You're a bar with a few microphones and an amplifier. You have a permit to serve booze. You put a band or two on the stage several times a week. You charge $5 at the door and make a few bucks after the bands get their cuts. You advertise; you book flavor-of-the-month touring bands. You do this for years. You're packed.
One night, an officer from the city's Department of Revenue asks for your live entertainment permit. You don't have one. The city asks you to unplug the music.
And New Orleans music lovers challenge the city for starting a "war on music."
This happened, almost exactly, to Dave Clements, co-owner of Circle Bar, the Lee Circle dive bar with an almost-nightly music lineup. Clements admitted he didn't have a permit, at least not since before Hurricane Katrina. A week later, the bands were back on. Clements acquired a mayoralty permit for live entertainment and proudly marched out of City Hall with it in hand. But he had to pay for every year he operated without the permit.
"One of the most important things to get across is that it is a process, and it's not a new process," says Scott Hutcheson, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's cultural economy advisor who acts as a liaison between the city and arts communities. "There has been no change, no new law enacted that limits any type of music or live entertainment in the city. But what often happens is — because it is a ... bureaucratic process involving a couple different departments — the path is not always as clear for some constituents as it is others."
Hutcheson also says the city has not declared "war on music."
"'Can you do what you do where you want to do it?' That's basically the gist of it," he says.
Circle Bar pulled its plug just weeks after Siberia, the St. Claude Avenue punk dive, did the same. Though Circle Bar ultimately got its permit renewed, Siberia canceled its extensive live music schedule and is still waiting for permit approval. Siberia never had a permit and operated under the assumption it could get one; its immediate neighbors include Hi-Ho Lounge, AllWays Lounge and Kajun's Pub, all of which feature music, theater and other live entertainment. But it turned out Siberia is not zoned for live entertainment. Bullet's Sports Bar in the 7th Ward, which hosts a weekly Kermit Ruffins gig, also was denied a live entertainment permit.
In a draft of its Permits and Licenses for Cultural Businesses: A Basic Guide, City Hall says its first step in reviewing a request for a permit is to check a business' zoning: "Introducing a new use, like Live Entertainment, to your existing business without checking the zoning or obtaining the needed zoning adjustments and permits is not recommended as a way to deal with zoning restrictions," the guide says.
Zoning is the bible when it comes to live entertainment. Zoning laws determine what kinds of businesses can open shop, as dictated by ordinances that parcel land into different usage categories. According to city ordinances, "live entertainment" — or rather what essentially is a concert — also includes "theatrical productions, athletic contests, exhibitions, pageants, concerts, recitals, circuses, karaoke, bands, combos, and other live music performances, audience-participation contests, floor shows, literature readings, dancing, fashion shows, comedy or magic acts, mime and the playing of recorded music (discs, records, tapes, etc.) by an employee, guest or other individual, one of whose functions is the playing of recorded music and who is in verbal communication with the clientele of the establishment."
"We look at what the zoning is, we look at the zoning ordinance to see if that use is permitted, whether it's accessory or conditional, and we tell (businesses) whether it is or not," says Edward Horan, zoning administrator with the Office of Safety and Permits. "You're a bar, I'll be able to look that up pretty quickly and let you know if [live music is] allowed. It's frankly not allowed in many places."
Enter the City Planning Commission (CPC), which handles applications for a "non-conforming use" which ultimately must pass muster with the New Orleans City Council. The bar requests must pass the CPC, which may deny the request for a hearing, and the New Orleans City Council, which can do the same.
So you're a bar with a few microphones and an amplifier. You successfully convinced the CPC and City Council to allow live music. Where do you start?
If you already have an alcoholic beverage permit, you'll remember the Department of Finance's Bureau of Revenue and the sales tax division, which processes all occupational licenses (that piece of paper in your window or above the cash register which basically says what you do in your building). You apply for a mayoralty permit for live entertainment, and the Department of Revenue forwards that request to the Office of Safety and Permits "for their inspection and to give us information on whether it's a permitted use or not. Our decision is based on whether it's permitted use," says Romy Samuel, director of the Department of Revenue.
"Sometimes it's helpful if they come to me even before they go to revenue and apply, so you know if what you're applying for is even possible," Horan says. "That's what we do all day."
What you pay depends on how much revenue you make annually. Big, high-volume spaces pay up to $500.25 for a permit. Smaller businesses can expect to pay $150.25.
"We want you to be in compliance. We respect our businesses. We want them to continue," Samuel says. "The resolution, however long that might take, we just want you to be in compliance.
"Just because you follow the process doesn't mean the answer at the end of the day is going to be 'yes.'"
The city's "one-stop shop" online system for permit applications citywide is scheduled to be unveiled this fall. Hutcheson said it aims to make the permit process "less daunting" and increase accessibility.
"We recognize the cultural aspects of the city drive our tourism market, they drive our quality of life," he said. "The mayor has made it a priority (to encourage) information and policy around cultural businesses."
Hutcheson's office can be reached at (504) 658-4200. Horan can be reached at (504) 658-7125.