Context on the Live Music Debate

January 21st, 2011 · 19 Comments · By

As many of you have already heard, this has been a tumultuous week for live music in Charlottesville. I wanted to take a moment to try to provide a little more information about what’s going on, what it all means, and firstly dispel a few rumors.

  • Rumor #1: City Council wants to ban live music at most places.

Let’s make sure we all understand up front that this is definitely not the case. This is also not about safety or noise issues. This is strictly about existing zoning laws, and what can and cannot legally exist in certain areas. And there’s plenty to suggest that, so far, the city is being receptive to our concerns.

  • Rumor #2: This is a new law.

Again, this is simply a resolution seeking to find a way to enforce rules that are already on the books, without overly disrupting businesses. Essentially, the council and Tolbert are trying to do the right thing, but in exactly the wrong way. Instead of just changing the rules to say ‘okay, you’re all legal now, go about your business’, they’re trying to make everybody get expensive and time-consuming permits (except, of course, for the unfortunate few who cannot get one at all).

  • Rumor #3: This is all Jim Tolbert’s fault.

Then why is this happening if it’s not all Jim Tolbert’s fault? I’ll explain. Jim Tolbert’s job, unfortunate as it may be, is to oversee and enforce zoning code. Now it just so happens that all of these businesses with live music have been operating illegally according to the zoning code, like it or not, since 2003 when the code went into effect (thus the grandfathering clause which exempts businesses that were around prior to 2003, and therefore technically legal). So if this has been on the books since 2003, then why the heck is Jim Tolbert enforcing these rules now? He tells us, late in the City Council last Tuesday, after we’d all left, but thankfully available on video.

Mayor Norris: Perhaps, Mr. Tolbert, just give us a little bit more background about why this is before us and what the intent is and what the intent is not.

Jim Tolbert: Thank you. I would love that opportunity, since this is, uh, I think that the characterizations earlier were not quite correct, a misunderstanding that may have been caused by some media attention this morning. Uh, as you know I sent you an email, a memo, a month and a half ago and said this is an issue that we’re trying to deal with and here’s basically where we are and heard from at least one of you who said, as it was said, confronted me in the hallway and said “don’t do this”. So I never really wanted to, just wanted to help you understand the problem, the issue we have is that our zoning code allows music halls in certain areas, certain areas it requires special use permits, and some places it doesn’t allow at all, and that’s the way the zoning code’s written and yet over the last couple years we’ve had quite a few places that started life as something else, as a restaurant or as a book store, and because times have been tough, they’ve added music. And as a general rule, and all but maybe two of those, there’s no problem with what they’re doing, yet when I get a phone call from a venue whose gone through and jumped through the hoops of getting a Special Use Permit, for instance and says, “Why did I have to pay my $1500, go through a public hearing process, be subject to maybe getting open and maybe not getting open, and I’ve got a competitor down here who you’re not even regulating, not doing anything with”, and I don’t have a good response to that except we’re studying it and trying to figure out how to best deal with it. One option is to make all those places go through the process like everybody else did and get a special use permit.

Got it? Jim Tolbert says he’s responding to complaints from a venue owner who has gone through the permit process (so the complainant was either The Southern, The Jefferson, The Paramount, or Club 216). That’s why this is happening. Otherwise, this whole thing would be a non-issue. Jim Tolbert’s actually been doing us a favor by looking the other way of minor infractions for the last seven years, but now his hand was forced by a complaint from a permit-holder.

Now the important thing isn’t really who’s responsible for setting this all in motion, though I think the context is worth considering. What’s really important is what we, as a community, do next. The council needs to hear from those of us with an interest in preserving live music in Charlottesville, and in as calm and rational a way possible. There’ll be some meetings coming up and I’ll do my best to keep you all informed about that. Getting a permit to be in compliance with code costs $1500, a cost that is prohibitive for many small venues and doesn’t guarantee that the venues will actually be granted the permits. So we need to lobby council to change the code so that a permit is no longer necessary. Simple as that, really. There are plenty of other existing rules, sound ordinances and otherwise, to keep venues in check. Again, the council has seemed receptive to these concerns, and we have good reason for optimism, so long as we approach the city with a positive, constructive approach, and not a rabble-rousing mob scene.

Tags: charlottesville · news · rants & rambles

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt // Jan 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks Jacob, for someone who’s out of the loop on this topic, I really appreciate this. Well written.

  • 2 Friday Night // Jan 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    […] Yer Bird Records ← Context on the Live Music Debate […]

  • 3 Adamius // Jan 21, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Jacob, very well written, and very fair. I would like to propose some other “middle grounds” that could be considered. I really don’t see any reason why a live music special use permit needs to cost $1500! How about a $500 permit? I guess it’s like a co-pay…part of the theory of it’s existence is that the Board or the Council may not be ready say, “Just let ANYbody play live music…even next door neighbor businesses that drown each other out.” Charging SOMEthing makes businesses consider the prospect a little harder. But, at the same time, $1500 seems like an arbitrarily high number. It means the only live music that will remain will assuredly be cover-charged music. Which knocks out a whole milieu of acts and styles of music…it may even knock out the chance of hearing a piano at a nice restaurant. Another consideration could be demonstrating an ability to “contain” noise with directional speakers (like vineyards have recently had to do to host wedding receptions) or through insulation. Another possibility is having different permits for different hours. Like a noon to 7PM outdoor permit, which could be cheaper than a 7PM to midnight permit. These are all just ideas, just to point out that there is a lot of room for creativity here. It sounded in your article like someone might pay the $1500 and not even be allowed to have music…that should definitely NOT happen. If you don’t get what you apply for, you should get your application fee back. That’s only fair. I also think your point is well taken…why do we need permits, since there is already a sound ordinance? If I’m complying with that ordinance, who should be able to tell me what KIND of noise I’m allowed to make in my business? A permit should only be required to get some allowance to make MORE noise than what the sound ordinance permits.

  • 4 colin // Jan 21, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Thanks, Jacob! So, my two centszz (wow, this became really long) : I’m actually somewhat encouraged by the city council meeting in that it appears that our councilors (including the mayor) are not at all interested in enforcing the code as written, and are committed to finding a more appropriate and fair means of handling this issue.

    I will say that on a certain level the code-enforcement argument is valid; venues under similar zoning requirements should be treated similarly. It’s the law, and the city is obliged to enforce it. In this sense, the case against the permit fee should not be “we can’t afford it” which is somewhat vague. Nor should the argument be “there are other regulations in place and such permits should not exist” as the Planning Commission obviously had a goal in mind when seeking to issue permits for music halls – it’s a health/safety and fireproofing issue, covered by statewide building codes.

    Instead, it seems most constructive to focus on the fact that these are different types of venues, and focus on that as the reason that the code should be modified. Maybe the most appropriate thing is to impose a scaling fee structure, wherein buildings with small occupancies would not be subject to the same fees and expectations as buildings with larger occupancies. Seems fair. Maybe the definition of “music hall” could be clarified and refined (perhaps that also revolves around an expected maximum occupancy). Perhaps a separate and less comprehensive classification could be written into the code to allow for restaurants that provide incidental and/or occasional live music.

    I remember someone making the point that venues like the Jefferson are music halls that occasionally serve food, whereas venues like the The Box or the Tea Bazaar are restaurants that occasionally act as music halls. Finding a quantifiable and enforce-able means of addressing that difference is the key, and working under this paradigm might help to make us seem less of an angry mob and more as logical, participative members in Charlottesville’s music scene.

    tl, dr: the solution shouldn’t be zero enforcement, but more precise and logical enforcement.

  • 5 Cricket Jaber // Jan 21, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Live music on the Downtown Mall is one of the many things that makes downtown Charlottesville unique. I’m living in Hawaii now, but have fond memories of the many music opportunities there. Keep up the good work, Jacob!!!

  • 6 Jacob // Jan 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Wow, really digging these constructive responses!

    Adamius: The $1500 figure, according to Tolbert, exists simply to offset whatever cost is incurred in, well, whatever the heck happens when a permit application is reviewed. I dunno, sending out an inspector or something and then doing all the paperwork? Got me. But yeah, that seems pretty darn steep. If the permits must exist, they certainly need to be much, much cheaper. But I don’t see the need for them at all, since nobody’s been getting permits before now and we really haven’t had much problem.

    Colin: You make a good point about common sense distinctions between various venues, and must the permits continue to exist, a think a scaled pay structure is a potential solution. However, we don’t have a single venue in town that, to my knowledge, is causing any problems. So why enforce a law just because it’s a law? If it doesn’t make sense, change it. Like I said, I think we’ve got plenty of other existing and enforceable rules that account for health and safety issues.

  • 7 Max Fenton // Jan 22, 2011 at 2:24 am

    Thanks for taking the time to explain this clearly, Jacob. Good to remember Nailgun is more than just what’s on the calendar.

  • 8 colin // Jan 22, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Jacob – I actually interact with building codes at my day job – the fee likely pays for man-hours for an inspector to make a site visit and review construction documents.

    My sense is that the building code reads in such a way that the “music hall” category defines a set of more stringent criteria that a venue must follow, based upon the fairly unique case of heavy concentrations of people in relatively small spaces. When an engineer designs structural or fireproofing systems for the Jefferson, say, he needs to have a set of guidelines to follow that reflect the type of use that the building should expect.

    So, that being stated, the “music hall” definition is absolutely necessary for larger venues; it covers a building use that is unique.

    I am almost positive that the code provides a list of building types and associative criteria, but leaves it to municipalities to define what makes a specific type of building. Like any entity presiding over health and safety, the city just wants to make sure that it has something to stand on in the case that somebody does get hurt. The challenge will be to find a way to justify to the city that it is appropriate and correct to classify smaller venues differently. Luckily, it appears that our city council does not intend to have blood on its proverbial hands.

    So, yeah – I’d argue that the stringent music hall criteria are indeed necessary, but only if the building is actually a “music hall”

  • 9 Drewphocles // Jan 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Excellent read Jacob

    It seems that the very basic issue here is the legal definition of “music hall,” which Colin says can be defined by the city. It would be overly broad, and unnecessary, to define ALL live music venue this way. There are marked differences between venues’ square footage, maximum occupancy, revenue ratios, etc., which show that a blanket policy is unfair. There’s just no need for the Tea Bazaar to be held to the same standard as The Jefferson.

    So the city needs a new definition for the smaller venues, maybe “mixed use” or “essential to the character of Downtown Charlottesville”. I dunno, I’m not good with names …

  • 10 Jesse Dukes // Jan 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Great reporting Jacob, and I think you’ll do well with the tone and approach you’re taking.

  • 11 BC // Jan 23, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    God I love zoning. What would Jane Jacobs think?

  • 12 Madeline // Jan 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks, everyone for an informative read. It’s amazing how fast rumors can spread. We played at Cville Coffee on Saturday and I received several , “Hey – aren’t they shutting their live music down?” inquiries. Now I kow how to respond!

  • 13 Sir Puffers // Jan 25, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Hmmm, it seems easy to guess that this is The Southern complaining about The Tea Bazaar. Facts seem simple to me. The Jefferson seems to do just fine. The Paramount I’m sure has no problems really. Club 216, as far as I know, does okay. The Southern, now, they might have reason to complain. One, The Tea Bazaar has a lot of shows during the week, many which could easily be considered ‘competition’ to shows at The Southern. Two, The Tea Bazaar shows are reasonably priced, The Southern, well, any time I’ve been moderately interested in a show the price tag turned me off. Sorry, but lots of us have to be thrift with our money today and when it comes to paying $5 for a show with a couple cool bands and like $15 for two, I’m going with the former. If this is a way to try to eliminate competition, if it is indeed The Southern, that guy just really is an asshole.

  • 14 MzFitz // Jan 25, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Sir Puffers, identify yourself.

    You have no idea what you’re talking about.

  • 15 hmmmm // Jan 25, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Blood Libel!

  • 16 James // Jan 25, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Your assumptions are not totally unreasonable, however I want to repeat what I wrote when this was first posted:

    I want to emphasize that Nailgun is presenting this information in the hopes of spearheading a positive campaign for local music support, and NOT to encourage any sort of foolish witch-hunt about who may or may not have “started it.” The important thing is that we have the opportunity to work had to protect what’s great about music in Charlottesville.

  • 17 Sir Puffers // Jan 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Not trying to spark the flames or anything, I just like it when people who have problems like this bring it to each other first. I’m pretty sure Jacob and Andy talk to each other or at least know who each other are. If he had a problem he could have talked to him first and perhaps discussed other ways of organizing shows to try to avoid conflict instead of simply putting the cuffs on him. Tough times, but it’s not time to be a punk.

  • 18 James // Jan 25, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    I feel the need to point out that Andy has consistently denied his involvement his involvement in any of this, and many of those close to him have backed him up. (Although that hasn’t stopped a great many folks from assuming he was the “culprit,” as you did.)

    But like I just said, let’s please NOT turn this into a scapegoating discussion about whom to blame.

    The good news is that the folks on City Council and Jim Tolbert all want for there to continue to be plentiful live music in Charlottesville. (Actually, it seems pretty much EVERYone feels that way, other than perhaps a certain loud&opinionated Graves St. resident / opera enthusiast). And we’re all hoping that in the near future, the City will be able to get it’s ducks in a row, legally, so that the music we’ve all been enjoying can continue. At the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters?

  • 19 Music Meeting at Random Row, Hand Video Shoot // Jan 30, 2011 at 3:52 pm

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