Ella Project Co-Founders Ashlye Keaton and Gene Meneray recently accompanied New Orleans city leaders to meetings in San Francisco and Seattle. The purpose was to meet with representatives from those cities to find out how they manage their respective “night time economies” and to get some pointers on how to potentially use some of their techniques in New Orleans. Here’s their report.
New Orleans is celebrated worldwide as a place of heritage and a destination to experience the music and culture that is part of the city’s core identity. The culture of New Orleans is rightly renowned the world over, but the flip side of our strong cultural tradition is the tradition of government either neglecting our culture, or actively hindering its development. The City continues to host hundreds of music and other festivals, crowds continue to spill out of clubs on a nightly basis, and cultural traditions deeply rooted in history continue to parade down streets in the present day. All the while, the City and State arts funding lag in the bottom quintile, and First Amendment be damned, the police department is arresting musicians for public performance. Gentrifying neighborhoods and rising rents continue to create culture clashes, and the City throws a nightly party for 18 million tourists each year without a strategy to manage this “other 9 to 5.”
The Ella Project recently led a delegation of New Orleans leaders on a fact-finding mission to Seattle and San Francisco, to learn about how those cities are promoting, managing and investing in their nightlife economies, while maintaining a vibrant urban mix of venues, residents and cultural activities, with special focus on live music. The delegation included Councilmember Kristen Palmer and her Chief of Staff Andrew Sullivan; Director of Cultural Economy Lisa Alexis; Avis Brock and Jenna Burke from Councilmember Jay Banks’ Office; David Morris from the Mayor’s Office; and Juliette Frazier from the City’s Department of Health. The aim was to get New Orleans leadership in front of folks in other cities who are tasked with identifying and implementing solutions to challenges that are often universal, but in particular, in areas of tension currently experienced in New Orleans. The mission was also to introduce new ideas and learn about work on the ground that is not always apparent in glossy music strategy studies.
Neither Seattle nor San Francisco are perfect, nor do they mirror New Orleans (and that goes for any other city). Despite larger populations, deeper tax bases, and well-funded governments, these communities are struggling with closing venues, lack of affordable housing, and the exodus of musicians who cannot keep up with the increasingly high cost of living. While these cities lack the same kind of root culture and deep musical traditions that embody the spirit of New Orleans, they do have similar challenges related to their own authentic identities that we often associate with these iconic cultural meccas.
Imagine San Francisco without the Fillmore, which is a reality and part of the day-to-day work of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission. So, while our cultures are not the same—or even all that similar from an aesthetic perspective—our challenges in how we continue to promote and hold on to our authenticity runs parallel. Both Seattle and San Francisco provide illustrative and important perspectives for guiding the philosophy of working to promote culture through detailed policies and practices. New Orleans can learn from their work in developing its own strategies to succeed in overcoming challenges in our own unique place. New Orleans culture is strong. The government…less so. But, working with a “first do no harm” principle, there are ways the government can balance regulation with promotion that empower our cultural economy and ecosystem to strengthen and grow.
“This is a public benefit” was a mantra we heard time and again on the West Coast, whether referring to programs that hire artists, grants that benefit organizations, or working to ensure a wide variety of cultural offerings are presented to the public. This line of thinking, this underlying philosophy, informs how government can successfully work with culture. Public benefits aren’t restrained nor looked at as nuisances. Rather, public benefits are embraced and even viewed as solutions to an array of challenges associated with crime, mental and physical health challenges, inadequate education, and even zoning. Out West, public benefits are not left exclusively for the private sector to produce. Rather, these public benefits are supported by public funds, assisted by city agencies, and cared for as a cherished community asset. This line of thinking leads to progressive programs that serve the arts communities, from legacy business designations to dedicated arts and cultural funding.
What does this look like in terms of concrete policies?
Seattle Center, famous for the Space Needle and monorail, is owned by the City of Seattle, and encompasses a lot more land than just these tourist attractions. Seattle Center hosts museums and theatres, the new NHL arena, and most importantly for this discussion, the home of community radio station KEXP, along with The Vera Project, a volunteer-powered, multi-disciplinary youth arts center and incubator. These nonprofits have secured favorable, though not free, long term leases with the City, which gives them higher visibility and longer term security in a rapturous rental market. It’s important to note that though KEXP received a favorable 30-year lease from the City of Seattle, they still needed to run a $15 million capital campaign to transform their radio station digs into a community campus, complete with café, performance spaces and video broadcast studios, all which combine into a central “gathering space,” or a cultural hub, where government often engages with stakeholders. As the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium continues to sit empty, one wonders what could be done to maximize that space as a cultural hub, community gathering place and economic engine driver.
In San Francisco, a gigantic challenge has been for music venue operators to keep up with the rising rents, as most of these businesses do not own the brick and mortar buildings or the land on which they sit. Rather, their landlords control their destinies, which are threatened by multinational tech corporations like Google, which isn’t running out of money anytime soon. Market forces favor these giant tech companies that can often quadruple the rent of an existing cultural business. With these rising rents closing venues left and right, the City of San Francisco has implemented its Legacy Business Registry. These businesses have been operating for at least 30 years and continue to contribute to the fabric or identity of any given neighborhood or community. These legacy businesses are recognized in the San Francisco municipal code, which sets forth processes for nomination, selection, and in some cases, financial awards such as rent subsidies, which comes out of the government’s general fund. As such, these legacy venues receive special layers of protection from the city planning department, and changing their use (i.e. a music venue becomes an office) becomes more difficult. San Francisco currently has an additional $3 million grant program to assist these legacy venues in their continued operations. While this level of funding for private businesses may not be immediately feasible in New Orleans, a registry, with enhanced zoning protections, access to city-backed loans, opportunities to work with tourism boards for targeted promotion, and other networked services—is certainly a path forward to ensure fewer places “ain’t dere no more.”
Through King County and the City of Seattle, Seattle’s annual arts budget amounts to more than $24 million, with the county bringing in $14 million, and the city tacking on another $10 million. The City of San Francisco alone funds its arts commission at $40 million. In both places, the vast majority of funds are reinvested into the cultural community via grants to both individual artists and arts organizations. Compare this to the City of New Orleans’ arts grant program, which totals $405,000.
Where do Seattle and San Francisco get all this money? King County’s $14 million comes from a hotel tax. Compare this to New Orleans, where the vast majority of the city’s hotel tax goes to the Convention Center, Superdome and Arena, and of course, the State of Louisiana. The City of Seattle’s $10 million comes from an admissions tax, which encourages live, local music by exempting small and nonprofit venues (capacity of 999 or less) that present live music at least three times a week. The vast majority of Seattle’s admission tax revenue comes from the sale of movie tickets.
Supporting the sector
Both Seattle and San Francisco have a designated nightlife advocate, and both are housed in the Department of Economic Development. Their roles are somewhat different from the growing field of “Night Mayors”, but based on an overarching policy of promoting and supporting the industry, and advocating for stakeholders in city planning, taxation, and general regulatory scheme. In both cities, the role of each nightlife advocate is buttressed by independent commissions and offices that exist to inform policies and practices, particularly as it pertains to regulation. In Seattle’s case, a 21-person volunteer music commission works out of the Office of Film + Music to oversee Seattle’s City of Music 2020 plan. San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission is a professional body, with seven staff members, overseen by volunteer commissioners that represent the industry, culture, neighborhoods and law enforcement, many of which are established community activists. The San Francisco commission plays a much greater role in regulation, including overseeing sound regulation, zoning, and permitting, including permits for the sale of alcohol. Ultimately, both Seattle and San Francisco have adopted governance that has the primary mission of promoting the nightlife economy and the cultural ecosystem, while balancing that mission with reasonable regulation.
In New Orleans, there is an obvious void that needs to be filled around nightlife management. The congestion from 18 million tourists a year in a city with 400,000 residents has continued to create tensions around the nightlife and cultural economies. But, in order to support alternative ways to address some of these challenges, there has to be an informed understanding of what is actually needed. While New Orleans, through GNO inc, is putting $150,000 towards a study of developing a recording music industry in the age of streaming, King County went straight to the source and asked the musicians how they were doing and what they needed by commissioning a music census. Still in the works, but based on the Austin Music Census, this data-driven report will give the County a vision of what the working musician, club owner, or studio hand actually needs, what’s working, and where government or nonprofits can play a role in enhancing not just economic conditions, but overall quality of life for artists and cultural workers.
When it comes to regulating music and culture, New Orleans is operating from 300 years of legislation, custom and practice, not to mention several different languages and a few European 18th century codes. So, it should be of no surprise that our lawmakers and law enforcement agencies cannot seem to reconcile the abundance of oft-inconsistent laws, regulations, rules and generally accepted practices that have been interpreted over the course of centuries by various ruling bodies through various modes of communication and throughout a long course of changing mayoral administrations. One could argue that one of New Orleans’ greatest regulatory challenges is first getting all the relevant city agencies on the same page about which rules are in place and which agencies are tasked with enforcing them. That is quite a tall order. But this reconciliation task is absolutely critical; New Orleans government must take deliberate measures to engage and coordinate multiple agencies so they can reconcile the oft-competing, oft-inconsistent, and oft-misinformed perceptions around which laws are enforced by what agencies.
Take, for example, the municipal noise ordinance, which is often inaccurately referred to as a “sound ordinance.” Despite the apparent enthusiasm demonstrated by many officials to adopt a new identifying term for the way we approach the regulation of sound, the distinction does not play out in reality. Contrarily, music is still regulated as a nuisance. In fact, New Orleans’ noise ordinance, to date, singles out music as a “nuisance noise,” which is a term of art that is referenced multiple times within the plain language of the written law. Notably, the City Attorney’s office recognized that the noise ordinance is unenforceable for violating the United States Constitution for including, among other applicable provisions, a city-wide ban on performing musical instruments after 8 p.m.
Ironically, these musicians performing at night are doing exactly what the tourism board markets to the rest of the world in iconic imagery as a reason to come to New Orleans—where part of your visit includes free music on dimly lit streets.
During the course of the previous mayoral administration, the noise ordinance was challenged for multiple reasons, including selective enforcement, subjective measuring standards, and perhaps most egregious, violating free speech. As such, Mayor Landrieu instructed law enforcement to refrain from enforcing the noise ordinance, while the City Council designated and funded the Department of Health to study and make recommendations for an ordinance that regulates sound, not music. The Department of Health has also been vested with enforcement powers, but the NOPD is still the primary agency handling most complaints.
While the previous mayoral administration addressed these bad laws by ordering them not to be enforced, the written laws were not formally amended. This failure of process has resulted in more inconsistency and chaos in coordinating the many city agencies around the actual meaning, status and enforcement authority and oversight of this singular law. Consider what it would take to get government on the same page with complex zoning and tax laws, which would be a daunting proposition. But—absent a deliberate and thoughtful reconciliation of existing legislation with various customs, practices and “understandings”—all it takes is for one new leader in any given enforcement agency to reactivate rules that have been deemed bad law (but have failed to be recorded by government) and we’re back to square one. Until the City makes concerted attempts to convene and coordinate with its enforcement agencies, to educate both government and stakeholders, and to formally reconcile and properly record its regulations, New Orleans will continue to have even more challenges.
Compare this structural disarray to Seattle and San Francisco, where each city employs designated staff for overseeing rules that impact the cultural sector. In these cities, if tension arises between a nightclub operator and a nearby resident, that tension is immediately addressed by experienced government staff, which work on a proactive basis to prevent conflict from escalating into crises. The efficiency of these models has been demonstrated by the dramatically reduced number of complaints and violations, coupled with a remarkable increase in compliance. The lesson learned is that having an experienced, effective and trusted liaison between the nightlife sector and city government has proven beneficial to both the government and the governed— and resulted in economic growth and better quality of life.
So, there is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel: if New Orleans decides to flip the switch. New Orleans can learn from other cities, not just Seattle and San Francisco. But, it’s absolutely critical that the City act now and take steps needed to address our own challenges. It is terribly unfortunate that both Seattle and San Francisco began addressing their challenges only after they lost so much of their identity and culture.
New Orleans needs an immediate intervention to prevent our culture from becoming more endangered, and has a real opportunity to develop strategies that promote what makes the City so special, while striking that balance with rules and regulations that are consistent and make sense. We are counting on our City’s government leaders to act before it’s too late.