On March 22, the Royal Frenchmen Hotel and Bar posted that they were closed indefinitely “due to an attack on live music and events” at the venue. The business, as the name suggests, is located on the corner of Frenchmen and Royal, across the street from Washington Square Park and just outside the Frenchmen Street “Arts and Culture Overlay District,” which encourages live music and other nighttime uses. Opened as a boutique hotel with a cocktail lounge in 2015, the Royal Frenchmen began hosting live entertainment in the front corner of the bar, which eventually expanded into the adjoining lobby. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the Royal Frenchmen was one of the first businesses to start hosting regular outdoor performances using what they thought was approval granted under special permissions created by the mayor’s COVID emergency order. Utilizing their central courtyard as an outdoor venue, these shows provided income to musicians, a musical-incubation space, and an economic lifeline for the business. In between waves of variants, the indoor space developed as well, becoming a popular and needed collaborative and improvisational space for some of the city’s most celebrated musicians. So what happened? Why did the music stop? What was the attack?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. At the center of the problem, as is often the case, is the Department of Safety and Permits, where decisions about live music—outdoor live music in particular—are often made with a lack of transparency, are sometimes arbitrary, and can cite incorrect information (though it’s hard to say if staff members are unclear about the laws and policies governing live music or are deliberately misrepresenting them). Regular readers of this column know we have written about issues surrounding outdoor live music several times previously—we won’t recap it here yet again—but in this case, the most important thing to know is that Safety and Permits made an internal determination as long ago as 2017 that businesses could not host outdoor live music without a special event permit but never informed the public of that fact (the City Planning Commission and City Council were not even aware of this decision until two years later, when we brought it to light). When the City of New Orleans created temporary special event permits that allowed businesses to host outdoor live music for up to six months during the pandemic, the process was somewhat arbitrary and similarly opaque. The procedure to apply would sometimes shift and it was often unclear who was granting approvals, what the reasoning was, and how permits could be rescinded. For some businesses, this created a bureaucratic trap. The Royal Frenchmen is one of these businesses.
In the summer of 2021, the Royal Frenchmen was hosting outdoor performances regularly and had proven to be a popular gathering spot. Not surprisingly, there were complaints from at least one neighbor as well as vociferous objection from the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association (FMIA), which repeatedly called attention to a statement made in a letter from the hotel’s architect in 2014 that the bar “would not be set up for live entertainment” as a reason to stop the music (however, the hotel’s current zoning allows live music and there are no provisions prohibiting it). It’s unclear exactly how many people complained and for how long, but we do know two things: that the FMIA has opposed live music at the Royal Frenchmen since before it opened; and that by June 2021, the complaints from FMIA and at least one neighbor had reached then Councilmember Kristin Palmer, Department of Safety and Permits head Tammie Jackson, former Director of the Office of Business and External Services Peter Bowen, and the mayor. Emails show that on June 22, 2021, Jackson, under pressure from Bowen, made a decision that the Royal Frenchmen must immediately cease hosting all outdoor live music and events, and dictated that “due to a history of complaints and proximity to residential housing” the business would not be allowed special event permits for ANY outdoor live music or entertainment again—with no recourse to appeal the decision and a threat to lose their alcoholic beverage license or other permits if they did not comply. For a business already in financial crisis due to the pandemic, this decision is financially catastrophic, as weddings and other events, booked prior to the pandemic and currently being rescheduled as the city opens back up, will need to have their deposits refunded as they can no longer proceed. At MaCCNO, we are unaware of any other business that has had its ability to hold ANY outdoor live music and performances revoked in perpetuity. The treatment of the Royal Frenchmen seems to be uniquely harsh.
So, what about indoor music? Technically, the Royal Frenchmen—despite the protests of the FMIA—can continue to host indoor music. The catch, however, is that their permit does not allow them to charge a cover. This is a common problem and a frustrating one. For years, neighborhood groups have lobbied against many businesses being able to have a cover charge, as they assert that it will allow them to become de facto “nightclubs.” In reality, restricting cover charges doesn’t change a business model, but rather removes a potential revenue stream from musicians and performers. In an effort to restrict business activity, the City and neighborhood associations are instead hurting musicians and artists.
While there has been a significant amount of back-and-forth in the media about the situation, who the “bad actors” are, and who is at fault, the reality is that the blame for this situation lies squarely on the shoulders of the City of New Orleans. It’s reasonable to assume that there are instances where the Royal Frenchmen may have pushed the envelope a little too far around issues of sound in shared space, just as it’s reasonable to assume that some complaints are overly hyperbolic and misrepresent the situation. Rather than stepping in, helping mediate, and working to reach a reasonable compromise that addresses the needs of musicians and concerns of residents, the city administration took a draconian, zero sum approach, putting a local small business in jeopardy, damaging the income of musicians and staff, shuttering a popular creative and cultural space, and causing growing strife within the community. A reasonable path forward would allow the Royal Frenchmen access to the permits necessary to hold previously scheduled events to stabilize the business and allow them to charge a cover if and when they choose, in order to provide additional income for musicians. The possibility for additional outdoor events could then be explored in good faith between the business owners, neighborhood representatives, and city officials. The solutions are reachable if the City of New Orleans wants to find them. Do they?
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.
This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.