provide a service to clients catering to a customer base. This case study focuses on a particular place with a particularly high investment in live musical performance, but as the comparisons of blues in Mississippi and Chicago demonstrate, the implications are deep and broad. While black music is infused with specific discourses of authenticity, the methods employed here to situate symbolic economies within systems of monetary exchange can illuminate how value is attached to any iteration of cultural work. When musical performance is deromanticized and evaluated as a form of labor, the experiences of musicians offer insight into the role of culture in capitalist infrastructures.


Special thanks to Suzanne-Juliette Mobley for sharing her knowledge throughout the editing process.


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(1) Though the genre known as “sissy bounce,” performed by transgender rappers, has grown to attract diverse audiences (Fensterstock 2008). On political rap in the post-Katrina moment, see Kish (2009).

(2) Quote taken from BBC Destination management website, accessed May 12, 2011 at

(3) See Spera (2014). Because Jazz Fest does not publish the fees paid to artists, information is limited; the numbers offered here are approximate and based on interviews with contemporary musicians.

(4) A critical body of literature on New Orleans music has begun to develop, contextualizing black performance practices within racial and ethnic interactions (Raeburn 2009b), systems of economic exchange and cultural policy making (Souther 2006, 102–131; Watts and Porter 2013; Sakakeeny 2013), and the discursive strategies of scholars and critics (Raeburn 2009a; Sakakeeny 2011).

(5) A stronger and more effective union could possibly alleviate many of the structural problems affecting musicians, but currently many musicians find the union largely ineffective, and Louisiana’s status as a “right-to-work” state has drastically reduced the power of labor unions. On the history of the New Orleans Musician’s Union, see Manley (2014).

(6) Figures taken from Sweet Home New Orleans (2010, 9) and Logan (2005).