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Music venues may face new rules as city adjusts ‘agent of change’ proposal

Friday, May 5, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin officials have made significant changes to a pair of proposed policies affecting the city’s live music economy, and will spend much of May presenting them to local boards and community groups ahead of an expected early June vote by City Council.

The policies – the so-called “agent of change” principle and an entertainment license requirement for some music venues – are intended to address friction between live music businesses and residential or other development in close proximity. Those issues have flared up a handful of times in recent years but could become more of a concern if the city adopts the CodeNEXT building code that calls for denser clusters of housing and businesses around transportation corridors.

The biggest change in the proposals is the removal of a requirement that all live music venues would have to obtain an entertainment license that would make it easier for city officials to monitor violations of sound limits or other ordinances and gather data on all live music venues in the Austin nightlife economy.

The revised proposal would be an extension of sorts of current policy that only requires a license and sound impact plan for outdoor venues, though it also includes a provision that specifies clubs that leave doors or windows open while music plays will be classified as an outdoor venue.”

That provision makes it possible for long-established venues without an outdoor stage to qualify for protection under the agent of change policy, which will place the burden of impact mitigation and awareness on whoever moves into an area. And the city’s Music and Entertainment Division would likely try to implement a license system for all music venues in two years.

“The reality is that lots of the issues focused on sound, and because those come up lots more for outdoor venues instead of indoor we decided for now to limit it,” said Alex Lopez, deputy director of the city’s Economic Development Department. “There are other issues for venues, and we need to complete the good neighbor policy that was started and modeled after San Francisco but never completed.”

The changes were made based on feedback gathered at a series of public input sessions held early this year. Those sessions saw a mix of support for both policies, with club owners saying the entertainment license would be an unnecessary regulation with no benefits, and residents saying the city is offering a false sense of security for venue owners who might obey sound regulations but could still legally be considered a nuisance.

At Monday’s Music Commission meeting the proposals received a 9-0 vote of support with the added request that city staff look at creating a sort of fast-track renewal process for the two-year licenses if the venue in question had no sound or other violations during the previous two years.

Commissioner Graham Reynolds said he supports focusing on the friction and other issues facing outdoor venues for now, and expects revisions to the policy to take place once it is in effect.

“I like that as part of this the music office will be there to assist with issues (clubs) face with building permits and anything else, and there will be someone there for you and that is on your side, so to speak,” he said. “There’s enough steps in the right direction and while it’s not perfect, I don’t want to get caught up and let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Another change coming to the live music ecosystem comes with the music office’s hiring of David Scally, a program coordinator and longtime musician dedicated to late night and weekend interactions with all music venues in the city.

Scally’s role will be to keep tabs on trends and issues affecting clubs, and acting as a resource for operators who might not be aware of the city’s desire to bolster the live music economy.

Brian Block, the recently hired entertainment services manager, called Scally’s hiring a “game changer” because the city will be able to interact with businesses that predominantly don’t operate during normal business hours.

This story has been changed to clarify that current policy that only requires a license and sound impact plan for outdoor venues. Photo by Nan Palmero made available through a Creative Commons license.

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