It’s the law, chief

Sac’s live-music scenes thrive in spite of venue closures and city-code conundrums

Your friendly neighborhood basement show: definitely illegal.

Your friendly neighborhood basement show: definitely illegal.

Photo By Nick Miller

Music is not a crime. Right?

Of course not. So why do so many live-music venues, or what Sacramento city code refers to as “entertainment establishments,” keep getting busted, shut down or cited?

This year alone there’ve been numerous casualties. The Upstairs, an alternative-rock venue inside the Country Club Lanes bowling alley on Watt Avenue, recently went on hiatus for not passing inspection. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Orangevale closed its doors as a punk-rock venue this July. Midtown’s Bricka Bracka stopped doing shows pretty much as soon as it started. The city sucked all nine lives out of CoolCat Gallery, an art collective/venue in Midtown. God denied The Underground in Roseville, a church-operated all-ages club.

Life isn’t easy for music in Sacramento if you want to operate by the book. For starters, you need an entertainment permit, which means paperwork: five forms, including a general application, floor-plan outline and various police-department documents. Then, you have to throw down a $756 nonrefundable fee, and also pay $59.50 to process your fingerprints.

Next, the city evaluates your application: whether the proposed venue is in compliance with zoning, housing and building codes, and other stipulations. The city manager assesses the request and then approves or denies it. If denied, you can appeal (good luck with that). If approved, the city still can impose restrictions on your venue, which you also can appeal (good luck with that). To serve wine, beer or booze, you’ll have to apply for a permit with Alcoholic Beverage Control, which further complicates entertainment-permit matters.

And if all goes well, you’ll eventually get that entertainment permit—which is only valid for two years; in 24 months, your venue will have to go through the entire process all over again. No long-term security for your investment of tens of thousands of dollars of live-music equipment. No long-term security for the upgrades made to your “entertainment establishment.” Put on killer live shows for a couple years—maybe too killer—and the city still can deny your entertainment-permit renewal and leave you high and dry.

Music is not a crime. Right?

Somehow, musicians gig on: clubs, bars, coffeehouses, living rooms, basements, schools, clothing boutiques, art galleries, tattoo shops, parking lots. Most shows are legit, but many are illegal, clandestine or fall into a gray area.

Lately, for example, venue operators have cited city code 5.108.040, “Exemption from the permit requirement,” as a means to put on live shows while sidestepping bureaucracy. Owners argue that their establishments are “private clubs … not primarily for monetary gain,” and therefore aren’t subject to permitting. CoolCat and Fools Foundation, two venues that put on incredible, safe and well-attended indie shows, were shut down while operating as private clubs.

Meanwhile, fishy laws abound. For instance, city code 1.04.080 stipulates that during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” everyone has to render a salute to the flag, a rule even Sen. Barack Obama occasionally breaks. Now that’s red tape you can believe in.

It gets worse: At a house show last month in Midtown, residents forgot to pay their SMUD bill, which meant no music in the basement that evening. But Sacramentans persevered: People brought candles—a ton—and the show went on in low-decibel fashion.

Which, of course, still was too loud for the city. According to code 12.72.110, amplified sound cannot “exceed a noise level of fifty-five (55) dBA on any residential property.” So how much noise is 55 decibels? According to Wikipedia, normal conversational speech at a foot apart is 60 decibels; a violin ranges from 82 to 92 decibels. So if there’s a psychedelic rock band in your basement—even without amplification—you’re probably not breaking the sound barrier, but you’re definitely breaking the law, chief.

SN&R by no means endorses activities illegal in nature, but we do have a few words of advice: Keep it up!