On Nov. 2, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is scheduled to receive the Lifetime Cultural Leadership Award from the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation at the group's annual LA Fete Louisiane gala. When he was lieutenant governor, Landrieu was head of the state Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, and he's been quick to champion New Orleans' "cultural economy" as one of the city's many positive attributes. But nowadays he's headed for some rocky times with the city's music community — and not for the first time during his tenure as mayor.
City Hall recently began cracking down on bars and music clubs that lack proper permits — not enacting new laws, but enforcing those already on the books. Some familiar names were caught in the net. Music fans howled, but the Circle Bar and Siberia were two clubs that admitted they didn't have all their permits. Things really came to a head when cops dropped in at Mimi's in the Marigny, which has offered live music and a longstanding Saturday night funk jam by WWOZ-FM personality DJ Soul Sister. Contrary to rumor, NOPD didn't shut down Mimi's. The club's owner chose to stop featuring entertainment while the legalities were sorted out. (Mimi's music is currently back on while the matter is being resolved.)
To local musicians, this all had echoes of the summer of 2010 — early in Landrieu's term — when the city began clamping down on street musicians in the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny, citing existing city laws about street performing past the hour of 8 p.m. At the time, the city seemed to ignore much louder canned music coming from nearby clubs. Some accused the Landrieu administration of declaring a "war on live music," and that charge has been raised again by musicians who say they want to comply with the law but think the city is offering too much stick and not enough carrot.
The city insists it has enacted no new laws regarding live music but rather is merely applying the rules fairly and evenly — and offering an amnesty program for clubs that are in the process of applying for music licenses. The issue is complicated by zoning laws, which haven't always kept up with the redevelopment of New Orleans' historic neighborhoods. Scott Hutcheson, Landrieu's adviser on the cultural economy, admitted to Gambit, "Because it is a ... bureaucratic process involving a couple of different departments, the path is not always as clear for some constituents as it is others."
That's not good enough for some, including trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who has been holding weekly meetings in his Basin Street nightclub to organize the city's musicians, club owners and music lovers. Some contend that New Orleans is proud to promote — and make money from — its wonderful music scene, but that there's been little official support for live music in the past. Ruffins also is considering a "musical march" on City Hall later this month, which could generate national press, none of it good for Landrieu on the eve of his award.
At a minimum, the city should be more proactive in working with local musicians and club owners, as happened last week when another delicate cultural situation — the licensure of vendors at second lines — came before the City Council. In that case, Hutcheson met with vendors and helped work out a policy that the city says has a minimum of red tape: a $25 annual fee and a brief application will be all that's necessary in most cases.
Licensure and permitting of music clubs is a much more complicated issue, of course. Throw in zoning and the legitimate concerns of neighbors, and it becomes even more complicated. But the musicians are correct when they say the city and tourism industry have benefited greatly from New Orleans' music community, and musicians shouldn't have to march on City Hall to be heard.
It's time to take a look at entities such as Nashville's Music City Music Council, a partnership between the mayor's office, the local chamber of commerce and that city's convention and visitors bureau. Formed in 2009, the Music Council puts money and muscle not only into promoting the Nashville sound to tourists, but also into creating a streamlined approach to the business of music itself. If New Orleans could, in an organized fashion, bring public- and private-sector help to the musicians and club owners who are already here, making it easier and more profitable for them to do their jobs, that would sound the right notes for the city's cultural economy.