Noise ordinance on the table, again? Here we go again…one of the frustrations with having been in this business for almost 35 years is that I’ve seen things happen over and over again…with no resolution. That’s the nature of New Orleans, unfortunately. The idea of a workable noise ordinance that respects live music (both in venues and outside) and residents is still not resolved, as it has not been for longer than OffBeat has existed.
Back in 2014, the French Quarter Management District (FQMD) hired Oxford Acoustics, represented by consultant Dave Woolworth (also a professional musician), to study the noise situation and sound amelioration in the Quarter (theoretically, the issue of sound—crucial to developing a workable noise ordinance citywide—could be applied to the entire city). Woolworth worked for months on sound measurement, acquisition and analysis of data acquired during the study and presented it to the FQMD. After all this research, and recommendations from a noise expert, was anything done vis a vis the noise ordinance? Nope. I encourage you to go to YouTube and search for “Dave Woolworth” to see several video presentations of his very well-researched findings on noise abatement levels in the Quarter. The info is there. Yep, it’s pretty dry viewing, but the work has been done.
The issue of intrusive sound (let’s be specific here: they are referring to music “noise”) has been an issue for as long as I can remember. No one will address the issue, no one has been able to come up with a viable, enforceable plan to reduce noise issues, especially politicians. Here’s the deal: musicians playing in music clubs and bars—and on the street and in outside venues— are the source of the “noise.” Many residents don’t want the noise, the live music. There’s also the case where live music played on the street has also been an impediment to business owners being able to conduct business (remember the case of the brass band and the bookstore on Frenchmen Street?).
I think the reason why the noise ordinance issue has never been addressed is the fact that many laws are not enforced successfully in New Orleans. The current noise ordinance is not enforced. There has never been a concerted, strong effort that has actually revised the noise ordinance (which includes the approval of outside live music venues) because 1) it’s a very difficult and thorny ordinance to revise; 2) laxity and ignorance on the part of the city on revamping the noise ordinances (despite having access to studies such as Woolworth’s); 3) push-pull with no resolution between residents/businesses who are negatively affected by noise vs. proponents of live music (including music venues, bars, street musicians and groups who believe that any musician has a First Amendment right to play as loud as they wish and wherever they wish in public without ramification); 4) New Orleans’ inability (and government’s reluctance) to enforce rules of law to benefit the entire community; 5) the corrupt and negligent nature of government to not take a stand on enforcing rules, because then New Orleans would be “just like any other city” and our partying would be curtailed; 6) politicians’ aversion to pushback from constituents on social media whenever live music is threatened (social media invariably will attack NOPD and the city for trying to shut down live music).
So we’re constantly at a stalemate.
No one has the guts to look at the research, get input from the community from all sides, and then make a rule of law that we abide by. This attitude has obviously been exacerbated by social media trolls who only see one side of the issue. When the Frenchmen bookstore owner called NOPD to try to get assistance on moving the brass band (that was stationed immediately in front of the business entrance playing music that made it impossible for the bookstore to operate), all the social media vitriol targeted the bookstore owner and advocated for the band, for “music.” The bookstore owner was called awful names, and he even received death threats. While I’m at it, let’s say that the brass band in question was not making music for arts’ sake. They were doing it to make money. This is why they perform where they do on Frenchmen Street. The Bourbon Street bars and clubs managed to shut down live street music on Bourbon Street because they were organized as an entertainment district. Whether you agree with this or not, the venues on Bourbon pay rent, taxes and are permitted for live entertainment. I’m not going to get into the idea of permitting music groups to play in entertainment districts, because social media trolls (many of whom have not lived in New Orleans for long enough to be cognizant of the complicated nature of live music in New Orleans) will only advocate for musicians vs. businesses and residents. Look, we all have to live together. We have to find a way to make it work for everyone, not just music and music venues.
Before I get accused of trying to attack live music (which would be totally bizarre, considering that this writer has devoted more than half of my life and my business to promote local music), including street music and outdoor live music venues, let me say this: none of us operates in a vacuum. There has to be an understanding and appreciation of the issues on both sides of the fence and there must be compromises made. This is the nature of a democracy. Of course, this implies that the city actually gets off its butt and addresses the actual issues, looks at existing research (see Woolworth, above) and then does something solid to revamp the noise ordinance rules and regs in a timely manner. (By the way, a big part of the Woolworth research recommended ways to keep noise bleed inside live music establishments, some of which have been instituted).
The live music issue and noise problems are not just indigenous to New Orleans; it’s a worldwide problem. In New Orleans, we think we are different from the rest of the world, especially when it comes to music. Well, yeah, we are, because we have a lot more great music available to us, but we still live in a city that has neighborhoods, businesses and music that continues to “bubble up from the street.” We certainly can’t continue to ignore what’s been done in the past to help solve the noise issue. We can’t give one “side” or the other a carte blanche to make music or to perform that seriously disturbs others’ peace without some rules and compromises on both sides. Finally, as residents, we must demand that our elected officials step up and make some hard decisions to create a noise ordinance and includes expanded opportunities for musicians to perform that keeps New Orleans viable as a cradle of music yet makes it better to live and do business here: better for everyone.