More Input on Musical “Noise”

In my “Mojo Mouth” column this month in the print version of OffBeat, I address the noise issue that’s been a part of the New Orleans music culture forever. I mentioned that we need to find a solution to street music vis a vis the residents and businesses in the area.

Here’s a letter we received via email concerning the noise. We thank Ms. McGaughey for her comments. This is too long to publish in OffBeat’s print version, so here it is in entirety for you to consider, with my comments


Dear Ms. Ramsey,

I was disappointed to read your editorial in this month’s OffBeat (“Getting Rid of the ‘Noise’?” 07/01/10) which I felt failed to present multiple sides of this very complex issue.  Here are some additional perspectives that are worthy of consideration.

This is a complex issue with multiple stakeholders:  local residents, local businesses, tourists, as well as the musicians themselves.  Attempts to oversimplify the issues into  “black vs. white” or “white vs. black” or “wealthy vs. poor” or “big government vs. personal freedoms” or anyone being “anti artists” or “anti musicians” are inflammatory and small-minded.

Both things are true:   Our music culture as a whole is an important and precious resource.  At the same time, as a community, we must protect the quality of life and the rights of the residents and business owners who work hard, obey the rules, and generate the monies that pay for the city infrastructure.  Musicians and artists are also business owners—they are entrepreneurs. They play music for a living and have the courage to live a creative life—one with no set salary. They do pay taxes and are the one of the primary charms of the city that attract visitors to the businesses in the Quarter and the Marigny.  So shouldn’t their right to play be considered as well? Why does one business feel as though its right to make money supercedes another’s? Just because a musician doesn’t have a storefront doesn’t mean they should be prevented from making a living.

Residents and businesses have some very legitimate reasons for complaining about noise violations – not only at the corner of Bourbon & Canal, but elsewhere throughout the French Quarter and in the Marigny.   The NOPD did not randomly decide to begin enforcing the noise ordinances on the books.  A large number of complaints have come in, and the new chief of police is right to look at the reason for this as well as at all areas of enforcement that have been neglected and overlooked in years past.  How many complaints? Have there been many more than usual that would prompt the NOPD to bust a band playing in a commercial location on Canal Street—where no one even lives? Or was it a very visible power play on the part of the NOPD to impress the new chief? We don’t know that.

This is not about an agenda to “kill the music” in New Orleans.   I don’t believe anyone here hates music or musicians.  I am a resident of the Marigny Triangle neighborhood, and work on Royal Street in the French Quarter.   Part of why I live in New Orleans is the proximity to all kinds of venues in which to hear live music.  Yet in both areas of the city I observe that there are chronic problems with musicians performing outside of our homes and businesses.

It may very well be that we need to re-examine and clarify the noise ordinances to be more specific.   There can’t be a one-size-fits-all ordinance that will satisfy constituents in the commercial entertainment corridors of Bourbon & Frenchmen Street at are also appropriate for more residential “fringe” areas.  Agreed—but it depends on what you mean by fringe. Perhaps we should get rid of some of the stores on Royal Street who only cater to wealthy  tourists. That way the Quarter can become more residential in nature.

I don’t believe anyone is interested in stifling the development of our young talent, nor does an ordinance prohibiting street music after 8pm do this.   But kids shouldn’t grow up learning that the world owes them a living outside the law, or at other people’s expense, either. Street music in the French Quarter and in the Marigny, or Bywater or Uptown, for that matter, should be allowed in the evenings in areas where there’s ample foot traffic to generate revenue for musicians who play. Without people, musicians wouldn’t think of playing.  Back to Mojo Mouth’s point: if you want the quiet of the suburbs, one shouldn’t live in the Marigny on Frenchmen Street or in the French Quarter.

Residents and business owners need to provide for their customers’ needs, take care of themselves, and get a decent night’s sleep in order to function here.  There are many places for both tourists and residents to go out and hear music, and when you’ve had enough, you can retreat to your home or hotel room and rest and refresh yourself before going out again.  There are far and away more musicians that need to make a living by playing on the street than there are venues in which they can play. Moreover, it’s a lot more profitable for a musician to play on the street for tips. FYI, there are people in New Orleans who have made a living playing on the street for many years. Do you know how much most musicians make in clubs?

The French Quarter has changed dramatically from the resident-dense neighborhood it was two decades ago.  The number of permanent residents has dropped dramatically and subsequently the neighborhood has lost some of its unique qualities (compared to the days when there were families with children, and many artists in residence along its streets). Do you mean to say that you believe that live music has driven residents out of the Quarter?  Nothing could be further from the truth! People have moved out of the Quarter because they cannot afford to live there; for-sale and rental prices in the French Quarter have risen so high that the only people who can afford to buy there are people in a high income bracket, many of whom do not live there permanently. The lack of liveability has nothing to do with street noise. It has to do with price. If residences are made further unlivable due to street noise (or other conditions), we would ultimately have no owner-occupied properties, only rental properties with owners living elsewhere, or weekend condo tenants – this would not be good for the city. If French Quarter hotels have unhappy customers because of a brass band blaring under patrons’ windows until late at night, and the customers post a less-than-satisfactory review online, that is not good for business, which is not good for the city. Unless you can prove that people staying in hotels would rather not hear local musicians play on the streets, I don’t buy this.

No one wants the French Quarter to be Disneyland, where we are all just carefully orchestrated, costumed bit players who then take buses to our suburban homes after our shifts.  But we can’t live in Anarchyland, either.  A delicate balance must be maintained.  To do this, we need respect and effort by all constituents to be reasonable, employ common sense, and follow the golden rule.  And we have laws on the books to provide some structure to obtaining this balance, if necessary.  Agreed, see Mojo Mouth.

New Orleans has a long history of businesses and residences sharing the same roof.  Of second line parades.  Of spontaneous musical celebrations.  Of all types of people from all walks of life living together in our “checkerboard’ neighborhoods of great diversity.   Of great clubs hosting world-class musicians, many of whom are home-grown.   This is all very different from having a brass band “practicing” in an apartment upstairs from you, or not being able to hold a conversation in your front room or have a meal on your back porch because of someone violating your space with their volume, or your employees in a shop on Royal street having to listen to an off-key rendition of “Stand by Me” repeated 100 times a day, or …    there are many examples.    I am not suggesting we “kill” music in the streets.   I am saying that it is reasonable to set some limits – and the current noise ordinance is not excessive or unreasonable. Agreed that rules need to be put in place. But–once again, the people who live in Manhattan put up with some measures of inconvenience because they choose to live there. It’s the same thing in New Orleans’ neighborhoods, most especially the Quarter and the Marigny. And may I point out that there is a lot more foot traffic generated by musicians playing “Stand By Me” than if they weren’t there. What about the calliope? Do you want to stop that too?

It is not okay for residents and business owners to be held hostage by street musicians – no matter how talented – who “work” to make extra money off the tourists, while making our homes unlivable and our businesses unviable with the volume and duration of their performances. Held hostage is pretty strong language. Musicians play on the streets to make a living, and tourists are people who want to hear them play. Musicians are contributors to bringing business to retail shops in the Quarter. You “work” in a Royal Street shop. Is your “work” in a retail shop any less important to your income than a street musician who works at playing music? Playing music IS WORK for musicians! This is how they pay their rent, buy groceries, eat at restaurants, pay sales tax, send their kids to school, buy clothing, etc.

Just because something is “tradition” doesn’t make it right. Yes, it does.

I recognize that in some cases, the street musicians add to the unique ambience of the Quarter, and are part of the rich pageant of living here.  It can also be an invasion, and an assault on the senses.  Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

Even while we respect and appreciate someone’s musical talent and drive to succeed, that doesn’t give them license to break laws or inconvenience the very neighbors who would be happy to go to a club and pay money to support them and tip the band and drink at the well of the legitimate business hosting them.  By refusing to respect their neighbors’ needs (not to mention the law), they are alienating the very people who could be their biggest supporters, and acting in a spirit counter to what the music is all about. Despite what you believe, many musicians cannot play in local clubs as they cannot make enough money from doing so. They make more money playing on the street, so this argument doesn’t hold water.

The street musicians need to remember that, were it not for the unique buildings, shops and businesses in the French Quarter, and the legitimate music venues in clubs all around the city, there would be no tourists on the sidewalks to be audiences for their music.  Instead of recognizing that they are enjoying an unauthorized opportunity, and staying respectful of residents’ needs, it seems that some of the performers now take a mile if given an inch. There are musicians and groups who are respectful of others, and there are those that are not. There are businesses who see local music as a positive, rather than a negative.

For too long, many illegal and unlicensed businesses have been allowed, through lack of enforcement, to exist in New Orleans.  (I’m including coffee shops and restaurants, illegal Bed & Breakfasts who compete with legal, permit holding, tax-paying businesses for their livelihood, and there are many examples.)  We have zoning laws, we have rules and guidelines that help protect historic properties and districts for the individual and greater good.   Noise ordinances are important for the same reasons.

We need the NOPD to enforce many of the ordinances that have long been on the books – not just the noise ordinances, but all illegal business activity.  I support the NOPD in this enforcement.

Residents who live and work in New Orleans are the front line spokespeople who promote their favorite aspects of the city, tell people where to dine and what music to hear.  Musicians seeking to make a name for themselves would be smart to reach out to their local audiences first and foremost, not make enemies; they will build a following quicker based on locals’ endorsements than anything else. There are many, many people who live in the Quarter who realize that music there is an integral part of the city and its culture, and they accept the musical “noise” as part of living in a vibrant cultural urban setting.  There are many who fight tooth and nail to keep music away from commercial streets such as North Rampart Street. North Rampart is not a residential neighborhood. It is a commercial thoroughfare. So is Decatur Street. So is Canal Street. So is Bourbon Street. And Royal Street. If you live in commercial area, you have to expect noise.

There is a great opportunity here for a club owner on Bourbon Street to create a venue that is a true “gateway to New Orleans” and showcase established and up-and-coming brass bands in the French Quarter, in a venue that can contain the sound appropriately so that we can maintain a harmonious co-existence with residences along the surrounding streets. OK, I think I believe this, but remember that this club would have to pay musicians to play as much as they can make on the street, and they would have to be treated as better than second-class citizens. Don’t you believe that Bourbon Street clubs (not all are guilty of this by any means) would rather blast high-decibel recorded music into the street (cheap) to grasp the attention of some would-be drunk from Podunk? Bourbon Street clubs are there for one reason only: to sell as much liquor as possible as fast as possible, not to give musicians the opportunity to make a living or to showcase our culture.

Here are some of the challenges we – as a community – face in examining the noise ordinance issue:

Challenge:  Locations. Not every street corner is an appropriate venue for every type of musical group.  How do we make tailored rules for areas that are more commercial, or more residential?

Challenge:  Hours of Operation. An across-the-board curfew of a certain time is not necessarily appropriate for every part of the city.   How do we tailor hours of operation to achieve a healthy balance?

Challenge:   Volume. A guitar player / singer creates a different decibel level than a brass band.   How do we account for volume level?    Is it ever appropriate or necessary to use an amplifier in the French Quarter?

Challenge:  Duration of Performance. How do we protect businesses (and their staff) whose commerce depends on shoppers navigating clear sidewalks to enter open doors?   And what about staff who are often subjected to the same “crowd-pleasing” songs over and over again for the course of several hours. How often does this happen? Is this really a legitimate complaint?

Challenge:  Panhandling & Harassment. Some street performers are simply panhandling and looking for handouts.  Some exploit their young children for tips.   Some harass passers-by on the basis of racial threats.   Do these issues need to be covered under separate ordinances other than noise? You are not referring to musicians, you are referring to bums and panhandlers. They are not the same as musicians trying to play music on the street and shouldn’t be lumped in with them.

Also, the NONPAC meeting is held every Thursday, which makes this month’s meeting Thursday, July 8th 2010 at the Maison Dupuy hotel. (I’d encourage anyone in NOLA interested in this issue to attend).

Thank you for your time and attention.

Jill McGaughey, Marigny resident

  • Deaf

    zone em, permit em, DB level monitor em, occupational license em, monitor em and eforce the codes.

  • McVouty

    God bless Jan for understanding the musicians life. I have just about given up on club work anywhere because with all the DJs and recorded music, club owner want to pay 1980s wages in today's economy. The wages most clubs offer musicans are a losing proposition.

  • Gumbohead

    Wow, that's a long letter. Ms. McGaughey is well-intentioned, but long-winded. Clearly, both sides have concerns. But she seems to think club owners are falling over themselves to pay musicians a ton of money to play. If you have a good club gig, you probably aren't playing on the street too often, more for the sheer fun of it. But as Jan points out, 99% of street musicians are playing for their livelihood. It's not a lark; it's money to live on. They should be afforded the same rights, within reason, as any other business.

  • itchy

    “They should be afforded the same rights, within reason, as any other business.”

    “Other businesses” get licenses and pay taxes.

    If you're suggesting that they be affording the same privileges as other businesses, then are you also suggesting that they play by the same rules that those businesses do?