The city is famous for its music, but in recent years a number of politicians have sided with groups calling for clubs and bars to turn down the volume, resulting in protests and calls to elect some new, music-friendly leaders.
All photos of the January 17 rally against changes to New Orleans's noise ordinance by Chet Overall.
In the past few years, even as the Louisiana state tourism board has adopted the slogan, “No America, We Will Not ‘Turn That Music Down,” the New Orleans City Council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration have been waging a quiet war on the city’s music scene. A minority of residents believe themselves entitled to watch television in their homes without hearing even the faint sound of a brass band blocks away, and this small but vocal (read: wealthy) group has convinced some lawmakers that the perfectly reasonable noise ordinances in the music capital of the world are not strict enough. City authorities have spent the last couple years hassling bars and other music venues for disobeying previously unenforced laws—including one that even prohibits musicians from advertising via fliers. Clubs have closed while they acquired the necessary permits, and musicians, soundmen, bartenders, and others in the live entertainment industry have lost jobs and income as a result.
So, at the end of 2012, the council commissioned a report by musician and sound scientist Dave Woolworth. Released in August 2013, the report cost taxpayers a reported $15,000 and suggested that in the French Quarter and Bourbon Street in particular, noise be capped somewhere between 90 and 100 decibels, measured at the open doors and windows of venues. Otherwise, Woolworth said that the real problem was inconsistent, improper enforcement of existing laws.
“The Woolworth report has a lot of merit and credibility,” said Hannah Kreiger-Benson, the spokesperson for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), a group of musicians, venue owners, and activists who have been fighting back against the movement to turn New Orleans’s music down. “It's not perfect, but it brings the science, and also talks in a nuanced and respectful way about complicated issues that directly affect real parts of the community.”
But in early December, the Vieux Carre Property Owners Residents and Associates (VCPORA), an advocacy group involved with French Quarter issues, put out their own report, titled, “Seven Essential Items to Make our Noise Ordinance work for New Orleans.” The VCPORA document was informed not by science or the input of musicians, but by the narrow interests of a minority that wants to quiet the world’s most famous music scene. VCPORA’s report suggested a bunch of incredibly strict new rules—for instance, the group wants daytime noise in the quarter to be capped at 70 decibels (down from the current limit of 80), which is about the volume of conversation in a restaurant.
In the end, the City Council chose to mostly ignore the Woolworth report it had paid for and schedule a vote on VCPORA’s recommendations for January 17. This prompted pro-music council candidate Drew Ward to post a video online of Councilperson Susan Guidry breaking VCPORA’s proposed music ordinances with one of her campaign parties—perhaps shamed, Guidry eventually came out against the VCPORA report.
MACCNO acted by announcing that it was organizing a rally at City Hall the day of the proposed vote. The rally’s thousands of Facebook RSVPs, plus attacks from the New Orleans press, scared the council into postponing the vote and announcing that the ordinances would be revised to focus mainly on obnoxiously loud Bourbon Street. While a vote has been tabled, the issue will rear its head again today, January 27, when the council will hear a presentation from the Health Department that will suggest ways to deal with music as a health hazard (the City Council has already decided that, going forth, the Health Department, rather than police, will deal with music complaints).
More importantly, there’s an election on February 1, and if New Orleans really wants to maintain its unique status as a city where music and musicians of all stripes are encouraged rather than oppressed, the citizenry needs to replace the current crop of politicians with people who represent musical interests. In that spirit, I contacted many of the incumbents’ challengers to ask them pointed questions (some of them fed to me by MACCNO) about how they’d protect and nurture New Orleans’s music culture once elected.
The first step to making New Orleans more friendly to music is unseating Mayor Landrieu. His most viable opponent is Judge Michael Bagneris, who I spoke with just before the City Hall rally on January 17.
VICE: Do you believe New Orleans’s sound ordinances have to be updated?
Michael Bagneris: Anything that is going to impede or restrict or prohibit the New Orleans musicians, I would be opposed to. At the same time, people gotta be able to sleep and get up and go to work in the morning. The noise ordinance definitely needs to be overhauled. But not all sections of the city require the same treatment—one person’s noise is another person’s music. So I don’t know if there ought to be any citywide ordinance.
As mayor of the world’s music capital, how would you treat musicians differently?
I am the only candidate who is talking about building a music industry. [New Orleans] has lots of great raw talent, but we never really take that talent and create the infrastructure of business around it. I am talking about publishing, distribution, marketing, the digital component of music. The noise ordinance might be of less importance when we start dealing with the real business of music—putting our folks into studios, and having our people doing soundtracks for movies. We have never really helped to catapult our music to the rest of the world—everyone else comes here and grabs New Orleans music. But Wynton Marsalis is not here, Harry Connick is not here, and pretty soon Trombone Shorty won’t be here. All of those great musicians ought to be actually feeding into the music industry here.
How would you encourage people to open more music clubs? Maybe tax credits for club owners, like Louisiana gives the movie industry?
We should view the music [industry] the same way we view the film industry. But we’d want to make sure that our musicians are being paid properly and things of that nature before you can get a tax credit. And your music better be more than just playing CDs.
What would you say to people who have lived near Frenchmen Street before it was a music district and don’t like how it’s changed?
I would find out if those residents would be interested in having their properties purchased at a fair value. Do what everybody else does and get a consortium and buy out for fair value and make it a music district. They do that with any other enterprise, like if you have a big Walmart coming in and some properties are in the way, they buy them out. When they are expanding the airport and properties are in the way, you buy them out. If you have a music district that’s expanding, buy them out.
Of the City Council races, the most important is in District C, which encompasses both the French Quarter and Frenchman Street, the two musical areas at the heart of these recent noisy controversies.
District C candidate Eloise Williams, has been a community activist and “crime fighter” since 1983, when her oldest son was murdered. That tragedy was followed by her nine-year-old grandson’s murder in 1994, then that of her youngest son after he came home from the military in 2005. But the main reason the 73-year-old entered the race was to unseat current Councilperson Jackie Clarkson, one of the politicians who has pushed the hardest for VCPORA’s initiatives. Williams is one of the least polished, most assertive candidates in any race—at the anti–music ordinance rally, she stood at the podium and shouted, “If I am elected, you all will play music 24/7!” That might not a particularly realistic promise, but her heart’s in the right place.
VICE: I am writing a story documenting how each candidate feels about recently proposed music ordinances and—
Eloise Williams: I will make your story short: I stand with the musicians. I love to dance! People should be more careful about moving into a loud area.
What about those who’ve say they lived on Frenchmen Street since before it was an entertainment district?
That’s not true. New Orleans itself has been an entertainment industry for centuries. I am 73 and I remember when people would make their own instruments and go play music on the corner of Canal Street, or Bourbon. So people know there is a history of music here. The French Quarter is the world’s most recognized community of music.
Are you saying that if certain residents don’t like the music, they should move?
If you want to keep music low-key, it’s only gonna be for a chosen few, not the majority of the people. You wanna turn everybody’s life around just to benefit yourself. People are coming here to enjoy New Orleans’s style; they won’t come here if you stop people from playing music. You being selfish. Let all these musicians do what they do best.
Another candidate in District C, Lourdes Moran, has served three terms on the historically inept Orleans Parish School Board—her opinions, as you might expect, are a bit more in line with those of the current council.
VICE: If elected, what’s your plan to solve these types of musical disputes?
Lourdes Moran: I’d ask, why aren’t the property owners aren’t required to soundproof their buildings if they are going to lease them out to music venues? The burden currently doesn’t lie on the business owner to keep the noise within the establishment.
There’s already decibel limit, so if you are not breaking that law, why should you spend money on soundproofing?
But how are you going to measure that?
With a decibel meter. And a wristwatch to see if it’s too late to be playing so loud.
Right. [laughs] The biggest problem has been inconsistent code enforcement. If there was consistent enforcement, the residents wouldn’t be as adamant about creating new laws. You can continue to change the laws, but if there is no code enforcement… Yet I do understand the argument, “Why did you move next to a bar?”
I’ll take it a step further and say, “Why do you live in New Orleans?” It’s like living in a bird sanctuary and being really uptight about getting a little bird poo on you from time to time.
[laughs] That’s not true. The Quarter was not always like this. It was a residential area, and over the course of time it started changing. Bourbon Street was not known for bars and clubs. It was known for strip joints.
Burlesque shows. With live bands!
That’s correct. But even so, you didn’t have the amplification that exists today. You have to look at this issue in the spirit of how all of this came about. You really have to find common ground on both sides. And without proper code enforcement, residents aren’t going to be happy, and then when you make only a periodic check, you’re going to irritate the musicians.
Also running in District C is Carlos Williams, Jr.,a former Orleans Parish sheriff who now runs the Fairmont Hotel. He’s also a member of the Krewe of Zulu, New Orleans’s most prestigious African-American carnival club.
VICE: So what is your relationship to New Orleans's music scene?
Carols Williams, Jr: Well, I’m a Zulu member, and as Zulu members we parade our fallen ones. We parade all over the city playing jazz, especially in District C. There are a lot of musicians in that district, and I can’t speak for all of them, but the ones I know aren’t happy with [the crackdown on music]. So it would be hypocritical of me, as a Zulu member, to support [these new ordinances]. I think they should scrap them.
How can New Orleans prioritize the needs of our musicians and music lovers?
From Bourbon Street to Congo Square, District C was meant for music. It was meant to be live all the time. What draws people to New Orleans is that vitality. I love the liveliness. I’m not saying we shouldn’t respect other people, but if I’m looking for peace and quiet, well, I wouldn’t be downtown, man. I’m not being negative. If I want the birds chirping, downtown is not the ideal spot. We have to make a compromise but you can’t expect to have solitude in downtown New Orleans.
What would you say to the people who’ve lived on Frenchmen Street and don’t like its metamorphosis into a music hub?
This area has always been like this. I remember coming down here for over 30 years and it was more lively then than it is now. It never slept back then. You had Bob French and them going from one gig to another, starting gigs at three in the morning. When I was a little boy I’d go with my grandfather to throw the newspapers, and they were still out playing sometimes at seven. Have you ever been by one of these public schools when the band starts playing? I can hear Edna Karr [High School’s band] from five blocks away, and I don’t feel like I’m being violated. They gotta practice!
The candidate with the best chance of beating Jackie Clarkson for the District C seat is Judge Nadine Ramsey, and, like a true politician, she kept it bland.
VICE: They keep calling this a noise ordinance, or a sound ordinance, but it’s specifically a music ordinance—it exempts construction noise and every other loud sound. Why is construction more important than music?
Nadine Ramsey: [laughs] The movement from the term “noise ordinance” to “sound ordinance” was because some people were offended. The difference with the construction would be it’s a specific length of time, whereas if you are talking about music in a nightclub, that’s a day-to-day activity.
What would we have to do to scrap this whole deal and just use the existing sound laws, which are already pretty strict?
Realistically, that horse has left the barn, and people are going to want a new noise ordinance. The best we can hope for is to get input from everyone.
Ernest “Freddie” Charbonnet, who’s running for an at-large seat on the council, has been an attorney for 30 years and served an interim term on the council already, so he’s got some experience. He’s also a saxophonist who's played with some legendary New Orleans groups.
VICE: Tell me about your relationship with New Orleans music.
Ernest Charbonnet: I’ve played tenor saxophone since sixth grade, and I was a member of St. Aug High School’s “Marching 100.” I played with David Batiste and the Gladiators and I was one of the original members of Stop Inc.—we were damned good. Our drummer then was Jonathan Moffett, who went on to play with Michael Jackson and Madonna. Our trumpet player went on tour with Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau. I thought I was going to be a professional musician. We played on Bourbon Street and dances and everything else in the 70s. And it was the age of the big horn section so we played a lot of Chicago, a lot of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Every now and again I pick my horn up.
You can have a block with a music club on which 50 people live, and if even one or two residents complain, the club might end up getting hassled and losing money. How can we avoid sound laws that cater to the minority?
We always start out with the basic premise that democracy rules. So yes, I do agree with you. Even in that, I believe we can come up with something that everybody lives with. If we can’t, it’s going to always be confrontational. If you move into the French Quarter and you live there, certain expectations have to be lowered because you know where you are. If you want a pristine quiet neighborhood then you shouldn’t live in the French Quarter. What you like about the place is also what you have to endure. People forget that.
The same has become true of Frenchmen Street.
I used to live on Frenchmen Street. I was maybe 15 years old and I was playing music myself... I would go home [from band practice] and my ears would be ringing for three days after because we were blasting Chicago as loud as we possibly could! We played everywhere. And there were no discos or DJs back in the 70s—just us. And it was cool.
Did you ever get hassled by the man for playing your horn?
Yeah, the cops would come in and stop it. Then ten minutes later we’d be right back up to the volume. And we really were hot. This was in the neighborhood clubs, which were much more prevalent than they are now. The cops would come round Paris Avenue in our residential neighborhood and say turn it down, then we’d end up playing till four in the morning.
Also running for an at-large council seat is Jason Williams, a lawyer who has focused for years on New Orleans’s music issues.
VICE: What is your depth of experience with the New Orleans music scene?
Jason Williams: I have represented everyone from Kermit Ruffins to Glen Andrews to Glen David Andrews, and all the brass bands: the Hot 8, the ReBirth, members of Troy Andrews Band as well. And I’ve done it on a pro-bono basis, because I love these guys. I’m a fan. I know that a lot of these guys don’t make the amount of money folks think they make. But I know as a music lover what they provide to this city is invaluable. And we have not honored and cherished our musicians, dating back to Louis Armstrong. As far as the sound ordinance, I stand with the musicians and the music lovers.
How do you feel when people say they want to “look to other cities” to draft our music laws?
There is no other city that anyone in the world looks to for music other than New Orleans—there is no other city to compare it to. So the concept that our sound ordinances should be like Charlotte’s or Atlanta’s is ludicrous. We have to value our uniqueness.
Do we even need new sound laws?
The sound laws have not been addressed in a very long time. I think it’s good to have sound laws—they can also protect music and music-lovers. That’s more the concept we need to have. It seems right now a lot of the ordinances are not designed to protect musicians but to infringe on their rights.
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.