How To Make Music A City Priority

I was at the meeting today at Kermit’s Speakeasy, and it was heartening to see so many people rally to support the cause of live music in the city. Most who were there were just downright angry at the city for cracking down on permitting at local clubs, the most recent of which is Mimi’s in the Marigny, a mainstay in Bywater for over 10 years. As it turns out, the city didn’t close down Mimi’s, Mimi herself did because she was afraid of getting a summons from the city regarding her live music. Mimi’s is not zoned for live music in New Orleans.

If you want to open a live music venue in New Orleans, you do have to jump through numerous, onerous hoops. Shamefully, in a place that’s known for its live music, virtually the entire city is not zoned for live music presentation. In order to do so, you must obtain what’s called a “mayoralty permit” and the permit has to be vetted through zoning channels. Virtually all venues require a “zoning variance” in order to obtain a permit.

I’ve been trying to organize music businesses in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana for almost 30 years. In my opinion and experience, there’s only strength in numbers. When voices supporting a cause such as supporting live music come together as one, and can present not only problems but potential solutions to problems, then you have a real opportunity to make a difference.

It’s truly impossible to tell you, dear readers, how many meetings and rallies I’ve been to over the past 30 years where the audience vented, complained, screamed and cried over how they were being mistreated, or discriminated against, or being done wrong.

Presenting an angry, yet disorganized face is not the way to influence government to make a change in favor of your cause.

While the people at the meeting today were truly passionate about their love for music and culture, it was the same-old, same-old.

I’ve said this before, but here goes again: government officials respond to the constituencies that elect them: the voters who can keep them in office.  This is why the residents’ groups (some that come to immediate top of mind are VCPORA, French Quarter Citizens and Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association) get not only attention, but results. They speak—calmly and purposefully—as a group. They represent masses of voters who elect public officials. They offer solutions for the issues they deem important. They stay on point. This is why they 1) get publicity and 2) achieve their goals in keeping much of the cultural issues—especially where it relates to music—from getting anywhere. It also helps that they’re organized enough and have some financial resources to support public relations and serious lobbying efforts.

Musicians, music businesses and music fans just cannot seem to organize  themselves into one effective lobbying group. There are certainly enough voters—musicians, music and cultural businesses, culture bearers and music fans—who represent music and cultural interests. For example, at this meeting I heard of at least three groups who were “organized” with “thousands of members.” You’d think these groups would have accomplished something by now. But they haven’t. The “voices” are still way too fragmented to accomplish anything significant. Most of these organizations are very well-meaning, but consist of a Facebook page or a website. Hate to tell you, guys, but you have to do more than just bitch on Facebook: you have to do some serious homework, work on a serious plan, and spend some serious face time with politicos. Put on your suits and ties and look serious. That is, if you want to play it that way. Ranting about how our music makes the city without playing the game that politicians relate to will not get you far enough to make an impact. Unless maybe you want to put together an organized series of rallies that would disrupt the city and make national news; then you’d get some action!

You also have to understand that you can’t get everything that you want. Working with government—and other humans, for that matter—means you need to look at a complex set of issues and work for a compromise to make the community better, one that will step forward to embrace the culture rather than gloss over problems with platitudes. A responsive city government that knows that there are rules that are needed to enhance the quality of life for everyone, but rules that can be amended to make sure that the culture is enhanced and preserved.T

First: Be informed. Find out what the laws are and how they apply. Find out what it will take to change them. Study the ordinances. Volunteer to attend meetings to explore possibilities.  Don’t assume you know what’s going on because you heard it from someone in the street. Take the time to get the real story. Talk to people outside your comfort zone to get the entire picture.

Second: Know specifically what you want to accomplish. Set goals. Don’t be vague in your wish list. Know what you want the laws to look like, and have logical reasons why the laws need to change. Know how those changes will affect not only the culture bearers but the rest of the citizens who live within the culture. Demonstrate how changes will have a positiv impact on the city as a whole (remember, you do unfortunately live with people who don’t necessarily understand the cultural economy.

Third: Don’t just complain. Devise a step-by-step plan to achieve your goal. Find reasonable ways to make it happen.

Fourth: Meet with lawmakers in a reasonable environment that also includes the possibility of some negotiation and compromise.

If you follow these step, I promise you’ll be able to accomplish good things for local music and culture.

In all my years of working with the music community, I have to admit, it’s still like herding cats. Maybe it’s egos. Maybe it’s just that creative people don’t like structure that will impede their creativity or what they feel is their right to create and operate as individuals. Whatever it is, it’s never going to work until the creatives and the people and businesses who support them come together with one voice to make sure that music and culture isn’t just created, it’s embedded in the way we make our laws and ordinances. No one can do this but the creative community itself.

My advice is to form a group that will represent your interests. You may not agree with the “one group” 100 percent, but at least you’ll have some effective representation. Get over territoriality and totally selfish interests. Work for your group. Get in the face of your legislators and make them understand not only are serious about music and culture, but that you have the votes and clout to elect and influence officials who have your interests at heart.

I have to recommend Music Swings Votes. This organization was set up to achieve credibility for the music community as a political force. It may not be the total answer, but it already exists, and has since before Mitch Landrieu was elected. For those of you who have other groups: this isn’t a turf war, or who gets credit for creating whatever group. You have to get over that mentality. Think of the whole. Not yourself. We all do want the same thing, really.

And finally, realize that the creative community is a part of the New Orleans community as a whole.  We have to live together, hopefully in a vibrant, creatively-friendly city. We need to make noise–and we did today. But that was once. We need our love of music to be an ongoing buzz in local politicians’ ears.


  • John Ariatti

    Politicians respond to voters. Agreed. I also agree that a central organization to represent the music people is needed. However, businesses respond to consumers. There are millions and millions of dollars that flow into New Orleans because of it’s music culture. I suggest that either this organization or Off Beat and Jazzfest promote to their mail list and other data bases they may be able to access, a petition to change some of these onerous laws/regulations that are hurting the NO music scene. I think you would be able to get tens of thousand of signatures of both voters and, very important, consumers that send money in the city. This may help to open the city politicians and businesses eyes.

  • Betty

    Thanks for keeping this important discussion going Jan and for sharpening the message. The entire of LA should be further along in their evolution as an organized music community and industry. There are dozens of reasons why we are not and you’ve done an effective job of outlining many of them. I also happened upon this. Meanwhile as the turf wars continue statewide, we seem to get further and further away. It’s sad and frustrating to watch, but there is civility on the horizon.

  • These are all very cogent points, but a very significant one was missed – one at the heart of all this and one we really need to stop dancing around and come out, acknowledge and make our leaders acknowledge and address as well – and that is the issue of the wholesale marginalization and disenfranchisement of large swaths of the city’s population. New Orleans city leaders, especially in the business community have never liked gatherings of poor people … especially ones where many of those poor are also musicians and artists that those business interests need to keep corralled. Musicians and artists have always been significant to any movement of social and economic change from the labor movements of over 100 years ago, to civil rights, to anti-war and No Nukes…. These days especially where money is everything and overrides votes in a significant way and in a state like Louisiana which is noted for its prototype of the decimation of collective bargaining leading to wide-spread low-wages, underemployment and poverty, we can expect a huge push-back against organizing. It is past time that city government and business leaders acknowledge their highly discriminatory policies against the poor and those who have been the most significant contributors to the arts, music and culture that have kept their businesses thriving in even in the most trying of times ….

    • JanRamsey

      I don’t perceive where anyone has ever implied that musicians and artists shouldn’t organize, not even local government. In fact, the reason why government doesn’t take music seriously is because the component entities–musicians, music fans, businesses, etc–cannot seem to get themselves organized into a coherent critical mass that can effectively capture politicians’ and mainstream business attention. Trust me, if we had an organized group, an action plan, and a consistent, persistent, logical message, they’d listen. It has absolutely nothing to do with being poor or black (since that’s what you seem to be saying). I can’t see any conspiracy theory here against class or race. It just simply has to do with being organized enough to play their game. It’s their turf and we have to play it like they do to win the game.

  • Jo Sat

    Not specifically looking to relate, but we have been dealing with the same thing in Montreal for years now. Seems like developers are more interested in building cheap Condos than quality music venues…..keep on fighting the good fight guys. I know we are doing our best.