As we head into December, New Orleans is starting to resemble its old self again—music venues are open and hosting regular shows; second line Sundays are back; Mardi Gras 2022 is all but guaranteed. We deserve this respite from nearly two years of cascading disaster, but we are celebrating on a deeply shaky foundation. The arrival of the pandemic in March 2020 quickly exposed just how weak the cultural community’s economic safety net has been. Twenty months later, it is even further frayed, and hundreds of musicians, artists, business owners, and traditional culture bearers are working week-to-week and month-to-month to rebuild—or just to get by.
On January 10, a new City Council will take their seats (with, as of this writing, the potential for up to five different members), and the Cantrell administration will begin its second term. One of the most pressing needs these governing bodies will face is to not just rebuild the pre-existing—and wildly inadequate—safety net for our cultural community, but to create the support system that they both need and deserve. Below are five suggestions for a variety of legislative actions that would help build a stronger cultural economy. Each of these actions would be a piece of a larger whole, but in conjunction would begin to offer the level of financial support needed to weather any future disasters and provide an economic boost year-round.
Fully Legalize Outdoor Live Music
After several years of advocacy, the City is finally taking some tentative steps towards the legalization of outdoor music in New Orleans. The Broadside is now on track to become a legal, permanent venue; Zony Mash (at least temporarily) has their music permits back; and several councilmembers are on record saying they support outdoor live music. Yet just as we took these steps forward, we took one back—it was reported that the now-shuttered Palace Market at d.b.a. was being charged upwards of $5,000 a month in special event permits, an egregious and unsustainable amount for almost any business. While outdoor music may not be as in demand in the future as it was at the height of the pandemic, it is clear it remains popular and provides an additional revenue stream for businesses and musicians—both of whom deserve consistency in fees and guidelines. Many other cities have figured this out; there is no reason we can’t. Let’s get this done.
Remove the Prohibition of Cover Charges at Restaurants
While restaurants are allowed to provide live “musical accompaniment” for patrons, they are forbidden by zoning laws from having a cover charge. Profit margins at restaurants are often extremely tight, so when business is slow—like during a pandemic—live music can be cost prohibitive without a corresponding income stream (and if the implication is that musicians would simply play for tips, this is unacceptable). This has also created a situation on Frenchmen Street where, because some of the music venues are technically zoned as restaurants due to a limitation on the number of bars able to open per block, a significant number of venues cannot legally charge a cover, creating an expectation among tourists that live music should be free—which in turn can reduce business at venues that do charge a cover, and cut into take-home pay for musicians. This city needs policies that help support a fair wage for musicians, not actively work against it.
Increase the Percentage of Funding from the Tourism and Cultural Fund into Support Services
At the end of its first year, the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund is starting to find its legs, close out remaining financial commitments, and build partnerships. The fund has been beneficial and has the potential to provide a significant economic boost to the cultural community, but moving forward we would like to see it shift away from funding large events and festivals—which often have more readily available access to other revenue streams—and reallocate those resources to community support programs. While the City maintains it cannot use the fund for individual relief grants, through these reallocated grant dollars it could easily make six-figure investments in aid programs like Makin’ Groceries at the Musicians’ Assistance Foundation, or to a nonprofit that helps cover household utility bills. An additional million dollars infused into services like these has the potential to stabilize hundreds of struggling households—which we know from our own relief work is badly needed.
Finalize the Creation of the Office of Nighttime Economy, with A Focus on Equity of Opportunity, Not Enforcement
One of the major challenges in building a strong support system for the cultural community is that there is no single office within City government that serves as a point of contact for cultural issues or businesses. To get a permit for a block party, for example, you may have to talk to the Office of Safety and Permits, the Fire Marshal, the district City Council office, the NOPD, and others—and there is no guarantee each department or agency is communicating with one another. This can have a stifling effect on small businesses and grassroots economic development. 2022 may be the year this changes, as the proposed budget for the Office of Economic Development includes an “Office of Nighttime Economy” which could provide this point of contact and assistance, and the current City Council has expressed their support. We support this as well, but it is vital that it is built with its central function to be in support of cultural activity, not enforcement—and that it is run in a manner that creates true equity of opportunity, providing support to who needs it most, not those with easiest access.
Revisit Musician Loading Zones (and Finally Create Some)
About two-and-a-half years ago, we worked with the City Council to pass an ordinance that would have created loading-unloading zones for musicians in areas with high concentrations of music venues. However, once the ordinance passed, the City never bothered to follow up and actually create any. This may have been a blessing in disguise, as the Department of Safety and Permits insisted on a cumbersome and ill-informed process that tied loading zone “passes” to enforcement mechanisms related to a venue’s live music permit (i.e. venues would get musician loading zones as a “reward” for being in compliance). Now would be a great time to rework the program, help musicians avoid some parking tickets, and get some great PR for the city and whichever councilmember takes the lead on finally getting it done.
Like these ideas and want to help us advocate for and build this stronger safety net for the cultural community? Join our mailing list at maccno.com; follow us on Instagram and Twitter at @musicculture504; or like us on Facebook: @maccnopage.
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.