If the City Council approves a proposed noise ordinance, Austin will have to stay weird quietly, and possibly without many nightclubs.
The first story was that council members Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley have issued a report that the way to fix Austin's ailing economy is to concentrate on what makes Austin the city it is, with a special emphasis on the cultural aspect. The noise ordinance article is about how, after more than a decade of paying lip service to helping the music community while doing absolutely nothing for it, the council may be aiming another dagger at its heart.
Music clubs are surprisingly fragile, hard to keep alive, difficult to nurture. The local live music scene depends on them. Politicians and business leaders constantly claim that they are thinking of strategies to help live music and the clubs. All they offer, however, are proposals, like this noise ordinance or the waiting-in-the-wings new anti-smoking charge, that directly hurt the clubs. The noise ordinance will cut shows, limit times, and create unbelievable headaches for the already beleaguered club owners. In these difficult times, clubs are having a hell of a time economically. Now the city may be rushing to kick them in the groin. This is help?
Eleven points worth thinking about:
1) Music clubs nurture the music scene.
Austin is what it is musically because it has so many clubs offering such a variety of options. Without clubs, there is no live music scene. Nashville, acknowledged as one of the music capitals of America for most of the last half-century, until recently didn't have much of a club scene. Despite the fact that most country music was produced in the town, it consequently had a notoriously flaccid local music scene.
2) The music scene, more often than making folks rich, drives people to ridiculous hours, second jobs, and/or different careers. Last year's club success doesn't guarantee next year's economic health.
Sure, there are some very successful club owners, but just as often keeping a club open is a daily, ongoing struggle, done for love more than money. The business is cyclical: Even the most successful clubs have had months or more when they lose money and owners have to reach deep to keep them open. A handful of musicians do very well financially, living off their music. Most have other jobs and are dependent on the club scene for money, nurturing, growing audiences, and improving their music.
3) Everybody in Austin praises the live music scene; nobody does anything to help it.
Politicians pay lip service, economic planners praise, business leaders boast, and city promoters adopt idiot slogans like "The Live Music Capital of the World" in the service of the Austin music scene. Club owners and staff are the ditch diggers that really keep the water flowing. The scene so many celebrate wouldn't be what it is if not for the clubs.
4) Running a club is a bitch.
Figuring out what music will attract crowds isn't rocket science, but it might be almost as difficult in its own way. In the latter, basic equations don't change, and future knowledge can be built on past knowledge. Musical tastes change all the time: Audiences are fickle, new acts that attract audiences hard to grow. None of it is certain.
And filling the club (with, it is hoped, drinkers who will patronize the bar, which is where most clubs earn their livings) may be the easy part. Outside of the avalanche of rules and regulations, there are security, liability, insurance, and personnel issues. Ordering liquor is a fine art: Too much impacts the bottom line; not enough means you might run out. Booking and presenting the music can be a minefield. Agents try to pit clubs against each other to improve guarantees for road shows. Some managers regard most owners as thieves. Bands can be road-worn and constantly unhappy. Locally, musicians are often flaky, hard to communicate with, and/or possessing little or no following. At the end of the long, loud, smoke-filled night, the owner can have little to show for the effort except the complaints of a patron, a band member, or one of the staff.
5) Clubs are already suffocated by red tape, regulations, rules, and concerned agencies.
Their concerns are endless. Permits, zoning restrictions, layers of applicable rules, and ongoing building maintenance cause daily headaches. Club patrons are often not overly genteel, and the physical wear and tear on buildings, combined with keeping them in compliance with building codes, especially plumbing, is brutal. There is an army of regulatory agents who impact the business, often with regular visits, including but not limited to the TABC, the police, the fire inspectors, city and state tax collectors, and the labor-law folks.
6) The local club scene is already in trouble.
Clubs are closing and others are struggling to stay alive. Even the most successful aren't seeing the kind of revenue they did two years back.
7) Supporting music, especially the kinds Austin is known for, isn't necessarily very pretty.
The music can be loud, aggressive, and/or obnoxious. Patrons drink and smoke. They go to clubs to flirt, drink, smoke, dance, listen, and love. They go to get drunk, see and be seen, get laid, hear a favorite band or discover a new one, criticize, argue, talk to friends, and even to pick a fight.
Musicians can be obnoxious, out of control, angry, and ridiculous. They can be loud, dangerous, vulgar, brilliant, and/or awful.
These descriptions don't represent all or even most of the scene, but they are part of the fertile soil in which Austin music grows. Supporting live music demands endorsing if not condoning these activities. To say, as is so often said, "I love live music but ..." is ridiculous. "I love live music but ... it should be softer," "shouldn't go so late," "the rooms shouldn't be so smoky," "patrons shouldn't drink so much." Music is what it is, and regulating it strangles it.
8) Great popular music is inherently revolutionary -- it's designed not to get along with the norm.
This doesn't mean that minors should be allowed to drink, the drunk to drive, the violent to fight. It does mean that there are already a hell of a lot of laws in place and, lately, "loving live music but ..." is loving Austin music not at all.
9) New regulations only make this worse.
The noise ordinance will be especially destructive. Noise is incredibly difficult to measure. Unlike blood alcohol content or vehicle speed, there is no clear-cut standard. When Andy Langer wrote about the noise ordinance in the Chronicle last spring ("Keeping the Peace," austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2002-05-03/music_feature.html ), we really found this out. Different sources offered different ways of measuring; acknowledged experts wrote in with varying and even contradictory accounts. There is high-end noise and low-end noise and who knows what else. Sending the police around with basic noise measuring devices is inherently flawed. Go by a construction site, stand in freely moving heavy traffic, observe a power lawnmower, watch a moving train, follow a garbage truck, use a leaf blower, or attend a particularly boisterous council meeting with a noise meter and read the results.
Proactively trying to meet the standards of this ordinance will involve expensive construction, overly restrictive caution, and curtailed booking. Paying the fines that are sure to accumulate and living with the consequences of consistent citations, which seems inevitable, will hurt all affected clubs and close some of them.
10) Noise is annoying and causes problems in the lives of people forced to live near it.
A livable downtown like the one Austin has promoted for more than a decade is probably crucial to the city's health. So is the music scene. There aren't easy answers. The noise ordinance may solve one group's problems, but it is creating potentially fatal problems for the other.
11) "The Live Music Capital of the World" has always been a regrettable and obnoxious phrase thought up by those who probably almost never actually support the clubs.
Robert Frost once said that "Poet" was a gift title: Others could call you that, but you couldn't claim the title yourself. Claiming the "Capital" title is embarrassing (though now we should amend it to "The Quieter Live Music Capital ...").
If this ordinance is passed, I vote for a brand new name: "The Lip Service Capital of the World," a gift title that, sadly, council, business, and community leaders will have earned. It reflects the unfortunate distance between the talk they talk and the walk they walk when it comes to actually supporting Austin's most vital culture.
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