Scott Hutcheson wears his ever-present broad smile and addresses a seated crowd inside Kermit Ruffins' Speakeasy bar in Treme. Hutcheson, from Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Office of Cultural Economy, gives a step-by-step breakdown of how city government works, with all its admittedly annoying bureaucratic red tape, and why it works. He's dressed down from his first appearance back in September, when the group first convened (and when fired-up attendees openly heckled his signature bowtie).
The newly christened Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO) has met weekly at the bar since late September. Ruffins called the first meeting following the city's summer enforcement sweeps that pulled the plug on live music at several music venues. Ruffins, a poster child for New Orleans music in the 21st century and a friend of the Landrieu administration, is the group's unlikely champion. He has a standing offer for MACCNO to meet at noon every Wednesday at his club. Musicians Kiyoko McCrae and Hannah Kreiger-Benson moderate the meetings, where members tackle permits, ordinances, zoning and other concerns from musicians, street vendors, second liners, bar owners, attorneys, city planners and music fans.
"We're figuring out the best way to channel the best potential energy in the makeup of that room," Kreiger-Benson says. "We've very clearly got a lot of power and we're figuring out ways to use it."
MACCNO's energy — which began as a fierce and unorganized gripe session aimed at city officials — has channeled into a think tank with its sights set not only on helping change policy but becoming policymakers.
"The reason we go is so we can hear first person from a group of people," Hutcheson says. "It helps in the decision making, it gives an idea of what really matters and where consensus can be built. ... I talk to the mayor almost daily. He's very aware of what's going on and what they're doing."
As the meeting wraps, musician Senor Gasolina, wearing a charcoal Members Only jacket, hands out a stack of flyers with lyrics to his "Wanna Stop Da Music" anthem: "They trying to stop the music, trying to stop the second line, trying to stop the music, New Orleans with no culture."
At the Nov. 15 New Orleans City Council meeting, Siberia co-owners Daphne Loney and Matt Russell approach the podium. The St. Claude Avenue music dive requested a zoning exception to host live music — which the bar had been doing since it opened in 2010. In June 2012, Siberia canceled its stacked concert calendar after the city's Bureau of Revenue came knocking, looking for proper permits. Not only did the bar not have them, but the building wasn't even zoned to host live entertainment. The bar owners said they assumed they could get a permit if they needed one, but it wasn't that simple. Nearly six months later, the owners were still waiting for the city's thumbs-up — which they received at the meeting, to a burst of applause from Siberia supporters.
"We're looking at St. Claude as a commercial corridor," says District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer. "This is something we should promote in terms of venues and galleries opening. This is a win for our cultural economy. ... This is about music, which we love." (Palmer adds her mom is a fan of the venue.)
Siberia applied for a zoning variance, which the City Planning Commission approved on Oct. 23, after an overwhelming show of support from the bar's neighbors and fans in the City Council Chamber. A month later, the council approved Siberia's request.
Following the summer sweeps, Hutcheson explained to Gambit, "One of the most important things to get across is that it is a process, and it's not a new process. There has been no change, no new law enacted that limits any type of music or live entertainment in the city. But because it is a process — a bureaucratic process involving a couple different departments — the path is not always as clear for some constituents as it is others."
The cost of permits to host live music vary from $150 to $500, and the process can include applications for and approval of an occupational license, an alcohol beverage permit (if the venue sells booze) and the entertainment permit itself. Applicants must go through the Department of Finance's Bureau of Revenue and the sales tax division, and entertainment permits are required from the Office of Safety and Permits. If a space isn't zoned for live entertainment, the City Planning Commission needs to sign off on a variance, which could take months.
"We recognize the cultural aspects of the city drive our tourism market, they drive our quality of life," Hutcheson says. "The mayor has made it a priority [to encourage] information and policy around cultural businesses."
The hoop jumping isn't anything new. With City Hall's new publication, Permits and Licenses for Cultural Businesses: A Basic Guide, Hutcheson hopes to simplify the sometimes-dense permit process. MACCNO aims to take it a step further.
"We're the central point for updates, getting information out to people," Kreiger-Benson says. "We can filter and interpret and translate the legalese. The language of these 'conversations' is extremely obtuse. It may seem inaccessible. We have an access point, and we're making accessible this wealth of multi-faceted information and hope people are empowered to participate."
"It's Civics 101," Hutcheson says. "This is how laws are structured, this is who you talk to. ... It can be daunting to try and find a path."
MACCNO can scratch Siberia off its list. Among the group's long-term goals: removing "cultural issues" from zoning ordinances, streamlining the permit process, and ensuring fair and equal enforcement of existing noise ordinances. If a band is cited for breaking noise levels past curfew, shouldn't the law also apply to bars and clubs blasting canned music into the streets, or people talking loudly?
Last month, the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation honored Landrieu with its Lifetime Cultural Economy Leadership Award. "As lieutenant governor, Landrieu launched a cultural economy initiative to grow jobs through culture, music, food, film and other arts," the foundation announced. In 2005, Landrieu helped create the nonprofit Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation, and in 2008 he launched the Louisiana Cultural Districts Initiative, which provides tax breaks to art galleries and historic buildings in designated arts and culture districts. As mayor, he created the Office of Cultural Economy, headed by Hutcheson, to act as a liaison between arts communities and the city.
At his 2011 State of the City Address, Landrieu said, "The cultural economy in New Orleans employs 12.5 percent of our workforce, 28,000 jobs, pays $1.1 billion in wages, drives our tourism industry, and nets $8.6 million in local sales taxes, contributing to the life of the city both culturally and economically."
But in June 2010, early in Landrieu's term as mayor, musicians blasted him for firing the first shots of what some called a "war on music." New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers targeted the To Be Continued Brass Band (TBC) for performing past curfew (8 p.m.) at its regular nightly spot at Bourbon and Canal streets. Eighth District officers asked the band to stop playing and cited two ordinances — one prohibiting playing on Bourbon Street between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. and another prohibiting "persons playing musical instruments on public rights-of-way" between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Those aren't new laws — they've been on the books for decades — but their enforcement seemed to come out of nowhere, despite TBC and others defying them for years, seemingly without any disruption or complaint. The band and its supporters protested.
Last summer, city agencies performed a summer sweep, targeting bars and venues without proper permits. Venues such as Siberia, The Circle Bar and Mimi's in the Marigny went quiet.
On July 13, Siberia suspended its entire concert schedule. On Aug. 2, The Circle Bar canceled its music schedule. Circle Bar hadn't renewed its permits in the years following Hurricane Katrina, but owner Dave Clements received a permit Aug. 9 and the schedule resumed. On Sept. 19, Mimi's in the Marigny suspended its music schedule after NOPD officers visited the bar following noise complaints from neighbors. Despite paying for its permits, owner Mimi Dykes said she never received any of them.
After jumping through bureaucratic hoops of his own to get permits to reopen Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge, Ruffins announced a meeting on Sept. 21 "to discuss a plan of action to stop the city from taking live entertainment away from small clubs."
Five days later, on Sept. 26, more than 100 people armed with questions crowded inside his Treme bar. Musicians, bar owners, music fans, attorneys and dozens of others had a place to vent, and a person to whom they could vent: Hutcheson.
That evening, weeks before accepting his lifetime achievement award, Landrieu arranged a compromise with clubs: The music could stay as long as bars and venues go through the application process. "I've instructed the city's enforcement agencies to enforce the law fairly and to take a customer-friendly approach," Landrieu wrote in a statement. "This means that we offer assistance in securing the appropriate permits to businesses that have been offering live music for years. In most cases, the city does not need to immediately issue summonses or administrative subpoenas, if a business owner agrees to work actively to secure the required permits."
"There was a lot of talk of a 'war on culture,' which is a negatively framed idea, and in a lot of cases not even that intentional," Kreiger-Benson says. "It's just that musicians are individualistic, and it's difficult to get their representation in discussions on the legal or policy decisions they directly affect. ... MACCNO is forming into that representation."
The fireworks died down at the group's second meeting on Oct. 3, during which attendees took a sober look at what needed to be done and identified goals and a course of action.
It also has established an advisory committee: second-line correspondent and Gambit contributor Deborah Cotton, attorneys Owen Courreges and Ashlye Keaton, street musician and LadyFest organizer Roselyn Lionhart, OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey and TBC Brass Band manager Lisa Palumbo. The group also provides moral and legal support to venues during the permit process, whether that's showing up for a City Planning Commission hearing or connecting with an attorney at a weekly meeting. Keaton will direct the next "teach in" (noon Wednesday, Nov. 28) examining the city's noise ordinances.
MACCNO also is looking at Landrieu and Palmer's ordinances proposing a curfew on the pedestrian mall surrounding Jackson Square and limiting the types of vendors who can sell there. The proposed ordinances would close the space from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. A Change.org petition ("New Orleans City Council: Stop the 'Jackson Square Pedestrian Mall'") states that the ordinances will affect "the Tarot card readers, the street performers and the artists. Street performers will have little to no room to perform under the 'clear lanes' rule, and the artists and Tarot readers who often set up early or run late will risk being hassled. The ordinance is a shotgun blast masquerading as a scalpel." The petition had 412 signatures as of press time.
Palmer referred the ordinances to the council's Governmental Affairs Committee, and Kreiger-Benson says a group from MACCNO plans to meet with her to draft a compromise before the committee meets Dec. 6.
"It's like taking a drink out of a fire hose," Kreiger-Benson says. "These are very real and immediate issues brought to us — a continuous stream of smaller issues, with large- and small-scope goals. ... These issues exist in the real world and are moving at a very quick pace."