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Cosimo Matassa at his recording studio in the 1950s.

We’ve all heard about the “brain drain” of Louisiana scholars — bright and talented young people who have to leave the state to make a living — but what about our homegrown musicians who have to do the same? This week brings our annual Music Issue, where we spotlight up-and-coming New Orleans musicians from across the spectrum. These are the people who entertain us, who draw tourists from around the world and who pass along their knowledge to the next generation of musical talents.

New Orleans hasn’t done right by them — for a long time. It’s time for that to change.

Despite talk of the “cultural economy,” precious little of that economy filters down to the men and women who hustle with their brass instruments and their guitars, whether it’s inside a tony club or on a street corner. Musicians get trotted out for tourist commercials, visiting conventions and political rallies, but they are largely on their own when it comes to eking out a living. 

Any city or state that can offer millions of dollars in tax breaks to attract industries that may not stay once they’ve exhausted our natural resources should be able to help the men and women who grind out the soundtrack for our unique city. Instead, musicians have to hunt for practice spaces, scuffle just to find room to unload their instruments on Decatur or Frenchmen streets and depend on tips to survive. Why does New Orleans — the home of America’s only indigenous musical form — not have an infrastructure for treating music as valuable, important work?

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council should see this as an opportunity — and a potential legacy. One small but meaningful step would be to designate a “night mayor,” an independent body, individual, or non-governmental organization that works with officialdom to make sure the city functions optimally after dark, particularly as respects nightlife. The concept started several years ago in Amsterdam and has spread to London, New York and other cities. In a 24-hour town like New Orleans, a night mayor could be a powerful advocate for local entertainers. 

That’s just a start. Given our titanic contribution to American music as a whole, it’s embarrassing that we don’t have anything like the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee or the Experience Music Project (now the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle, each of which brings in thousands of tourists and millions of dollars while saluting and supporting their cities’ music communities. 

Imagine an institution like the National World War II Museum, but for Louisiana and Southern music. Or a major recording studio in the city that birthed Cosimo Matassa, Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint.

Whatever form it takes, and whoever does it, we have to find a way to properly honor our musicians — not with lip service, statues and memorials, but with real opportunities to make a living in the city of their birth. 

It’s time for New Orleans to do right by its musicians. Who will take the lead?