Music Rights: an educated opinion on New Orleans’ noise ordinances (AntiGravity. Nov 2011).


Many of us moved to New Orleans because it’s supposedly one of the last places  an American can unselfconsciously make a joyful noise. Within the world’s most  musical city, my wife and I sought out the area most conducive to our particular  artistic pursuits: a “light industrial” zone in Bywater where she could have a yard for messy  art projects and I could play music in the house– so long as we never got louder than the

trains that blast their horns and bells at either end of our street many times a day. One of the trains crosses Poland Street, Royal and Chartres at such an angle that we are often literally trapped at home waiting to be late for work. On two occasions the train has come completely off the track, skidding onto the road not a block from our house. But we put up with all this and more because it would be arrogant of us (not to mention illegal) to make music and messy art with loud tools in a neighborhood zoned “residential.”

Turns out though, it is fine for someone to move into a “light industrial” area and demand that everyone live by “residential” rules.

Because of our trains, the giant Naval Base (currently abandoned) and the total lack of houses on one side of Chartres Street, the Bywater’s far back corner was the perfect place for Bacchanal wine bar to organically bloom and grow. In the wake of Katrina, the live jazz and food in the courtyard there seemed the only New Orleans-style normalcy for miles. I wasn’t a fan of much of the white-bread music or all the Lexus and BWMs always taking up our parking spots. Still, I loved living next to something that every night reminded me that New

Orleans does often live up to its legend. And besides, Bacchanal’s saxophones were never as loud as the trains, so why complain?

But of course there are always neighbors like the one who once bitched at my wife for pushing the baby stroller down the street instead of on the sidewalk. He is of the type dim enough to believe that his (illegally) posted printouts of a pile of dog poop with an X through them are somehow less ugly than the far less visible dog poop it’s meant to prevent. Living literally two doors down from the train, with functioning warehouses on each side of his home, he surely wears earplugs to bed. So there’s no way Bacchanal could bother him. Yet he (illegally) slipped a note inside all of our mailboxes, trying to gather support for a push to keep Bacchanal from obtaining the music permit they rightly deserve in a “light industrial zone.”

Then, two years ago, between our house and Bacchanal, some fellow Yankees moved in and opened Hubba Hubba Tattoo Parlor. They must not have researched the area they moved into, because they expected residential silence. And since these folks claiming to be artists could not bear three hours of patio jazz next to their business each night (though their business was closed by the time the music began and they were at their home across the neighborhood), Bacchanal’s music is now gone and also many people’s jobs.

Admittedly, the final issue was that Bacchanal did not have a live music permit. But realistically, the authorities should have noticed the abandoned Naval Base and the empty side of Chartres, heard the train come blasting through and realized there couldn’t be a more ideal place for a boho-yuppie jazz club, placing equal importance on not harming the financial well-being of dozens of musicians and service industry folks (and a ton of sales tax revenue). Bacchanal paid up to six musicians $100 (or more) each night, seven nights a week. This surely meant the difference between a few musicians getting to follow their life’s calling rather than say, teach elementary school. Politicians at the top are tearing America apart and letting corporations poison us just to make sure

nothing  “kills” any jobs, and yet our city won’t go so far as to defend someone’s right to host music in an industrial zone, even when it helps New Orleans’ bottom line. Especially in our “light industrial” area it would have made more sense for authorities to tell Bacchanal, when they stopped by in the morning during slow hours, “If y’all don’t get a permit within the month, we will be back to shut you down.” In depressing reality though, they dramatically swarmed Bacchanal at 9 pm, during its busiest night, as if executing a heroin bust and shut the place down immediately.

As an aside: most of those I’ve heard claim no sympathy for Bacchanal since “they did not follow the rules” would all be in jail right now, with me, if all rules were truly enforced. One new, short-sighted, persistent neighbor may have figured out which nonsensical law to utilize to stop the music, but they are still wrong for moving into a “light industrial” area and demanding “residential” silence. Especially at the expense of New Orleans’ most important export: music.

Not wanting our needs (music) taken away, my family decided to host, at our house, some of the Bacchanal bands who lost their jobs. That Friday night we had Mark Wileki’s guitar jazz trio, who were, as usual, so quiet that anyone talking in the crowd felt rude. That Sunday, Helen Gillet played some of the best music I’ve ever heard, by herself, combining her French chansons with beautiful noise interludes and gorgeous looped, layered vocal passages. The impending tropical storm forced her to play inside, so we left the front door open for any uptight neighbor wishing to fully understand the silliness of their complaints. The following Friday we broke from the Bacchanal aesthetic and hosted a barbecue version of Mod Dance Party, and the next night Luke Allen and Yegor from Debauche each performed beautiful acoustic sets. This most recent weekend we had what used to be Glorybee, now split into the amazing noise band Naughty Palace, and the country R&B group HOWL. Despite this wild variety of art, the Bywater’s “quality of life police” (or rather, the “silence police” since they only protect those whose quality of life depends on silence) did not show up.

They had shown up earlier this year– a week before our annual NoizeFest party of abstract music– to falsely inform us that we were not allowed to have a show in our yard. “Don’t even bother trying, because we will definitely come and shut you down,” I barely heard him say over the incredibly loud train passing 50 feet behind him. Instead we visited City Hall and found out that the cop didn’t know the laws, which state that, in our particular area, we can do whatever we like on our private property so long as the music doesn’t rise above 85 decibels or last past 10 pm, 11 pm on weekends (businesses in our area must still purchase permits for the same rights though, which proves that it’s not really about noise, but money). In the end our City Council person saved NoizeFest by contacting our “quality of life officers” (could that label be any more Orwellian?) and explaining to them laws that they were already entrusted to know.

But though tourists do not travel from all over the world to experience New Orleans’ uptight busybodies (and HBO is not here spending jillions of dollars making a show about them), the busybodies seemingly have the city on their side. “The system is set up so that people who move here and don’t understand New Orleans get to determine the direction of the city,” says New Orleans native Geoff Douville, who plays in Egg Yolk Jubilee and owns and runs the Lost Love Lounge in the Marigny (near Frenchmen Street where, incidentally, some folks continue to complain about loud music, despite Frenchmen being cleared of almost all obligation to “residential” rules. The majority of America is set up for peace and quiet and these people want to infringe upon one small area that musicians have managed to carve out for music). Geoff’s lounge doesn’t host music, yet is under attack simply because someday down the road, some Marigny house-flipper might run into a buyer who doesn’t want to live by any bars. These are the real reasons things happen in the city. “The one crank with a complaint has the most sway now because the city is broke,” opines Douville. “They are turning over every possible rock looking for money. So now they are going along with the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association (FMIA), who want to make the noise level 70 decibels.” 70 dB is about as loud as a door shutting– not slamming– or two people having a conversation. Geoff points out that if an officer came to give you a ticket for 70db, in shutting the door behind him the officer himself would be in violation. “But all the city cares about is that 70db would mean a lot more citations and a lot more revenue.”

Which is the same logic behind the Bywater traffic camera on Chartres Street: the only nicely paved road in the city, with houses on only one side, is a 25 mile-per-hour speed trap because revenues mean more than fairness. So if music is necessary to your essential happiness, and “they” are oppressing music clubs and other cultural businesses, then host live music in your home. Though make sure to first check the laws in your area and print out said laws for the cops who show up. Do not fall victim to the false assumption that the law only protects silence. During one of our recent house shows, local musician Mikronaut told me of how, in a yard several feet from the Press Street train tracks, last Mardi Gras, cops not only busted a puppet show by the Scary Tosies troupe (“It was kinda hilarious,” said Mikro, “seeing cops bust in on a bunch of people sitting on the ground quietly watching a puppet show”) but actually made everyone leave the premises. I believe that, in this situation, the police must show up with a decibel meter and first tell you to comply with the laws. If you don’t comply, they can shut you down, but I am almost certain they can’t make your guests leave your house. But again, musicians and artists: find out the laws in your area, follow them, print them out and keep them handy.

New Orleans has a very well-documented tendency to live with minor inconveniences (i.e. blocking off streets and closing schools for Mardi Gras) in favor of culture and music, and the amazing quality of life (and revenues) this attitude creates. If these complainers had lived in New Orleans long ago, the city would have not been allowed to evolve into a cultural Mecca. Were it up to them, they’d have a nice quiet house they can sell some day, and the rest of us would have nothing. Telling anyone that they don’t fit in and should move away is always a dicey prospect, but I would urge anyone buying or renting a house to at least find out the neighborhood’s personality beforehand. Because those who need peace and quiet to be happy have far more options than those of us who need music.

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This entry was posted in MPW's published writing, new entries for upcoming "New Orleans: the Underground Guide". Bookmark the permalink.

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