Why Music Hasn’t Prevailed in New Orleans

I’ve been writing about the reasons why music isn’t respected in New Orleans for probably 30 years, and why it hasn’t prevailed in our economy. I’ve been ranting about it, making suggestions, trying to rally the music-loving troops, and trying to motivate the business community to take music seriously as an essential part of the New Orleans economy. This, in fact, has become my life’s work.

I’ve suggested before that the reason why music doesn’t get the respect it deserves can be summed up by that fact that musicians and music clubs—the live music component of the city—don’t produce enough money to have an organized mainstream group that advocates for live music. This is especially important now that the noise ordinance revisions proposed by the anti-music VCPORA and other neighborhood residents’ groups continues to throw a pall over live music in the city. We at least now have the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), which has taken up the fight (Note: MaCCNO meets this Friday at 4 p.m. on the second floor of the Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Avenue, to discuss the proposed sound ordinance).

If you don’t have money and produce votes, it’s much harder for the political faction to take your political concerns seriously. Money in many cases does buy respect. Moreover, money can purchase access to media and experienced publicists who know how to spin the facts of a situation to an advantage.

This is the situation with the VCPORA, funded by wealthy used-to-winning-his-battles attorney Stuart H. Smith, with an agenda that’s spun by political consultant and paid publicist Cheron Brylski. The VCPORA is the lead group that opposes music above the level of a normal conversation in the French Quarter streets, and the group that supposedly signed on 20 “neighborhood groups” who support the noise ordinance essentials.

Many venues that present live music are quaking in their boots at the prospect of having to keep the “noise” (read music) down to the levels suggested in the VCPORA’s “Seven Essential Items To Make Our Noise Ordinance Work.” It’s sad, and it’s evidentiary of this group using money and related power to influence political opinion and action.

Their “essentials” just aren’t  feasible and they are not workable in the context of business in the French Quarter, or in other neighborhoods that contain commercial businesses such as bars, restaurants and music clubs. They are not workable in urban neighborhoods that contain not only residents but businesses.

I do agree that you need both components of a neighborhood—residential and business—to create the ambiance of New Orleans. Note I said you need both components. There’s no justification for neighborhood associations to dictate what happens within neighborhoods in the city. There has to be compromise, and there has to be understanding that 1) the French Quarter, Marigny, Warehouse District  and Bywater are not suburbs and should not have a standardized noise limit imposed across these areas, and 2) without the businesses, the neighborhoods’ charms and appeal for residents would not exist at all. The businesses need a voice in this game.

Note I suggested compromise. I’m all for that. What bothers me the most is the bullying tactics and radical cum fanatical spin some of the neighborhood groups put into maintaining the status quo. The VCPORA has done this many times. The Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association went off the charts with deceptive signage when they opposed the construction of Sean Cummings’ apartment complex at the corner of Elysian Fields and Decatur Streets (they were successful in stopping the project, which still remains a graffiti- and weed-ridden no-man’s land next to a power station. What a waste of a good project).  And look at the Habana Outpost project, which has been lingering on without being able to move on at the corner of Esplanade and North Rampart due to the radical tactics of the VCPORA and Friends of the Vieux Carre. The opposers would rather have a rotting eyesore than to put that corner into commerce that “disturbs”  the quiet of the neighborhood they think they rule. Don’t even get me started about not permitting music on North Rampart Street.

I believe that these groups actually represent very few neighborhood people. They represent a scant few who live in the neighborhoods who get their jollies by exercising power through neighborhood association antics. Do you know that a Bywater business owner (who will not be mentioned for fear of losing business) told me he thought the Cummings project was a great idea, until he happened to mention it in passing to someone who was in his store who was one of the FMIA fanatics. “I was afraid to say anything positive about the project again,” he said. “I was afraid they might boycott my business.”

I mean, is this an abuse of power, or what?

Why do these neighborhood associations wield the power that they do? Easy. They seem to represent votes, and we certainly know that politicians crave votes. If the association seems to speak for its constituency, then the politicians think they should listen.

What about the jobs and taxes produced and the voters who work at local businesses? Don’t they count too?

Do  the associations really speak for everyone, or the majority? I don’t think so. They speak for the few, not the many. That’s not democracy, that’s demagoguery.

Here’s the rub: the residents who support music in their neighborhoods need to speak up, and speak up loudly. The businesses who support live music need to make their voices heard—clearly and without fear of a crackdown from the city or complaints from neighbors who could shut down their businesses (remember Mimi’s in the Marigny?).

It’s very true that if businesses  speak up, they’re afraid there would be repercussions from the fanatics , and not only from them, but also from the city. Businesses have a lot more to lose when they speak up than do residents. That’s a huge problem, and something we need to work on: making it safe for business owners’ opinions and needs to be heard and appreciated. Where are their voices in the noise ordinance debate? Or are they too afraid that if they do they’ll be bombarded by neighbor complaints that could affect their livelihood if they are too vocal? It’s happened before. One complainant can literally shut down a business. That’s kind of scary.

In 1987, I headed up a team that published  a study which said that live music had a $90-million impact on the New Orleans economy. That was 27 years ago. Imagine what is must be like now. Are our city leaders going to be swayed by a few neighborhood residents who don’t really care about the city as a mecca and progenitor of music? A creator of American music?

If we do, that’s a tragedy. We might as well live in Baton Rouge.

God forbid.

Get active: sign the petitions now to keep music in our neighborhoods!

The City Council was bombarded with letters after it was announced that all members had signed off on the VCPORA’s “essentials” as a starting place to revamp the noise ordinance, once and for all. Once all City Council members signed off, social media went crazy and protests from all sorts of people started coming in. Here are some excerpts from a few of the letters I’ve seen. I can assure you they are real letters, but I’ve disguised the names of the letter-writers to protect their privacy:

 

Dear City Council,

I have been a lifetime resident of the New Orleans area and involved in the entertainment industry for over 35 years and I find it very upsetting to read about an ordinance that will reduce the levels of volume for street performers. The requested decibels would be unfair to street performers that add so much charm and culture to the Crescent City. The proposed noise ordinance would make the music lower than most people celebrating on Bourbon Street.

Can you imagine if this proposed ordinance was in effect during the early careers of Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews who all played and sung on streets and in our neighborhoods? We might have never had a chance to enjoy the gospel and jazz music that the city has come to love and to be known for.

Being involved in the industry for a number of years I have worked with so many artists and people throughout the world that have mentioned, when I say I’m from Nawlins, the amazing street music they have experienced while in our city.

I ask that you please reconsider the passing of this ordinance.

With much respect.

KS

 

 

Dear City Council,

I understand all of you signed a proposed sound restriction ordinance (45-90 dB depending time of day) on December 19th, 2013 that will impact Orleans Parish and specifically the French Quarter. I also understand this ordinance is supposedly supported by 20 neighborhood associations in Orleans Parish. I would like my voice heard.

Which neighborhood groups are part of this coalition? Are there resident signatures showing a majority consensus from these “supportive” groups? I’ve never received any “official communication” where my input to support this sound ordinance was requested and I am the security chair of the xxxxxxx.

Before passing such a restrictive ordinance, PLEASE buy a decibel meter, walk the French Quarter and test actual levels of indoor and outdoor noise for five minutes so you understand what this ordinance is suggesting.

FYI…these are sound examples without background ambient noise under controlled conditions (see an actual sound chart here):

Library noise 40 dB

Conversation in home 50 dB

Conversation in restaurant 60 dB

Office noise 60 dB

Air Conditioner at 100′ 60 dB

Radio, TV, vacuum cleaner 70 dB

Garbage disposal 80 dB

Food blender 88 dB

Motorcycle at 25′ 90 dB

Garbage Truck 100 dB

Plane flyover @1000′ up 103 dB

Police siren (minimum standard established by the DOJ)

Class A 115 dB – Class B 120 dB

What about action movie sets, firework shows, New Year’s, Mardi Gras, French Quarter Fest, Decadence, White Linen Night, Jazz Fest, Music in the Square,  Halloween, Christmas in the District or any outdoor event where massive crowds gather?  What decibel level do these crowds generate? Will sound and time limitations make these movie sets and historic events cease to exist… eventually?

What about the Navy and Coast Guard flyovers?  And the garbage pick-up in the mornings and street sweepers at night to ensure the streets are clean?   And the police warning sirens to keep criminals away?  Are the sound police going to stop noise over the French Quarter or as mandated by the Federal Government?

Will I have to turn off my hair dryer or my air conditioner, stop vacuuming, and stop making daiquiris because my neighbor says it’s too loud?? Or risk receiving a hefty fine?

Will this ordinance give the sound police the right to stand outside my door and listen through my walls to my conversations and TV programs to see if I’m too loud?  What about screams of orgasm? How many dB’s is that?  Don’t laugh. As security chair, I actually received several written complaints from an elderly couple at a Warehouse District condo complex complaining about their neighbor having sex and wanted the condo board to enforce the indoor sound ordinance! It’s the law! The middle aged couple ended up moving after repeated “legal” documented public complaints which were meant to embarrass and harass.  Who’s rights were violated?? No one wins.

This sound ordinance will make the French Quarter a ghost town. It is intrusive, impractical, and will change the history of New Orleans.  Music and lively streets are why tourists visit and a big part of why New Orleanians chose to live in this city.  Who will really enforce this law?  If this passes…expect more neighbor consternation, distress, aggravation and aggressive lawsuits.  Is that what we are about?  This isn’t your yuppie suburban environment folks.. You KNOW exactly what you are getting when you move here.  It’s no secret..the French Quarter hasn’t been quiet for hundreds of years!  Why change now?

More importantly, if this ordinance passes there goes our cash cow source of REVENUE!  We brought in a record breaking $6-billion from visitors in 2012.  Who knows what the movie companies brought in? Obviously, visitors like exactly what we’ve got going on in our city. Think of the impact on the city budget if the French Quarter turns quiet residential and visitors quit coming.

People are speaking up against this proposed ordinance.  Please see petition that’s been circulating since yesterday.  There are already 3500+ signatures.  Expect more in support of keeping the French Quarter lively and filled with music just like it is.

Before passing an ordinance that will impact long time residents, bars, restaurant and business owners, musicians, horse drawn carriages, street performers, tap dancers, church bells, bourbon bustle where people enjoy dancing in the street, tourists and visitors etc please get real input. Don’t rely on special interest groups and people with private agendas to change our culture and what New Orleans means and sounds to the world.

GB

 

 

As a citizen and voter in our great city, I’m highly concerned about the proposal being presented at today’s council meeting regarding VCPORA and the ongoing dialogue about the revisions to the city’s noise ordinance. As a 15-year on-air DJ for WWOZ, as well as a volunteer for numerous other music and culture-related organizations, I find it very worrisome that we as a city still seem to have to justify and/or take a defensive position when it comes to our culture and those aspects of what make our city unique and great. There are quite a few people among us who are quick to tout our culture and the economic impact it has locally, but still seem intent on creating challenges and/or obstacles for those involved in said culture.  To put it plainly, I think these new proposals hurt tourism, are bad for our musical/cultural community and economy, and will damage many New Orleanians’ abilities to make their living.

The city paid $15,000 of my–and other’s–tax dollars to have David Woolworth make a report, and spent two and a half years gathering recommendations from experts and residents on the best ways to have livable neighborhoods and a strong cultural economy at the same time. Why are these recommendations being ignored in this draft?  Please vote against this proposed ordinance in its current form and let’s try to get a more musician-friendly version of it together if we truly value our culture and how it effects our economy and small businesses.  Thank you all for your time and good luck in February.

Best,

AG

 

I write to you today to express my concern over the proposed noise ordinance as it exists in its current form.

I enrolled in xxxxxx Law School in the fall of 2012 after recognizing the cultural significance of the city of New Orleans and feeling its pull from nearly 2,000 miles away in the tiny town in upstate New York where I grew up. I knew very little about the city before I made the move, but for the musician and avid music fan in me, I knew that it was Mecca of American music. To that end, I have devoted my study and career aspirations to working with and for musicians, ensuring that the creativity and hard work they put in can be rewarded, encouraged, and most importantly, shared with the world.

In choosing a place to attend law school to study intellectual property law and make connections in the music industry, I could have prioritized the business aspects or the promise of a cushy job by going to New York City or Los Angeles, but New Orleans had something special. The music that emanates from this city might not be on top 40 radio, but it is the heart and soul of American music, and its influence permeates all genres of music made around the world. You don’t need me to tell you that people come from all corners of the earth to experience Mardi Gras and dance in the streets to our brass bands and observe the Mardi Gras Indians with profound awe and respect as they make their walk early in the morning; that they look forward to Jazz Fest all year long with the anticipation that a young child eagerly awaits Santa’s arrival on Christmas Day; any WWOZ DJ can attest to the broad listener base they have tune in from around the world through the internet. Nashville may have snatched the slogan of “Music City,” but New Orleans IS music.

I have many friends from back home who were perhaps even more excited than I was when I told them I’d be moving to New Orleans, and couldn’t rave enough about all the great live music I had to check out upon my arrival. Similarly, I have made a number of friends both in and out of school who, despite pursuing different career paths, came here for the music. Not just so that they could say they went to a cool show and boast about it to friends and family who aren’t so lucky, but so that they could dance and sing along, smile and laugh with pure joy at what music does for their soul.

The proposed noise ordinance promises to put the very soul of this city in jeopardy. I have heard stories from longtime New Orleanians who came here for Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest and literally never left– so smitten were they by the sounds of the trumpets and clarinets, the perpetual rhythm that keeps this city going through good times and bad, that they couldn’t bear the thought of living anywhere else for fear of not being able to stroll down the street on any given day to experience live music. These are not just your tax-paying citizens, but also your students, your future colleagues, the future leaders of the city, state, and possibly the nation. Every child in a marching band looks up to artists like Troy Andrews and Derrick Tabb for inspiration, and looks out into the street for a chance to make people dance along to the music they make. These children don’t all go on to become professional musicians, but their lives are indelibly made richer for having these opportunities in this city, and in turn they help inspire the next generation of musicians.

I echo many others when I write this, but you have in your hands the date of something truly and uniquely special. All of your constituents – indeed, all of the music-loving world – are counting on you to do the right thing and preserve live music, the heart and soul of New Orleans. Not only for the current generation, but for the next, and the one after that.

Respectfully,
MH

 

Dear Council Members,

I am writing you to express my concern over the proposed amendments to the noise ordinances and to urge you not to pass the current draft of the Noise Ordinance. Upon reviewing the proposed decibel levels allowances, it is clear that if this ordinance were to pass, no live music could be performed on the streets of New Orleans, and likely most live music performances in clubs would impossible. I believe that this would be a great disservice to the City of New Orleans and to all property owners, residents, business owners, and culture bearers who call this place home.

I moved to New Orleansto attend university and I have fallen so deeply in love with the vibrancy of this city that I recently purchased a beautiful shotgun home in the Bywater and intend to remain here indefinitely. What attracted me to this city was the energy it exudes, no other city I have travelled to or called home can compare. The brass bands on the corners, the music drifting through the streets, the accessibility of world-class artists and performers; this is what makes New Orleans special.

The current curfew on live music on the city’s streets, the restrictive decibel levels, and the lack of exemptions for traditional cultural activities, are contrary to what makes this city unique, and may well be unconstitutional to boot. It is embarrassing that this city criminalizes musicians while capitalizing on their contributions to solicit tourist dollars. This needs to be corrected, immediately, and it is shocking that these issues have gone unresolved for so many years despite the serious efforts of many dedicated advocates of the cultural community.

As a home owner I sympathize with the issues that accompany unregulated noise. I would surely be driven mad if my neighbors insisted on playing loud bass music at all hours of the night. I am not suggesting there be no regulations on noise, simply that they are reasonable and – at the very least – constitutional. The city cannot expect to continue to thrive if it cuts out its beating heart. If the music stops, so will the tourists and we need them to sustain our many businesses, artists, and even our property values. If New Orleans becomes just another city, one without Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, live jazz, and brass bands, then what will bring people here? The music leaves, the tourists leave, the hotels are empty, the restaurants and businesses cannot sustain themselves, and eventually there will be nothing left but blight and the memory of a great city.

Please protect New Orleans. I hope to one day dance in a second line with my children, show them the beauty of brass instruments, and raise them in a city I can be proud to call home.  I will continue to celebrate and support the cultural community in this beautiful town, and I hope you will to.

Most sincerely,

GA

 

  • Spike Perkins

    Jan, friend of mine thinks that (supposedly) mobbed-up Bourbon St. club
    owners who don’t like the competition from other neighborhoods are part
    or part of the coalition pushing the noise ordinance along with the
    yuppie gentrifiers, ironically enough. To me, they are some of the worse
    offenders, to begin with, but they probably think they will be able to
    pay someone off and continue business as usual, while squelching the
    competition. What say you?

    • Nawlinsguitar

      Completely false. The opposite is true.

      • Spike Perkins

        Please elaborate.

        • Nawlinsguitar

          I play on Bourbon and we went through this last year. All the clubs moved any speakers at least 10 feet from the door,facing inward ,not toward the street. The Old Opera House put plexi-glass around the the (now electronic) drums. At the bars I play at we have db meters by the doors that flash at us if the levels get to high. The clubs on Bourbon and Frenchman have bent over backwards to try to be good neighbors, but these people will never be satisfied.

  • Steve Gilbert

    “Opposes music louder than the level of a normal conversation.” Any unplugged, strictly enforced acoustic open microphone night that I go to in the Detroit area would be illegal within these constraints. A few friends of mine in my living room would be outside the law. It’s mindboggling.

  • Africa Brass

    This is not a new issue for New Orleans. New Orleans street performers in Lionhart v. Foster 100 F.Supp.2d 383 (E.D.La.,1999) LEXIS 17059 won a federal case that declared sound level of 55 db to be unconstitutional. The judge cited cases which gave amplification First Amendment protection including this case in Houston: Reeves v. McConn, 631 F.2d at 381 n. 1. The court noted that “there is probably no more appropriate place for reasonably amplified speech than the streets and sidewalks of a downtown business district.”
    Why are Vieux Carre Property Owners and Renters Association and Councilwoman Kristin Palmer defying this court decision.

  • Muffin Bernstein

    Vote for change. Vote Clarkson out. Signing the petition does NOTHING. Writing these lame duck council people does Nothing. Lets VOTE for Change in February. Pick the best council members who support Live music and a new mayor candidate and new Sheriff. Vote for change. Most of the musicians and music lovers in this state are of voting age. What would happen if we actually show up an vote.

    • Jennifer Houlihan

      Signing petitions does matter, if they’re signed by voters and personally delivered by a respectful and well-informed advocate to each elected official. That said, yes, get registered and VOTE to make the biggest and longest-lasting change. And never stop speaking up.

  • Mike vax

    What a shame to hear about this. When I lived and worked in New Orleans in the mid 70″s, we were proud of the sounds of music all over the quarter. I can remember the “contests” between the bands at Maison Bourbon and Crazy Shirley’s. If there is any city in this country that should be proud of the music that comes from it’s clubs and streets, it should be NEW ORLEANS!

  • Tremoloking

    Bourbon street clubs will just pay the fines and possible legal costs. This would not affect them at all. It’s the small places that would pay the price.

    • Tremoloking

      I guess I’m wrong about that! Realizing some of the clubs being sued ARE on Bourbon.

  • crossdotcurve

    “There’s no justification for neighborhood associations to dictate what happens within neighborhoods in the city.”

  • Sydney Arzt

    The city of Rehoboth Beach Delaware enacted a noise ordinance in much the same way with some of the same argument that are currently surfacing in New Orleans . Wish I had the time right now to bring forward a long description I can tell you that the number of music venues has slowly disappeared. What I can al so say is that I hold New Orleans music as essential to the well-being and culture of the city. Although I live many miles away I would be happy to assist in the effort if there is a way for me to do so. Perhaps an online Facebook campaign should be manifested to get support from people outside of the city who visit New Orleans with some frequency. You can contact me through Facebook at any time. sydney arzt

  • Jennifer Houlihan

    Glad to see so many people are still fighting the good fight! We have many of the same issues here in Austin – like neighborhood associations demanding changes to our noise ordinance – but also the good fortune to have the leadership of a mayor and City Council who support music not just as an economic engine for our city, but also as its cultural soul. The music industry’s advocacy arm, Austin Music People, finished a solid first full year in 2013 and we’re looking forward to a big year in 2014 as Austin is divided into districts for the first time – we’ll be working hard to make sure the winning candidate for every district is music-friendly. We’ll be watching MaCCNO for inspiration and stand ready to offer whatever support we can to our colleagues next door in Louisiana! Keep up the good work!

  • The Grey Ghost

    If street musicians in new orleans were limited to shifts at performance
    spots, or pitches as they are more commonly referred to in europe, that
    alone might quiet some of the complaints lodged by people who actually
    live in the quarter, marigny and, to a lesser degree, the bywater. It
    is interesting to note that the etiquette standards held by buskers in
    the european street musician community make the use of the word
    “limited” in itself unnecessary as they live and work honouring certain
    codes of conduct. The last I recall, 4 hours was a pitch limit set on grafton
    st. in dublin. I challenge anyone to stand on the corner of royal and st
    peter for any length of time to hear the 20 minute set a certain tuba
    band performs, repeating their repertoire for hours leading to days on
    end. I have had the displeasure of renting a flat in that vicinity and
    sadly, we couldn’t watch the television, listen to the radio or even
    hold a simple conversation while the band played on, almost likened to a
    full time job. If they had moved on in an ethical and conscientious
    time standard and manner, thus letting a nice quiet guitar player or
    other performer have a go, it would have been a bit more tolerable…
    knowing they would be gone before long.

    • Louis Lince

      If I choose to rent an apartment I do my homework and check out the neighbourhood before signing on the dotted line. As a frequent vistor to New Orleans I do know where the music is.

  • Brian West

    VCPORA is not a single entity. It is made up of people. They have names , faces, address’s and phone numbers. Let’s start compiling and sharing that information. Let;s post it in as many physical places around NOLA and the WWW. Then let;s get all the business’s that would be hurt by this Fascist idea that they promote to post the info and BAN them from their business’s, Festivals, Parades and assemblies. Call their phones DAY and NIGHT and express our indignation. We need to do it AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. To shut them down, OUT and get them TO GA SOMEWHERE ELSE. Maybe Peoria or Vicksburg it’s quiet in both those places!!!…..If everywhere they were spotted there was a crowd following them quietly chanting “LEAVE NOLA…LEAVE NOLA.” Maybe they would.