New Orleans's War on Music
St. Roch's Tavern, which was recently closed for two weeks by the city. Photo by Zack Smith
Louisiana’s Department of Tourism recently launched a new ad campaign that declared, “No America We Will Not ‘Turn That Music Down.’” But on the ground, the authorities in New Orleans have been trying to quiet the city’s famously vibrant music scene.
First they came for our flyers. Until recently, our telephone poles were decorated with hundreds of colorful handbills keeping us abreast of concerts and reminding us that we lived in the world’s music capital. In summer of 2011, though, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration decided to crack down on this scourge of New Orleans. The city did boast a fantastic amount of “bandit signs,” advertising not just shows but cheap post-Katrina housing contractors, brand new schools, and sometimes pitbull puppies for sale, not to mention the many, many community pleas to stop gun violence. Mayor Landrieu’s administration hasn’t had much luck lowering the crime rate, but he’s doing a bang-up job ridding New Orleans of those signs and hassling unlicensed music clubs.
Back in July 2005, Landrieu, who was then Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, unveiled the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s campaign “Louisiana: Where Culture Means Business: A Strategic Plan for Louisiana’s Cultural Economy,” which read,“Louisiana has an economic asset that other states can only dream of, a deeply rooted authentic culture. In 2004, we launched the Cultural Economy Initiative to best use that asset. With this initiative, we aimed to improve the lives of Louisiana citizens and grow clean jobs through Louisiana's music, food, film, architecture, art, and other cultural industries.”
While running for mayor of New Orleans, Landrieu continued to pay lip service to the cultural economy, and when he was elected in 2010, he created the Office of Cultural Economy. But his policies are playing out differently than the arts community imagined they would. Soon, his administration began to enforce many previously-ignored law, which helped to kill off nightclubs like jazz staple the Funky Butt and Donna’s brass band club, both on Rampart Street in the French Quarter. Landrieu also moved to decrease the presence of traditional brass bands in the French Quarter and on Frenchmen Street. The city made the Circle Bar—which had harbored “illegal” music since 1999—cease live entertainment for months while it acquired the correct permits, then went after Bacchanal, a popular outdoor jazz spot. One night during peak business hours, Bacchanal was invaded by NOPD’s Quality of Life officers, the Fire Department, and the Department of Health. Shit got so intense that Mimi’s in the Marigny (which had hosted “illegal” music seven nights a week since Katrina) voluntarily halted its bands and DJs.
That’s a lot of people out of work. People who don’t make much money to begin with. People who are no longer allowed to advertise in the traditional manner.
It’s tough to discern who might benefit from all this. Much has been blamed on an odd post-Katrina wave of gentrification that continues to price artists and musicians out of the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods in and near the tiny sliver of the Ninth Ward that survived Katrina (excellent articles about that can be found here and here). Before the city’s flier crackdown, I’d personally witnessed Marigny real estate agents ripping down band posters early in the morning on Frenchmen Street. Landrieu himself claimed that focusing on music clubs and flyers had something to do with New Orleans hosting the Final Four, the Sugar Bowl, the BCS National Championship, and Super Bowl XLVII. “Over the next 18 months, we have an unprecedented series of national and international events that will showcase New Orleans,” Landrieu warned in a 2011 statement, “so it is critical that we put our best foot forward as our city takes center stage.”
To most New Orleans citizens, the injustice was not that Bacchanal and the other clubs affected by the crackdown were made to follow the law, it’s that the government took away income from local musicians and club owners for months over some paperwork. The city government was just doing its job, sure. Still, it’s mildly offensive to watch the government of one of the most problem-plagued cities in America suddenly become so adept at the easiest part of its job, taking care of “problems” most residents don’t regard as threats to anyone. When nearly 200 people are murdered every year, why are the cops busy shutting down unamplified acoustic performances at the Marigny Opera House?
Playing defense, the local music community started the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO) in 2012. New Orleans trumpet player Kermit Ruffins (of Treme fame) began hosting Wednesday MACCNO meetings at his Treme Speakeasy club. The organization’s website promises, “Through our collective strength we will overcome the individual interests and political threats that seek to oppress music and culture with regulations and control,” and the group is working with attorney Mary Howell to better educate the music community about New Orleans’s newly enforced music provisions and laws, some of which Howell believes to be unconstitutional.
MACCNO facilitator and spokesperson Hannah Kreiger-Benson (a trumpet player and singer writing her Tulane University graduate thesis on how legal systems sculpt a city’s cultural landscape) coordinates MACCNO meetings with representatives from the Jackson Square Task Force, the Sound Ordinance Task Force, Visitor’s Bureau, NOLA Business Alliance, and the Department of Economic Development. “The most helpful meeting was with Scott Hutcheson from the mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy,” says Kreiger-Benson. “Hutcheson led a teach-in to unpack some information, and work against misinformation. He detailed a lot about the structure of city government. Tons of people were just yelling at Scott, and there was all this frustration, but he was really informative.”
After several phone calls and emails to Hutcheson, the city’s communications office replied curtly, “Scott is not available at this time.”
When asked her opinion on who might benefit from suppressing local music, Kreiger-Benson was at least somewhat sympathetic to the government. “What seemed like the city’s attack on live music was not so sinister,” she explained. “I was told that, as the Super Bowl approached, the city was doing a number of things to appear professional and aboveboard to people who aren’t from here. And one thing the city did was go through and check alcohol licenses. In the process they came across some music permitting issues. And since it all happened at once it seemed like an attack on music clubs.”
Since MACCNO’s formation, the city has chilled out a little, thought it hasn’t stopped busting nightclubs. Siberia, which opened in 2011 among a cluster of other clubs (the AllWays Lounge, the HiHo Lounge, and Kajun’s karaoke club), was targeted by the permit police and voluntarily put a halt to shows in 2012. Given Siberia’s reputation as a heavy metal bar, the music community worried the club might never procure a notoriously hard-to-get music license. But by playing nice, and with MACCNO’s help, Siberia became the first in a series of venues allowed to continue hosting live music on a temporary basis while working with the city to acquire proper permits. Currently, the venue has made it through two out of three steps in the process toward attaining a conditional use permit. While in purgatory, Siberia has been subject to many provisos: all bands must sign waivers taking responsibility for any fliers found posted around town, Siberia’s music must end at 2 AM and drinks cannot leave the premises in go-cups.
These last two stipulations are aggressively harmful to New Orleans’s culture and economy. Tourists come to New Orleans for an experience they can’t have elsewhere, and the go-cup is essential to that. Tourists also visit because our bars famously stay open all night. Yet before being allowed to open for business, newer restaurants such as Maurepas and Booty’s in the Marigny and Bywater don't serve alcohol in go-cups thanks to the city council's restrictions.* As even square travel guides like Frommer’s will tell you, in New Orleans “it almost seems illegal not to have such a cup in your hand.” And yet, here they come for our go-cups.
Older businesses are being reprogrammed as well. In March, a harsh verdict was handed down to the ancient St. Roch Tavern, a bar currently suspended from even doing business for two weeks, much less hosting its famous bounce DJ nights. Though St. Roch possesses a music license, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board recently cited the bar for noise, trash issues, and too many fauxbeauxs (a French Louisiana word for “entitled snowbird punks”) hanging out front and pissing everywhere. The bar was fined $10,000. Once a newly soundproofed St. Roch opens back up on April 20, music must end on Fridays and Saturdays by 1:30 AM and at 11:30 PM for the rest of the week—and DJs aren’t allowed to perform at all on weekday nights. A new restriction on live animals will keep most of the dog-owning fauxbeauxs away, while also ending the Tavern’s popular weekly “chicken drop” gambling event.
At the hearing's end, St. Roch employees were ordered not to disparage the plaintiffs on social media, under penalty of law. Then a city representative handed out fliers touting the “No America, We Will Not ‘Turn That Music Down,’” campaign. Seriously.
“It was such a slap in the face,” says DJ Rusty Lazer, who hosts St. Roch’s aforementioned bounce night. “I lived in Austin, and New Orleans’s new campaign just reminds me of ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ That campaign was the moment Austin started to become unrecognizable.”
Whether or not city government really is waging some war on culture and trying to turn New Orleans into Austin, the music community remains fixated on the aggressive St. Roch ruling, and in particular the attitudes of prosecuting city attorneys Dan McNamara and Nolan Lambert, who, as the video of the St. Roch hearing show, were clearly out for blood. “Watch it, it’s horrible,” says MACCNO’s Kreiger-Benson. “They were totally being punitive for the sake of being punitive, and to the point of being almost farcical.”
*Sentence edited from the original, which falsely stated that those restaurants had entered into an agreement with the Bywater Neighborhood Association about go-cups.
Alexander Fleming aided in this report.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.
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