COVID-Era Expansion of Outdoor Live Music Faces an Uncertain Future

An out-of-focus black and white photo of a brass band with the MaCCNO logo overlaid it in white. Below the logo reads “The Music & Culture Coalition of New Orleans” in white.

One of the few welcome impacts of the pandemic has been the widespread expansion of outdoor live music in New Orleans. For many months, the French Quarter was effectively shut down, so buskers started popping up in new areas throughout the city—as did porch and neighborhood concerts. With music venues closed and indoor live music prohibited, a few DIY outdoor venues began to appear, and a number of existing businesses began hosting curbside shows, some of which had not hosted live music before. Bars, restaurants, and other businesses with courtyards or outdoor spaces invested scarce resources to create makeshift stages and performance areas. And, of course, a few new, entirely outdoor music venues opened as well. These outdoor performances provided vital income for musicians, helped businesses keep their doors open, and provided a crucial opportunity for safe socialization and entertainment for residents during a deeply uncertain time.

Outdoor live music has often been a public service. Now, New Orleans—a city famous for its music—has a chance to be thoughtful about the role music plays in our shared spaces and social experience, and develop community and culturally-appropriate guidelines that would allow this service to continue. Unfortunately, it is unclear (perhaps even unlikely) whether city leaders are going to seize the opportunity to make lasting change.

Early in the pandemic, as a part of the evolving COVID-19 guidelines, the mayoral administration lifted restrictions on outdoor live entertainment for many businesses and created a new, extended, special event permit that—at least temporarily—legalized many of these outdoor shows. They deserve credit for creating a system that helped a number of businesses, workers, and musicians earn crucial income. However, this was also a solution to an issue largely of the City’s own making, as the Department of Safety and Permits made a pre-pandemic interpretation of the Zoning Ordinance that (until the temporary changes made during COVID-19) forbid most businesses from having outdoor live music without a special event permit that would be cost prohibitive for most local businesses. (We’ve written about this several times before.)

Prior to the pandemic, we were assured by District B Councilmember Jay Banks’ office that a comprehensive study on outdoor live entertainment—since completed and recommended for approval by the City Planning Commission (CPC) —would address the issue and provide a path forward. However, once the study reached the City Council for discussion and a potential vote, Banks’ office decided not to proceed, and an offer we made to facilitate a meeting (similar to those we convened with the CPC earlier in the process) between his office and a group of musicians, performers, venue owners, and other culture bearers was rejected. So, for now, we are stuck with the status quo; and unless some action is taken, when COVID-19 guidelines are fully rescinded most businesses will find it either illegal or cost prohibitive to host outdoor live music and entertainment once again.

The future of “citywide” busking—commonly known as street performing—and porch concerts seems to be brighter. Largely covered by the First Amendment, litigation has repeatedly shown that, within reason, busking is considered a protected form of expression—though other applicable laws, such as the noise ordinance, must be followed, and privately-managed spaces like Audubon Park may have additional restrictions. If people want to busk on the banks of Bayou St. John, the law allows them to. Porch concerts, too, have some degree of protection, as it is legal to play or perform music from your own property (though renters should at least have a conversation with their landlord if they are going to have a show). A rough roll out of a porch concert permitting system, which originally included an outrageous and quickly-rescinded $100 fee and a misguided ban on amplification, has largely been smoothed over; but unfortunately misconceptions and misinformation remain. While the legal need for a porch concert permit remains questionable, like with busking there are other existing laws that create some boundaries, and selling or “accepting donations” for alcohol is (and will remain) a strict prohibition.

It also must be noted that on several occasions porch concerts have served as a stark, visual, and visceral representation of the gentrification and displacement many historically Black neighborhoods are facing, where virtually all-white crowds in the 7th Ward and Gentilly have literally taken over the street, celebrating in spaces where their Black neighbors often face complaints or are stopped from hosting music and gatherings of their own. Porch concerts will likely be able to continue in some form, but the households sponsoring them must make sure they are inclusive and respectful of the neighborhood and its traditions, and any approval or enforcement processes must be fully equitable for all residents.

For now, the future for outdoor live music and entertainment in New Orleans is murky—and complicated. With regular gigs returning, the need and desire for some of these spaces may diminish, but it will not entirely disappear. Outdoor live music has proven to be extremely popular, and the crowds at these shows have been almost entirely local, respectful of safety protocol, and the shows themselves generally family friendly. But that may not be enough to keep things going. The truth is there are many people working in City government who fully support outdoor live music—but there is no singular agency, department, or individual specifically in charge of or advocating for forward-thinking, equitable cultural policy. With decisions split across multiple departments, progress is slow and any changes or reforms are vulnerable to deliberate or inadvertent derailing from those that are less sympathetic (for example, a Department of Safety and Permits employee made the determination that largely prohibited outdoor music pre-pandemic). Politics, too, play a significant role, as people are more likely to contact their elected officials when they don’t like something rather than when they do. When was the last time you went to an outdoor show and then called your councilmember or contacted the mayor’s office just to let them know how much you enjoyed it? If you haven’t, looks like it’s time to start.

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.

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