Five Months In, What Lessons Have We Learned To Help Our COVID Recovery?

We’re almost five months into New Orleans’ COVID-19 shutdown, and the situation for the cultural community remains grim. Venues are shuttered for the foreseeable future, and we are beginning to see what could be a wave of permanent closures. There is a concerning resurgence of the virus in New Orleans (and a much more severe one throughout Louisiana and the surrounding states) which has necessitated the full closing of barrooms and added restrictions to public gatherings, both bad omens for a culture that thrives on people coming together. Enhanced unemployment benefits have also ended (as of press time), eliminating a crucial financial support system for many. There’s no way around it—things are bad, and could get worse. The only bright spot? We know more now about what works, what doesn’t, and how we need to change our response to this pandemic, which can help mitigate further hardship for the city’s musicians, artists, performers, traditional culture bearers, and small businesses.


We need to better coordinate relief funds.

Like many organizations, MaCCNO launched our own relief fund in the early days of the crisis. As a part of our grantmaking process—which we deliberately made as simple as possible—we asked grantees if they had been able to access other relief funds, as well as any barriers to receiving these funds. The answers were illuminating. The biggest takeaways? Those most in need of aid were generally the least likely to gain access to relief funds. And the sheer number of funds, each with slightly different requirements and application processes, created a series of unnecessary barriers. Moving forward, all of the organizations distributing aid to the cultural community should develop application processes that compliment one another, and also follow up with applicants on the back-end, connecting them with other aid opportunities. The only way we can address such a high level of need is through a streamlined process and strong connections.


Live streaming performances help, but there are some significant barriers.

For the first few months of the shutdown, live streams from local, national, and international musicians were ubiquitous and made a reasonable amount of money for many performers. Since that time, the novelty has waned and people tend to have less disposable income, so profits have been reduced. The live stream model still provides some benefit for musicians, particularly those with an established name and fanbase, but the ad-hoc days where anyone can login and play for tips are over. As the live stream “circuit” starts to professionalize, new opportunities are being created, but fewer are reaping the benefit. A concerted investment in equipment, performance space, digital career development programs, and online curation will be needed to maintain equity in the live streaming process, as well as to provide a pathway for new talent to emerge.


Outdoor live entertainment has not led to significant community spread.

Informal outdoor concerts have been happening on porches, street corners, balconies, and other private and public spaces since the lockdown began. In July, this expanded to a series of three drive-in concerts. Audience members have generally worn masks and remained socially distanced, and none of these events have led to outbreaks—in fact, virus cases were decreasing even as these performances expanded. While large gatherings without distancing and PPE remain problematic, it looks very likely that some forms of outdoor live entertainment are safe and present opportunities for income even while indoor spaces remain off-limits.


Lack of representation in tourism leadership is hurting our recovery.

Through our column and other reporting, ANTIGRAVITY has covered the inequity and lack of representation—both demographically and culturally—in New Orleans’ tourism leadership at length. Several months ago, The Lens reported that members of the Exhibition Hall Authority, which governs the Convention Center, had objections to the retrofitting of the Center into a field hospital for COVID patients because it would hurt the tourism brand. At the end of July—despite a severe uptick of cases, messaging from city leaders asking residents to stay at home, the closure of bars and music venues, and further limits on public gatherings—tourism leaders were still encouraging visitors to come, despite the fact that many tourists would be coming  from COVID hotspots like Florida and Texas, putting residents of New Orleans at greater risk. More COVID cases will result in longer closures for venues and further limit on cultural activity. Why would tourism leaders still encourage visitors, even as much of the city is locked down? Likely because it is in their own self interest—many Board members of New Orleans & Company and the Exhibition Hall Authority are in the restaurant and hotel business, either as owners or lobbyists. The restaurant and hotel sectors are two of the only sectors still able to operate, even on a reduced basis, and they are desperate for the revenue. Despite the negative impacts on the cultural community or service industry, there is no institutional pushback, as representatives from these areas have been systematically excluded from leadership positions. So, more tourists come, a few restaurants and hotels get more business, COVID cases rise, the city stays locked down longer, and residents and small neighborhood serving businesses suffer the consequences.


The best and easiest solution is more money.

What else is there to say? We all know the best solution is to simply cover lost income so people can stay home, and to provide financial relief to businesses that have been forced to close. While it looks like we won’t get the needed relief at the federal level, locally we could still use tens of millions of dollars of surplus tourism tax revenue to support cultural workers and businesses—if there is the political will to do so.


What is the best way for an individual to help?

While the level of need is overwhelming, there are a few ways to maximize the time and money you contribute. You can support music venues by lobbying your elected officials to pass the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act, which would provide six months of financial assistance for independent venues. That’s as simple as visiting and using the template provided—you can get it done in seconds. Of course, donating to musicians when you watch a live stream is a must (a good rule of thumb is to treat it like you are watching the show live—leave enough for a cover charge and a tip), but also make an effort to buy the artist’s music and merchandise if you can afford it. Musicians and bands will get the largest profit if you buy directly from their website, but if that’s not possible check Bandcamp next, then iTunes and other streaming services. Finally, if you are contributing to relief efforts, look for established organizations that were doing the work before the pandemic, are engaging in relief efforts now, and more than likely will be here after the pandemic ends. Non-profits are stretched thin too, and your dollar will go a lot farther with those that have established networks and systems, rather than high profile efforts that may disappear when the spotlight is gone.

The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.

This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.