The Musicians, The Permits and the City

Alex Woodward on the tensions between New Orleans' musicians and City Hall


Ashlye M. Keaton, right, and Kermit Ruffins, center, addressed a crowd at Ruffins' bar Speakeasy in Treme Oct. 3. The weekly meetings with musicians, club owners and others discuss the city's enforcement of live entertainment permits, noise ordinances and second line vendor permits. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Ashlye M. Keaton, right, and Kermit Ruffins, center, addressed a crowd at Ruffins' bar Speakeasy in Treme Oct. 3. The weekly meetings with musicians, club owners and others discuss the city's enforcement of live entertainment permits, noise ordinances and second line vendor permits.

When Kermit Ruffins speaks, people listen. Standing in his soon-to-be-busy club Speakeasy on Basin Street in Treme, Ruffins, in blue jeans, a white T-shirt and black cap, keeps his cool. A few weeks ago he spoke before a crowd of more than 100 people and said he was "pissed." But at last week's more intimate lunchtime meeting to discuss the city's crackdown on live entertainment permits and second lines, he sounded more hopeful.

  "Each meeting, we'll go down a list and work things out," he said. "Hopefully, we'll knock them out."

  Ruffins announced the meetings on Facebook and asked people to assemble at Speakeasy "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 crammed into the bar, including Scott Hutcheson, the cultural economy advisor to the mayor's office.

  Ruffins vowed to host the meetings every Wednesday at noon until there's a solution or compromise reached with the city — or a march on City Hall led by musicians including Ruffins and Rebirth Brass Band, as well as venue owners, second-liners, Mardi Gras Indians and others.

  Following the first meeting, club owners scored a tiny victory (or got a Band-Aid): Active clubs seeking proper permits can host live music during the permitting process.

  Ruffins hosted the second meeting on Oct. 3. If the first was an introduction to or venting session about the multitude of problems its attendees discussed, the second was figuring out how to get the city to pay closer attention and how to update zoning laws that prevent clubs from having music in the first place.

  "We need to come up with a list of problems facing the music community, identify the problems, come together, (and) prioritize the list," attorney Ashlye M. Keaton said. "If we need more Band-Aids, we can do that. If we fix the issues in the short term, we'll know how to fix the issues in the long term."

Some were furious, others vented or just listened, but on Sept. 26, the Speakeasy group decided on two plans of action: call on City Hall to create a moratorium on the enforcement of entertainment permits as a "time to comply" and organize, even if it means meeting weekly and drawing up a list of points that need to be addressed by the mayor's office. "We need to define as a group what this is and what we want," attorney Tim Kappel said. "The city needs to provide a one-stop shop for licensing. ... Until then, what's the rush?"

  That night, both Siberia and Mimi's in the Marigny — two high-profile venues that had suspended music performances for lack of permits — announced the city agreed to let the bars host live music on a temporary basis as they navigate city agencies to acquire the necessary permits. The music calendars resumed at both venues, including DJ Soul Sister's popular Saturday dance party Hustle! at Mimi's. The amnesty extended to all clubs in the process of seeking proper permits.

  In a press release, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, "I've instructed the City's enforcement agencies to enforce the law fairly and to take a customer-friendly approach. 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."

  Some balked at what they saw as the city capitulating to club owners. In a widely circulated email, Marigny resident Marshall Gries wrote how "disgusted Mimi's neighbors are that the City caved so quickly. ... For those of us who live close enough to hear the music (which includes me and I'm nearly a block away) Mimi's live music and DJ has disrespected us for years. ... Sorry, there's a reason live music isn't allowed in the middle of a residential district. DJ Soul Sister needs to take it to Bourbon, Frenchmen or St. Claude. You can't have a livable neighborhood if anyone can put anything anywhere."

  Melissa Weber, aka DJ Soul Sister, replied in another widely circulated email that the upstairs area that houses live music uses soundproofing boards and performs regular sound meter readings during shows, and that the bar's mission has always been to respect its neighborhood.

  Weber echoed her email comments at last week's meeting, adding, "Since when, in my entire time living here, am I or any artists restricted to create in an area where you tell me. This is New Orleans. It all comes from the neighborhood from the ground up."

  "This is an ongoing fight and discussion," attorney Mary Howell said. "One of the responses to that is to be good neighbors, for people to be responsible, for people to self-regulate, and to take care of their own affairs so there isn't the need or the opportunity for the police to come in and start busting this stuff up. We are going to talk about rights, but you also need to talk about responsibility. It's a two-way street."

Attorney Mary Howell discusses zoning laws that dictate what "live entertainment" means at Kermit Ruffins' Speakeasy. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Attorney Mary Howell discusses zoning laws that dictate what "live entertainment" means at Kermit Ruffins' Speakeasy.

  Last week's meeting produced a master list of issues to address: zoning, accessibility and affordability of permits, permits for street musicians, noise ordinances, flyering or "bandit sign" laws and getting organized.

What's been called a "war on music" continues a narrative that many feel is an attack on culture, or race, and one that is almost as old as the city itself.

   In 2010, NOPD began enforcing an 8 p.m. curfew on street musicians after shutting down the To Be Continued Brass Band at its regular spot on Bourbon and Canal streets. Frenchmen Street's door-to-door clubs were targeted for violating noise ordinances. In 2011, Bywater music and wine bar hangout Bacchanal was busted for hosting live music without proper permits (as well as serving food). And in 2012, Siberia and The Circle Bar, among others, were visited by employees of the city's Department of Revenue and asked to produce their live entertainment permits. Those popular venues, with dense concert calendars booked months in advance, canceled shows while going through the permit process. Circle Bar was back the following week. Siberia still has not received its permit. Other bars, like Cork & Bottle, Bullet's and Buffa's, as well as alternative arts venue Marigny Opera House, faced similar issues.

  NOPD visited Mimi's in the Marigny at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19 and asked for permits — despite the fact that live music ended at midnight with only the jukebox downstairs playing any music. Owner Mimi Dykes, who has paid taxes on a live entertainment permit though she doesn't have one, decided to cancel the bar's music programming until she could reach an agreement with City Hall.

  At the meetings, attendees blamed the recent enforcement on increasing pressure on New Orleans City Council from neighborhood and business organizations; ongoing conflict between city agencies and the less-wealthy arts community; and the absence of support from the New Orleans Business Alliance, GNO Inc. and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which promotes live music to visitors on its website (which also uses Ruffins' photo). Those who attended the meeting also blamed the byzantine, "schizophrenic" laws and zoning ordinances. (See "Music Permits 101," News & Views, Sept. 11.)

  Current ordinances dictate live entertainment as "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."

  The upcoming draft of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) defines it similarly: "Live entertainment" also is defined in the city's Permits and Licenses for Cultural Businesses: A Basic Guide, which provides businesses a detailed walk-through on applying for the permits and licenses they'll need.

  "What we tried to do was organize it in a way that addresses the most significant part first, which is zoning," Hutcheson said.

  But what happens if, while the city works with clubs to get their permits in order, the city ultimately denies them? Despite permitting agencies and the mayor's office granting an indefinite grace period to clubs, the clubs still must pass muster within their respective zoning or convince the City Planning Commission to grant it a variance to those zoning rules.

  Matt Hill, who owns Bootleggers Bar & Grille on Decatur Street, next to the House of Blues, said NOPD officers have asked him to shut down live music, despite the venue (formerly the music club Tarantula Arms), its proximity to other live music venues, and what he thought was proper zoning. "We've finally built our niche," he told Gambit. "It's all gone downhill." Hill, who does not have a permit, said he'll continue to book live music while discussing options with the city.

  "What happens when those people who (apply) to get a permit are not going to be able to get a permit?" Howell asked Hutcheson. "What is happening with the changes in the (CZO)?"

  Hutcheson said he's working to get the City Planning Commission involved in the discussion, which already has been joined by the Department of Revenue and the Office of Safety and Permits.

At the Oct. 5 City Council meeting on a tangentially related matter, council members voted 7-0 on an ordinance requiring second-line vendors to apply for a yearly $25 permit to sell food and other goods along parade routes. The council worked with the city and vendors — and even decreased its original fee of $50 — to reach something mutually agreeable.

  "It just gives individuals a vehicle to legally sell products and things you'd normally buy at a parade — popcorn, peanuts, balloons," said interim District B Councilwoman Diana Bajoie.

  "This is the type of permit that respects and honors the tradition, while at the same time provides a mechanism to have the legal right to do it with a minimal cost," Hutcheson added.

  At the lunchtime meeting at Speakeasy last week, Howell and others urged attendees not to separate the issues affecting clubs and second lines.

  "There's a direct line of continuity between what's happening in the streets and what happens in the clubs," Howell said. "They are not separate fights. I'd hope the club owners are out there when they're coming after the Indians, and the street musicians when they're coming after the clubs."

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