As Mayor Landrieu targets live music venues in a effort to quell the increasing violence in NOLA, the music community is fighting back to make sure their music scene stays the same.
As of July 5, 2012, there had been upwards of 90 murders in the Greater New Orleans Area. Less than two weeks later, Mayor Landrieu and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control enacted a citywide sweep that targeted what he described as “nuisance areas” in a plan taken on in hopes of decreasing violence throughout the city. However, the sweep did not directly target violent crime or the disturbingly high murder rate plaguing our city. Instead it targeted bars, clubs and venues, making obvious that this “nuisance” the mayor was most concerned with was live music. Over the next month Siberia, Circle Bar, Mimi’s and more than forty other bars/venues faced challenges and major setbacks with maintaining their live music. These bars and venues have been hosting live entertainment for years without trouble– or permits. However, due to a drastic change in city policy, a live entertainment permit is now an absolute necessity for the survival of any venue with music on the menu.
Complex, Outdated, and Clouded Zoning Laws
Currently all live entertainment permits are issued through the mayor’s office, which is also in charge of securing all of extra police required to enforce the strict new permit rules. During the recent sweep, the office’s job was to check for live entertainment permits at bars/venues throughout the city. If a bar/venue lacked a permit, the office would then refer to New Orleans’ confusing, somewhat archaic, zoning laws. If the establishment was not zoned for live entertainment, which most are not, owners were instructed to cease hosting. This presented numerous problems for owners, patrons and musicians alike. For one, the mayor’s office did not put in place a one-stop office for permits, an online application or an all-inclusive process. At the time of the shutdowns, the process of applying for permits was both costly and time consuming, creating a roadblock for all venues interested in obtaining the proper paperwork to reopen their doors. Businesses were left on the brink of indefinite closure due to lack of revenue. The complexity of these arbitrary and outdated zoning laws allowed venues like All-Ways Lounge, Hi-Ho Lounge, and Kajun’s Pub to have live music while Siberia sat silent across the street.
NOLA Music Community Takes A Stand
The economic effects of these actions were felt throughout the tight-knit New Orleans music community. Venue owners, performers, bartenders, kitchen staff, bouncers, sound engineers and countless others were left with half the work– in some cases out of a job altogether. Local legend and occasional “Treme” star, Kermit Ruffins, took action by organizing a meeting at his bar on Basin St. on Wednesday September 26. There he announced his plan to march on city hall on October 24 with Rebirth Brass Band, Harry Connick Jr., and Wynton Marsalis agreeing to join in protest.
At the meeting musicians and business owners openly voiced their concerns, hoping to find out when and how the zoning problem would be solved. The Mayor’s Advisor on Cultural Economy, Scott Hutcheson, was in attendance to answer questions from the frustrated assembly. Angry attendees voiced (sometimes shouted) their concerns and questions for Hutcheson as he strained to address them. Ben Glover, frontman of band Bipolaroid, spoke out against the city’s rules, saying,
“I love all the clubs we play, but for whatever reason way more people come to see us at certain venues. So what everyone has to understand is that it’s the patrons who ultimately decide where live music should be, not the musicians, not the club owners, and not city hall. When it works, that’s something you have to preserve for the sanctity of our fragile culture.”
-Ben Glover (frontman of Bipolaroid)
Ruffins, along with other attendees, called for a moratorium on the shutdown of live music. The meeting concluded with a promise to meet again the following Wednesday and every one after that until this problem was officially resolved. That night Mimi’s, Siberia, and many other venues were granted temporary live entertainment permits, allowing for the sound to be turned back on; this is a direct result of NOLA citizens concerted efforts to resolve the live permit issue.
Music Community Succeeds – Live Music back at Siberia, Circle Bar and elsewhere
Starting October 5th 2012, Siberia’s schedule once again included bands every night. On Friday October 12 legendary East Coast punk band Reagan Youth headlined the first major show since July with Classhole (fronted by part-owner Matt Russell) opening. The venue was packed with familiar faces, making it easy to forget there was ever a problem to begin with. It is important to remember that the accessibility of live music in New Orleans has made our city one of the most beloved in the world. Without a live music scene, a huge part of our city’s identity is stripped away. This is something that must be avoided. For nearly two years since Siberia opened there have been shows to attend almost every night of the week, and the same can be said of other venues whose doors have been open even longer. The bars and venues targeted are by no means extremely successful, but they exist for music lovers and the NOLA community. This issue is not one to be forgotten or taken lightly, and the New Orleans music community is ready to fight to make sure the live music never stops.