Why Sober Spaces at Jazz Fest and Other Music Events Are So Important (Guest Column)
"It's about giving people an opportunity to bring their whole selves to the festival, free of shame and fear," says Bill Taylor.
During my first visit to New Orleans for Jazz Fest many years ago, I experienced a profound moment that changed everything for me. The best way to describe it would be the sensation of deja-vu; like I had been here before, or more specifically that I had returned “home.” That day, the city spoke to me, and thankfully I heeded the call.
Shortly after that auspicious Jazz Fest, New Orleans became my home, and I’ve worked in the music industry here since then — at WWOZ, at Tipitina’s, in the classrooms of Tulane and with so many of our city’s talented artists. This city has provided me with a sense of purpose, a feeling of belonging, and a community of like-minded folks who share the same passion for music. It’s also given me the foundation for a meaningful life.
But the same elements that spoke so deeply to me — our rich cultural heritage and vibrant music scene — often go hand-in-hand with the city’s reputation for partying. It’s a story with which the music industry, my industry, is all too familiar, and one that often leads to addiction.
Addiction is a particularly serious issue in the music world. A 2020 study by Tulane’s Graduate School of Social Work paints a staggering picture: 56% of music industry professionals cite problematic substance use, and 80% met the cut-off for serious or moderate mental health concerns — both far above any national average.
Singer-songwriter Anders Osborne, my good friend who helped me find the path to sobriety after I bottomed out with drugs and alcohol, had an idea about how to tackle this within the music industry. Together, we created “Send Me A Friend,” a national network of sober individuals who were “on call” to support struggling musicians and industry professionals at their gigs.
The effort was an overnight success, with more people asking for help and wanting to volunteer than we could handle. Anders and I wondered what it would take to create a cultural shift so that sobriety was embraced, supported and celebrated on a larger scale?
Our vision is shared by The Phoenix, a national sober community that embraces connection through a shared, active lifestyle that enhances and helps maintain each other’s recovery journeys. During the pandemic, we joined forces with them with a mission of creating sober-supportive change in the music space.
Today, we’re blown away to see how this movement has progressed all the way to a New Orleans institution: Jazz Fest. This year, I’ll be there alongside The Phoenix and Stand Together Foundation at the 1 Million Strong Wellness Retreat, a sober-supportive wellness lounge where festival attendees can relax between sets, enjoy mocktail happy hours and meet up with people in recovery and others to catch performances together.
And this isn’t about making the festival sober. It’s about giving people an opportunity to bring their whole selves to the festival, free of shame and fear. Together, we can transform the way people think about addiction by supporting new ways for sober fans to enjoy shows, ensuring touring musicians and crews have access to resources on the road, and engaging in conversations about sobriety that are free from shame and stigma and full of possibilities.
I’m proud of how far we’ve come in changing the way we approach recovery and sobriety, turning it into a celebration of inclusivity and togetherness. At this year’s Jazz Fest, we’ll continue to change the landscape not only for those who work in the music industry, but also for our audience members who want a way to engage and enjoy all this beautiful city has to offer while feeling safe, supported and connected.
Bill Taylor is the director of music programs and strategy at The Phoenix, where he leads music activations all over the country and works with the Stand Together team on the 1 Million Strong campaign.