Howard “Howie” Kaplan is an active part of the New Orleans music community. So much so, in fact, that the venue owner (Howlin’ Wolf), manager (Rebirth Brass Band), NIVA precinct captain and community activist (Meals For Musicians), was just named the Director of Office the city’s Nighttime Economy, i.e. “The Nightlife Mayor.” With increasingly more municipalities understanding the economic benefits nightlife and live entertainment provide and cities like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and elsewhere adding nightlife culture to their political portfolio, we caught up with Kaplan to find out more about him, his purview, what he hopes to accomplish and “being at the table and not on the menu.”
Pollstar: We met at the NIVA Conference in Cleveland where you won an award for your community service, what was that about?
Howie Kaplan: It was for the community work we did during the pandemic, starting up a program called Meals For Musicians that fed over 50,000 meals to the culture bearers and hospitality workers and first responders, getting them healthcare and access to healthcare and a bunch of different government services that they’d never had, which was crucial to keeping the culture bearers ready to go during the pandemic. Also, after Hurricane Ida, we lost power in New Orleans for about a week. With the Meals For Musicians program, we had over 100 restaurants empty their freezers and fridges and did over 20,000 meals in eight days with no power.
Nice. And owning The Howlin’ Wolf, too, aren’t civic activities part of your M.O.?
It’s an important part of any business to be a responsible member of the community. I know that sounds like a line, but that’s just part of what you should be doing. I’ve always just done that stuff. I used to be on the board of the Make-a-Wish Foundation here; I was a wish grantor for a lot of years. We did a lot of non-profit work in particular after Hurricane Katrina hit; we did fundraisers for just about any charity that needed a space because our space was still in shape. That needs to be a part of every business plan, and you find a lot of venues and a lot of folks that see it the same way.
What did you learn from your Katrina experiences?
You can’t put all your eggs in one basket and especially in a city like New Orleans or a city that faces repetitive loss and where things can shut you down. What we did was start managing bands. The first one, whom we still manage to this day, and that is my heart and soul, is the Grammy-Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band.
And they’re fantastic individuals, tremendous musicians and we got the opportunity to take them on. God forbid something shuts the city down again, we can take our music and put it on the road. That was the impact Katrina had, it took our culture and scattered it. So now you have a brass band scene in Portland that didn’t exist before 2005. The lesson we learned is that you constantly need to be evolving in a city like New Orleans that truly counts on its culture. You need to be constantly thinking about what the next steps are. You need to be constantly thinking about how you can become better at what you do. And NIVA kind of opened the way for that.
How did NIVA do that?
I wasn’t looking to put more on my plate, but at the time my venue wasn’t opened, my bands weren’t working and I saw an opportunity to make a difference, not just for the city of New Orleans. The city got $118 million in Shuttered Venue Operator Grant dollars – those are real dollars that stay in the city and are spent on artists, employees, venues, and that’s just money for New Orleans.
Did working for NIVA help you segue into becoming Nightlife Mayor?
The NIVA thing really opened my eyes. We had all the precinct captains and it showed the power of what we were doing. This movement for nighttime economy directors or night mayor is something that’s been going on for a while. You can look at different studies that show for every dollar spent in an independent venue, $12 to $15 goes back in direct spending into the economy. To just talk about the music or the culture is great, but we’re forgetting that it’s called a cultural economy for a reason.
There seems to be a national movement for more nightlife mayors, I know New York’s had one for a while.
That’s Ariel (Palitz), she’s awesome. It started here about eight years ago when Jan Ramsey, who was the editor of a local music magazine called OffBeat, wrote an article saying other cities were doing this, that we needed to do it here because we need a connection between the city and the cultural economy as a whole. About three years ago, the mayor put together part of her staff – two council members sent representatives as well – and they went to meet with Kate Becker in Seattle, and Jocelyn (Kane) in San Francisco, who I was literally on the phone with 10 minutes ago. They met to see how they do this with different models, what Ariel does in New York, what Joe (Reilly) does in Iowa City, all these people. They recognize New Orleans is very unique and has an abundance of culture. Every other city wants to be New Orleans culturally, they want the reality of what we have on a day-to-day basis, the abundance of wealth of everything that is music, food, architecture and the people; there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world, so it started from there.
When did you get involved?
I came on board about a year and a couple of months ago and recognized this was something that was already going on and met with one of the council members who had been advocating for it, and that was the Mayor, and started the process and went in front of the City Planning Commission and they proposed an independent Office of Nighttime Cultural Economy. There was, I think from GNO Inc (Greater New Orleans, Inc), one of the city’s economic development arms, the New Orleans Musical Economy, the NOME initiative, so there’d been a movement. I just came along at the right time and helped pushed it across the goal line. I wasn’t going to apply for the job, I just wanted the job created. As more conversations took place, I recognized I had the ability to do it, I was in a place to be able to do it, and this is something I would be good at.
How will the Nightlife Mayor and the cultural economy you’re promoting help venues, managers, promoters, agents and artists and the rest of the live ecosystem?
It helps in every aspect. What an office like this brings to the table and what someone with my experience brings to the table is, you’ve got someone who understands how to book a show, how to run a venue, how to manage a band, so you’re creating policy or implementing procedures that will impact these people. It gives those folks a seat at the table. There’s a quote I really love, and I probably said it a few times, it’s from Anne Richards, the old Governor of Texas. She said, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
As an independent venue owner, you know better than most small venues are still struggling, are there things you can do to ameliorate the pain?
I hope so. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I can wave a magic wand or get money that’s going to change that. The biggest changes will come in a macro way from changing how the business environment is viewed, how venues, bars and restaurants and every part of the hospitality experience are recognized and putting dollars into it to reap benefits outside of it. It you look at different cities, like the Red River Cultural District and what Cody (Cowan) is doing (in Austin), and what Chris Naoum is doing in D.C. with harmonious living legislation – all of these are things are positive changes. Before, it’s like, “Oh God, we’re a music club. I hope the neighbors don’t complain…” Now we have processes in place that can talk about mediation or harmonious living legislation. Now, if you’re going to build this out, you’ve got to make sure it’s soundproof. If you’re going to open a venue, you got to make sure you operate it in a fashion that goes with what the city allows. Starting with that process takes the battle out of it. It’s not neighbors against neighbors. In a city like New Orleans, you’ve got 50,000 people in the hospitality industry: the people that live in the neighborhoods are in the industry, they’re your neighbors. You can’t just ignore what they do and how they make their living. It’s getting all the people at the table, creating solutions instead of just complaining about the problems.