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Minor cause for concern... Over the last few weeks, certain politicians in Austin have been mulling over some new regulations that, if you believe certain Texas nightclub owners and booking agents -- not to mention a music writer or two -- could have dire consequences for live music in our fair state. Those sounding the alarm have been doing so concerning a piece of draft legislation that, if it made it all the way into law, would place restrictions on folks under 21 entering establishments that serve alcohol of any kind. Last week in the Austin American-Statesman, Michael Corcoran blasted the proposal as "another smack backward," adding that "the passage of such a bill would be devastating to our touted local scene."
Hard words. But true, either in Austin or Houston? Well, maybe. The draft bill, a proposed amendment to the state's alcoholic beverage code, is still in the discussion and fine-tuning phase, which means there's ample time to modify it, though the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, chaired by state Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), hopes to ease the proposal through the current legislative session. If the draft bill is enacted into law, some live music venues will undoubtedly suffer. But not all: Under the current state code, bars and nightclubs can make their own admittance policies, and some establishments already deny entry to those under 21. Others allow access to those 18 and older, while others are open to "all ages." Obviously, it's the clubs in the last two categories that are howling the hardest.
But I grew up under Pennsylvania's draconian liquor laws, and compared to those, what's being proposed in Austin sounds like a weekend in the Bahamas. So pardon me if I don't get my BVDs in a bunch over the issue. Since the dawn of time, it seems, Philadelphia nightclubs have had to work around 21-and-older regulations, and they've made do -- many by dividing the interiors into rooms and floors that structurally separate minors from adults. Seattle -- a city which I seem to remember has a fairly thriving music culture -- has similar restrictions.
Of course, laws aren't laws without exemptions. Under the senate committee's proposal, establishments such as sports arenas, mini-marts, grocery stores and restaurants -- places in which "25 percent or more of [the] gross revenue comes from the sale of food, gasoline and other goods" -- would be exempt from the restrictions. So would venues in which "25 percent or more of [the] gross revenue is derived from tickets to live performances." That means places such as the International Ballroom, Numbers and the Arena Theatre wouldn't be affected. And underage employees and younger patrons accompanied by a parent or guardian over 21 would also be in the clear. When you factor in all of that, you could argue that the proposed bill is a "just-say-no" gesture with few teeth.
Even so, I can see why some might worry. Rock acts around the country rely on younger audiences to the point where many refuse to play a club that won't allow patrons under 21 through its doors. And there is a certain logic that says such legislation would cut into the livelihood of local bands and nightclub owners by robbing the local scene of a prime resource: kids. Youth equals enthusiasm and, more often than not, loyalty follows.
"There are groups of people here that are over 21 that show a lot of support, but they all started to show that support when they were younger," says Robbie Cool, the manager at Fitzgerald's, a club that relies on minors for a significant portion of its business. "Once you turn 21, you're starting to lose interest in who's playing; you're just going to where the cheap beer is."
Really? As far as I can tell, some 21-and-up old-timers enjoy local music, too. Just ask the folks at the Velvet Elvis, the Mucky Duck and the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, all of whom normally adhere to a strict over-21 policy. The funny thing is, Fitz's management is fairly certain their venue would fall under the 25 percent rule. A smaller "all ages" club such as Emo's, however, might have difficulty proving that a quarter or more of its gross income comes from ticket sales. Emo's relies on minors, who pay steeper covers and purchase plenty of T-shirts, water, sodas, etc. Still, alcohol sales to over-21 patrons are the club's bread and butter, so it's hard to say how profound the effect of such a law would be on them. As for Urban Art Bar co-owner/ manager Greg Pitzer, he knows where he stands on the issue. "I don't like [the proposal]," he says. "If it passes, there's a chance that national acts may skip the marketplace in Texas because they can't appeal to their 18-year-old record buyers."
Sure, there's a chance that'd happen. But do bands skip Pennsylvania and Washington state? Not that I've noticed. I suspect that if the talk becomes law, Houston -- and Austin and Dallas and San Antonio -- will adjust. Even so, if you're fretting over the issue, what's the harm in getting a head start on the governmental process? Call your state officials; let them know that you are -- or once were -- a teenager, and that you can relate. Remember, you're only underage once.
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