Learn a musical lesson from Bourbon and Frenchmen

Bourbon Street—in my lifetime—was New Orleans’ “music street” until it turned into more of a place for visitors and tourists to hear live music. For a decade, Frenchmen was the place locals went to hear live music, but once the word got out, the atmosphere on Frenchmen changed. I’ve heard more and more from locals that they don’t go to Frenchmen anymore, which is really sad.

“It’s turned into the ‘drunken Texan’ crowd,” said a Frenchmen Street clubowner I spoke to recently. “And there’s nothing anyone cn do about it.”

Yes, the word got out—as it inevitably will. It’s not something that can usually be prevented, especially in New Orleans, where laws are, shall we say, made to be broken. There are a lot of reasons this occurred, most of it to do with money. Once the word got out that Frenchmen was a music “brand,” several operators moved onto the street and jumped on the music bandwagon. But as I mentioned in a previous Mojo Mouth, cover charges for music are becoming scarce, which means musicians may not be getting a fair wage in some cases.’

This is not to say that clubs that do not regularly charge a cover try to stiff the musicians; that’s not always true. But it is true that the music on Frenchmen has lost its reputation amongst locals as a cool place to go hear music. Too many tourists, and too many people who really don’t appreciate the music. As I’ve posited before: when the music is free and can be heard from the street because club and bars are open, more to lure Frenchmen Street walkers in to drink rather than to hear music, this is a the result.

This is a phenomenon that happened on Bourbon, and unless there are iron-clad and enforceable and enforced rules, the same thing would happen in any location in the city that had the music clubs proximate enough to create a music “scene.”

This doesn’t happen when music venues are more scattered about, like uptown. When I was out listening to music several nights a week, I would go to Oak Street (there were four music venues close to each other then (the Maple Leaf, Jed’s/Muddy Water’s, Jimmy’s and Carrollton Station). Now only one of those (the Leaf) still has music seven nights a week (sad). And then to Tip’s, which was a drive away.

It’s clear that cover charges create and preserve a better atmosphere for music and musicians.

But are there enough bars that offer music that would (or could) honor that business model? This would definitely preserve the concept of a music club.

Can the city legislate an entertainment district that requires bar owners to charge a cover for entry?


  • kmsoap

    The entire concept of a legislated entertainment district of any sort will inevitably lead to the same result. Grouping venues together by law, instead of allowing organic growth, is a construct of the neighborhood associations. The following is from MaCCNO’s email addressing their proposal for amending the Master Plan to protect cultural sites.

    City Council Meeting July 10th @ 10AM
    Comments to Council Due July 26th

    This is an opportunity that only comes every 5 years, so we need to act now! MaCCNO has submitted several amendments to the New Orleans Master Plan that would help support and protect our culture, live music in particular. We need your help to make sure they are adopted! The most crucial amendment is 1.D. “Protect Important Cultural Sites, Activities, and Traditions” in Chapter 6, Historic Preservation. It has 4 parts:

    1. A comprehensive survey of existing musically, historically, and spiritually important cultural sites should be completed, and sites should become eligible for protection.

    2. Allow historic music venues to be reestablished at sites where such former use is identified.

    3. A grant program for soundproofing businesses, similar to a façade grant program, should be developed and implemented, with an emphasis on music and barrooms.

    4. Encourage businesses and facilities that promote New Orleans culture through music, entertainment, dance, art, and oral traditions.

    This amendment lays the groundwork for the comprehensive protection of cultural spaces in New Orleans, and will help places like Donna’s on Rampart St. or the Dew Drop Inn once again host live music. It would also provide some assistance for existing neighborhood music venues.

    We need your help to make sure it passes! We can’t wait another 5 years!

  • frederick

    Cover charges are scarce? Let’s see…Tips, Blue Nile, Siberia, Maple Leaf, Dba, Gasa, One Eyed Jacks, Saturn Bar, Republic, House of Blues, Hiho to name a few…all have regular cover charges. Not to mention the theaters on Canal etc. People will pay for the music they want to hear and they do. Sure there are a few venues on Frenchmen that are free. To classify all of New Orleans as cover free is really misinformed. Frenchmen is what it is. Bourbon is what it is. Both are frequented by many locals and tourists alike. Regardless of where they are from they are both packed always so someone is digging it. Are those people complaining they dont go there anymore going to those other venues instead? I’ll bet they dont. Maybe you should start thinking of some new suggestions. These antiquated musings about winding back the clock only show how badly out of touch you are.

    • CJK5H

      And exactly how many of the places you cited are on Frenchman, which was the subject of the story? You are mostly right, but your argument would look a lot better if you actually cited bars on Frenchman St.

  • CJK5H

    This piece is wrong about covers but right about Frenchman St not being “cool” anymore. St Claude seems to be the new street for local musicians and music fans to hang out now, crime and all.

    • kmsoap

      Obviously, you did not send much time on Frenchmen before Katrina. It was awesome in every way, but there was certainly a criminal element. Of course, it is still there. It just looks different and lurks just off the street waiting for unaware tourists.

  • Jill McGaughey

    Frenchmen Street is siphoning off a lot of dollars from Bourbon Street. The migration pattern is observable almost every night: get one drink “to go” on Bourbon, walk down the middle of the street (don’t go in anywhere because A) it smells disgusting, B) cover bands suck, and C) you have some vague notion that the ‘authentic’ music isn’t there anymore) and then drift over to Frenchmen because you’ve heard that’s where the locals go. So we may see some unintended consequences that the Bourbon street clubs have to start hiring real bands again to compete with Frenchmen. Wouldn’t that be nice.

    But the sad truth is, most tourists value the novelty of being able to carry a drink down the sidewalk, a pack mentality and the illicit thrill of peeing in public on our streets more than they value an actual quality immersive music experience.

    We messed up by not enforcing the rules on Frenchmen Street, and now the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. Which is a damn shame.

    • Jeremy Habegger

      I’d love to see the musical trend reverse and have more quality venues on Bourbon Street. Frenchmen is cool but to play 4 hours you certainly have to incorporate some covers. “Better” covers hopefully.

  • Jeremy Habegger

    I’ve been playing Café Negril, the dive bar of Frenchmen Street for the past 7 years with Soul Project. Having a restaurant license is the main reason most venues can’t charge a cover charge. Making 20% of the bar plus 100% of tips and CD sales we usually do ok pay wise. We have played other venues that charge a cover and not even made our standard minimum of $100 (since the days of Jelly Roll Morton). Percentage of the bar works if you have a good time slot otherwise it ain’t right. With all the competition on the street having a cover charge may turn away some folks but can act as a good crowd filter. DBA for example doesn’t charge much at the door.