New Orleans Takes a Beating, but the Music Continues
Three Retailers Recount Their Challenges from Katrina to BP.
“Hi neighbors. Like so many of you we took a hard hit from Katrina and survived…”
So states the website of Allied Music, one of the area’s MI stores most affected by the hurricane that hit the Crescent City on August 23, 2005. Six years after Katrina, the recovery process continues. And along the way? There were a few other challenges thrown into the mix…
“Katrina was harsh, and then the economy hurt us, but the oil spill is what really broke everyone’s back,” Ray Fransen says. “At that point there was a psychological aspect to what was seemingly like a Biblical series of disasters to us – what was next? A plague of locust?”
He pauses before adding: “Was it going to rain frogs?”
Fransen owns Ray Fransen’s Drum Center, and he suffered $20,000 worth of damage from Katrina. Others fared worse. “Yeah we got flooded,” says Allied Music owner Carlos McInerney. “And we lost $70,000 worth of equipment.”
Lance Lafargue confirms that while locals had money for insurance, they didn’t always spend it to replace their pianos. Either they had other priorities or perhaps didn’t play the ruined piano that much to begin with and spent it on that extra big TV. But like all the other instrument technicians in town, he too did a lot of work on Katrina-damaged instruments through his store, Lafargue Pianos. “Yes, I saved a lot of instruments.” He also drove around giving over 200 estimates on damaged pianos for insurance claims.
Also for Lafargue, it was the BP oil spill that negatively affected his business more than Katrina. “That was just a kick in the stomach, coming after Katrina and the economic downturn,” he states, shaking his head. Not just for him, but for his neighbors: “So many were already just living day to day, and the fact is these people still haven’t been compensated for the loss of income and for everything they’ve been through.”
Yet, to the visitor, the incredibly vibrant live music scene does not go unnoticed. There are a lot of festivals, and not just the internationally renowned Jazz and Heritage Festival that takes place in April. Earlier that month, there’s the growing French Quarter Music Festival which has impressive stats: four days, 20 stages, 280 local and regional acts. Then there are the usual bars and clubs on Bourbon Street with live music pouring out their doors.
Fransen says the city bounced back quickly on at least one level after Katrina: the “powers that be” made sure the music was flowing. “They put a lot of emphasis on the feel-good stuff,” he says. “People wanted regularity in their life.”
Allied Music was one of the few metro stores actually flooded and, of those, the only still around – though it was certainly touch and go for a while. “I had to wait six months for power, and another six months for phone services,” he says, adding that AT&T took especially long because the company used the opportunity to rewire the city with fiber optics, so as to be less susceptible to future storms.
And his store being mostly inoperable “was unfortunate because when the ‘free’ money started pouring in [via grants and charities], I couldn’t take advantage of it because we didn’t have phone service, didn’t have the ability to process gift cards, et cetera.”
After the hit, it took six months for McInerney to get going and, “in hindsight I should have stayed closed because every neighborhood that I service was literally underwater.” None of those areas are 100 percent today, and some are gone for good.
Despite the fact that his store’s zip code was deemed off limits and closed to the public, McInerney kept sneaking in. At first he was getting kicked out, but eventually state troopers would merely wave when they saw him. “But it was truly a disaster,” he sighs. “Everybody around the country was used to the images on TV and in the papers, but there’s one thing that only those here had to deal with: the smell. You could not relate to it. I know what the people in Japan are going through now, at least at that level.” He was able to run an extension cord from a neighbor to have enough light to do repair work, which he had plenty of.
Allied Music opened its doors in 1963 as a repair center, catering mostly to other music stores. McInerney says that by 1966 they started to do some retail and by the 1970s were even doing some manufacturing of PAs and amplifiers. By 1976 they were strictly retail and repair. Today they also have onsite drum and guitar lessons.
“There was a lot of free money going around right after the storm, but it was tough to get,” McInerney says. But he ended up with none of it and is frustrated by that. He had no insurance help either: Allied Music is on a ridge that was thought safe from large storms, so his insurance company didn’t demand that he pay that coverage. “I had to throw $70,000 worth of equipment out.”
But McInerney points out that its not that everything was rosy in the area prior to Katrina and, in fact, the city has been losing population since 1985. “Once people move to the suburbs, they don’t come back to shop usually. We literally had seven [MI] stores around here at one time, and on Saturdays it looked like a parade as musicians came down to circulate. Now I’m the last one still in this neighborhood.”
He acknowledges the local music scene is vibrant during festivals, but offers that if a visitor comes during an off week, he or she finds a different scene. “Yeah, we got a lot of action at times, but come when none of that is going on and you’ll find under-paid musicians and fewer venues to play.” What is heard is traditional jazz, but the days of hearing fusion or other variations of the jazz genre are mostly gone.
“Business has pretty much flat-lined,” he adds. “The thing is, there’s no growth potential. It’s great that you’re at the point where you’re making just enough every month, but there’s no way to increase business. My service work is strong, but I will never again stock products at the level I once did because I just don’t see the foot traffic. I’ve had loyal customers leave town, and when they come back to visit they come by and say hi, glad you’re still here, but…” His voice trails off.
He says his immediate competition is pawnshops doing inexpensive type entry-level sales, and their local Best Buy, who “thought they wanted to be in this business for some ungodly reason – I’m sure they are kicking themselves for that decision!”
Ray Fransen’s Drum Center
Ray Fransen owns the oldest, largest drum store in Louisiana. He’s active as a teacher, performer, and supporter of the music scene. Impressively, he just celebrated his 26h year providing all the drums and cymbals for the mammoth Jazz Heritage Festival, and a few weeks before that, all the drums and cymbals for the French Quarter Music Festival.
“New Orleans is interesting, because the integral part of many business dealers is Lagniappe – ‘a little bit more,’” says Fransen. “So any sort of commerce has this lagniappe aspect, as in ‘Now that we cut a deal, can you give me something extra?’” For Fransen this means supplying the Yamaha and Mapex drums, Remo heads and Sabian cymbals to these big festivals for… free. (But the promotional aspect, the support he gets from these companies, and his ability to sell these slightly used products after make it worth his while.) “We’re grateful for the advertising these companies provide us.”
He graduated with a degree in music from Loyola University New Orleans and was a working drummer and teacher when he realized that he was just selling his time, and there was only so much of that he had and only so much he could sell it for. So he opened up a small shop in 1983, and snagged the Yamaha dealership early on. In 2007, he moved into a 4,500 square foot space in a “high rent district,” he laughs. Today 165 students come through, of which 55 are taught by him. His manager has been with him 28 years, and the next “newest” guy has been with him for 15. The operation is a member of the Five Star Drum shop group.
When Katrina hit, his previous store was also in an off-limits zip code. But he pulled some strings and got in. When he wasn’t managing the store by himself, he was driving around helping with insurance claims and in the schools he services helping band directors clean their rooms up. He had $20,000 worth of roof and inventory damage. In the ensuing years, in addition to the other calamities the city suffered, he experienced a special one all alone: “What was really funny was shortly after Katrina a woman in her late 40s fell asleep driving, drove across several lanes and a parking lot right into my store – that did $18,000 worth of damage!” he laughs because… well, what else can he do?
His store’s workbench was also plenty busy after the hurricane. “A lot of it was nostalgic, but people would bring in drums that were soaked and asked if we could do anything, and usually we could clean them up and rehabilitate them.”
Fransen says several manufacturers really stepped up and supported him and the drummers of New Orleans. He called manufacturers and asked what they could do, and several reduced their prices for him – one so much as to go below cost on some occasions to ensure Fransen made his margins. Also, his friends from the Five Star Network chipped in with a generous donation and that allowed him to pay his workers their salaries while they were waiting for the all’s clear sign to return to the shop.
“It was a community attitude, and as it worked out for everybody,” he says. “Those who were generous ended up getting rewarded for it though obviously that was not their motivation.”
Fransen confirms that it wasn’t so much the storm that’s done the most lasting damage – “we’ve been warned forever that it was coming” – it was the reaction by the local, state, and federal government or more accurately the lack thereof. “We were caught off guard by the human element. Inspectors weren’t inspecting. Important safeguards were done on a shoestring. Leadership was horrible. Nobody had a plan. The problem is with those things, you only know how bad they are when it fails.”
Yet buoyed by the extra business from 2006, he made the move in 2007 to that bigger “high rent” store only to be confronted with the un-natural disaster that is now known as the Great Recession. “I was biting my nails,” he states. “But ultimately it worked out fine.”
Fransen, as a NOLA insider, acknowledges the often-parlayed statistic that the city has lost 25 percent of its population since Katrina, but there are other even more revealing stats, like this one: 57 percent of all professionals in the medical field left. In addition to the dire strain on the general population, that’s a lot of affluent people no long spending money in town. Also, recently it came out that the city lost 42 percent of all those 18 and under. “When you see statistics like that, the ’25 percent’ one doesn’t seem so bad.”
Looking forward, Fransen sees a slight ray of hope. He says the ultimate problem is the city hasn’t had a good, broad economic base for a long time. “We’ve had no major industry but refiners, and that’s subject to boom-and-bust times,” he says. “There hasn’t been anybody in a leadership position who took a broad view. The current mayor [Mitch Landrieu] might do that … and there are little bright spots here. The city is pretty resilient.”
NOLA needs a more contemporary approach, he says. Yes the antiquity/charming aspects need to be maintained, but a balance of the old with the new can and needs to be done. “It’s been done in Montreal and Quebec, and the same people settled all three places.”
But he takes it all in stride. “I’m on the board of the Five Star drum store group, and everybody has their cross to bear: Those in the Northeast had a terrible winter. The Midwest just suffered all those tornados.”
He pauses, reflects, and adds: “I just want to emphasize how incredible the Five Star guys were and some of my key manufacturers were,” he says. “Immediately after Katrina, I did think, ‘Man, is it worth it to do it again? Starting from scratch?’ But just the psychological support [from the industry] really helped.”
It’s not the post Katrina scene you’d imagine, or certainly see recreated on “Treme”: A middle-aged woman walks into a piano store with a fist full of cash. “My husband is a roofer, and we’ve always wanted a piano!”
Yes, immediately after Katrina, there was actually an up-tick in business for Lafargue Piano as insurance money and grants flowed in and pianos needed to be replaced, though, “it wasn’t as much as you might expect,” Lance Lafargue says. Interestingly, it was people who had long wanted one and now had the means because of all the extra work – like carpenters and roofers – who came in to buy new pianos. “That was more common than those who needed to replace instruments that were damaged by water.”
The BP oil spill spurred the noticeable down tick. It froze the local economy and a lot of the white-collar people in town worked in the oil industry or related fields. Also, the long-term psychological affect of so much hardship that has weighed heavily on the populace. “And now they are talking about things like coastal erosions!”
Lafargue explains that one of the challenges New Orleans has faced throughout its history is its geography. The city and its sister towns are hemmed in and unable to physically expand beyond long-established borders of water, be it river, lake, or the gulf. “I just got back from my home town of Lafayette, 130 miles away, and any time they want to grow they just build a new neighborhood a little further out,” he says. “But here there is no land. North of us is Lake Pontchartrain, where they built the longest bridge in the world in the 1950s, but that is a 22-minute drive.”
(Lafargue’s first store was actually on that north shore, opened in 2004, but as his operations grew he realized that while those living in the bedroom community are certainly willing to drive across into the city to spend their money on things big and small, those in the city aren’t predisposed to use the bridge for the same reason in the other direction.)
Lafargue’s history is an evolution, from technician in the early 1990s, to selling a few reconditioned pianos out of his shop, to sharing a small storefront with a pianist who ran a teaching studio, to eventually moving from the north shore to its current location in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. The Lafargues had committed to the new larger location in 2008 right after Katrina. “I didn’t have any doubts about the move,” he says. “Economically, we hadn’t seen anything bad yet. And I had so much repair work backed up before Katrina, plus steady sales, that we felt good about the move.”
Today he runs the operation with his wife, Brenda, who handles much of the business side and oversees their new sheet music department.
Lafargue started out as a Charles Walter dealer in 2005 and the next year added Mason & Hamlin pianos, eventually getting the Kawai line in 2007. When the Yamaha dealership became available post-Katrina (2008), he happily took that on and shortly after let the Kawai line go.
How the Yamaha line became available is a Katrina-related story itself: It was long a line of the famed Werlein’s Music Store, which has a history in NOLA dating back to 1853. But by the dawn of this century, owner Bitsey Werlein Mouton had moved out of the large iconic building on Canal Street to a smaller store where she sold, among other things, Yamaha pianos. The store was flooded about a foot, and though it was not insurmountable, Mouton, who had other interests, was unsure of what to do. It was in a state of limbo for three years and then she finally closed that chapter of the city’s music history. “Yamaha stayed loyal to her until she made up her mind, and I admire that,” Lafargue says.
Lafarge Pianos today is expanding with a new sheet music department and building on a lesson program that targets adults, having success with Debra Perez’s Music Moments program. “We’re going after the adults who always wanted to play.”
He has a different perspective on the live music scene, and he says there’s a lot of talk of it coming back, of restaurants and clubs having combos and bands again, but he’d still like to see more.
“Business is a rollercoaster – but it’s very slowly picking up,” he says. “Last month it significantly picked up. We’re also doing more marketing, focusing on the Internet and also expanding into TV.”
They have other plans, too: “We plan to reach out to the community more this year now that we have added a full time person to handle sheet music and some of what Brenda and I do.
“This will allow us to go out more, be proactive, meet people and see where we can plug in and foster a stronger music community. We are building a strong rental fleet to loan and rent pianos for events so that any venue can have a really good instrument, not just what the house or venue has. As an example, we are renting ten pianos for the New Orleans Traditional Jazz Camp again in early June, which is drawing musicians from all over the world. This is held in a historic hotel in the French Quarter and was really well attended last year.”
They have a smart showroom, an ear to the community, and a respect for the unique culture that is NOLA. “Southeast Louisiana has a different footprint, a slightly different population and feel, but music is one constant, like you’d see if you attended our French Quarter Music Festival. We want to promote that and do what we can to provide not just a piano, but a well prepared, great instrument.
“I believe that if we sell music, and fun first, pianos sales will naturally follow.”