Since the debate over the noise ordinance came to a standstill last April, live music advocates and neighborhood groups are stuck with an unlikely piece of legislation to deal with sound in the city: zoning.
It’s early evening on Frenchmen Street, and the doors of this bar are wide open. Tourists are drifting in and out, and the music is free. It’s also illegal.
That’s because this bar is technically zoned as a restaurant. And in restaurants in New Orleans, you can’t have just any kind of music. In fact, in most restaurants you can’t have any live music. But in entertainment districts — technically, cultural overlays, like Frenchmen Street — you can have three musicians on stage at a time, with no amplification. That means any microphone is not allowed.
Ethan Ellestead is the coordinator for MACCNO, the Musicians and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. He says that the laws on the books are outdated.
“It’s arbitrary," Ellestead says. "A keyboard literally can’t be used because you can’t plug it in. A jazz quartet, somebody has to sit down. It just doesn’t make sense.”
The city council tried and failed to pass a new noise ordinance. Back in December 2013, a group of neighbors from the French Quarter and Marigny helped draft an ordinance that would have put many existing bars and night clubs in violation. MACCNO organized a protest, and it was withdrawn.
With that noise ordinance off the table, live music is regulated by zoning — the city deciding, building by building, who is allowed to have music. Ellestad says that’s not fair.
“You shouldn’t be limiting behavior in a restaurant. If there’s a good noise ordinance, why not just allow it to provide the levels of which are acceptable? So if you’re singing into a microphone at 85 decibels, maybe you’re in violation. But if you’re singing into a microphone at 65 or 70, maybe you’re okay.”
If it’s passed, the new zoning ordinance would remove the restriction on amplification and the three-musician limit. Some say, it’s about time.
Andre Laborde grew up on Frenchmen Street above the shop where his family ran a small printing press. He owns the building now and leases it to Bamboula’s, a relatively new club on Frenchmen Street. He said he wishes he could still live there, but it’s not the Frenchmen it used to be.
“Actually sleeping now would be almost impossible," he says. "So I saw where the street was adapting and I knew that I had to adapt as well.”
Bamboula’s opened as a restaurant. But to be a restaurant, you have to make over half your sales on food. As that became harder and harder, Laborde looked into changing his license to become a night club. But the city council said no.
“Now they were denied on the grounds that the residents said that they didn’t want another music establishment on the Frenchmen St. corridor.”
Laborde says that if the residents want to prevent the neighborhood from changing, it’s too late. Most venues with live music on Frenchmen are actually zoned as restaurants — they just go ahead and act like bars. But nobody’s cracking down on them. Laborde says Bamboula's is trying to do legally what everyone else is already doing illegally — and it’s not fair for him to be punished for that.
“If you enforce the law for one person, you have to enforce the same arbitrary law to all people,” he says.
And it looks like the city council agrees with him: the proposed amendments would make it easier for places like Bamboulas to stay zoned as restaurants, but be able to offer live music.
Some frustrated residents are unhappy with these changes. Stuart Smith is an attorney who lives in the French Quarter. He has represented a number of Marigny and French Quarter residents who have filed civil lawsuits against music venues.
“I think a lot of the problems are people who want to make more money and they want to take a neighborhood bar that has operated for 80 years with a jukebox and they want to make it a live entertainment venue," Smith says. "And I think that’s where the real problems start, because they get rid of the jukebox and they put in a stage and a giant PA system and the next thing you know you have a House of Blues in Gentilly.”
Smith says if enforcement were better, he wouldn’t have to take people to court.
“People call the police over and over and over again, the police don’t do anything, and finally they call me.”
Ellestead from MACCNO says he understands the fear that the rules won’t be properly enforced, but that’s no reason to create harsher laws.
“So the argument we hear a lot is, 'we’re not worried about what you’re opening up, we’re worried about what someone else coming in and doing after you could do.' That’s not how we should create policy, based on hypothetical worst-case scenarios.”
The Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance only deals with where music can be; not what it can sound like or how loud. For that, the city will have to return to the noise ordinance, a separate piece of legislation. Councilmember Nadine Ramsey introduced a new draft last month, but says it’s just a starting point.
The city council will be discussing the proposed ordinance with MACCNO, neighborhood groups and other stakeholders in the coming weeks.