It’s been a long, tough, and tragic year, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccine distribution is picking up, and with it, businesses are starting to reopen to more customers; families, separated by the pandemic, are reuniting; gigs are more frequent; and it looks like there really might be a festival season this fall. The new federal relief package offers significant assistance to individuals and businesses, including restaurants and live performance venues. We’ve been overdue for some good news and this is all extremely welcome. But while we collectively take a well-deserved sigh of relief, we also need to beware of allowing these much-needed reminders of normalcy to lull us into accepting an unacceptable status quo. Just a few weeks ago, when bars and music venues were finally able to offer indoor music for the first time in a year, headlines and social media posts trumpeted “Live music is BACK in New Orleans!” But the reality was more sobering. A handful of venues were able to open with extremely limited attendance and heavy restrictions—including a State-mandated ban on dancing. And as of this writing most businesses haven’t yet been able to offer indoor music at all. Was it forward progress? Absolutely. But to sell a narrative that a limited loosening of restrictions equates to a resurgence of live music in New Orleans does the community a disservice and ignores the severe challenges we still face.
Of course, live music never really left in the first place—it just shifted online and outside. As the pandemic stretched on, the need for musicians to create both art and income (and the desire for audiences to enjoy music and support musicians) led to the creation of new, socially distanced, limited capacity outdoor performances spaces. These range from DIY setups on front porches, the banks of Bayou St John, and the “sidewalk stages” outside of Tipitina’s, d.b.a., and the Maple Leaf, to new outdoor venues that required significant investment, like The Broadside and Zony Mash brewery. To the City’s credit, they created a new temporary permitting process that allowed many businesses to host outdoor live entertainment for the first time, creating even more options. However, many of these new outdoor spaces may soon be in jeopardy, as it seems pressure from neighborhood organizations has caused City Council members to, at least for the time being, abandon an effort to update the city’s extremely restrictive policies surrounding outdoor live music (which is effectively banned without a costly special event permit at almost any business that did not already host it regularly before 2015). This means that unless these policies are resolved, once the phased re-opening process ends and COVID emergency regulations are removed, it is likely many of these temporary outdoor performance spaces will once again become illegal—which would harm musicians, audience members (many of whom will still be more comfortable in outdoor venues for the foreseeable future), and businesses who have made significant investments during a very uncertain time. The “normal” of elevating the reactionary concerns of demographically unrepresentative neighborhood associations over the needs and input of the cultural community must end. The economic devastation caused by the pandemic has made the stakes simply too high.
Even as businesses reopen and rehire, gigs become more frequent, and visitors return, the ongoing financial crisis will remain for thousands—a burden that will be felt particularly heavily by the cultural community and service industry. The pandemic wiped away savings accounts, created widespread unemployment, and forced individuals and families to rely on food distributions, governmental assistance, and mutual aid programs. While this has provided a crucial lifeline, no combination of programs could come close to covering the sheer magnitude of wealth—both saved and yet to be earned—that was taken from the community. For many, the recovery process will take years. Even before the pandemic, it was clear that the tourism economy was failing the cultural and service industry workers that made up its base (and who contributed directly to its ever-increasing coffers), leaving them without a financial safety net.
The scope of this failure is now clear, and yet some high-profile tourism leaders and organizations are proposing nothing but more—much more—of the same. Stephen Perry, who has led New Orleans & Company (the city’s major partially publicly funded, yet entirely privately run tourism marketing company) under various iterations for nearly 20 years, dismissed an effort to use $100 million of the Convention Center’s taxpayer-funded reserves to provide relief to tourism workers. In a Biz New Orleans interview, Perry dismissed that effort as having no “intellectual, economic, or human sense,” calling it a “recruiting piece for the unions” which are “not known for making good strategic business decisions.” Meanwhile, in the same interview, Perry complained that the government was not providing financial bailouts to tourism marketing corporations (such as the one he runs), described his efforts to lobby to reduce property tax rates for commercial property owners, and blamed the federal government for not doing enough to help workers.
Notably, Perry is also one of the directors of the New Orleans Hospitality Coalition PAC, which lobbies on behalf of the tourism industry. Also listed as Hospitality Coalition PAC directors are Stan Harris and Mark Latter, who just so happen to lead the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s PAC as well. The first advocacy accomplishment listed on the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s website? Successfully opposing government mandates for increased wages and paid leave. Allowing a small group of tourism industry leaders to enrich themselves while simultaneously depriving tens of thousands of musicians and cultural and service industry workers a living wage—and the ability to create an economic safety net for themselves—is another “normal” we can’t accept again.
The inequities in the public participation process and tourism industries are not new—in fact, we’ve written about them at length over the years. But that’s the point. Our failure to address these systemic problems, as well as disparities in health care access, affordable housing availability, and others (all of which disproportionately affect Black and other marginalized communities of color) is what led to the widespread struggle and heartache so many people have faced over the past year. As the rhythms of life in New Orleans start to resume, the narrative that “New Orleans is Back!” will undoubtedly continue to grow. And when it is safe, we should celebrate, see music, go to festivals, and drink in the streets like we always have. But we can’t be lured back into the “normal” that caused so much pain and continues to perpetuate this long-standing legacy of inequity. It’s up to us to not just define a new narrative, but to envision and create a new reality for ourselves.
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.