Things We Get Backwards

Published on 10/8/2010

We make it terribly hard for bars and restaurants to offer live music, but anyone can blare a radio station over a loudspeaker. This is exactly backwards. There ought to be steep licensing fees for recorded music, and none at all for live music. If we made it a financial advantage to have live musicians, there would be live musicians. Young people—and their parents—would see that music was a viable career instead of a waste of time.

It’s no good arguing that licensing fees for live music are justified by the large crowds that live music draws, which require more law enforcement and other city services. Live music draws crowds precisely because it’s unusual. Let every bar on the South Side employ a live band, and the crowds will be dispersed and manageable.

The wonderful thing about music in the city is that you can’t really stamp it out, in spite of punitive laws against musicians who practice their art. But take away those laws, and what a flowering of musical culture there might be! Let the same discouraging regulations be applied to recorded music, and nothing could prevent a musical renaissance in the city.

Still, it might be argued by nervous neighbors that unrestricted live music will produce too much noise. So we might propose a compromise plan. Let there be an amplification fee that applies equally to live and recorded music. You can have a band, or a string quartet, or a symphony orchestra, with no amplification, and you pay no fee. You can play records on a mechanical Victrola without paying the fee. But turn on an amplifier, and you pay the fee. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?