Another Side of Jazz Fest

Unlicensed entrepreneurs abound — and so do their unwanted affects
illustration by Tony Healey
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


I live two blocks outside the side gate of Jazz Fest, which means that if you ever want to see the good, the bad and the ugly of street-level micro-entrepreneurship, pass through my neighborhood at this time of year.

In the morning, the entrepreneurial scene is relatively subdued: a few neighbors selling water out of coolers, and the “How ya gonna clap?” guy hawking those drink cozies that hang around your neck.

After the fest, things get more intense. Many more people sell water and beer; I guess after paying $6 for a mass-produced beer all day, paying $3 sounds like a good deal. And my neighbors are operating no-overhead businesses, so that 200 percent markup means a tidy profit.

It’s another step up to the people selling jello shots, and here’s where things start to get a little sketchy. First, those plastic containers end up all over the neighborhood. Second, you can down a bunch of those in a hurry if you are so inclined, which leads quickly to some unfortunate behaviors. There are frequently unpleasant aromas in the air the next morning; our landscaping is routinely damaged, and two years ago someone actually broke a window in my car.

A couple people take this even further, setting up mini-bars in the street. One of them promotes cheap double-alcohol drinks. This has repercussions far beyond damage to the neighborhood: professional bartenders are trained to identify over-served customers and cut them off — street-level purveyors, not so much. I enjoy adult beverages too, but I also favor responsibility and — should it come to that — liability.

Other people sell food. This too brings up questions of responsibility and liability if someone gets sick and contributes to the amount of trash we pick up each morning.

The final piece is that quite a few people have begun inviting bands to set up in front of their houses to play for tips. The resulting cacophony now means that hanging out with friends in our back yards after the fest is frequently not such a pleasant experience.

Needless to say, none of the above entrepreneurs pays any kind of license fee to the city, nor is anyone collecting sales taxes. Also, clothing and art are popular items for sale, plenty of it with Jazz Fest connections; this too is done without any license to use the festival’s copyrighted images and trademarks. While I doubt these activities are having any seriously detrimental impact on established neighborhood businesses, the city’s revenue stream or Jazz Fest, it’s all completely unregulated and under the table.

All this is not to throw cold water on a festive environment in one of the world’s most festive cities. However, entrepreneurs at every level have responsibilities, beginning with being mindful of the impacts created by one’s business. It would be delightful if the jello-shot people had a few trash bags with them and even policed the area before they went home. It would be most considerate to invite your musician friends to play two or three nights instead of imposing their sounds on the neighborhood every single night.

And it would certainly be good to reduce the number of really drunk people who do real damage to our property – and could potentially do much worse on their way home.

I admire and enjoy the enterprising spirit of my neighbors (less so those people who come from somewhere else to set up shop). It’s not a big deal that people are profiting off the festival while not paying any fees, though on a larger scale it would become problematic. Yet I do feel that even at this micro level, entrepreneurship is a privilege that comes with responsibilities, and I encourage all entrepreneurs to consider the consequences — good and bad — that they create.