The past in the present

Street scene at night with buildings lit up with strings of lightbulbs along their balconies

French Quarter New Orleans © iStockphoto.com/Natalia Bratslavsky

One particularly interesting way in which scenes can change is when their original associations with youthful rebellion, non-conformism, the underground and so on become a basis for the official promotion and marketing of music heritage and tourism.

The city of New Orleans, famous for its jazz scene, provides a good case in point. Jazz fans have visited New Orleans since the early 1940s when it had a reputation as a 'city of sin', a place for jazz but also for drinking, gambling and prostitution. From the early 1990s, however, jazz began to be promoted seriously by local government and tourist authorities seeking to overcome their negative connotations. Their interest was prompted by the sudden collapse of the city's oil industry and the decline of port activity during the mid-1980s. By the mid-1990s an official tourism economy had developed around music involving the establishment of jazz venues, museums and monuments and proposals for jazz theme parks and a jazz hall of fame.

Memphis, meanwhile, is now promoted as the birthplace of rock 'n' roll and the home of rhythm and blues, soul and Elvis Presley. Earlier, music venues in Beale Street, a central hub of that music-making, had been left to decline following the race riots of the1960s and the recession of the 1970s, a consequence of neglect and racism on the part of the city authorities. During the 1980s however, the street was renovated, rebuilt and officially promoted as 'The Birthplace of the Blues' and as a major tourist and heritage attraction. A broad range of visitor attractions developed including Graceland, Elvis's former home and Elvis Week, which involved performances by Elvis tribute artists and became a model for Beatles Week in Liverpool.

In Liverpool too sites connected to the lives and music-making of the Beatles and wider Merseybeat scene are now landmarks on local heritage tours, maps and trails. This is just one more example of the way that commercial forms of popular music have become increasingly institutionalised and legitimated over the past couple of decades.

These kinds of developments have provoked many debates about cultural tourism and heritage initiatives. For some people the transformation of music scenes into local heritage is welcomed as a means of preserving local music traditions, promoting local identity and pride and contributing to the development of local economies. For others however such initiatives transform music scenes that are or were organic, living and spontaneous into something contrived and artificial, resulting in a show staged merely for profit and an 'invention' of local tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983).

For some the Liverpool Sound of the Beatles is an authentic expression of 1960s Liverpool while for others it is a tourist cliché. In New Orleans musicians who play modern jazz styles often complained that the dominance of traditional jazz venues for tourists had made it difficult for their own scene to flourish, while enthusiasts for the traditional style for their part considered the Dixieland style performed in many French Quarter bars hackneyed and clichéd. But there have also regularly been musicians performing in those bars who have used the scene to rework the old styles in new ways.

New Orleans also provides an example of both the vulnerability and the resilience of local scenes where heritage and living traditions are equally at stake. Both have been turned to in the city's attempt to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and it is still too early to say what the outcomes will be.

During the 1980s the promotion of rock music as tourism and heritage sat uneasily with its conventional associations with the contemporary as opposed to the past, and with 'the street' as opposed to the museum. In Liverpool some rock musicians and entrepreneurs, particularly those involved with alternative rock, were opposed to the development of Beatles tourism and suggested that music should be about 'the magic of the moment' rather than about trying to recreate what has 'been and gone'. "Sod the heritage", shouted one musician during a public speech by a local Beatles tourist entrepreneur, "let's move on to the future not look at the past." (Cohen, 2007: 179)