A crackdown on non-compliant venues is taking a toll on the musicians as well. Credit: Karen Gadbois

In the closing moments of the recent Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium, Ronald Waguespack, owner of the St. Roch Tavern, stepped up to the audience microphone and expressed outrage that “on the word of two people” his bar would be fined, temporarily shut down, and have conditions imposed on its ability to present live entertainment.

In fact, under current procedural rules, it only takes the word of one person to wreak havoc on the city’s nightlife, further imperiling the livelihoods of our musicians.

Waguespack focused on the vaguely undemocratic nature of the proceedings and overlooked a more basic question: why he and the bar were summoned to a hearing of the city’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board in the first place.

As the proceedings made clear, no one was arguing that the tavern should or shouldn’t be in business. Attorneys for the city questioned whether St. Roch Tavern had violated a consent agreement that Waguespack signed in 2011, addressing noise, loitering and litter complaints. All they needed was one person to say yes and the heavy penalties kicked in.

Disharmony between city and clubs

The relationship between New Orleans and the clubs that provide live music — and a livelihood for musicians — is fractious these days, and that’s unfortunate. Music is integral to life in New Orleans, not to mention the city’s “brand” as a tourist destination. Shutting down St. Roch and, even more recently, banning music at Mimi’s in the Marigny, is particularly unfortunate for those businesses, given the timing. Jazz Fest, less than two weeks away, is an economic engine that helps businesses get through the summer, and the city’s musicians fuel that engine.

Despite that central importance to our culture and economy, the musician’s existence is a precarious one. According to a 2010 study by the musicians’ aid organization Sweet Home New Orleans, musicians earn an average of $15,000 a year — an income level that forces them to rely on spouses or second jobs.

That hardly seems like just compensation for men and women who are the city’s greatest asset. No wonder musicians feel persecuted when venues are shut down, even temporarily. With those venues go gigs.

But the “war on live music” meme has kept members of the music community fighting the wrong fight, worrying about whether a city that is building its tourism industry on the back of musicians cares about live music. Instead, there are far more constructive questions to pursue:

  • Can the city find ways to crack down on businesses not in compliance with permitting and zoning — but without inflicting collateral damage on musicians and their livelihoods?
  • Is it desirable to have the beverage control board and City Council changing the nature of New Orleans nightlife one consent agreement and conditional use permit at a time?
  • How to respect “quality of life” concerns in specific neighborhoods without shuttering music venues that are a proven asset to the city as a whole?
  • Does the relatively free-range nature of New Orleans’ nightlife add to the city’s mystique, even for those who finish their drinks before they leave the bar and are in bed by 11?

Retuning regulation

Some of the outrage against the city crackdown on live music needs to be converted into positive support for venues in trouble and the musicians who depend on their continued survival. We’ve seen it happen.

Mimi’s in the Marigny expanded live music offerings shortly after Hurricane Katrina when bands needed work. When the neighborhood was largely empty, there was no problem with that. The music helped enliven otherwise slow nights, and those gigs and countless others in rogue venues were symbols of New Orleans’ indomitable spirit. But when the neighborhood was repopulated and the corner of Franklin and Royal emerged as a nightlife hub with three flourishing bars, the fact that Mimi’s was never zoned for live music became a problem. On Friday, Judge Michael Bagneris forced Mimi’s to stop presenting live entertainment because it has yet to get the necessary zoning changes and permits for live music.

Venues leave themselves vulnerable when they make ad hoc changes in their formats and offerings without heeding city regulations. The Parkway Tavern also presented live music after Hurricane Katrina, but once the city began its crackdown on unauthorized clubs by shutting down King Bolden’s on Rampart Street, Parkway quietly stopped booking bands.

Note, by the way, that the action against King Bolden’s was a maneuver rooted in the administration of disgraced former Mayor Ray Nagin. In other words, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s people did not invent the problems faced by clubs offering live music.

Not every enforcement action should be disparaged as part of an anti-music campaign of harassment and persecution, and not every citizen complaint can be dismissed as the ranting of a neighborhood killjoy.

That said, I wish permitting sweeps, beverage control board actions and zoning enforcements didn’t feel like New Orleans’ version of sin taxes: the cultivation of a revenue stream that voters won’t challenge because it’s pinned unarguably to a club proprietor’s ignorance of the law or poor judgment in trying to defy it.

The current approach marks New Orleans musicians as outsiders, if not by act then by association. This is the sort of fight the music community needs to focus on so that the city’s greatest treasures can stop feeling like enemies of the state.

Alex Rawls

New Orleans resident Alex Rawls covers the city's music, food and whatever else interests him at My Spilt Milk. He's written about music, art, books and food in New Orleans since 1990. His work has appeared...