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How sound permits regulate the Austin music scene

Friday, December 3, 2021 by Willow Higgins

In the Live Music Capital of the World, sound and noise policy is critical both to those who enjoy the entertainment industry and those who live within earshot. On Wednesday, the city’s Environmental Commission was briefed on the different types of sound permits and how they are enforced. While sound management is in the commission’s purview, it doesn’t often focus on the subject, so it called on the Development Services Department, which manages amplified sound in the city, to better educate commissioners on the process.

Brian Block, the DSD’s entertainment services manager, explained that general sound issues like parties or backyard events are regulated by one-size-fits-all restrictions. But entertainment-related sound in a city like Austin, he said, calls for a more nuanced program that can accommodate various contexts.

“Austin is one of the few cities in the U.S. that has a really robust program and process for entertainment-related sound,” Block said. “(The program) supports live music and nightlife and entertainment by allowing them to get this permit. And it enables staff to … provide customized and context-sensitive (permits that balance) robust live music and entertainment (with) maintaining residential quality of life.”

Block explained that most indoor entertainment venues can meet requirements just by closing their doors and windows. Most of their concern lies with outdoor amplified sound, for which there are three types of permits: 1) Outdoor music venue permits for commercial establishments; 2) temporary permits for commercial establishments that would like to amplify sound on a one-time basis; and 3) outdoor amplified sound at special events.

From permit application to enforcement, city staffers are hands-on in the process. Their goal is to help the venue’s management “allow as much sound inside the establishment as possible and limit what’s coming out,” Block said. The staff stays up to date on sound-mitigating design, like the orientation of stages and speakers, architectural improvements and new technology that may help venues ramp up their volume without disturbing the neighbors.

The DSD took over sound amplification management in January. When it began the project early this year, complaints were flooding in constantly, said David Chapman, environmental division manager, who focuses on permit enforcement and compliance. 

If an establishment violates its permit four times in 45 days, the permit can be suspended. If the venue is caught making a peep during its suspension, it can have its permit revoked or even incur a fine.

Chapman made it clear that the department would like to avoid any punitive measures; its goal is to work with managers to help them achieve compliance without putting a stop to the fun. DSD staff members are out at the bars every night of the week to check for permit compliance and manage complaints. By now, most people in the local industry know the city staffers and are willing to work with them. And the DSD has yet to have to revoke any permits.

“We shake hands with door guys every night,” Chapman said. “Well, fist bump now. We’re in communication with them even when they’re doing good. I like to see my guys give them props for doing good, too.” 

The DSD enforcement team regularly manages sound complaints submitted via the 311 app, and encourages Austinites to call if they suspect a violation. When a complaint is submitted, a staff member should be on-site within 30 minutes to try to resolve the issue.

Chapman said compliance isn’t quite where he wants it to be yet, but they’re getting there.

“If they’re doing their part, we should be able to come up and say, OK, we got this complaint, but it’s invalid. That’s where we’re trying to get to.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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