Wednesday, March 27, 2013

New Orleans' musicians in need of support

Sweet Home New Orleans rolls out new programs, along with a fundraising plea

Sweet Home New Orleans distributed more than $2  million.

Alison Fensterstock, | The Times-Picayune By Alison Fensterstock, | The Times-Picayune 
Sweet Home New Orleans, the local musicians’ aid nonprofit, sent out two emails on Monday within two hours of each other. The first was an invitation to nominate New Orleans music venues for the organization’s new Seal of Approval, an initiative to identify spots that, in SHNO’s words, “have responsible business practices and… contribute to a strong cultural economy which helps to propel the overall economic growth of New Orleans.” (The nominated venues will be evaluated via a weighted, 30-point metric, but essentially, the organization hopes to identify and reward performance spots that sound good, pay well, treat musicians fairly and are generally good citizens.)
The second email had a slightly more drastic message. A fundraising appeal subject-lined “Help Save Sweet Home!!” it went on to explain that, in order to remain open, the nonprofit needs to bring in $1500 in donations, daily, over the next six weeks.
Both emails are accurate, Sweet Home Executive Director Sue Mobley said Monday afternoon; the organization is in dire financial straits, and it is moving ahead with planned programming.
The organization’s funding crisis became apparent at the close of 2012, when, Mobley said, Sweet Home’s annual appeal only brought in 40% of expected donations. It was then turned down for a counted-on grant, and received a lower number than applied for on another grant. Based on the current state of the books, current programs and staff salaries are covered through 2013, Mobley said, and she’s continuing to reach out.
“We’ve written more grants in the past several weeks than I thought was possible, and we’re trying to solicit major funders,” she said. But part of the problem, she said, is there’s simply less money to go after. Medium-sized foundations are receiving less money from big-fish funders to pass down the food chain to small organizations like Sweet Home New Orleans.
Another possible problem, Mobley suspected, is an “attention shift” away from New Orleans, more than seven years after Katrina.
Adapting Sweet Home’s services to suit the changing needs of its clients since the storm has been a big part of Mobley’s mission, after coming on board as director in spring of 2011. In November 2012, the organization presented a new strategic plan, the result of six months’ worth of reassessment. Directly after Katrina, when Sweet Home was formed as the New Orleans Musicians’ Hurricane Relief Foundation, its efforts were concentrated on direct financial aid; the organization connected musicians, Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Club members with free and low-cost legal and medical help, but also handed out a lot of emergency cash, to keep the lights on, stop evictions, and through a gig subsidy program, provide performance jobs.
In 2008, the organization published its first annual report on the state of the New Orleans music scene, tracking trends in the cultural community’s recovery. The 2011 report, for example, found that musicians went without health insurance at more than twice the rate of the rest of the city, and that the number of paid gigs available in New Orleans was steadily increasing, but still below the pre-Katrina market.
Sweet Home still helps clients liaise with national organizations that can offer cash assistance, but under the new strategic plan, has shifted its own focus to education and empowerment-based initiatives. Besides the new Seal of Approval program, among those are free courses in basic business practices (such as joining performers’ rights organizations and getting savvy with regard to contracts) and in exploring new revenue streams, like online crowd-funding.
“We want to make things sustainable for individuals, so they’re not in need of a cash handout,” Mobley explained.
“The irony,” she said, in light of Sweet Home’s own immediate need, “is not lost on me.”
To nominate a music venue for the Seal of Approval or to donate, visit
Alison Fensterstock writes about music and popular culture for and The Times-Picayune. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter at @AlisonF_NOLA.
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