New Orleans Means Music

Here we go again.

Over the past few years New Orleans businesses who feature music have fought against neighborhood associations and aggressive plaintiff attorneys over the noise ordinance.

This isn’t new; some residents have always had issues with music (the great majority of residents in New Orleans don’t have issues with music; it’s only a vocal few). But there’s a coalition of well-heeled residents–and their respective neighborhood associations–who want to turn New Orleans into Anytown Suburbs USA.

This is particularly egregious, IMHO, in the so-called entertainment districts in the French Quarter, the Marigny, and I suspect, soon-to-come, the Bywater.

If you remember from reading my blog, several years ago previous City Councilperson Kristin Gisleson Palmer hired an outside firm (Oxford Acoustics, led during the study by Dave Woolworth) to monitor and record noise and make recommendations so that the city would have guidelines for revamping the ever-contentious noise ordinance.

Mr. Woolworth worked in the city for months and prepared a comprehensive study, fairly presented, that made recommendations.

But the groups that opposed the recommendations as too lenient to suit their own purposes tried to debunk Oxford’s findings. And nothing ever got done.

Finally the city threw up its hands and has now decided to start anew by going to the city Health Department and using high decibel levels as a basis for a health threat. So a team from the city’s Health Department with decibel meters will go through the Quarter and Marigny to monitor the noise levels. According to the New Orleans Advocate, this idea came from consultant Monica Hammer, who had worked on a sound ordinance in Chicago (I don’t think Chicago is exactly equivalent to New Orleans, but whatever), and takes cues from the way the city handled the indoor smoking ban which was recently passed in New Orleans.

My prediction is that monitoring the noise and making excessive decibel levels illegal is going to accomplish nothing in the long run because businesses in entertainment districts are convinced that music and open club doors are essential to drawing customers into their establishments. Unless the city can find a way to make it significantly expensive for venues who persist in presenting extremely loud music—maybe by imposing massive fines for lawbreakers—and in addition to that, find a way to enforce and collect the fines, nothing will change.

And there will always be a few jerks who will flaunt the law and play loud music anyway—unless, let’s say, we fine them $10,000 every time the noise levels are exceeded. But that will never happen because there’s a limit on what the city could fine a venue. And what’s the acceptable noise level, anyway?

So it’s a Catch-22 situation.

Now let’s not assume that yours truly is on the side of fining or shutting down every music establishment. Let’s also not assume that I don’t want new music venues in the Marigny, the Quarter, the Bywater or elsewhere in the city. Far from it.

I’ve railed for years over the fact that there’s no music allowed on North Rampart Street because the wealthy property owners on that side of the Quarter don’t want it to happen—and they have strong, well-funded, and vocal lobbying groups who take up their agenda time and time again (the Vieux Carre Property Owners & Residents Association, VCPORA and the Friends of the Vieux Carre).

There’s got to be a good mix of residential and music-producing venues in areas that have been used for years for entertainment of both locals and visitors. Cut out the music and you diminish New Orleans. New Orleans means music.

The only way this is going to work is by creating and enforcing a disincentive for “loud” music…what that level is, has yet to be determined. And it’s also going to involve more  tolerance from people who live in entertainment districts. I’ve said it many times: if you choose to live next door or even down the street from a bar with music—then that’s your bad. Otherwise, move to the suburbs, or get used to it.

And the city should require that any music venue must close their doors and install sound-reduction acoustics in their property (approved by the Health Department) and provide a tax break for those businesses to help them finance the costs of the sound-reducing acoustics. Enforce the rules and set significant fines for those who don’t follow the rules.

Is that ever going to happen? Let’s see where we are three years from now. Wanna bet?

  • Gary Edwards

    I suspect that the ambient noise level on the streets of the French Quarter, during the day time, would be too high for the Health Department! Noise level measurement is a difficult task, especially at varying distances. My father used to tell me that “Figures don’t lie, but Liars figure!” As you know, we have been discussing this for around 30 years or so. I think that I invented the phrase: “Moving to the French Quarter and complaining about the noise is like moving to Florida and complaining about the sand!”

  • Jeff Albert

    I would be ok with closing doors. Last Tuesday I was inside the Blue Nile (downstairs). The door to the Blue Nile was closed because the music inside was softer than the brass band outside. Near the back of the room, i could hear the band from 30/90…inside the Blue Nile…with the Blue Nile’s door closed. I get that it was an unfair fight that night, since we were doing acoustic improvised music, not loud r&b, but still.