The new head of the Mayor’s Office of Nighttime Economy is Howie Kaplan, who has owned The Howlin’ Wolf in the Warehouse District for 25 years, and who has managed several bands, including the Rebirth Brass Band and The Revivalists. He’s a knowledgeable industry professional and is ready to tackle the problems experienced by the creators and hosts of the nighttime economy, including musicians and bands, street performers, theater performers, culture bearers, restaurants, bars and music venues.
Needless to say, we are happy to see that after over five years of promoting this idea that the city has finally agreed and has hired a person whose strengths are matched with the challenges of such a position. Ramsey sat down with Kaplan—who literally started the job on June 13—to see how he’s going to approach a very large task of helping improve New Orleans as a music and culture mecca.
Many in the music community have known you from your involvement with The Howlin’ Wolf. Why don’t you describe what you’ve done, over the past 25 to 30 years? A lot of people don’t know about your background.
I have been in the hospitality industry my whole adult life, and it’s always intersected with music. Actually, in high school [in south Florida], I worked as an assistant manager at a music store in a mall that sold tickets. Back before there was Ticketmaster, there was BASS (Best Available Seating Service): “The best in the world.” We sold a ton of tickets because it was in a busy mall. I also started waiting tables. I worked at a record store. So, there’s always been this confluence of music and hospitality. I also lived in Texas and Colorado for a while.
So, you moved to New Orleans—when?
In 1997. I bought a bar called Rock ’N’ Bock. It’s called Twist of Lime now. It’s been Twist of Lime a hell of a lot longer than it was the Rock ’N’ Bock, and they still do music. I bought a neighborhood bar in Metairie from a guy named Ronnie Fazio. He ran Nick’s on Tulane and he also had Nick’s of Metairie.
When you bought the bar, did it have live music?
One of our regulars at the time saw we had some space and they’re like, “Yeah, do you mind if we come and play?” And I’m like, “Yeah, why not?” We’re not doing anything else. We were doing darts and pool and we were a neighborhood place and everybody’s like, “Yeah, this idiot from Colorado bought a neighborhood bar in Metairie, didn’t go to school here.” At the time, going to school here I thought, “Yeah, I didn’t go to LSU, whatever.” I didn’t recognize the whole…
High school thing.
The high school thing. And so, they came and played and then someone else was like, “Yeah, I saw you’re doing bands. Can we do this?” And I talked to Jimmy Glickman. Hope his spirit is resting [Glickman died in January 2016]. I loved that man. And he came over and he’s like, “You don’t need new [equipment], here’s what you need. When you need something, you just call me. I got you.” And I didn’t have enough money to cover everything to bring in the band stuff. And he’s like, “Just come pay me every week.” When I needed something, he’s like, “Yeah, just borrow it.” He was just such an amazing man. And so, we started doing bands and we ended up doing Quiet Riot.
Did you have to get a permit or anything in Jefferson Parish to have music?
No. In fact, many cities support their music venues and find ways to put money into the musical economy. So, we started doing bands, ended up doing a few ’80s rock bands, including Quiet Riot. And we did them on a Friday. And on a Monday, Keith [Spera, of the Times-Picayune and former OffBeat editor] wrote an article about the Howlin’ Wolf [in its location in the Warehouse District] was going up for sale. So, Monday I called up Jack and Lesley [Groetsch, the owners of the Howlin’ Wolf], and we sat down, I think the next day. What was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation turned into a few hours and they really wanted me to be the guy.
So, we were doing three band rock bills at The Wolf on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. There was actually a much better rock scene back then. I think the quote you guys had for us for years, which is probably still out there, is “high velocity” rock bands or whatever. And it kind of just kept growing from there. We moved to the new space in October of ’05 [at the corner of South Peters and North Diamond, formerly Praline Connection] right after Katrina. Superfly started there. Winter Circle started there. You can look around the city and it’s a nice feeling when you see all these people at all these different venues that have some connection to The Wolf.And then we started managing Rebirth [Brass Band]. It’s been 17 years.
We’ve been able to be the part of a lot of things. The whole impetus behind Roots of Music started in a conversation right in front of The Wolf with a reporter after Katrina. I think it’s arguably the most successful music program in the state, if not the city. It’s one of the things we’ll be pushing for, hopefully is to get them as a line item in the city’s budget. We’re going to start those conversations as quick as we can. We spent five-and-a half years managing and developing The Revivalists who might arguably be one of the biggest bands out of Louisiana right now.
So, it’s all been kind of the next step, the next step, the next step. And you just keep moving forward… Someone gave me some advice when I first started. I remember Jack [Groetsch] brought me around to a bunch of different people and someone said that in New Orleans, if you show up, you’ll succeed because most people don’t.
Right. New Orleans time?
Yeah. And so, every day I show up. I don’t know how not to. So then when the [COVID] shutdown hit, we’re like, “All right, what are we going to do?” I don’t know how to just sit there and do nothing. So, we kept showing up and then we talked to the Musicians’ Clinic. We came up with a meals program and we got a bunch of different restaurants and purveyors and people kept donating stuff. We had to come wholly out-of-pocket to feed people. But we did over the course of the shutdown—over 50,000 meals.
But the big thing was getting people access to other important things they needed. Healthcare was a big one, getting people on Medicaid, people that had never had insurance. I had a musician come by regularly for the meals, he plays in the Quarter all the time. He’s a sax player and has been playing forever. His shoulder had been hurting for years and he’d never had insurance because he couldn’t afford it. I’m like, “Well, you’re not making any living now. So, you qualify. Let’s get you on this.” He kind of fought me on it but he kept coming to get the meals and I’m saying “Look, you need the meals. I get that.” And he got on and got to a doctor and they repaired his shoulder. And I bump into him all the time now. He’s like, “I can’t thank you enough for that.” I kept on him for it, getting him on unemployment, just to get him some income. Everyone needed help during COVID, including The Wolf. So that’s how I started working with NIVA [National Independent Venue Association]. It’s literally figuring out ways to survive because New Orleans is more susceptible to all the changes that took place during the shutdown, because we’re so dependent on tourism and we’re so dependent on our culture.
How did your affiliation with NIVA begin?
I’m the precinct captain for Louisiana, worked very closely on a national level with about 30 other precinct captains, all amazing people. We worked hard to get Congress to put $16.25 billion to save independent music venues, independent movie theaters, non-profits, Broadway. That’s how we got [Senator] Chuck Schumer on board. He was a champion. Orleans Parish alone got $118 million—that’s legitimate money. Imagine you’re Tipitina’s, you’ve just had the venue for a year or so. You’ve got all these notes and all this money you’ve just put in. What do you do?
What do you do?
Tip’s was actually one of the last ones. They had some paperwork issues. But they finally got that through. And so involvement with that [NIVA] advocacy kind of led to figuring out what else was going on in conversations with folks around the country.
Did any Bourbon Street venues get support via NIVA’s work?
There were a few. We actually reached out to a few of them, and we had a conversation in our meetings, in our captain’s meetings.
Who else was active, I think, somebody from Winter Circle?
Winter Circle did get money because it is still an independent entity. They didn’t get a lot. But you couldn’t be owned by a Live Nation or AEG. We wrote some very specific rules and there are some issues we’re going after. There were a few strip clubs that got them, that should not. There’s a distillery, that’s to the best of my knowledge, that had never done music or qualified for this.
Did the government support also extend to venues with deejays?
Deejays are definitely a very strong segment of the live entertainment industry here. They sell tickets, and they do shows, and they promote, and they advertise, and they put dollars into the community. And so, I don’t have any issues. It’s the same thing we were talking about Bourbon Street bars. Tropical Isle, I thought, was a great example. Look at the number of people, musicians—local—that they give jobs to every single day. We have a cultural economy and especially a music industry is so multi-faceted. We had a lot of trouble getting into certain areas. Prime Example [jazz club which recently closed] is a good example. I talked to Julius [Kimbrough, the owner], finally got a hold of him and his son. Tried my best to get them to apply. It would’ve saved them. But I couldn’t get them to it. Just couldn’t get it. And there’s a lot like that. We couldn’t get through.
Why do you think that happened?
I think a big part of it is that there are “books” and there’s bookkeeping that a lot of them don’t want to disclose. The funny thing is the city came up with money to help address that through the Tourism Cultural Fund and through the Mayor’s office, that would’ve paid for people to apply for SVOG. And to the best of my knowledge, they did not. Not one person took advantage of that.
Well, maybe nobody knew about it?
Oh no, we were out there pushing it. They were out there pushing it. They literally went to everybody that has a Mayoralty Permit [for music presentation] and let them know. They interviewed me. They even sent someone to me, not knowing that I was the guy that put it together, or one of the people that put it together.
Who else besides you put it together?
Well, it’s NIVA. This happened on a nationwide level, so there were groups, and we had a lobbying firm that assisted with it. It went to Senators Cornyn and Klobuchar. Their teams helped write the legislation in conjunction with our lobbyist, but we went over a lot of things and made revisions locally. We had the guys from Galactic and Rob Mercurio, who was a huge help when we were doing interviews. [Mercurio is in Galactic and is a co-owner of Tipitina’s]. He did a fantastic job. Tom [Thayer] at d.b.a. was another tremendous resource. He always answered the phone when I needed something. He’s amazing. Most of the local community was supportive to a point, but a lot of them just shut down.
For years, I’ve been saying that many of these musicians do not act like entrepreneurs or businesspeople. Realizing that they must do certain business-related things, not only to continue to do their music and art, but also to make money and be successful at it. Do you think that there’s sort of the same kind of thing with people who have music clubs, small music places, they don’t necessarily understand that it puts them in a different category than just a bar?
I think there’s some yes and some no to that. I think there’s definitely a gray area that’s not just in New Orleans, but across the country. I think people that [present music] have a passion. You don’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I think I want to open up a music club. That’s a good idea.’ I think it comes out of a passion for the music mostly, but it also comes out of a passion to serve and hospitality.
Do you think that’s always true? Do you think it could be more like, “I’m going to put music in here just to sell more alcohol?”
I think there are a few people that do that too. But either way, the culture’s getting out there. Whatever the motivation, I think that’s the key. In particular, in a place like New Orleans, you do need that. Right now, in Nashville, they’re having a tremendous time because they’ve got venues that have been around for a while, like Nashville’s Exit/In that’s been around forever that are in trouble. Chris Cobb is a dear friend. He’s lost his lease. He’s doing everything he can right now to try to get help. You have to recognize that without these [music performance] incubators, without these independent venues, where’s that next step? Where are you going to develop? Because it’s not going to come from a Live Nation or AEG. There’s an ecosystem that’s very fragile, and it’s also insanely supportive of the local economies that they’re in. There’s a study and I’ve got find it done the University of Chicago or something like that. It says for every dollar in direct spending into a music venue, $12 to 15 goes back into the community. It’s one of the biggest bangs for the buck.
How does it go back into the community?
I’ll give you a great example. At The Wolf, when we do a thousand-person show or a big show, people get hotel rooms. I was sitting there with a friend who’s with the Link Group. We’re talking one night and one of his managers texts him—doesn’t realize that he’s down the street, sitting with me at The Wolf at the time—and it’s like midnight or something. The manager texts and says, “By the way we got hit tonight. The Wolf had a big show. It’s a second time this has happened in a week. We need to keep an eye out and see when they’re doing something big to make sure we’re staffed properly and we’re ready for the hit.” Many times, people don’t just generally get up to see a show. They make a deal out of it. Especially in New Orleans, people buy plane tickets. There’ll be a show in New Orleans and people will literally come in and spend three days in New Orleans, see the show, and see other shows as part of that.
Well, you’re kind of preaching to the choir here [laughs].
So now you’re talking landing fees. Now you’re talking hotels, hotel taxes, you’re talking Ubers, taxis. You can go down the list of all that comes from that. And the dollars that come from the people that are employed as part of that. So, you’ve got loaders, you’ve got sound techs, you’ve got equipment rental. It’s this humongous ecosystem where restaurants inject $1.25, $1.50 and rare cases, $2.00 per visitor—depending on the type of restaurant—back into the community. We’re six to seven times that.
When you say, “we,” do you mean all music venues or ones that cater mostly to people who are visitors?
Music venues aren’t just music venues, they’re community centers, they’re business incubators. Take a look at all the businesses that have come through The Wolf that have been created since then. Now imagine that’s happening on a grander scale in New Orleans and all across the country.
One of the things that you mentioned . was the word “incubator.” I’m not talking about the big ones now, but the smaller venues where music or musical acts incubate, and then move up. Has anybody ever done any work or study on determining or on putting together some kind of an incentive program for music performance incubators?
To the best of my knowledge in the United States, no. From things that I’ve read, that’s a very European and Canadian model. Canada actually does that.
Does it work? And where does the support money come from?
I think you’ll find varying degrees of success. In a place like New Orleans, would this kind of program make an impact? I think it could be questionable because there’s a level of administration that would have to come with that.
I think the better thing to do is going back to what you were talking about, about musicians running their bands like businesses. I think that… back when Tipitina’s was doing [the Musicians Co-op]… they actually tried to do that. There’s a whole question of if they were successful. I think it’s better to find ways to get musicians more money. So, one of the initiatives that we’re working on with NIVA and I’m on the committee for this is PRO [Performance Rights Organization] reform.
If you create an incubator program, the money could go to paying musicians when they play gigs, but also to educating the smaller venues on making their investment in music successful for them. That obviously affects the musicians too.
Let me take a step back and say it the way that I view it and what I think as part of the office that I’ll be heading up. I agree with a lot of the things that came through GNO, Inc.’s study on developing the music industry through the New Orleans Music.
What did come out as opportunities in the GNO study?
One of my favorites is they use the Revivalists as an example. Their publishing is in one city, their representation is another, their booking is in another. Everybody’s in a different city. None of them are in New Orleans. I think that there needs to be a concerted effort in conjunction with all the different agencies, not just within the city, but via New Orleans & Company… There has to be a concerted effort to find a place, to get these people into our town, in particular the ones that are representing the Anders [Osborne]s and the Galactics and the [George] Porters. None of these people are here.
There is still a lack of businesses related to music here.
But those business owners all come here, and they love coming here. Should we require them have an outpost here? No, but I think we should work with the tax incentives that currently exist within the state, and we should work in conjunction with the Lieutenant Governor’s office, because this is about tourism and economy. I think there are ways to bring those people together and say, we’re going to set up an office where you can have almost like a WeWork space, where you have an office here in New Orleans.
So, basically a music business incubator?
Yeah, and I think we’d want them to have permanent offices here. I think that’s a real strong investment in our future.
Do you think that’s feasible, because so many people work from home now. They don’t need to move to New Orleans to work on New Orleans music.
Do I think it’s going to be easy? No. This is a long-term goal and I think it’s going to be about dollars. But I do know that if we can get in the management companies like a Madison House to come here, a 7S Management. Get music businesses here! Because this is where the culture lives. Every city wants to be New Orleans. Austin calls itself the “Music Capital of the World.” Look please, let’s be honest… Austin wants to be New Orleans. You’ve been banging this drum forever.
The whole point of this [Nighttime Economy] office is—the elevator pitch is—”To advocate for the nighttime cultural economy of the city of New Orleans and her culture bearers.” That’s it. So, I’m looking at where the dollars can go. I think it’s fantastic that we all support music, and we love to support music. But this is more about dollars! Why is it that when you’re playing on stage at Tipitina’s and they pay to BMI and SESAC or ASCAP and all that, how come that money doesn’t go to the person performing their own works on that stage in their own city? Why is it that they pay different rates than the Superdome or the Arena? Why is it that when these artists do get their settlements, there’s no rhyme or reason? They’re not told why they get that.
So, you’re talking about a total revamping and the creation of a more transparent situation for the PROs?
I think we need more transparency and equity. I think figuring out ways to make live music more [monetarily] advantageous, in particular for our artists, is the key to that.
Well, having been somebody who’s been advocating for the music industry here for 40 years, I’m going to give you my opinion on it. I think that the idea of attracting music businesses here is admirable, a nice goal. But I don’t know if it is achievable, because we are starting from scratch.
Well, so is this Office.
But wait a minute, there are offices like this in cities all over the U.S. now.
I’m saying, I’m learning from what they’ve done. Everybody’s looking at New Orleans right now. Orlando. New York. Heck, Cleveland.
The question that I have [vis a vis New Orleans] is that these offices that exist in other cities—are they focusing on bringing music businesses to their cities?
No. To the best I can see, no. They’re not trying to create, they’re trying to manage.
Why aren’t they, if you think that’s so important?
I think it’s important more for the city of New Orleans than it is for anywhere else. Just because of the sheer volume of musical performers and potential publishing revenues. I don’t like that the dollars are going somewhere else. There are a lot of people that don’t like that and that are uncomfortable with that. It’s important to get everybody together, getting them on the same page. Starting those conversations. I don’t know how to set up an incubator. But what I can do is get the people that know how to do it and put them together with the people and we can lobby for it. People love New Orleans. I think the music and the culture are more important now than ever.
I think now is a very crucial time for it. When we started advocating for this office, when you and I spoke about it, years ago, and we’ve spoken about it a few times. This wasn’t my goal to do this. The goal was to continue a fight that was already taking place.
Do you think it would be advantageous for a music business association to form?
There’s a great Ann Richards [former Texas governor] quote. She says, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” I love that quote. I don’t think we need to do something separate. I think we need to be a part of all the other efforts. What the city is doing and the way that they’ve set this up is not setting up a separate music business office, we’re a part of the city. We’re a part of the Mayor’s office. That’s huge. To [have the city] recognize that this is where the dollars come from. You’ve got 40,000 or 50,000 people employed in the cultural economy, in the hospitality industry. So, it’s a big thing for it being recognized as a major, major part of your economy. So, when you say, “Should we set up a separate association?”, no, I think we should be a major part of every [national] association that matters.
But they’re not located in New Orleans either.
You’re asking me a question, “Should we set up something separate?” No, because at that point you’re separating it. So, do we set up one for music? No, the cultural economy is a whole. The way I describe it, interconnecting the restaurants. The hotels. The Airbnbs. The Ubers. There’s an economy there that is of such a massive scale. So, to sit there and take one piece of it out, I think it’s selling each individual piece short. I think the strength is in the cultural economy as a whole.
Why do you think there has not been more of a participation from the people who are in the music businesses in the city in nationwide groups? Or in forming a coalition of people here?
I think you get stuck in your day-to-day. I think you’re concerned about paying your bills and paying your staff.
Yeah, but it’s all … about the money, if something’s going to help you…
I think we’ve been having the wrong conversations. The conversation’s been focused on the minutiae and on the same thing again and again. I think the goal of what this office will do and how the city’s viewing it is that we’re changing the conversation. We’ve been asking the wrong question. Every question should be about the dollars. Do I think we should sell out our culture? Absolutely not. But I think we should monetize it and do it the way we want to do it.
What are some ideas that you have on that?
Well, that’ll be a conversation that’ll take place within each community. It’s making investments rather than… Let’s say we do a $2,000 grant to the Mardi Gras Indians…
Yeah, but isn’t the Cultural Economy fund doing that?
That’s not what I’m talking about. Because my office would not have any control. That’s what the Tourism and Cultural Fund does. I’m saying, making investments into the future and into the community as a whole, as opposed to the individual. So, figuring out better ways to monetize. Figuring out better ways to get the dollars. So, the PRO revisions and more transparency would help. I think that’s a fantastic initiative.
Do you think that there’s a possibility that’s going to happen? Those PROs are pretty monolithic.
We’re much further along than I ever anticipated we would be. They’re [PROs] are coming to the table. They’re recognizing that we had insane success with the SVOG program. That we have access to congressmen and senators in a way…Yeah. We thought they were going to give tremendous pushback and they’ve already been very open about in lot of the conversations.
Because they’ve had to be? Or they just want to jump on the bandwagon?
I think they’re recognizing there’s a change a’comin’. An even bigger issue is that you have equity firms that are buying up catalogs. So, at some point they’re going to want their money back. They’re going to go after every place they can find a dime. If it means, hey! We’ve got so and so, so: give us $10,000 every year and you can play our songs. What happens when there’s 30 of them? That’s going to have a major impact on every single music venue everywhere.
One of the things I noticed as we were watching Tony Awards: Two of the big, new Broadway shows that were showcased from the Tonys were Girl from the North Country and MJ. Girl from the North Country is based on Bob Dylan songs. He recently sold his catalog! Does that tell you something? Same thing with MJ [Michael Jackson catalog]. Someone, some entity, is monetizing its music catalogs with Broadway theatre. They’ve sold or they’re monetizing, because you would’ve never seen that five, 10 years ago.
So, what we have to do is find some kind of way to monetize a music that already exists out there via publishing.
I think that’s one of the steps. I think there are a lot of them.
I’ve been approached by at least three different entities regarding setting up a sync rights agency here. But they all have the same idea of creating a sync agency for musicians to capitalize on the publishing rights for their songs.
That’s why you need music businesses here. That’s why you need more music business attorneys. You need more music business infrastructure.
Are you talking about somebody who has an agency that does the sync rights? Let’s say somebody in L.A. Are you talking about somebody in L.A. putting an office in New Orleans?
I think we’re putting everything on the table. I think if there’s a way to generate income… We don’t need to recreate the wheel and someone’s already working it.
Watch what you say! Because when you say, “Recreating the wheel”, the wheel already exists in Nashville, L.A. and New York.
So how do you get that money that we’re sending to people from out of state? How do you get them to think that they’re going to make more money if they open an office in New Orleans, rather than just do it remotely? How’s it going to make a difference for them?
That’s the battle. What you want to do is sit there and ask them.
They’re going to need a financial incentive. It costs money to open an office in a remote location.
Yeah. But I think there’s already an emotional incentive. So, I’m going to sit down and every time I have a conversation with somebody, I’m going to ask them, “How do we get you to do this? How do we get you to do that? What would make it work for you?” What’s the worst thing that happens, they say, no.
Well, I think that would be a reasonable question.
But I think that’s going to happen in every segment of the cultural economy. I think it’s going to be sitting down for the next six months, having conversations like this and saying, what do you believe is viable and what isn’t?
Yes, I own a music club. Yes, I manage bands. Yes, I’ve been a part of all this. But there’s a lot of this I don’t know. I’m not a business… I didn’t go to school for any of this stuff. I haven’t done business development for 20 or 30 years. But there’s a lot of really smart people in town that do. GNO, Inc. didn’t spend that money on the [music] study as a joke. They believe that there’s dollars in it. One of the best conversations I got out of that, was sitting next to a banker and I’m like, “What’s a banker doing here?” He’s like, “We think we can make money on this.”
This was a local guy. I just remember, because I was there for a different reason. For me it’s all about publishing. I think that’s where the dollar is, publishing and sync rights. That’s money. That’s hardcore money. I was talking to Ingrid Lucia, her commercial got re-upped, that’s money she needs! I’m sitting there thinking, man, this is stuff we need to concentrate on. We need to make New Orleans a more business-friendly entity. So, when people are in town, we can say, this is what we have. We’ve got a face for it now. Doesn’t mean I’m the guy writing the checks, but I can get people that will [write checks].
So, do you see your job as a liaison, more than anything else?
Advocate. I like the word “advocate.” Because I’m advocating for the cultural economy from the ground up.
Tell me what you think the bottom-line goal is.
To be perfectly honest, I think it’s pretty far-reaching. Again, the first six months are going to be trying to figure out exactly what we can and can’t do. It’s finding low-hanging fruit. To show the public and to show people that it is an office that’s needed. We know it’s needed, because we’ve seen how it works in other cities. I think Kate Becker [in Seattle] is probably the best example of that, as well as Jocelyn Kane in San Francisco. [Becker and Kane run nighttime economy offices].
Do you know what I’ve been really surprised about this whole process? Is that how overwhelmingly positive and supportive every single person I’ve talked to as part of the process and as part of the creation of this. Yesterday was my first day. It’s how insanely supportive everybody has been.
Now it’s determining exactly what the next steps can be and what we can do to get everybody in on it. I think that’s one of the great things about having someone like me in this, is that I’ve been doing this for 20 some-odd years. It’s my 23rd year with The Wolf. I’m not going to be shy about asking anybody for anything. At this point I have nothing to lose. This isn’t my life goal … I don’t want to do this for years and years and years. I don’t want to look back 10 years and I’m still doing this. I want to have as much impact as quickly as we can. Set this office up and get in people that—if it needs to be more of a business development role—fantastic! But the goal is to get all the players together. Get everybody on the same page. Get everybody promoting. Getting everybody thinking about the dollars and what they can do to assist.
Do you think that GNO, Inc would be capable or interested in creating some kind of incubator?
A program that I know that they’re doing is an internship program that they just implemented. I’m still not clear on the difference for Madison House creating a tour for someone say, like a Jon Cleary from New Orleans? They’re doing it remotely, but it’s putting money as a percentage in their pocket, but it’s also putting money in Jon Cleary’s pocket. So how is that different if you put the tour together from Colorado or from New Orleans?
I’m not saying I have the answers or pretending to have the answers to all of this. I think it’s time we start asking the questions. I think we start seeing what is viable and what isn’t. We’ve recognized that there’s a strong music business economy in other cities, such as in Nashville and Austin. And now we’re trying to capitalize on it in New Orleans.
I think San Francisco’s model is relatively similar. But the problem is, is that most of them are doing music and film. Or there’s a music office. Or there’s hospitality. Or it’s part of an economic development district. Like a night version of a DDD. They all have different views and different ways they’re going about it. Nashville just put $300,000 to start a study, very similar to what NOME did. I’m working with the council person that put it in. I’m working with the mayor’s office there as well, to see exactly what we can do to assist them. The process that I went through to put all this together was a continuation of a process you started talking about eight, nine years, 10 years ago. It started in earnest two and a half years ago when [Councilmembers] Kristin Palmer and Jay Banks sent staffers to both Seattle and San Francisco.
There’s a lot of different things in having conversations with the Mayor and the Council and all of these folks, in recognizing that it’s going to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that. We’re going to learn as part of the process how we get more people to recognize the dollars. I can go over a hundred different instances. At some point, as I begin to hire staff, as we begin to set it up and actually have a working office, I think we’re going to see stuff that’s so painfully obvious—that’s what we’re going to be attacking. I can’t tell you what that would be because I’ve purposely done my best not to set an agenda. I purposely, when people ask, I’m like, “Because I don’t know what’s going to be viable and what’s not.”
Have you set a timeline for yourself? When do you say, “Okay, this is when I stop listening. This is when we develop the plan and then this?”
I think we’re going to make initial steps. Disaster-preparedness is also a part of this. So, when I was at City Hall a little while ago, I’m going to meet with their office and figure out what resources are available, if—God forbid—something does happen again [COVID shutdown]. One of the things that recently came out of a meeting with the regional SBA was the ability to determine repetitive loss areas so they can potentially pre-qualify people for loans. So, you’re not on the road wondering how you’re going to make payroll, you’re already pre-approved. The banks already done. Second it hits, money is there. So, you’re not sitting there looking for your tax returns. You’re not sitting there filling out paperwork. You can do it in advance. So, they’re working on that right now.
I think there are things that are going to become obvious. I’m not pretending to be a politician. All I want to do is do what I’ve been doing the last two and a half years. I’m trying to find the good words for this; I think we’re going to see things that should have been seen before, but sometimes you got to step back and wonder. I’m meeting with people that put on plays and do theater. That’s not in my wheelhouse, but I need to understand more about what they do. Because they bring dollars here. Same thing with art.
How many dollars do theater performances in New Orleans bring versus music?
Well, music is overwhelmingly the biggest part of it. But so are restaurants. So I’m sitting down with different restaurant groups, with the Hotel and Lodging Association. Meeting with the Frenchmen Street businesses.
I want to make a point to you: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” So, when you see stuff that happens in the metro area as a whole, a lot of time the mover and shaker behind it is an organization like the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Because, and this goes back to something we discussed a little while ago, because they have the numbers. They have the money. They’re organized. Music does not have that.
Music has never had it. I don’t know if you remember this, but many years ago, I had asked you and several other people, would you be interested in starting some kind of a scenario where we can measure the impact of live music on the city and get together to present a united front, just like the LRA does, that represents the interests of the music industry? Would that be a useful thing to do?
I think it would. But as I’m talking to the other cities again, I don’t think it should be just about music. I think music should be a segment of that. I think…
No, but I mean, the only study that’s been done recently is the one that GNO, Inc. paid Sound Diplomacy for, and it was quite expensive. It wasn’t so much about economic impact. It was a recommendation of steps to take to improve the music industry in New Orleans.
I think one of the things I also want to do is make certain that as part of this office, we’re recognizing the wins because the political reality is this office is funded for one year. So, at some point, I’m going to have to go back in the next few weeks actually because the budget process is starting. I’m going to have to go back and advocate for a budget for the office.
We’d like it to repeat the budget that was passed last year, which was $500,000, and 90 percent of that is for salaries and benefits.
Can music tie in with other hospitality efforts?
I spoke with Dave Lefkowitz from [jazz record label] Blue Note. And he told me, “Blue Note is doing and promoting all these New Orleans things.” And I’m like, “Well, we need to send our chefs too, to promote our larger culture.” So that’s now a conversation to have with the Louisiana Restaurant Association, with the Louisiana Seafood Board, with the Lieutenant Governor.
Do you see yourself as a business development-type person, or somebody who advocates for the people that are the businesses, including musicians, performers whatever; they’re in the ecosystem, the music business ecosystem? Do you see what you’re going to do as equivalent to what GNO Inc is doing?
Because the GNO Inc is a business development entity?
No, I think I’m more of a conduit to that. I think it’s my job right now to open up everybody’s eyes to where the dollars are. I think it’s my job to advocate for all these people in the cultural economy.
So—you’re the conduit to GNO Inc? The SBA? You’re the conduit to banks? You’re the conduit to educational incentives? You’re the conduit to create a music incubators?
I think initially, yeah. I am sitting back and listening, and I think it’s going to become more clear what each facet of the industry is looking for, what they need and what this office and what the city can do. And it’s easy for everybody to say, “Well, we need dollars, or we need… “No, no, that’s not what it’s about. You and I both know that it’s not just about throwing dollars into something. It’s about having a working group. Like you just said, having a group together that can deal with it is the key—having people that can actually put a plan into place actually.
Deciding the plan and putting into place is really important. But what I’ve always seen in the 40 years I’ve been doing this is that there has been no delineation or focus on what we want to be in 10 years, what we want to be in five years. What is the goal? If you can establish a goal, you can plan to achieve the goal. We have never done that.
I think once the office is set and it’s staffed, I think it’ll be easier to put that together. After we listen to the different parts of the community, after we’ve recognized where we can have our wins, what’s the easy way to get from point A to point B, but then to develop a long-term plan as part of that. Absolutely.
So, what is the goal? What do we want to accomplish? What do we want to do?
I think the difference now is that for the first time we have someone within the industry that gets the industry, that understands it, that has a seat at the table that can help us craft policy. That make sense. That it’s not being done in a vacuum.
This doesn’t mean that every recommendation is going to be followed, doesn’t mean that we write laws or change ordinances, but I think it’s looking at certain things and recognizing that they just don’t make sense. And I think that’s going to be the key part of it. Now, when you’re looking at parklets, for example. They went into the French Quarter, the residents showed up [to protest] and I applaud them for being organized and having a voice. But when we got down to it, it looked like there were basically two places that would’ve been affected. We weren’t talking about a citywide thing; we were talking about only two places within a residential zoning area. I think if we’d taken some time, reached out and said to the parties involved, “Hey, what are we really talking about?” After the controversy, I think one of the places doesn’t even have the parklet or never actually built it and the other one, I don’t think really cares whether they have it or not. And so, I think it’s taking a look at things and recognizing where you can win, where you can put coalitions together, where you can put people together that need to be talking together.
I know you’re set to speak to some of the Frenchmen Street businesses this afternoon. They’re going to be asking specifically about improving things on Frenchmen Street. We’re just going to include police, drainage, controlling illegal vendors, enforcement. How can you help? How are you going to be able to help those people?
I don’t know. Right now, I’m the only person standing here. Right now, I’m listening and recognizing. What I’ve been told is I’m a director of a city agency. So, when it comes, if you’re having an issue with safety and permits, then it would be my job to assist safety and permits in dealing with the issue that you’re having. It would be to coalesce around the issues that people are dealing with. I’m not the guy who can fix potholes; I don’t have anything to do with the NOPD’s budget or their staffing. The Mayor and a lot of really serious people are doing their best to do what they can, and I think it’s our job to see what we can do to assist them. And I think it’s one thing to sit there and complain, but if you have realistic complaints, I get it because I have them too.
I think the job is to listen and figure out where I can do and what I can do. But I also want that to be a two-way street. I was in a Downtown Development meeting, and they were talking about this pothole and this graffiti and that and I’m like, okay, well DDD doesn’t handle most of that. Screaming and yelling and calling safety and the code enforcement people or 3-1-1 30 times for the same thing isn’t going to solve the problem. Why don’t we come up with one voice and find a way we can help them deal with these problems?
I really endorse that “one voice” thing because as I mentioned before, you have New Orleans & Co., you have a Hotel-Motel association, you have the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA). They all have their own voice that represents their members. So, your voice is going to overlap all of those voices and then plug in the performers and the musicians?
An organization like the LRA is a large, powerful organization, but they don’t represent every restaurant. They don’t.
That’s true. But they are perceived as the “voice” of their members.
There are hotels and smaller lodging places that are not part of the hotel and lodging association. There are different packs, everybody’s got their thing. The goal is to be heard. The goal is to do what we can to find easy wins and build coalitions. The reason this office exists is because we started a political action committee and we aggressively went to city council members and the mayor and said, what we want is a seat at the table. That’s the goal of this office is to have a voice. So, every business that’s part of the cultural economy will have a voice. Does it mean you’re going to get everything you want? No. Does it mean we’re going to change things overnight? I think we all know that’s not a realistic way to look at it. But I think I’ll go back to your comment about the Frenchmen businesses, they’re going to ask about police.
Okay. Well, what I can do is set up a meeting with the captains of the Eighth District, with lieutenants and sergeants and say, what can we do to help you help us? What can we do there? And those are good questions to ask because how many times do people say, okay, well having an issue with code enforcement, I’m having an issue with public works and nobody’s asking, what can we do to make this process easier? Again, I think we’re having the wrong conversations. I think the conversations need to be about unity and working together and figuring out what we can do. Are there things we can do to help the NOPD? There might be, and we can look at other cities and how they’ve adapted to this as well. But I think sitting down with the chiefs is needed.
I think that’s a key thing that you can do. I also think … it’s very key—that you can go and find models that have been created in other cities that we could use or at least take part of their model to improve what we here.
Yes. And there are some solutions—not simple solutions—but there are solutions. For example, when it comes to NOPD, when a car accident happens do you want a police officer coming out or can we send an assistant deputy that just comes out and does accidents? For noise complaints, do you take cops off the NOPD and put them on 3-1-1, or handle in a different way? Because not every noise complaint is the same and that’s a whole other issue I don’t even want to get into right now.
Noise ordinance as a whole is a huge issue. It hasn’t been revised or amended substantially for 40 years or so.
I can’t start up out of the gate with that. But one of the things that the Mayor’s office wanted this office to be was an enforcement mechanism too. And I said out of the gate, it can’t be. I’m all about education and compliance. I think 99% of the businesses out there and the people are doing it right: they’re getting their permits, they’re following the letter of the law and the ordinances, they keep their places clean, and they do a good job. But there are some that aren’t in compliance, and I think that’s another conversation to have with the various city agencies and say, tell me who’s out there that’s doing it wrong because there are mechanisms in place to take care of some of those places. For example, you may have had three shootings at some bar or in that vicinity and you think the bar’s the problem. Tell us about it. We’ll go out with you and say, hey, we just want to let you know we’re watching—and by the way there’s an ABO Board that can suspend your license. We don’t want to do that, but you need to take care of these issues. That’s education and compliance. How can we help you with that?
You know, there are always more cops on Bourbon Street. There are no buskers on Bourbon after 8 p.m. You know why? Because the Bourbon Street businesses got together and said to the city “We are bringing a lot of money in here and you’ve got to take care of us.” Which to me is a voice that’s needed on Frenchmen Street. People are in this business for different reasons. There are some business operators on Frenchmen who are very into Frenchmen and its being a music destination for locals and for tourists. They realize and appreciate that music is their bread and butter. There are other people on Frenchmen, for example, who don’t care as much about the music and musicians. You’re going to be hit up right away with the issues of noise on Frenchmen, crime on Frenchmen, with the issues of the brass band on Frenchmen, all those kinds of things. So how are you going to handle that? Are you just going to say, bear with me, I’m listening?
That’s all I can do right now.
Understand something: I am not in code enforcement, I am not Safety and Permits, I am not the Health Department, I am not any of those departments. Those departments still exist, you still have to get your permits and paperwork together.
But if somebody is breaking the rules, someone gets in touch with you and then you get in touch with the code enforcement, police, or whatever?
I think being a conduit with other city agencies and as I build relationships with within each and every one of them—in particular with the NOPD—in particular with the Health Department, I think we’re going to recognize the issues that we can handle and those that we can’t.
So, if you had one thing that you could accomplish within a year, what would it be?
Get everybody on the same page. Recognize where we are.
That’s not a win yet, that’s just…
To me the win is establishing what this office should be as an advocate, as a voice for those that don’t have one, that people recognize that this is where dollars are made. I think the biggest thing will be getting the voters who are in the cultural economy, getting the businesses that pay the taxes that provide all the services, getting city government, getting New Orleans & Company, getting everybody on the same page and recognizing this is where the dollars come from.
New Orleans & Co. has a new President, Walt Leger, III. I like him because he’s thinking differently, which is, what we desperately need.
Yeah, I agree.
New Orleans & Co.’s job is to put heads in beds, which will also mean more money spent in retail stores, restaurants and bars, listening to music and stuff like that. So, everyone wins. I’m particularly interested in visitors from outside the U.S. The international audience does not care about the heat, the food, the history—they’re here for the music and the uniqueness of our culture. They’re here mostly for the music. What New Orleans & Co. has always done is gone to big international travel trade shows and worked with the wholesalers, the people that package tours for travel agent retailers to sell to the consumer. I don’t believe as many people use travel agents as they used to, with the internet being able to have all the info you need to travel successfully. Of course, there are some people are more comfortable working with a travel agent who knows all the ins and outs of travel restrictions in these days of COVID.
New Orleans & Co. uses the internet extensively now, so I’d like to see them do their promotional work from the bottom up, from the consumer side, and not exclusively from the tour wholesaler side— just because that’s the way they’ve “always” operated.
And I agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be a new way of looking at things. We’ve got Grammy Award winners; we’ve got world-renowned artists right here. Why aren’t we using someone like Charlie Gabriel in a promotion instead of a stock photo? Like: tell the story of New Orleans. It resonates.
Will you be traveling a lot?
I’ll actually be on the road, three different cities in the next three days. I’m meeting with the person who’s the “night mayor” in DC. And literally I’m on the ground for like 18 hours and like more of those hours can be spent meeting with someone in Congress who’s doing hospitable living legislation, I’m going to do everything I can to, anytime I’m on the road, I’m going to talk to someone who can give me some input on what’s working for them as well as their problems.
Great, because you’re then finding out what’s being done elsewhere and if their problems and solutions are similar to ours.
But understand everywhere I go, no matter where I go, people hear the words “New Orleans,” and they lose their minds. There’s all these different initiatives and I think it’s—I like using the word “culture” rather than music. I do agree that we need to focus more on the musical part of it in particular as we’re promoting the city, because right now you can get a James Beard Award-winning chef in Des Moines, Iowa. You can. You couldn’t do that before the food scenes have changed dramatically over the last decade. I still believe that we have the best food here and the best restaurants and the best chefs. But the music and culture…
I’m just saying that restaurants and hospitality entities don’t need you as much.
Music is the linchpin that puts it all together. The music is what gives you this feeling you don’t understand. You see this show and, oh my God, it’s this life-changing experience. Where else does that happen? It doesn’t happen anywhere else. The magic is that you don’t understand why it moves you so much—that’s the music. But I like to say that the whole thing is “the culture.” We have something unique. It’s the whole experience. You land at the airport and this guy picks you up in an Uber and he talks about where to go eat, he talks about his mom‘n’em, and making groceries and all these little things that make us us, that are kind of quirky and fun and cute, but they’re real. If you’re in Dallas, all you’re seeing is nail salons and donut places and strip malls, that’s not New Orleans. Heck even Miami— we’re having conversations with Jam Cruise to move Jam Cruise for their 20th anniversary here.
Fantastic. There’s also the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, and a lot of other music-themed cruises.
New Orleans can do shows for two days on either side of a cruise. You can’t do that in Miami. Now, as a liaison, I can have that conversation with the Port of New Orleans. When someone comes up with an idea like this, you have to have an entity with the connections and the ability to connect the dots. I don’t run any of those agencies. I don’t have anything to do with any of those agencies, but I’m now the Director of the Office of Night Economy. “Hey, I’m calling, I’m with the City of New Orleans… ” .
Being affiliated with the Mayor’s office obviously lends credibility and respect.
That helps, too. And so, having the connections I’ve already got from across the country with independent venues, with promoters, with people that have come here and been at The Wolf. I think it adds a layer of credibility that will at some point wear off, or it’ll get stronger.
But the goal is to use that voice in the best positive way I can. So, when you want to ask what a win would be, a win to me is that people recognize everything I’m screaming from the rooftops about. You want something concrete? There are things I want to do, but I’m not going to talk about them, because it’s not about what I want. It’s about what the city needs, and what we think is viable, straight out of the gate.
The office is going to be four people, and that’s going to be huge, getting the right hires in place. Having somebody with policy experience, that can help us do white papers, that can help us, taking a look at how to craft legislation. I’ve already been approached by a lot of people that are like, “I want to help you with this. Tell me what I can do.” Or, “This is what I can do.”
We still need a comprehensive directory of music resources here, like OffBeat did with the Louisiana Music Directory for 16 years. What would be a quick win for you?
Musician loading zones.
That’s like a no-brainer, too. Should be easy.
Right. So, let’s say it’s Preservation Hall, and there’s a loading zone right there that ends at 7 p.m., so now you can park there. Why not just make it a 24-hour loading zone and give musicians a special permit for just those spots?
Yeah, that sounds easy..
I’m about to find out if it is or not. I think there are other places within the Quarter where they can do it, or other places where we can have musicians park. So, when they’re getting a $100-something bucks a gig, they’re not paying $40 for parking. That’s low-hanging fruit to me. I need to listen. I think I’ve gotten really good at that. You and I have talked a lot, and I can run my mouth with the best of them, but I’ve learned so much just sitting here, shutting up, and then being able to connect dots.
And so, I’m going to learn, and I’m going to try to connect dots everywhere I go.
You don’t mind people sending you suggestions, do you?
Absolutely. No, I want people to do that, because there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this on my own. I’m one person, with an office that has never existed before. But I’m putting the time and the effort in, because I believe in it, and I think it’s going to help not just the cultural economy, but it’s going to help my business too.
Well, speaking of your business, that’s a question I have. Are you going to continue to own the Howlin’ Wolf and do your management stuff as well? Do you think you’re going to catch any flack—for a conflict of interest?
We’ve already submitted something initially to the State Ethics Board. The job description said they needed somebody with extensive experience within the cultural economy. And the reply back [from the Ethics Board] was, “Yeah, this should pass muster. We don’t see this as being an issue.” Now, if I had control of a city budget that could put it there, or contracts or whatever, that would be an issue. I am president of a political action committee, so I will have to step down from that. I can’t be a city employee and lobby the city. So, I’ll make sure that I’m talking to city attorneys, if I believe there’s any kind of conflict, I’m going to get it approved.
My attitude is if I do this job and do it well, and raise and elevate the cultural economy as a whole, and my business does well but so does every other business, how is that a conflict? That’s literally my response to that. And as we were going through the process, I was very upfront and honest. No, I’m not going to get rid of The Wolf. I want to do this, and I think I can do it really well. But it’s not like I’m using city dollars to inflate The Wolf.
That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m referring to is, let’s say an entity like MACCNO doesn’t like something that comes down because of something that you recommended because they might say “Oh, well, this guy is always going to be on the club side, because he owns a club.”
No, not at all. When I was being vetted for the job, they asked a lot of questions, as part of the process. And again, this is a fire-able position. If they don’t like the way I’m doing it, I could be fired. I’m not a political appointee. If I have people in that office that are being recommended or referred wrongly or favored, there is a process to get rid of them, even if they are civil service. I am determined to build a great staff. I’m glad they did it this way, because when we advocated for it, Kristen Palmer was a big fan of that too. She’s like, “It didn’t want to be, ‘Okay. The administration changes now they’re going to put one of their friends in.’” The mayor was very upfront and honest about everything, as a part of this process. And their concern is also visibility and their concern is also ethics. I am keeping that in mind. I recognize that I represent the City of New Orleans, and in doing so I represent the Mayor of New Orleans. I think there’s a lot that this office can do to help the Mayor’s office. I can’t deal with crime and shootings. But what I can do is, “Hey, we’re bringing a cruise ship in. Hey, we’re going to have loading zones for musicians. Hey, we’re talking with the hotels, and we’re doing… ” We can come up with wins that are visible. Right now, I’m meeting and talking to as many people as possible because at this early stage I’m going to have a little bit more leeway and a little bit more power to actually meet people and have conversations that normally would not take place. So, I’m going to take advantage of that as much as I possibly can.
Like with the NOPD?
I think there are a bunch of questions that we have to ask, and I don’t think it’s just about getting them on the street. I do want to talk to Chief Ferguson. I do want to talk to Lieutenant Palumbo, and Gerard, in the Eighth District, and see what’s realistic. I think people, especially at that level, need a voice. And if this voice is going to go directly to the Mayor and her communications team, I think that can be helpful straight out of the gate. I’m going to abuse this as long as I can, until someone says, “Stay in your lane.” I’m not going to purposely go out of my lane. I’m not going to go to piss people off. My job is going to be to put things together, and I think I can be effective. And I think I’ll know in the first three to six months, where this is going to go. I think we have a very unique opportunity. When we talked about this a while ago and you’ve been recommending it and thinking about it over the years, did you ever imagine it would come up like this? Like, it would just be started from nothing and now it can actually evolve the way it should evolve? And I’m doing it outside of every other agency.
I’ve been advocating for change for many years… Do you know what it means to me and OffBeat, who’s felt like a voice crying in the wilderness for 35 years, to see something like this happen? I think I was probably way ahead of my time…
Well, I will work with Economic Development. Yeah, I sat with Jeffrey Schwarz [Director of Economic Development for the city]. I’ve got a standing meeting with him every week. I’m working with code enforcement, every Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m., I’ll meet with all these chiefs and directors and say, I’m going to ask them every week. “What can I do for you this week?”
We also need a concrete way to coalesce the people in the industry—musicians and music businesses—to create a situation where people feel like they’re all working together, and they’re part of an industry, something bigger than themselves. And if they have that one voice, they can change things. And you’re dealing with the cultural economy—whatever you want to call it—musicians and music businesses here. These are a group of very small, independent, scrappy entrepreneurs. And it’s really hard to get those kinds of people to work together. But if the LRA could do it…
So, in a nutshell, that’s my job. I think I’ve been a positive voice over the last two years. I think my actions have proven to anybody, that I am qualified to do this. That my mindset is there. Do I get paid for it, now? Yeah. But that’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing it because I believe that it’s my time… for “tikkun olam,” do you know what that is? Roughly translated from Hebrew it means, “repair the world.” You’re obligated to repair the world. To me, that means that you make the world better for everyone else and for you. And if everybody’s doing it, then the whole world’s a better place. So, when neighbors clean up their neighborhood together, or they do it on their own and they get other neighbors. Now you have a really great, clean neighborhood.
I think I have an obligation and an ability to change the world around me, to change it in a very positive way. And not just here, but to change the conversation, nationwide. Like, that’s the goal. You want to know what my goal is in the first year for New Orleans? For New Orleans to be a leader of the cultural economy movement, to recognize that the rest of the country is looking at us.
When I talk to Kate Becker (Night Mayor in Seattle), and she’s like, “This is exciting. It’s exciting.” Because it’s New Orleans. People want New Orleans to succeed. And I think that’s a great message.