Harmony eludes Louisiana efforts to help its music industry thrive
Elvis Presley performs in the Louisiana Hayride show at Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium in 1954. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
A newly formed group of Louisiana lawmakers has started their look into why the state, world-renowned for its musical talent, has repeatedly fallen flat on the business side of the industry. Its heyday as a recording hub has long passed, but officials are keen on fostering the culture that continues to produce unique sounds.
“We have missed the boat over and over again,” said Sherri McConnell, a former Louisiana Economic Development administrator who’s now a private consultant working with the state agency.
McConnell was the first of several people to address the first meeting of the House Commerce Subcommittee on the Study of the Louisiana Music Industry last week. Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, created the panel through a resolution earlier this year.
Lawmakers reviewed the state’s existing tax breaks to lure and retain the music industry, including tax credits for recording and job creation, and an incentive to bring live performances to Louisiana. None actually said it, but there’s a general sentiment that boosting these incentives is not in the cards, given that the current offerings have largely been passed over.
The Sound Recording Tax Credit Program provides companies with 18% relief on related income taxes, and they can qualify for a 15% break on payroll taxes if they create at least three jobs for state residents. Figures from Louisiana Entertainment, the state agency promoting incentives to the industry, show tax credits created three jobs and $91,000 in household earnings in 2021. Last year, the program created just one new job.
Since 2005, the state has cleared $14 million in qualifying expenditures for its sound recording tax credit. Music industry incentives are “underutilized, at best,” said Chris Stelly, head of Louisiana Entertainment.
Compare that with Texas, where the music industry generated nearly $11 billion in 2022. Austin alone was responsible for $1.8 billion, according to Lacey Chataignier with the Louisiana lieutenant governor’s Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Statewide, Texas has 90,000 employees in the music business and reported $26.6 billion in economic activity, generating $469 million in tax revenue.
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Legislators also heard from Howie Kaplan, known informally as the “night mayor” of New Orleans who officially oversees the city’s cultural economy. He also owns Howlin’ Wolf night club in the Warehouse District and manages Rebirth Brass Band. He lamented seeing millions of dollars leave the state whenever a performer looks elsewhere for management, legal, marketing and publishing professionals.
Kaplan also managed The Revivalists for their first five years in existence, and he said the band has since gone out of state to obtain the support services needed to support its upward trajectory.
Louisiana appears to have shifted course on one of its incentive programs.
Its Live Performance Production Incentive Program was launched decades back to boost “Broadway South,” a campaign to turn New Orleans into an alternative for nascent productions from touring theater companies. Its success in bringing musicals and plays to the city’s theater scene has been limited, but the incentive is broad enough so that it can be used for music concerts. Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam and The Cure have been some of the acts who’ve kicked off recent tours in Louisiana.
Both lawmakers and individuals who appeared before them noted many major acts skip Louisiana on their tours, which some attributed to the state’s high sales taxes. When tickets cost well into three figures at face value, they believe the additional cost the tax brings might keep some fans at home. There’s also the matter of the secondary ticket market, where sellers can pocket hefty products for shows that are in high demand (see: Swifties).
It’s part of the new music industry ecosystem that appears to have forced state officials to change their tune and admit Louisiana has missed its chance to be the next music recording Mecca. Today, anyone with a spare room and an internet connection has the ability to serve up music to the masses.
Still, Louisiana has left indelible marks on the music industry. Cosimo Matassa helped lay the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll at his prolific French Quarter recording studio. Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Little Richard, Allen Toussaint and Ray Charles are among the dignitaries who put down tracks at Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio.
There’s also the Louisiana Hayride, which took the path to music stardom in the 1940s and 1950s through Shreveport and KWKH-AM. Its stars went on to become icons: Elvis, Willie, Johnny, Hank (Williams and Snow).
Many of Louisiana’s historic music venues are still in use today. The list crosses genres and generations: The Dew Drop Jazz and Social Hall in Mandeville (not to be confused with the soon-to-be-revived Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans), Eunice’s Liberty Theater, Preservation Hall in New Orleans, Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette, just to name a few.
Working in Louisiana’s favor for a music-laden future is its adaptability and a willingness to embrace what makes the state stand apart from other music destinations. Many of the people testifying were pleased just to hear decision makers broach the topic.
Subcommittee member Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans, repeatedly stressed the need to protect the culture responsible for generating the state’s numerous signature sounds. She also brought up concerns about artificial intelligence and its ability to pilfer from creative types without providing proper credit or compensation.
They weren’t discussed last week, but other issues for lawmakers to consider include those that stymie Louisiana’s economy well beyond the music and entertainment sector. Affordable housing, equitable access to health care and prioritizing early, K-12 and higher education have been songs on repeat for state policy makers.
Maybe it will be the music industry that finally pushes officials toward lasting change.
Some policy fights will continue, such as fossil fuels vs. renewable energy or labor vs. industry.
But whether it’s jazz, funk, rock, R&B, country, Cajun, zydeco or bounce, who doesn’t like good homegrown music? Let’s hope Louisiana can keep its crop growing.
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