The Mayor's "War on Live Music" is more hype than substance, but real questions remain.
Aeschylus wrote, "In war, the first casualty is the truth," and the same holds true for wars on live music. According to lawyer Owen Courreges, Mayor Landrieu's office has declared one, and the loss of live music at the Circle Bar and Siberia was evidence that the first shots had been fired. "The first signs of the crackdown began when live music at Siberia was cancelled due to some arcane zoning dispute," he wrote, but Siberia stopped presenting live music because it didn't have a permit. Zoning issues made getting one difficult, but the city didn't stop live music at Siberia. Siberia did.
New Orleans is rarely a place that lets truth get in the way of good drama, and where live music is concerned, there's reason for the fear. It's one of the city's defining components, but it's one that always feels precarious and threatened, whether its by neighborhood associations, cops or the musicians' sad wages. Bloggers see a conspiracy to shut down live music in what happened to the Circle Bar and Siberia, even though they happened weeks apart, one voluntarily and one after a routine sweep in conjunction with the Essence Music Festival that found 40 or so bars with their paperwork wanting. In both cases, the club owners found the city helpful in the effort to get them back in the live music business, though it will take longer for Siberia than the Circle Bar, which only went without live music for a week.
Still, there are issues that merit further examination. A zoning process that could stymie club owners for more than a year needs to be streamlined, and zoning documents can't conflict with each other. They also shouldn't make the city look like provincial hicks afraid of what happens when people get together. Right now, the zoning that prohibits live entertainment prohibits more than just bands. For zoning purposes, "live entertainment" is defined as:
Theatrical productions, athletic contests, exhibitions, pageants, concerts, recitals, circuses, karaoke, bands, combos, and other live musical performances, audience participation contests, floorshows, literature readings, dancing, fashion shows, comedy or magic acts, mime and the playing of recorded music (disc, records, tapes, etc.) by an employee, guest or other individual, one of whose functions is the playing of recorded music and who is in verbal communication with the clientele of the establishment.
As Owen Courreges correctly pointed out in his column, a poetry reading is also forbidden, along with DJs, plays and mimes. The vague nature of that language makes the definition read like a fearful, draconian catch-all (exhibitions? floorshows?), and lumping all of these things together makes the city appear artist-unfriendly. The size and nature of the audiences for these forms of entertainment merit separate consideration and classifications, and that definition is just one example of the way the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance is an out-of-date document that doesn't suit where and how people live in New Orleans. It needs to be updated to better reflect the city's core values, one of those being creativity. Creativity is an essential part of who we are, and it's what tourists come here to connect to, to see if a little will rub off on them. As the Mayor and his office work to create a more efficient, effective, business-like and tourist-friendly city, that fundamental creativity needs to be honored.